Passing and the Rise of the African American Novel

Posted in Books, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Monographs, Passing on 2012-05-18 21:04Z by Steven

Passing and the Rise of the African American Novel

University of Illinois Press
208 pages
6 x 9 in.
Paper ISBN: 978-0-252-07248-2

M. Giulia Fabi, Associate professor of American literature
University of Ferrara, Italy

Revealing the role of light-skinned black characters passing for white in African American literature

A CHOICE Outstanding Academic Title, 2003

Passing and the Rise of the African American Novel restores to its rightful place a body of American literature that has long been overlooked, dismissed, or misjudged. This insightful reconsideration of nineteenth-century African American fiction uncovers the literary artistry and ideological complexity of a body of work that laid the foundation for the Harlem Renaissance and changed the course of American letters.

Focusing on the trope of passing—black characters lightskinned enough to pass for white—M. Giulia Fabi shows how early African American authors such as William Wells Brown, Frank J. Webb, Charles W. Chesnutt, Sutton E. Griggs, Frances E. W. Harper, Edward A. Johnson, and James Weldon Johnson transformed traditional representations of blackness and moved beyond the tragic mulatto motif. Challenging the myths of racial purity and the color line, these authors used passing to celebrate a distinctive, African American history, culture, and worldview.

Fabi examines how early black writers adapted existing literary forms, including the sentimental romance, the domestic novel, and the utopian novel, to express their convictions and concerns about slavery, segregation, and racism. Chesnutt used passing as both a structural and a thematic element, while James Weldon Johnson innovated by parodying the earlier novels of passing and presenting the decision to pass as the result, rather than the cause, of cultural alienation. Fabi also gives a historical overview of the canon-making enterprises of African American critics from the 1850s to the 1990s and considers how their concerns about promoting the canonization of African American literature affected their perceptions of nineteenth-century black fiction.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

Contemporary US multiple heritage couples, individuals, and families: Issues, concerns, and counseling implications

Posted in Articles, Family/Parenting, Identity Development/Psychology, Media Archive, United States on 2012-05-18 20:33Z by Steven

Contemporary US multiple heritage couples, individuals, and families: Issues, concerns, and counseling implications

Counselling Psychology Quarterly
Volume 25, Issue 2, (June 2012)
Special Issue: Race, Culture, and Mental Health: Metissage, Mestizaje, Mixed “Race”, and Beyond
pages 99-112
DOI: 10.1080/09515070.2012.674682

Mark Kenney, Adjunct Professor
Kutztown University, Kutztown, Pennsylvania
Multicultural Education and Consulting, Sinking Spring, Pennsylvania

Kelley Kenney, Professor of Counseling & Human Services
Kutztown University, Kutztown, Pennsylvania
Multicultural Education and Consulting, Sinking Spring, Pennsylvania

This article introduces the special edition by providing an overview of how policies and attitudes have influenced the experience of multiple heritage couples, individuals, and families in the American context. This history is linked to the developmental tasks of multiracial individuals and families in contemporary context. This paper also discusses the counseling implications emphasizing the importance of delivering culturally competent and sensitive services.


Multiple heritage couples and individuals historically have been the subject of controversy and scrutiny. Myths and stereotypes that pervade our society suggest that individuals who couple interracially are dysfunctional (Yancey, 2002); are attempting to make a statement (Root, 2001); or have ulterior motives for doing so (Wardle, 1992, 1999). Motives speculated upon include quests for the exotic, sexual curiosity and promiscuity, economic and social status or achievement, domination, potential citizenship, rebellion against society or family, low sell-esteem, or racial self-hatred (DaCosta, 2007; Karis, 2003: Root, 1992; Spickard, 1989; Yancey, 2002); that persons of color are more willing to accept children of interracial unions than are white people (Wardle, 1992, 1999); and that the difficulties faced by interracial individuals and families are based on race (Root, 2001: Wehrly, 1996). Myths and stereotypes about multiple heritage individuals suggest that they are doomed to a life of rejection, and confusion about who they are (Wardle, 1999; Yancey, 2002).

