Written by Sophia
Drawing by Dionne
To many, freedom may seem like a simple enough concept. It often boils down to being able to do what you want whenever it strikes your fancy, not having to answer to anyone else, or just being who you are. Attaining it might be a far more complicated and/or arduous process, but the concept of freedom itself appears to be clear and possibly even elementary.
The notion of this fairly straightforward freedom is challenged in playwright Suzan-Lori Parks’ play Father Comes Home from the Wars. Published in 2015, it joined the canon of works that attempt to understand, analyze, and dissect America’s complex and multi-layered history and continuing relationship with slavery and racism. It tells the story of Hero, an enslaved man in west Texas during the Civil War, who accompanies his master, a colonel in the Confederate army, with the promise of freedom at the end of the War. When he returns after the war, everything at home has changed. He himself has changed as he is now a free man but only because the Union army had won, not because his master – who is dead – kept his promise.
At several instances during the play, Father Comes Home from the Wars feels like it could be a very loose adaptation of Homer’s Odyssey. An obvious parallel is the story of a man’s homecoming after a war. There are also the names of several characters that reflect the epic – Odd-See, Hero’s dog; Homer, another enslaved; Ulysses, the name Hero chooses for himself upon his freedom.
However, the most conspicuous parallel lies in the story of Penny, Hero’s wife. From her name to her experience, Penny seems to be a clear counterpart to Penelope from Homer’s epic. Both of them wait for the return of their husbands from wars. And both of them are pursued by other men during that duration. While Penelope went to great lengths to trick and keep her suitors at bay, Penny succumbed, only temporarily, to Homer’s advances. Through most of the final part of the play, she displays loyalty to Hero, as did Penelope to Odysseus. Even when Hero, or rather the newly minted Ulysses, returns with another wife, she steadfastly keeps to her decision to stay with him despite the hurt he is causing her and the fact that she now loves Homer. In the end though, when Ulysses attacks Homer, Penny leaves him. And with this final act, she attains more freedom than all the other characters.
Father Comes Home from the Wars already presents a much more complex idea of freedom than is usually assumed. In Ulysses’s conversation with Smith, the captured Union captain, the shadow of capitalism over freedom is brought out through “the mark of the marketplace” that will continue to follow the enslaved even after they are emancipated – decisions on their value will still be out of their hands, influenced instead by the demands the capitalist economy makes of people in order to remain robust and productive.
However, it is Penny’s actions that demonstrate the attainment of the most complicated freedom. She shakes off not only the chains of slavery, but also emotional and socially ordained ones that are far more deeply entrenched, and even universal. She recognizes and accepts the harsh reality of her situation, that the man who has returned is not the one who left or even the one she waited for. She walks away from a relationship that many see as an ironclad union, but which for her, is likely to become abusive, at least emotionally, instead of waiting to be rescued or hanging onto false promises, as Ulysses did. By doing so, it is she who has achieved the most autonomy in the end. The others enslaved are free only because of the Union army’s victory at the end of the Civil War.
Ulysses had rejected Homer’s third option at the start of the play when he suggested that he run away, taking hold of his destiny. (His hopes of being freed by his master never materialized either.) But Penny has done what he wouldn’t do.
In comparison to Penelope too, Penny has shown greater agency. Penelope swallows her grief and stays with a man who has clearly been unfaithful to her, and in a marriage where she now feels like she is losing her identity. Rather than reducing herself to a shell of her former self, and staying and accommodating Ulysses’ second marriage, Penny walks away, choosing to keep her dignity, and actively shaping her identity and her future.
The condition of slavery was a particularly cruel one and inflicted much suffering. But enslaved women were at an especial disadvantage. The trauma they were subjected to carried the added layer of sexual violence by which the men around them, regardless of race or position, proclaimed to have rights over their bodies. By having Penny, an enslaved woman, attain the highest form of freedom, Parks’ also answers the questions about value and freedom raised earlier in the play – Penny manages to escape from the capitalistic shackles too. In the second part of the play, Smith and Ulysses were unable to assess their individual values outside the capitalistic system and the slave market, respectively. However, when Penny chooses to run away, she expresses her self-worth, reclaiming the right to decide her own value rather than letting it be influenced by anyone else or any other system.
Sophia is an online ESL/EFL instructor and a passionate educator. She found her true calling — teaching — while she was juggling writing and a 9-5 desk job. When she is not busy earning a living, she volunteers as a social worker. Her active online presence demonstrates her strong belief in the power of networking. If you want to connect, you can find her on Facebook, Twitter, and her blog Essay Writing and More.