Invisible Darkness: Jean Toomer and Nella Larsen

Posted in Biography, Books, History, Media Archive, Monographs, Passing, United States on 2011-03-10 22:47Z by Steven

Invisible Darkness: Jean Toomer and Nella Larsen

University of Iowa Press
255 pages, 10 photos
Paper 0-87745-437-X, 978-0-87745-437-3

Charles R. Larson, Professor of Literature
American University

Invisible Darkness offers a striking interpretation of the tortured lives of the two major novelists of the Harlem Renaissance: Jean Toomer, author of Cane (1923), and Nella Larsen, author of Quicksand (1928) and Passing (1929). Charles R. Larson examines the common belief that both writers “disappeared” after the Harlem Renaissance and died in obscurity; he dispels the misconception that they vanished into the white world and lived unproductive and unrewarding lives.

In clear, jargon-free language, Larson demonstrates the opposing views that both writers had about their work vis-à-vis the incipient black arts movement; he traces each writer’s troubled childhood and describes the unresolved questions of race that haunted Toomer and Larsen all of their lives. Larson follows Toomer through the wreckage of his personal life as well as the troubled years of his increasingly quirky spiritual quest until his death in a nursing home in 1967. Using previously unpublished letters and documents, Larson establishes for the first time the details of Larsen’s life, illustrating that virtually every published fact about her life is incorrect.

With an innovative chronology that breaks the conventions of the traditional biographical form, Larson narrates what happened to both of these writers during their supposed years of withdrawal. He demonstrates that Nella Larsen never really gave up her fight for creative and personal fulfillment and that Jean Toomer’s connection to the Harlem Renaissance—and the black world—is at best a dubious one. This strong revisionist interpretation of two major writers will have a major impact on African American literary studies.

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Jean Toomer’s Conflicted Racial Identity [Reader Responses]

Posted in Articles, Biography, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2011-03-10 05:16Z by Steven

Jean Toomer’s Conflicted Racial Identity [Reader Responses]

The Chronicle of Higher Education

Charles R. Larson, Professor of Literature
American University, Washington, D. C.

To the Editor:

Congratulations to Rudolph P. Byrd and Henry Louis Gates Jr. for concluding that Jean Toomer was a Negro who decided to pass for white—the same conclusion I made in my biography of Toomer, Invisible Darkness: Jean Toomer and Nella Larsen, published in 1993. Nothing like reinventing the wheel.

Kimberly A. Barrett, Vice President for Student Affairs
University of Montevallo, Montevallo, Alabama

To the Editor:

Despite the interesting investigative work of its authors, the recent Chronicle article on Jean Toomer was troubling to me because it served as another apparent grain of truth that sustains two deeply entrenched stereotypes. One of these is the myth of the confused mulatto who is disabled by incessant struggles with his or her racial identity. The other is the “one-drop rule“—the idea that anyone with an identifiable black person in his or her lineage is assumed black. I think it’s time we acknowledge the reality of the existence of the well-adjusted multiethnic/biracial white person. As the self-identifying African-American mother of a young man who fit that description while growing up, I’d like to share part of our story in the spirit of balance.

“Your mom is black?” was a frequent refrain and innocent nod to the notion of the one-drop rule when my son’s acquaintances met me for the first time. I must admit that I, too, did not escape the influence of this perennial rule. On those dreamy weekend mornings when my husband and I lay awake pondering who our child would look like, I smugly argued that of course our child would be black because one parent was black. My husband, on the other hand, who is white (of Irish and Danish descent) and a card-carrying member of a Native American tribe, asked with dismay, “Where am I in this equation?”…


Marcia Alesan Dawkins, Visiting Scholar
Brown University

To the Editor:

In their article on Jean Toomer, the authors Rudolph P. Byrd and Henry Louis Gates Jr. claim that Toomer suffered from a case of “conflicted racial identity” (“Jean Toomer’s Conflicted Racial Identity,” The Chronicle Review, February 11). Toomer, one of the first proponents of thinking about race in multiracial “American” terms, is now said to have been passing as white. The authors justify this assertion by presenting new evidence that Toomer identified himself differently based on location and situation.

It is true that Toomer most likely self-identified as “Negro” when he registered for the draft. It is also true that in Toomer’s era, and the eras in which his ancestors were identified, census takers were allowed to list racial designation as they perceived it. So, whether Toomer is listed as white or black on the census may say little about his own thoughts on racial identity. It may, however, say much about how he was perceived by the person taking the census and/or responding on his behalf. A similar case can be made for the marriage licenses. In the absence of a handwriting expert, eyewitness, or recorded conversation, it is not verifiable that Toomer self-identified as white or whether he was designated as white by the licensor.

Nevertheless, Byrd and Gates maintain that Toomer had to be passing—and therefore engaging in racial deception—because it is not documented that any of his “direct ancestors chose to live or self-identify as white.”

Flying in the face of decades’ worth of scholarship that builds on Toomer’s work, Byrd and Gates ignore Maria Root’sBill of Rights for People of Mixed Heritage.” In it, Root states that multiracial people may identify differently over time, may identify differently than their parents or siblings, and that doing so is totally acceptable. As my colleague Ulli K. Ryder of Brown University put it, “It feels like Byrd and Gates have made a conflict where, in fact, there isn’t one.”…

Read the entire responses here.

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