This paper examines contemporary multiple heritage couples, individuals, and families in the US; the salient issues and concerns that have historically confronted this population; and the counseling implications of which those working with this growing population need to be aware. In this article, we address multiple heritage individuals, couples, and families drawing on a literature that uses multiple terms to identify them “Interracial couples” are defined as partners, married or not, of a different racial background (Root, 1992; Spickard, 1989). “Multiracial individuals” are defined as individuals whose biological parents or whose lineage are of two or more different racial backgrounds (Funderburg, 1994; Gibbs, 1989; Root, 1992)…

Read or purchase the article here.

Tags: , , , ,

The Origins of Mixed Race Populations

Posted in Africa, Anthropology, Articles, History, Media Archive, Slavery, Social Science, Women on 2012-05-18 20:01Z by Steven

The Origins of Mixed Race Populations

New African
January 2005

Carina Ray, Associate Professor of African and Afro- American Studies
Brandeis University, Waltham, Massachusetts

While rape played a huge part in the origins of Africa and the Diaspora’s mixed race populations, it is wrong to attribute it all to rape, argues Carina Ray.

In the February 2004 issue of New African, the columnist Stella Orakwue threw the covers off one of the European empire’s dirtiest secrets–the widespread rape of black women by white men. Her expose, headlined “History’s Most Sordid Cover-Up” went on to declare that the historical origins of mixed race populations in Europe’s former colonies in North and South America, the Caribbean and Africa are located in this silenced history of rape.

In the following months, Orakwue’s pronouncement drew a lively response from several New African readers. Yet, each piece of writing in the thread left me with a distinct sense that the discussion had taken a wrong turn—or gotten off on the wrong foot to begin with, sweeping historical claims, such as the one made by Orakwue, are bound to be both true and false. Exceptions to the rule aside, her argument is valid for North America, particularly in the South during the era of slavery and to a decreasing extent through the period of Jim Crow segregation.

The origins of mixed race populations in South America and the Caribbean, however, fit less neatly into a single pattern of explanation. This should not be taken as a denial of the partial role that rape played in the development of mixed race populations in these regions, but to identify it as the predominant causal factor obscures the complicated history of race mixing in these areas.

Many countries in South America and the Caribbean are home to populations that are almost entirely mixed. Their numbers cannot be accounted for primarily by rape, but rather result in large part from complex patterns of inter-marriage, concubinage and consensual sex between indigenous peoples, Africans, Europeans and multi-racial people themselves. With respect to Europe’s former African colonies, the link between rape and the origins of mixed race people is strongest, although by no means definitive, in the settler colonies of Southern Africa, where rape often formed part of a regime of white domination. It also functioned in areas like the Cape Colony, in modern-day South Africa, as a violent form of slave labour reproduction, not unlike the American South during slavery. The paradigm of rape, however, is far less adequate for explaining the historical origins of mixed race people in other parts of Africa…

…One need only look at the lineage of many of Ghana’s Afro-European families, like the Bannerman, Brew, Wulff-Cochrane, Reindorf, casely-Hayford, Hutchison, Lutterodt, VanHein, Vroom and Van der Puije families, to name just a few, to know that their female progenitors were not enslaved women, but rather members of indigenous families who married European men.

Unions of this type, as well as less formal consensual relationships, were not unique to Ghana; rather they formed an important aspect in the development of many of West Africa’s coastal societies. This key facet of West African history is eclipsed when the history of mixed race people is collapsed inside the history of rape.

It is often forgotten that in many instances during the first 400 years of the colonial encounter, Europeans were at the mercy of their African hosts. One of the ways European men survived and even thrived during this period of the colonial encounter was by marrying or cohabiting with African women, who not only provided companionship, medical assistance and domestic services, but also valuable local connections.

Contrary to the notion that colonialism was a one-way street which led to the Europeanisation of Africans, European men were also Africanised—in large part through their relationships with African women. Marriage was used as a means of cementing alliances to advance the interests of both groups, particularly in coastal trade, and importantly such arrangements were made at the behest of Africans…

Read the entire article here.

