Religion And Culture In Wilson’s Play Joe Turner’s Come And Gone

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Religion and culture are social constructs that influence each other and are very inseparable. There have been many historical attempts to prevent religion from culture in multiple different contexts. These sort of actions that have led to conflicts and hostility among the religions. Christianity is one of the religions that has greatly influenced the African identity both in the past and in the present day. August Wilson is one of the African scholars who have focused on defending African identity from how it appears with foreign influence such as Christianity. Remarkably, I noticed that Wilson advocates for preference on African religion in his literature. In one of Wilson’s play “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone”, he features aspects of both Christianity and African Traditional Religion (ATR) (Rudolph 572). Remarkably, African traditional religion is a culture that shapes the identity of Africans. The conflict between the two religions can only be established by society’s acceptance of ATR, as opposed to rejection. However, Christianity can only be accepted in the blacks’ culture if it conforms to their values and practices.

Majority of the African scholars consider Christianity a religion that falls in line with the western culture. The influence of Christianity on Africans has not been in line with the African identity. As a result, although African Christians have to some extent departed from the African practices, they have not truly embraced Christianity. This can be attributed to the failure of the adoption of Christianity by Africans. The ATR comprise of diverse practices but has a common allusion that human beings have a relationship with nature (Sarpong 9). They also belief in existence of spiritual beings that are superior to humans from which they can seek powers. When the missionaries brought Christianity to Africans, they perceived their culture to be demonic, for their belief in spirits and magic, and thus needed to be erased. The Africans then rejected Christianity as they felt that their traditional religion was sacred and defined their nature (Sarpong 12). The passage from the play that I thought ties into this was when Seth was talking to Bertha in Act 1 Scene 1.

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Seth: I just go along with that ’cause of you. You around here sprinkling salt all over the place…got pennies lined up across the threshold…all that heebie jeebie stuff. I just put up with that ’cause of you. I don’t pay that kind of stuff no mind. And you going down there to the church and wanna come come [sic] home and sprinkle salt all over the place.

Bertha: It don’t hurt none. I can’t say if it help…but it don’t hurt none.

This is basically explaining how he doesn’t like Bertha going to church. I think her sprinkling salt in the house is her way of blessing the house and Seth doesn’t appreciate this.

For the Africans who were taken as slaves, their white masters who were dominantly Christians, avoided introducing them to Christianity because they feared equality. However, with time, the white masters established that religious influence would be essential in controlling and manipulating them. The slaves resisted Christianity because they felt that a god of such cruel people was not worth worshipping. With continued exposure to the Christianity, the black slaves started identifying with Christianity after they learnt of the story regarding those who were oppressed, but later, redeemed by God. With time however, when the slavery situation failed to improve as they had expected based on the bible story, they identified a weakness in the Christianity way of worship (Rudolph 564). Moreover, they felt that the Christians’ god was not fit for the Africans, since he failed to help them. In this regard, there was desire to go back to their roots of ATR and seek a god who favored them. Subsequently, this reshaped the contention between the two religions.

The setting of the play is in 1911, which is historically the era of slavery of Black Americans. The author strongly features the theme of spirituality, rituals, magic and ghost, which bears great significance to the ATR (Rudolph 564). In the beginning of the play, Seth and Bertha are discussing about rituals that Bynum is engaging in. Bynum’ encounter with the Shiny man assumes both ATR and Christianity perspectives. He seeks guidance from his dead father, which is a typical practice in ATR. The father informs him that the Shiny man is ‘the one who goes before and shows the way’, which could be interpreted refer to John the Baptist who was the forerunner of Christ according to Christianity (Rudolph 568). Additionally, the Shiny man could be construed as Christ himself who appeared as a light illuminating beyond comprehension, according to the biblical scriptures. The Shiny man could also assume the ATR perspective where he could be taken as god Ogun according to the Yoruba ATR, made the tool of iron that was shiny as the figure depicted by the shiny man (Rudolph 567). Notably, this Analogy by Wilson could be used to comprehend the similarity of the two religions, as opposed to the obvious contrast that the African religious scholars have always chosen to adopt (Seda and Khatija 7).

Blood is also symbolically by used by Wilson for both ATR and Christian religions. Bynum kills pigeons and pours their blood above their graves as a seal. According to the ATR, the blood is considered a symbol of sanctifying the grave, which is the same as the blood of Christ in Christianity that washes away sins. Later in the play, Loomis attempts to free himself from bondage by inflicting cuts on his chest so as to shed blood. This can be perceived as literal understanding of what Christian salvation is about and readiness of the Africans to accept Christianity, especially, if it was adapted to their setting and practice. When Loomis’ wife Martha cites the gospel to release his tension, he is influenced by the ATR belief that a man should be responsible for his actions and that, no man should suffer on behalf of the other (Rudolph 565). Loomis seems to recognize that Christ can do things which he cannot be able to do and chooses to do what is within his ability. Notably, both ATR and Christianity recognize blood as the only cleanser or purifier. According to the ATR, the infliction of cuts resembles death of body and rise of the spirit. This is similar to the Christianity perception where death of Christ signifies death of flesh, with the resurrection representing spiritual renaissance and hope. Furthermore, this highlights a very thin line between the two religions that can be ironed out by creating cultural relevance.

