|Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, United States on 2012-01-18 01:44Z by Steven|
Barbara Foley, Professor of English
Rutgers University, Newark, New Jersey
Familiarity, in most people, indicates not a sentiment of comradeship, an emotion of brotherhood, but simply a lack of respect and reverence tempered by the unkindly . . . desire to level down whatever is above them, to assert their own puny egos at whatever damage to those fragile tissues of elevation which constitute the worthwhile meshes of our civilization.
—Jean Toomer, 1921
It is generally established that the causes of race prejudice may primarily be found in the economic structure that compels one worker to compete against another and that furthermore renders it advantageous for the exploiting classes to inculcate, foster, and aggravate that competition.
—Jean Toomer, 1919
It is a critical commonplace that Jean Toomer’s Cane is a largely autobiographical work displaying its author’s discovery of his profound identification with African Americans and their culture. This concern is signalled in Toomer’s own often-quoted statements: the 1922 Liberator letter in which he remarked that “my growing need for artistic expression has pulled me deeper and deeper into the Negro group” and that, during his visit to Georgia the previous fall, “a deep part of my nature, a part I had repressed, sprang suddenly to life and responded” to the “rich dusk beauty” of “Negro peasants” with “folk-songs [at their] lips”; the 1923 letter to Sherwood Anderson noting that “my seed was planted in the cane- and cotton-fields, . . . . was planted in myself down there” (Rusch 16, 17). But the tenuousness of Toomer’s identification with his black ancestry– both before and after the composition of Cane—has also been noted: his 1914 registration at the University of Wisconsin as a person of “French Cosmopolitan” heritage (Krasny 42); his break with Waldo Frank over the latter’s labelling Cane as the work of a “Negro writer” and his reluctance to have excerpts included in Alain Locke’s The New Negro (1925); his subsequent statement to James Weldon Johnson that the “Negro Art movement. . . is for those who have and will benefit [sic] by it. . . [but] is not for me” (11 July 1930, TP, Box 4, Folder 119); his 1934 remark that “I have not lived as [a Negro], nor do I really know whether there is any colored blood in me or not” (Baltimore Afro- American, 1 December 1934: 1; cited in Hicks 9). Critics differ in their assessments of Toomer’s resolution to the dilemma of racial identification. Some view him as a perceptive commentator on the social construction of race who was–and continues to be—victimized by the pigeon-holing of a race-obsessed society (Bradley, Byrd, Hutchinson ). Others view him as an elitist and a coward—even a racist—who, while briefly energized by an acknowledgement of his blackness in the Cane period, could not come to terms with being black in the United States and ultimately fled over the color line (Margolies, Gibson, Miller). Most scholars situate him somewhere in between these psychological and ideological poles. It is widely agreed, however, that Cane is a complex and contradictory articulation of racial consciousness by a complex and contradictory human being.
While I have no disagreement with the proposition that racial consciousness is central to Cane, I shall stress here an issue that is often obscured in discussions of Toomer’s attitudes toward and conceptions of race—namely, the imprint left by his consciousness of class. Scholars and biographers have noted that Toomer’s youth was spent in the financially comfortable and socially select environment provided in the home of his maternal grandfather, P. B. S. Pinchback, who had been Acting Governor of Louisiana during Reconstruction and subsequently became a prominent member of Washington’s light-skinned black elite. But they have tended to underemphasize the complex admixture of snobbery and social activism shaping the outlook of the aristocracy of color among whom Toomer was raised. Commentators have, moreover, frequently noted in passing Toomer’s youthful interest in socialist politics and working-class movements. But they have routinely dismissed this interest as a trivial phase and have seriously understressed the continuing left-wing political inflection in Toomer’s work. In most readings of Cane, in other words, race is decoupled from class: Toomer’s articulation of the problematic of racial identification is usually construed largely in isolation from considerations of economic power and social stratification. Even as they treat the patently social issues of race and racism, many Cane critics divest these questions of their full import by positing Toomer’s “search for identity” primarily as an individual’s subjective quest for reconciliation with his own mixed heritage, thus obscuring the historical and economic forces that render “race” such a profoundly ideological concept in the first place.
What I hope to demonstrate in this essay is that re-coupling race with class permits us to re-situate in history the consciousness that produced Cane—which, as my two epigraphs indicate, was contradictory indeed. I have elsewhere remarked that the first and third sections of Cane are much more fully engaged with the social realities of Hancock County, Georgia—its history of slave rebellion, its lynch violence, its oppressive religious and educational institutions–than is widely acknowledged (Foley forthcoming). I shall argue here that Toomer’s formative experiences among the capital’s “blue-veined” aristocracy of color, as well as his brief but passionate engagement with socialist politics, had a profound impact upon the categories through which he perceived and articulated racial issues in the Washington, D. C., portion of Cane…
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