Jean Toomer’s Conflicted Racial Identity

Jean Toomer’s Conflicted Racial Identity

The Chronicle of Higher Education

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

Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and Director, W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research
Harvard University

On August 4, 1922, about a year before he published his first book, Cane, Jean Toomer, age 27, wrote to his first love, a black teenager named Mae Wright, confessing his ambivalence about the dogged pursuit by African-Americans of Anglo-American cultural ideals: “We who have Negro blood in our veins, who are culturally and emotionally the most removed from Puritan tradition, are its most tenacious supporters.” That would be one of the last times he admitted his own Negro ancestry, either publicly or privately. Six years later, Georgia O’Keeffe—Toomer’s friend and later lover—wrote to her husband, Alfred Stieglitz, describing the way Toomer, then living in Chicago, was identifying himself: “It seems that in Chicago they do not know that he has Negro blood—he seems to claim French extraction.”

When we were working on a new Norton critical edition of Cane, a masterpiece of modernism composed of fiction, poetry, and drama, we confronted the question of Toomer’s race. Literary critics and biographers have long speculated about how he identified himself, but too often they have chosen not to conduct research into public documents about the topic. Was Toomer—a central figure in two faces of American modernism, the New Negro (or Harlem Renaissance) Movement and the Lost Generation—a Negro who, following the publication of Cane, passed for white?

Toomer is known for proclaiming a new, mixed racial identity, which he called “American.” In an era of de jure segregation, such a claim was defiantly transgressive. But he may have been far more conflicted about his identity than his noble attempt to question American received categories of “race” might suggest…

…In the course of the 25 years between his 1917 and 1942 draft registrations, it seems that Toomer was endlessly deconstructing his Negro ancestry. During his childhood and adolescence in Washington, as a member of the mulatto elite, he lived in both the white and the black worlds. At times he resided in white neighborhoods, but he was educated in all-black schools. Toomer would write that it was his experience in that special world, “midway between the white and Negro worlds,” that led him to develop his novel “racial position” as early as 1914, at the age of 20, when he defined himself as an “American, neither white nor black.”…

…Why is it so important, as we read Cane, to understand Toomer’s conflicts over his racial identity? What light does it shine on scholarship about his work, about African-American literature, and the way our society has dealt with race? The first reason is the simple, or rather complicated, fact that Toomer himself thought it was important. Important? Toomer obsessed over it, endlessly circling back upon it in the comfortable isolation of his upper-middle-class home in Bucks County, Pa...

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