Wilson also uses the concept of ghosts that is common in the ATR. Miss Mabel is the ghost that appears to Reuben and reminds him of releasing the pigeons belonging to Eugene (Rudolph 564). This is in accordance to the ATR, where spiritual beings appear to ensure things are done properly. This could also represent the manifestation of holy sprits among the Christians that serves as a spiritual guide in ensuring that people do what is right. Wilson uses pigeons metaphorically, both in ATR and Christianity perspectives. In the ATR, the pigeons can be perceived as burden of rage or grief that must be discarded for an easy life (Rudolph 566). For instance, Miss Mabel requires Reuben to let go of the pigeons so that he can travel as planned. Failure to release the pigeons by Reuben can be interpreted as his grief for Eugene in that, he fails to let him go. Similarly, Loomis can only move on after losing Martha by letting go of his rage. Therefore, the pigeons can be interpreted as sins in the Christianity perspective, which can only be sanctified by the blood.

The use of juba dance identifies with the history of the African slaves, where they would shout signifying need for liberation (Rudolph 574). The juba is organized to represent the African identities, but the participants invoke the name of Holy Ghost that is aligned to Christianity. This is a representation of the need to incorporate African cultures in Christianity to ensure that it is embraced effectively by the Africans. As explained in Act 1 Scene 4 Seth decides they should all do a juba dance. The residents then start chanting and not long after, Herald walks in and starts screaming, asking questions like “Why God got to be so big? Why he got to be bigger than me? How much big is there?”. This shows (what Bynum explains later) that

Bynum: Just like you, Mr. Loomis. I didn’t know what I was searching for. The only thing I knew was something was keeping me dissatisfied.

It shows that it is possible for Africans to be authentic Christians, if their cultures are absorbed in it, rather than rejected.

Adaptation of the African culture to Christianity seems to be the most effective way of reducing tensions between the two religions. Opponents of these adaptations cite message dilution that is likely to arise if a positive correlation is to be established between Christianity and ATR (Ferdinando 45). This means that the African values should not be perceived as satanic. Practices of identity considered as Christian values that do not need to be erased. Noted by Ferdinando, the first phase of Christianity by missionaries involved culture transfer from the missionaries to Africans. However, a second phase of Christianity involving the missionaries familiarizing with the African cultures is equally important. For instance, Christianity would be more culturally relevant to the Africans, if Christ can be presented as an ancestor, as opposed to a king. This would not contradict the bibles message, since Christ was actually a son of David, hence an ancestor to the Christians, an aspect that would be easily comprehended by the Africans (Ferdinando 32). Such a message would be culturally relevant, this would be easily understood and reduce rejection by the Africans. Such an approach would strengthen the attachment to Christianity, this would furthermore intensify the depth or quality of Christians, and not just their quantity.

Religion can only affect culture if it is internalized as opposed externalization. One of the reasons for religion opposition in Africa was because the Africans could not effectively identify with it. Owing to other effects like colonization, Christianity was perceived as a western culture that was seeking its dominance over the African culture (Ferdinando 12). As a matter of fact, advocates of ATR cite need to maintain identity and culture for lack of acceptance of Christianity. The Africans who accepted Christianity did so as an act of submissiveness, thereby, straying from their own culture. During the slavery, the masters sought to displace the identity of the slaves by erasing their beliefs and values to be able to control them. In Joe Turner’s Come and Gone play by Wilson, Loomis seem to succeed in his battle by choosing to go back to his roots (Rudolph 573). This should not be perceived as a battle victory against Christianity, but a need to consider the cultural roots of an individual when spreading the religion. Besides, failure to consider the African culture in the spread of Christianity spread could only increase the quantity of the Christians, at the expense of quality.

Religious beliefs founded on culture plays a part to the history and identity of the people. A religion should be relevant to the culture of a given population, failure to which it may lead to its rejection. For example, the Black slaves had begun accepting Christianity, but when their prayers seemed unanswered, they started rejecting it. They construed that Christianity was not their identity and preferred the ATR, which seemed to be culturally relevant. However, the life of Christ seems to offer a balance between the various cultures. Notably, Christianity does not seek to erase the identity of individuals as the initial attempts indicated, but graft into the already existing cultures (Donal 23). Not all African traditional practices are evil, and a true religion should seek filter out undesirable elements and provide a better guide to the people. This is only possible, if the people identify with the religion in the first place.

Religion and culture are closely related and attempts to separate to two can lead to overwhelming effects on the identity of a given people. Religion is often perceived as the guide of how things should be done, and a medium through which humans seek to intervene. This has been noted in many different scenarios throughout the play. There has however, been a contention between religions, especially, the ATR and Christianity. ATR perceive Christianity to be a culture whose acceptance would lead to a compromise of their African cultures.

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