Bottles, Bubbles, and Blood: Jean Toomer and the Limits of Racial Epidermalism

Posted in Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, United States on 2015-09-08 01:23Z by Steven

Bottles, Bubbles, and Blood: Jean Toomer and the Limits of Racial Epidermalism

Modernism/modernity
Volume 22, Number 2, April 2015
pages 279-302
DOI: 10.1353/mod.2015.0041

Catherine Keyser, Associate Professor of English Language and Literature
University of South Carolina

In an unpublished 1935 memoir, Jean Toomer reminisces about his job as a soda jerk in high school and exults in his hard-won expertise:

I got my white coat. Under my friends [sic] guidance I learned to work the fountain, draw sodas, pile sundaes, brew special concoctions. Of course, I had imprinted upon me indelibly what my fellow-men consider tasty thirst-quenching drinks. … I was a serious youth at first, in every way an eager, earnest student of the job. … I soon became familiar with the store’s stock, the patent medicines, the chemicals in jars. Sime [sic] times I watched the doctor compound prescriptions and I had a feeling of fascination and mystery as if there were some magic about this and I were in—not the prosaic back of a modern drug store but in the work shop of an alchemist.

Toomer’s verbs animate the process of intermixture and especially his active role in that process: “work,” “draw,” “pile,” “brew.” While popular taste renders the soda jerk passive, even textual (“I had imprinted upon me indelibly”), the model of the doctor compounding prescriptions promises active and expert authorship. In this combination, we can see an alter ego for the literary modernist, reformulating the materials of popular culture with expertise. The audience for the work is meant to imbibe its results, to incorporate the concoction in the body, and thus to experience the senses anew. The pharmacist models not only form (as formula) and bricolage (as compounds), but also the radical transformation of the consumer of this “magic.” This alchemical metaphor for modernist practice suits Toomer’s approach to race as well as his approach to art. Mark Whalan observes that Toomer uses technological metaphors in his masterwork Cane in order to imagine a “dynamic process” of racial transformation: “At the centre of this exists the figure of the artist, transforming through a process of mechanical efficiency material forms which degrade or oppress into forms which offer liberation and agency.”

The outside world encroaches on this idyllic magician’s workshop. Toomer’s longed-for imaginative transformation of racial categorization was not so easily performed in the segregated spaces of the Jim Crow era, and the anecdote in his memoir bears this out. His grandmother disapproves of his ambition to work at a soda fountain: “I could not bring myself to ask my grandmother. I could hear her exclaim, ‘My grandson a soda boy!’” Her hesitation (and his) is telling. A notoriously segregated city, Washington, D.C., had an anti-discrimination law on the books from 1872 stating that “keepers of ice-cream saloons or places where soda-water is kept for sale” would be fined for “refusing to sell or wait upon any respectable, well-behaved person, without regard to race, color, or previous condition of servitude,” but in practice, this statute was ignored. Is this a soda fountain for white patrons, where a black teenager could work behind the counter but not sit in front of it? Or is this a soda fountain for black patrons, a safe but lower-class space? It is not a surprise that Toomer, frustrated at what he elsewhere calls “color labels,” fails to mention the race of his friends, colleagues, or patrons in the soda fountain, but the fact that he does not do so draws attention to the racial politics that he tries to overlook. Soda fountains were a common symbol of segregation and racial tension. In 1918, James Weldon Johnson wrote that “the denial of the privilege of drinking ice cream soda in certain places on account of race or color is a phase of the denial of full citizenship and common democracy.” For many Harlem Renaissance writers, the soda fountain represented social barriers rather than chemical recombinations. In George Schuyler’s Black No More (1931), his newly white protagonist learns about a local Klan rally at a soda fountain. In The Big Sea (1940), Langston Hughes recalls stopping in St. Louis during a train trip in 1918 and being turned away from “the soda fountain where cool drinks were being served” because he was “colored.” Hughes sardonically concludes the anecdote: “I knew I was home in…

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Here, There, and In Between: Travel as Metaphor in Mixed Race Narratives of the Harlem Renaissance

Posted in Dissertations, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, United States on 2014-12-11 00:23Z by Steven

Here, There, and In Between: Travel as Metaphor in Mixed Race Narratives of the Harlem Renaissance

