[The New American of Toomer’s South] [8.27.07]

In a description of his initial impressions of the South, having moved to Sparta, Georgia, Jean Toomer (quoted by Darwin Turner in his Introduction to Toomer’s Cane[1]) says:

A family of back-country Negroes had only recently moved into a shack not too far away…[The songs they sang] were very rich and sad and joyous and beautiful. But I learned that the Negroes of the town objected to them. They called them ‘shouting’…The folk-spirit was walking in to die on the modern desert. That spirit was so beautiful. Its death was so tragic.

The desert he speaks of recalls the barren expanse of T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, and also of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, in which bespectacled T. J. Eckleburg (a thinly veiled Eliot) overlooks a valley of ashes from a billboard advertisement. The metaphorical limbo of Toomer’s work is not a desert, though, but an interminable twilight, an existence between the clarity of day and the unknown night.

By his own estimation, Jean Toomer’s Cane is a book about an end, the rusted dusk of an era. Among the curled wood-smoke of smoldered sawdust piles, honey sunsets soak into forests of soft pines; a luminous golden sap drizzles over everything. The very first words of the book, a verse that opens the prose piece Karintha, mimic the obsolescent folk-spirit lamented above:

Her skin is like dusk on the eastern horizon,
O cant you see it, O cant you see it,
Her skin is like dusk on the eastern horizon
….When the sun goes down. (1)

This sets a tone and sparks themes that burn consistently throughout the book, “like smoke [that] curls up and hangs in odd wraiths about the trees.” (2) Toomer calls twilight to mind, and links it to a woman, and treats of the women of the south as though they are catalysts for the changes he sees. In that same way, and just as Karintha is a woman, “men do not know that the soul of her was a growing thing ripened too soon.” (2)

Not only black women, but white women, too, play an integral role in what Toomer fashions as the birth-pains of the new American. In fact, the manifold forms of Cane – imagist poetry, spiritual song, short fiction – pre-figure the integrated, undifferentiated race Toomer wishes to usher in, and of which he counts himself an original. Quoted again in the Introduction:

In my body were many bloods, some dark blood, all blended in the fire of six or more generations. I was, then, either a new type of man or the very oldest. In any case I was inescapably myself. (xiii)

What Toomer wants to leave behind is the divisive segregation, both in practice and in thought, of Black from White. To Toomer, even if he sees and notes differences between racial groups, they are differences of the past, vestiges of a time when miscegenation was criminal, because immoral, because un-Christian. Of course all three of those designations are ludicrous, and as we know today the syllogism holds no water. What he sees ahead is the infancy of a new race, one by way of many bloods, and he calls this the American race.

The many vignettes and profiles tell one story of the South, and at the crossroads of the changes there, as a testament to the birth of that newborn American race, stands the strength and resilience of women who have suffered long. Toomer’s women, therefore, play an unfortunate but necessary role in the melodrama unfolding in the new era. In “Becky,” the story of “the white woman who had two Negro sons” (5), the fears and prejudices of White and Black leap from the page in the strongest language of hate. The father’s identity unknown, townsfolk spit their hypotheses with vitriolic fervor: “Damn buck nigger, said the white folks’ mouths…Low-down nigger with no self-respect, said the black folks’ mouths.” (5) So here, Becky, who gives birth to the New American, finds herself a pariah, ostracized and relegated to a small plot of land between the tracks of two divergent railways. Even still, there is sympathy among some of the townsfolk, who secretly supply the small family with food, even while they publicly shun her, and run her out of town. Toomer points to a terrible hypocrisy that allows genuine kindness to wither under the harsh glare of hollow meanness.

Although Becky’s sons stand in as individual embodiments of the New American, they are also the greatest possible threat to the ensconced powers of a white patriarchy. The White despise them for the taint of uncivilized barbarism that they introduce to an assumed homogeneity; the Black disown them as consorts to the very monsters that have so persecuted them. If women are the catalysts that provide critical mass for Toomer’s new creation, it must necessarily be sex, explicitly and as an undercurrent, that proves the reaction’s existence, like smoke that curls up from a flameless combustion, just barely visible in the last golden rays of the day.

[1] Toomer, Jean. Cane. 1923. New York: Liveright, 1993.


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