Tags: , , ,

Rewriting a slave’s journey

Posted in Articles, Caribbean/Latin America, History, Media Archive, Slavery on 2012-05-18 19:47Z by Steven

Rewriting a slave’s journey

Trinidad and Tobago Newsday

Corey Connelly

In his latest publication, Caribbean History from Pre-Colonial Origins to the Present, Dr Tony Martin recaps the many social, economic and political phenomena that have shaped world history over the centuries.

However, the renowned historian tackles the topics in an unapologetically fresh and detailed style, quite unlike the typical and often sedate material contained in survey history publications.

In what might be regarded as a major departure from current texts, contemporary developments such as the collapse of insurance giant Clico and the 2011 riots in the United Kingdom, have also been given space in the 366-page book, Martin’s 14th publication.

“This book has given me the opportunity to put my discontent to some positive purpose and it represents 30 to 40 years of research into Caribbean history and a variety of new perspectives,” Martin, Professor Emeritus of African Studies, Wellesley College, United States, said in a recent Sunday Newsday interview.
He was alluding to what he considered to be the downfall of many current history texts.

“What I have tried to do is practically re-write Caribbean history and so in every aspect of this book you will find information on new perspectives,” he said.

While most books have tended to focus on the period following Christopher Columbus’ conquering of the new world, Caribbean History from Pre-Colonial to the Present examines, in some detail, the fact that “Old World” peoples may very well have come to the Americas before Columbus…

…Martin lamented that history texts, have for the most part, dealt superficially with the sexual abuse of women. He observed, however, that the frequent abuse of women at that time has manifested itself in contemporary society through persons of mixed heritage.

He said, “All you have to do is look around anywhere in the Americas and you will see the percentage of African descendants who are mixed—in Brazil, Trinidad, US.

“Nowadays the racial mixing is voluntary and goes both ways. But for most of the period of our history that racial mixing was one way. It was the white man forcing himself on the African woman who had no rights and could not defend herself in any way.”

Asked why there has not been tremendous emphasis on slavery and the treatment of Africans by authors over the generations, Martin reasoned: “Non-Caribbean people wrote the books and they had a vested interest in not wanting to get the people vexed. I did not write this book to get anybody vexed, but at the same time it is hard to read the stuff and not get upset. As an historian, I feel I have an obligation to set the record straight and wherever the record takes us, I will go.” Martin, in the publication, also addressed the fact that some Africans, for fear of death, had conspired with the white slave masters to oppress their own people…

Read the entire article here.

Tags: , ,

Children of the banished dragon

Posted in Articles, Asian Diaspora, History, Media Archive, United Kingdom on 2012-05-18 19:24Z by Steven

Children of the banished dragon

The Daily Post
Liverpool, England

Lew Baxter

Lew Baxter reports on a shameful episode after World War II when Chinese sailors who had risked their lives for Britain were deported back to China, many leaving behind distraught British wives and children.

Even 60 years later, tears and trauma trail in the wake of a callous official decision to forcibly repatriate hundreds of Chinese seamen who helped crew the British merchant fleets on the dangerous Atlantic wartime convoys ensuring the country’s vital lifeline.

Hundreds of other Chinese sailors lost their lives in those bitterly cold waters.

As a result of Home Office policy of the time, families were broken up and many of the British-born wives and children left behind became destitute, some women even thought of suicide as a way out of their misery. Others remarried and tried to forget the past. Many believed their husbands had deserted them and, for years, explained away their embarrassment by claiming they had drowned at sea.

The truth is much harsher and more brutal.

From October 1945 to July 1946, hundreds of Chinese sailors were rounded up, largely in Liverpool—quite a few at night by crack squads of police led by Special Branch—and repatriated. In reality, almost 5,000 were sent back to China under specially altered directives that affected their landing rights.

Their children—at least 450—were told little of their fathers, or that they were dead or had left, others were adopted by strangers who knew nothing of their background. Their early lives were cloaked in mystery and confusion.

Today the story of these perfidious and shabby deeds has been unearthed by the tenacity of a small number of these lost children of the Chinese dragons.