University of Massachusetts, Amherst
2014-05-09

Colin Enriquez
English Department

Created to comment on Antebellum and Reconstruction literature, the tragic mulatto concept is habitually applied to eras beyond the 19th century. The tragic mulatto has become an end rather than a means to questioning racist and abolitionist agendas. Rejecting the pathetic and self-destructive traits inscribed by the tragic label, this dissertation uses geographic, cultural, and racial boundary crossing to theorize a rereading of mixed race characters in Harlem Renaissance literature. Focusing on train, automobile, and boat travel, the study analyzes the relationship between the character, transportation, and technology whereby the notion of race is questioned. Furthermore, the dissertation divides travel into departure, interstitial, and arrival phases. With the ability to extend perception and experience, media is also interpreted here as transportation. Using figurative and literal travel, the selected narratives move between localities to allegorize 20th mixed race subjectivity. Socially ambiguous and anonymous, interstitial moments suspend the normative performance of race and enable the selected authors’ investigations of race binarism. After the introduction establishes a theoretical frame composed of transnational and migration studies methods, the ensuing chapters demonstrate the interpretive function of travel in Jean Toomer’s Cane, Nella Larsen’s Quicksand, and Walter White’s Flight. This reading is aided by the connection between modernism and mixed race identity as expounded upon in the works of Robert E. Park, Mark Whalan, Cherene Sherrard-Johnson, Jeanne Scheper. However, it differs from these in its assertion of travel as an interpretive mode for mixed race literature as a tradition.

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‘A Chosen Exile,’ by Allyson Hobbs [Senna Review]

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, History, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2014-11-22 03:00Z by Steven

‘A Chosen Exile,’ by Allyson Hobbs [Senna Review]

The New York Times
Sunday Book Review
2014-11-21

Danzy Senna

A Chosen Exile: A History of Racial Passing in American Life By Allyson Hobbs; Illustrated. 382 pp. Harvard University Press. $29.95.

One of the best birthday presents anybody ever gave me was a “calling card” by the conceptual artist Adrian Piper. I was in college at the time, and it felt like the ultimate inside joke handed from one racially ambiguous person to another.

Slim and innocuous as a business card, it reads: “Dear Friend, I am black. I am sure you did not realize this when you made/laughed at/agreed with that racist remark. In the past I have attempted to alert people to my identity in advance. . . . I regret any discomfort my presence is causing you, just as I’m sure you regret the discomfort your racism is causing me.”

To be black but to be perceived as white is to find yourself, at times, in a racial no man’s land. It is to feel like an embodiment of W. E. B. Du Bois’s double consciousness — that sense of being in two places at the same time. It is also to be perpetually aware of both the primacy of race and the “bankruptcy of the race idea,” as Allyson Hobbs, an assistant professor of history at Stanford University, puts it in her incisive new cultural history, “A Chosen Exile.”

Hobbs is interested in the stories of individuals who chose to cross the color line — black to white — from the late 1800s up through the 1950s. It’s a story we’ve of course read and seen before in fictional accounts — numerous novels and films that have generally portrayed mixed-race characters in the sorriest of terms. Like gay characters, mulattoes always pay for their existence dearly in the end. Joe Christmas, the tormented drifter in William Faulkner’sLight in August,” considers his blackness evidence of original sin (a.k.a. miscegenation) and ends up castrated and murdered. Sarah Jane, a character in Douglas Sirk’s 1959 remake of the film “Imitation of Life,” denies her black mother in her attempt to be seen as white. Her tragedy once again feels like mixed fate. As her long-suffering mother puts it, “How do you tell a child that she was born to be hurt?”…

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Jean Toomer: Race, Repression, and Revolution

Posted in Biography, Books, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Monographs, United States on 2014-11-09 17:48Z by Steven

Jean Toomer: Race, Repression, and Revolution

University of Illinois Press
July 2014
336 pages
6.125 x 9.25 in.
10 black & white photographs, 1 chart
Cloth ISBN: 978-0-252-03844-0

Barbara Foley, Professor of English
Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, Newark

Political and personal repression and its effect on the work of a Harlem Renaissance luminary

The 1923 publication of Cane established Jean Toomer as a modernist master and one of the key literary figures of the emerging Harlem Renaissance. Though critics and biographers alike have praised his artistic experimentation and unflinching eyewitness portraits of Jim Crow violence, few seem to recognize how much Toomer’s interest in class struggle, catalyzed by the Russian Revolution and the post–World War One radical upsurge, situate his masterwork in its immediate historical context.

In Jean Toomer: Race, Repression, and Revolution, Barbara Foley explores Toomer’s political and intellectual connections with socialism, the New Negro movement, and the project of Young America. Examining his rarely scrutinized early creative and journalistic writings, as well as unpublished versions of his autobiography, she recreates the complex and contradictory consciousness that produced Cane.

Foley’s discussion of political repression runs parallel with a portrait of repression on a personal level. Examining family secrets heretofore unexplored in Toomer scholarship, she traces their sporadic surfacing in Cane. Toomer’s text, she argues, exhibits a political unconscious that is at once public and private.

