A New Look At The Life Of Jean Toomer

A New Look At The Life Of Jean Toomer

National Public Radio
All Things Considered

Robert Siegel, Host

Rudolph P. Byrd, Goodrich C. White Professor of American Studies and African American Studies
Emory University

Jean Toomer received much acclaim for his portrait of African-American life in the early 20th century in his 1923 book Cane. The Harlem Renaissance author wrote vivid vignettes in a series of poems and short stories in the book. Next week, the book will be re-released with a new introduction written by Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates and Emory University scholar Rudolph Byrd. In the 70-page introduction, the two scholars write that Toomer, a light-skinned black man of mixed heritage, chose to live much of his life as a black man passing as white. NPR’s Robert Siegel talks with Byrd about the life of Toomer.

Jean Toomer was a writer whose 1923 book “Cane” wove poetry, prose and drama into its glimpses of African-American life in the early 20th century. “Cane” earned him a place among the leading lights of the Harlem Renaissance, and a new edition of the book has a different take on Toomer’s life.

Toomer was a light-skinned man who spoke of himself as being neither white nor black. Well, two scholars of African-American literature, Henry Louis Gates Jr. of Harvard and Professor Rudolph Byrd of Emory University contribute an introduction to the new book, which is to be published next week.

And they conclude that Toomer – his writings notwithstanding – lived much of his life as a black man passing for white. Their investigation is one of both textual criticism and genealogical research.

Professor Byrd joins us now. Professor Gates is not with us because his father, Henry Louis Gates Sr., passed away this week, and we send our condolences.

Professor Byrd, welcome to the program.

Professor RUDOLPH BYRD (African-American Studies, Emory University): Mr. Siegel, it’s a pleasure to be with you.

SIEGEL: And your conclusions are based on both facts and a reading of those facts. First, what did you find out?

Prof. BYRD: Oh, the newly unearthed facts are in census records. There’s a draft registration and his marriage license. The census records list Toomer as white. The draft registrations record Toomer as Negro. And then, the marriage license lists both the bride and groom as white.

What is fascinating about these findings is that, first of all, this is information that has been overlooked, and so it adds an important dimension to the long speculation about Toomer’s racial ancestry, which really began with the publication of “Cane” in 1923.

SIEGEL: Now, Toomer, in writings, distanced himself from the label Negro.

Prof. BYRD: Yes.

SIEGEL: But he did speak of lots of different blood that flowed in his veins.

Prof. BYRD: Yes.

SIEGEL: And he described himself as someone who had spent some years of his life – as they said in the day – in colored schools…

Prof. BYRD: Yes.

SIEGEL: …and many years living as white.

Is that accurate? Is his description of how he grew up accurate?

Prof. BYRD: It is and it isn’t. He did attend Henry Highland Garnet School, which was a black school. He did attend Paul Lawrence Dunbar High School, which was a black school…

Read the article here.  Listen to the interview (00:05:44) here.

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