A memo locked away for decades in the Public Record Office in Kew—amongst a fascinating archive that reveals the shocking depth and extent of the iniquity—dated November 9 1945 reads: “I am directed by the Secretary of State to say that, with the ending of the war against Japan, deportation to China is likely to become possible before long and the Ministry of Transport will shortly be making available transport for the repatriation of Chinese now in this country.”

Many of the men had settled in Britain after “doing their duty” and had married local girls, particularly in Liverpool. There were hundreds of Eurasian children from these relationships and most of these sailors from Shanghai, Ningbo, Hong Kong and even Singapore assumed they had a right to remain in the country they had defended…

…It was the same mission that drove Yvonne Foley, who first learned of the facts after the BBC documentary and she became determined to trace her own background.

“My interest was stirred by that programme and I met Keith. We agreed to help each other. He gave me the names of others and there are now about nine of us. We have called ourselves the Dragons of the Pool,” says Yvonne, who has actually lived in Hong Kong and visited China many times. In many ways, the “dragons” are now a family forged out of a shared heartache.

In the wake of these post war deportations came awful distress and even attempted suicides amongst broken, distraught families: women who had no idea where their men had gone, some believing they had deserted them while generations of children never knew their fathers or their true bloodlines. Official records show that more than 230 married Chinese sailors were given no choice or chance to say goodbye to loved ones…

Read the entire article here or here.

Tags: , , , ,

Eurasians: The First British Born Chinese?

Posted in Articles, Asian Diaspora, History, Media Archive, United Kingdom on 2012-05-18 18:04Z by Steven

Eurasians: The First British Born Chinese?

DimSum: The British Chinese community website

Yvonne Foley

I am a Eurasian.  I am the daughter of an English mother and a Shanghai father.  In traditional Chinese culture, having a Chinese father, I am regarded as being Chinese.

I am part of a community that has been around for over 100 years.  We pre-date by many decades what many people seem to think is the point at which Britains’ Chinese community came into being.  The 1950s, when people from Hong Kong’s New Territories started to come to the UK.

Our fathers’ origins

Chinese men started to settle down in Britain in the last years of the nineteenth century. Right from the start they seemed to have few problems in getting partners amongst the working class girls of the cities in which they settled. Not very surprising when up to World War Two and even beyond it marriage for a young woman could mean violence and the most desperate poverty.  John Chinaman, as he was called at the time, was clean, sober, hard working and a good father. And, of course, more often than not he was quite a handsome man!

But where did these men come from?  For many, the answer they gave to any official who asked was ‘Hong Kong’. But that tells us little.  A Chinese seaman had to take an English language test – unless he was from Hong Kong.  So there were few who were prepared to say that they were not from Hong Kong unless they had confidence in their English language skills!  Where they were actually from ranged from Hainan Island to Fukien and Tientsin.  But since Shanghai was by far the most important commercial city in China and its major port, it seems that many were recruited there and in the nearby city of Ningbo

Read the entire article here. For more information about Liverpool’s early Chinese Community, see

Tags: , ,

Mixed heritage voices – Multiple identities, varied experiences, diverse views

Posted in Forthcoming Media, Live Events, Social Work, United Kingdom on 2012-05-18 15:30Z by Steven

Mixed heritage voices – Multiple identities, varied experiences, diverse views

British Association for Adoption & Fostering
Woburn House Conference Centre
20 Tavistock Square
London WC1H 9HQ
2012-11-29, 10:00-16:00Z

One in ten people in the UK define themselves as mixed heritage, and it seems that young people think it is ‘cool’ to be ‘mixed’. But what meaning do young people and their families give to their mixed heritage identities and how do these identities develop in mixed adoptive and foster care families?

The profiles of children in ‘Be My Parent’ (BAAF’s family finding service) and the Adoption Register demonstrate the multiple and complex ethnicities of children waiting for placements and this brings challenges to practitioners making decisions for mixed heritage children in the public care system. There are also challenges for adoptive parents and foster carers who need to value and promote the child’s heritage and help them achieve a positive identity, alongside an ability to cope with racism to make their way in the world.

This conference will bring together mixed heritage young people, families and researchers to share their experiences and perspectives on identity, and will look at the implications of these issues for practice.