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Brother Mine: The Correspondence of Jean Toomer and Waldo Frank by Kathleen Pfeiffer (review)

Posted in Articles, Biography, Book/Video Reviews on 2014-08-22 14:54Z by Steven

Brother Mine: The Correspondence of Jean Toomer and Waldo Frank by Kathleen Pfeiffer (review)

Callaloo
Volume 37, Number 3, Summer 2014
pages 735-739
DOI: 10.1353/cal.2014.0094

L. Lamar Wilson

Jean Toomer’s Cane remains one of the most enigmatic works that emerged during the last century. In the past three decades, critics have probed auto/biography, psychoanalysis, sociopolitical and theological discourse, gender studies, and Toomer’s own critical essays for answers to questions raised by his exploration of racial and national identity and dislocation, black male and female sexuality, and the metaphorical topoi of the United States North and South in the text. Nellie McKay, Robert B. Jones, Rudolph P. Byrd, Farah Jasmine Griffin, Karen Jackson Ford, Mark Whalan, and Kathleen Pfeiffer have unearthed insightful details about the circumstances surrounding Toomer’s formation of a complex racial identity, his life in the immediate years preceding Cane’s creation and publication, and the text’s impact on his subsequent writing and the Afro-modern and postmodern canons.

Whalan’s Letters of Jean Toomer: 1919–1924, published in 2006, and Brother Mine: The Correspondence of Jean Toomer and Waldo Frank, Pfeiffer’s 2010 response, have been particularly important. Letters gives scholars access to Toomer’s willingness to emphasize whatever aspects of his racial and cultural identity would appeal to black and white literati alike at any given moment during the years bookending Cane’s 1923 publication. Moreover, through Letters, Toomer’s co-dependency on Waldo Frank, his closest friend and mentor at the time, comes into fuller focus vis-à-vis impassioned declarations of artistic allegiance and filial devotion. With Brother Mine, Pfeiffer complicates critical notions of their relationship, offering a chronological collation of epistles between the two men. From Frank’s first letter to Toomer in October 1920, Pfeiffer implicates Frank in encouraging Toomer, who was initially reserved and professional, to open up to his input and affections and to the possibilities of publication available to him as a modernist “Negro” poet. In her introduction, Pfeiffer links the dissolution of their friendship to Toomer’s affair with Frank’s wife, art therapist Margaret Naumburg, and marks Toomer a turncoat. However, she discounts the betrayal Toomer expressed feeling in his autobiography of having been reduced to “a fraction of Negro blood” when, in fact, he desired to create “a synthesis in the matters of the mind and spirit analogous, perhaps, to the actual fact of at least six blood minglings” (qtd. in Pfeiffer 29). Ultimately, it would seem the strictures of America’s “one-drop rule” on the social status of one marked black was as much to blame.

What makes Brother Mine compelling, then, is that which made the earliest English and American readers fond of Pamela, The Power of Sympathy, and other epistolary novels: an intimate look at a complex love story. Readers see two men finding homosocial solidarity as they manipulate the constructs of race in the poetry that would become one of the New Negro Renaissance’s first critically acclaimed works. They also see Toomer offer Frank critical feedback on Holiday, Frank’s version of their trip to Spartanburg, South Carolina, which their letters often romanticize—while offering scant details. They read some of the most honest confessions in print of a white American man’s obsession with and hunger to embody blackness, and they witness Toomer deftly navigating his multiracial identity. As he and his beloved Jewish brother reach for a raceless identity neither can attain in America, readers watch them commit the ultimate crime: interracial love. Frank’s gleeful interest in the black American experience is palpable as he alludes to the pleasures and challenges he and Toomer encounter as they venture into the US South. Moreover, it is clear that Frank is living vicariously through Toomer’s relationships with his grandmother, best friend Ken, and on-again, off-again girlfriend Mae. What emerges from their dialogue is both men’s problematic conception of a kind of Lacanian jouissance subsumed in blackness, which Toomer calls a “soil [that] is a good rich brown” that “should yield splendidly to our plowing” in an August 3, 1922, letter in which he makes final plans for the pair’s Spartanburg excursion (59).

Central to the poetic re-envisioning of Cane that emerges in Brother Mine is the homo-social desire that permeates every page. As Pfeiffer notes, the almost…

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The Hunter and the Farmer: Jean Toomer’s Depression-Era Masculinist Writings

Posted in Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, United States on 2014-05-01 20:01Z by Steven

The Hunter and the Farmer: Jean Toomer’s Depression-Era Masculinist Writings

AmeriQuests
Volume 6, Number 1 (2008)

Anastasia C. Curwood, Visiting Fellow
James Weldon Johnson Institute for Race and Difference
Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia

In 1937, after he had written the novel Cane, left the African-American culture of Harlem, studied under the mystic Georges Gurdjieff in France, lost his wife to childbirth, and married for the second time, Jean Toomer sought to publish a series of essays. The subjects varied, but the most common theme was masculinity—men’s prerogatives, natures, and responsibilities. He theorized women’s temperaments as well, but it was clearly the study of maleness that captured his attention.