  • to understand the experiences of mixed heritage children, young people and their families
  • to identify how adoptive parents and foster carers might help their mixed heritage child develop their identities
  • to explore how practitioners can make better decisions for mixed heritage children in the public care system

Chair & Speakers

  • Professor Ann Phoenix, Co-Director, Thomas Coram, Research Unit (Invited)
  • Dr. Suki Ali, Senior Lecturer, Department of Sociology, London School of Economics
  • Dr. Vicki Harman, Lecturer, Centre for Criminology & Sociology, University of Royal Holloway
  • Dr. Daniel McNeil, Lecturer in Media & Cultural Studies, University of Newcastle
  • Dr. Fiona Peters, Consultant Perspectives from Adoptive Parents & Foster Carers, Sheffield City Council

Who should attend

Children’s services social workers and managers, family placement practitioners, independent reviewing officers, decision-makers, panel members, health and education professionals, youth services, CAFCASS children’s guardians, social work students, adopted adults, adoptive parents and foster carers.

For more information, click here.

Tags: , , , , , , ,

Jean Toomer, Mulatto and Modernist: the Fused Race and Fused Form of Cane

Posted in Dissertations, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, United States on 2012-05-18 03:49Z by Steven

Jean Toomer, Mulatto and Modernist: the Fused Race and Fused Form of Cane

Oklahoma State University
May 1997
76 pages

Rhonda Lea McClellan

Submitted to the Faculty of the Graduate College of the Oklahoma State University in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the Degree of MASTER OF ARTS


In the fall of 1993, I enrolled in Dr. Leavell’s modern/contemporary literature course that examined familiar “novels” under a different form, the short story cycle. We discussed how familiiar texts, like Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, Faulkner’s Go Down Moses, and Hemingway’s In Our Time, labeled by critics as novels, could be viewed under the definitions of a different genre. As we analyzed this genre, I thought how vulnerable art and artists are at the hands of critics who define pieces based on literary traditions. Chagrined, I thought of the pieces of literature that I could have misread.

When we finally turned the pages of Jean Toomer’s Cane and examined the pioneering strategies of this modern writer, the consequences of misleading critiques became apparent to me. Rarely do we read of the Harlem Renaissance without seeing the name Jean Toomer. Accordingly, scholars contend that Toomer contributed to the awakening of the African-American experience in the 1920s and that his Cane secured his place in the African American canon.

But after reading biographical sketches, I found that Toomer, as an orphaned mulatto, rarely felt as if he belonged to any racial category. Moving between both black and white, rich and poor, young and old, Toomer knew little about securing his social position. He defined race as a social institution, an unjust categorization of Americans, creating a prejudice and fragmented society. Toomer, therefore, refused to be placed within these confines. As a result of my reading, I believe that Toomer’s social “drifting” is his personal illustration that Americans should not feel restricted to social categories and that Americans do not lead isolated lives but actually share a common experience-alienation. In fact, as an ostracized young man, he found only one way to find peace within his world, and that peace came from writing. His alienation gave Toomer an objective perspective that lead to his social and literary philosophies.

From Dr. Leavell’s emphasis on the importance of literary form and theme, I realized that critics fail to understand Cane’s structure relative to its theme. If critics did not apprehend Toomer’s racial ideology presented in Cane, how could they interpret the significance of the text’s structure? A man who would not be confined to one race could not limit his art to conventions of one culture. In Cane, Toomer fuses the art forms of the African-American with the European.

I see Toomer, a man eventually marginalized because of his racial ambiguity, creating a text, Cane, that follows the traditions of American literary pursuits. In the tradition of Franklin, Emerson, Hawthorne, and Whitman, Toomer attempts to create an American character and structure. Toomer’s mulatto represents modern man, and he presents these isolated characters in a modern, fragmented society. He fuses his racial ideology into Cane’s structure. Like its multi-racial characters, Cane’s structure depends on the aesthetic conventions of many races. Toomer’s literary innovations with form and theme make him a Modernist. Because of his ethnicity, however, Toomer found his text as much on the periphery as himself.

After Toomer voiced his racial views and his literary aspirations, scholars would contend that Toomer “deserted his people.” I maintain that readers misinterpret Cane’s projection of his mixed-race characters and the significance of its multi-cultural form. Critics have not fully understood Toomer or Cane. Toomer’s views blur lines that critics fail to reevaluate.

After examining Toomer and his text, I can appreciate the complexity of a man who refused categorization and a book that evades literary classification. In the first chapter, I will place Toomer in American literary traditions and provide biographical details that influenced his social views. In the second chapter, I will discuss Toomer’s racial and social ideology and its impact on Cane. In the third chapter, I will focus on the theme and structure of Cane’s prose. In the fourth chapter, my focus will shift to the merging of Cane’s poetic theme and structure. Opposing other critics who have placed Toomer in the African-American canon, I propose that Jean Toomer, who was influenced by white Modernist writers, such as Anderson and Frank, experiments with a national character-the mulatto-and a national form-a structure blending the art forms of the African American and European American-and writes within the broader traditions of American literature.

Read the entire thesis here.

Tags: , , , ,

Is the Tanning of America Only Skin Deep?

Posted in Articles, Census/Demographics, Media Archive, Social Science, United States on 2012-05-18 02:29Z by Steven

Is the Tanning of America Only Skin Deep?

The Huffington Post

Marcia Alesan Dawkins, Visiting Scholar
Brown University

It’s official: The United States is officially “tan.” According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s first population estimate by age, race, ethnicity, and sex since the 2010 Census, “50.4 percent of our nation’s population younger than age 1 were minorities as of July 1, 2011. This is up from 49.5 percent from the 2010 Census taken April 1, 2010. The population younger than age 5 was 49.7 percent minority in 2011, up from 49.0 percent in 2010.”

As expected, media flurry ensued. The Associated Press was among the first outlets to pick up the story reporting, “For the first time, racial and ethnic minorities make up more than half the children born in the U.S.” USA Today noted the nation’s changing complexion and described the Census Bureau’s report as “a sign of how swiftly the USA is becoming a nation of younger minorities and older whites.” And according to the New York Times, “such a turn has been long expected, but no one was certain when the moment would arrive.”

Now that the moment is here we must reckon with it. Today’s Census statement marks a social milestone for a nation that has struggled with issues of diversity, privilege, and power. But, as I suggest in my forthcoming book Clearly Invisible: Racial Passing and the Color of Cultural Identity, the tanning of America might be only skin deep. Or, putting it differently: Is the U.S. passing as “tan”?…

…Here’s why you should care. Because looking at tomorrow’s “tanning” generation in demographic terms only subtly promotes them as the chosen ones who can and will dismantle racism that took centuries to build. When we take this perspective we are shifting the responsibility of solving institutional and structural racism off those of us who were born before July 1, 2011 and off our legal and social histories. This is not only unfair — it’s unrealistic. Predicting the demise of racism by the rising number of nonwhite births is probably not the best way to fulfill our desire for a more just society. Wouldn’t the present-day elimination of disparities in income, employment, health care, education, crime, punishment and family structure for this new generation (as well as their parents) be more accurate measures?…

Read the entire article here.

Tags: , , , ,

To “Flash White Light from Ebony”: The Problem of Modernism in Jean Toomer’s Cane

Posted in Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, United States on 2012-05-18 01:50Z by Steven

To “Flash White Light from Ebony”: The Problem of Modernism in Jean Toomer’s Cane

Twentieth Century Literature
Volume 46, Number 1 (Spring 2000)
pages 1-19

Catherine Gunther Kodat, Professor of English and American Studies
Hamilton College, Clinton, New York

The mirror stage is a drama whose internal thrust is precipitated from insufficiency to anticipation–and which manufactures for the subject, caught up in the lure of spatial identification, the succession of phantasies that extends from a fragmented body-image to a form of its totality that I shall call orthopaedic–and, lastly, to the assumption of the armour of an alienating identity, which will mark with its rigid structure the subject’s entire mental development.

Jacques Lacan, “The Mirror Stage” (Ecrits 4)

The idea of freedom, akin to aesthetic autonomy, was shaped by domination, which it universalized. This holds true as well for art-works. The more they freed themselves from external goals, the more completely they determined themselves as their own masters. Because, however, artworks always turn one side toward society, the domination they internalized also radiated externally.

Theodor W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory 17-18

My concern is solely with art. What am I?

—Jean Toomer to John McClure, July 22, 1922 (qtd. in Kerman 26)

The temptation to read Jean Toomer’s Cane as something of a modernist experiment in autobiography is strong, and scholars who do so fall into two camps: those who see the work as a tribute to the discovery of a true self, and those who read it as testimony to the failure of an attempt to make that discovery. Critics in the first camp take as their starting point Toomer’s own compelling story of the genesis of Cane: trapped in genteel poverty in Washington, D.C., caring for two ailing grandparents, feverishly working to train himself as a writer, he accepts a temporary job in the fall of 1921 at an industrial school for blacks in Sparta, Georgia, and there, exposed for the first time in his life to the Southern African American rural folk, discovers his creative voice. Those biographical readers of Cane who stress this flowering of Toomer’s creativity see the book as a lyrical celebration of rediscovered African American roots; content is stressed over form, as we are encouraged to read past Toomer’s style to uncover the racial, psychosocial meaning beneath. The poem in part 1, “Song of the Son,” is held to bear a truth at once personal and aesthetic: before he could become a great artist, Toomer—an olive-skinned young man who passed for white in college (Kerman 63)—first had to become black. Cane thus is cast as the mirror of Jean Toomer’s soul, reflecting to him a moment, however brief, of true racial vision and, it follows, great artistic achievement. The aesthetic importance of Cane thus lies less in its formal and stylistic experiments than in its unapologetic, nonbourgeois choice of the Southern black peasant as hero.

Events in Toomer’s life subsequent to Cane can seem to bolster this critical argument. In 1923, when Horace Liveright urged Toomer to stress his “colored blood” in the brief biography Boni & Liveright planned to use in publicizing Cane, Toomer objected: “My racial composition and my position in the world are realities which I alone may determine” (qtd. in Kerman 110-11). This first link in a long chain of racial disclaimers climaxed in the 1932 pamphlet “A Fact and Some Fictions,” in which Toomer wrote: “As for being a Negro, this of course I am not—neither biologically nor socially” (qtd. in Benson 43). Toomer “had considered the matter and was determined to erase, as much as possible, his connections to the Afro-American experience,” notes Nellie Y. McKay, concluding that this rejection had debilitating artistic consequences (199). The sense of wholeness and creative well-being that flowed from Toomer’s embrace of rural blackness evaporated as the author sought a “raceless,” philosophical (as opposed to a esthetic) unity of spirit. His writings became increasingly dry and didactic, and the vast bulk remained unpublished in his lifetime.

Thus, while Cane is seen as a pinnacle of achieved wholeness, a moment of aesthetic racial truth, Toomer himself is frequently portrayed as a peculiarly modern incarnation of “double consciousness“: the racially alienated man. The second group of biographical critics stresses this apparently divided nature of Toomer’s psyche and, far from seeing Cane as a unified, lyrical expression of race spirit, argues for a view of the work’s generic indeterminacy and fragmented formal properties as aesthetic embodiments of Toomer’s riven self. Alan Golding, for example, argues that “Toomer’s drive to make the pieces of Cane balance or cohere enacts on the formal level his struggle to reconcile both the contradictory spirits of North and South and the black and white within himself” (198). In a formulation that harkens back to W. E. B. DuBois’s articulation, in The Souls of Black Folk, of “double consciousness,” Golding writes: “Cane shows Toomer in 1923 intellectually an American and emotionally a black” (200).  In this view, the mirror of Cane is no longer whole but splintered, reflecting a fragmented vision of the self that interrogates–rather than celebrates–categories of racial identity and difference and the aesthetic practices that serve to elaborate those categories. In this emphasis of form over content, Cane is usually no longer seen as primarily a black text but a modern text, in the traditional, “universal” sense of the term. This universalizing approach has had some predictable effects: in two thoughtful essays, Rudolph P. Byrd has wondered whether Cane should be read as part of the African American literary tradition at all…

Read the entire article here.

Tags: , , , ,