Toomer’s interest was noteworthy given the fact that he became ever more concerned with sexuality and gender as he left behind his African-American identity. Toomer did not intend to “pass,” as is commonly assumed—he actually wanted to be raceless, or of the “American” race. In his adopted home in the Pennsylvania countryside, Toomer attempted to construct his life based entirely on his masculinity. In Toomer’s opinion, his entire household—his white wife, his light-skinned daughter, and various temporary occupants—was a social experiment in supporting his masculine genius and creativity.

This essay is an intellectual history of Toomer’s self-construction. Using his diaries and published and unpublished writings, I will explain how Toomer saw his own male identity and how, although he had renounced his blackness, his racial identity mediated his ideal of his gender.

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Jean Toomer and Cultural Pluralism

Posted in Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, United States on 2014-03-27 01:52Z by Steven

Jean Toomer and Cultural Pluralism

Gino Michael Pellegrini: Education, Race, Multiraciality, Class & Solidarity
2014-03-21

Gino Michael Pellegrini, Adjunct Assistant Professor of English
Pierce College, Woodland Hills, California

[This short paper was originally written for “Jean Toomer and Politics,” a Special Session Roundtable at the 2012 MLA Conference in Seattle. I have made a few edits.]

In disagreeing with Rudolph Byrd and Henry Louis Gates Jr., I will not directly critique their support and rhetorical strategies. Instead, I will put forth my own interpretation of Toomer’s political vision. Toomer saw literature as his means to address socioeconomic inequalities, transform himself, and influence people in a manner that would advance the promise of democracy in America. We should ask then, not whether he identified as black or white, but what his political vision is, what it is not, and what it entails. Specifically, I argue that his political vision conflicts with the cultural pluralisms of his mentors, Alain Locke and Waldo Frank, and anticipates some postethnic, cosmopolitan, and multiracial perspectives that have emerged in recent history in strong opposition to the limitations and problems of multiculturalism…

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Trope Theory, Cane, and the Metaphysical Case for Genre

Posted in Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive on 2013-12-03 04:16Z by Steven

Trope Theory, Cane, and the Metaphysical Case for Genre

Genre
Volume 46, Number 3 (Fall 2013)
pages 239-263
DOI: 10.1215/00166928-2345605

Katie Owens-Murphy
Department of English
University of Minnesota, Duluth

Although we rely regularly on genre as a conceptual apparatus for our scholarship and course offerings, genre studies as a theory and methodology has never quite recovered from the opposition of Jacques Derrida, whose well-known essay “The Law of Genre” (1980) accused literary taxonomies of distorting the inherently indeterminate meanings of texts by imposing arbitrary restrictions, or “laws,” on our reading practices. This essay surveys the major objections to genre criticism lodged by its principal critics (especially Derrida) before introducing and advocating “trope theory,” a concept from a branch of analytic philosophy called metaphysics, in response to these objections. It then provides a sustained formal analysis of Jean Toomer’s Cane (1923) to demonstrate trope theory’s superior ability to account for generically hybrid narrative texts and its ability to yield a seemingly infinite number of readings and interpretations.

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My racial composition and my position in the world are realities which I alone may determine…

Posted in Excerpts/Quotes on 2013-10-11 03:43Z by Steven

My racial composition and my position in the world are realities which I alone may determine… I do not expect to be told what I should consider myself to be.

Jean Toomer to his publisher Horace Liveright (September 5, 1923)

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Jean Toomer: The Fluidity of Racial Identity

Posted in Articles, Biography, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2013-05-20 03:57Z by Steven

Jean Toomer: The Fluidity of Racial Identity

Face to Face: A blog from the National Portrait Gallery
Smithsonian Institution
2012-07-20

Elizabeth Brevard, Intern
Catalog of American Portraits
National Portrait Gallery


Jean Toomer / Marjorie Content / Gelatin silver print, c. 1934 / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution ©Susan L. Sandberg

An author, philosopher, and spiritual adviser, Washington, D.C., native Jean Toomer (1894–1967) challenged the accepted race and social labels during the mid-twentieth century. Toomer’s father left his wife and son in 1895, forcing the single mother to move in with her father, Pinckney Benton Stewart Pinchback, the former governor of Louisiana during Reconstruction and the first U.S. governor of African American descent.

Toomer was of European and African American ancestry, which sometimes allowed him to pass in society as a white man. For example, his registration for the draft identifies him as African American, but both of his certificates of marriage to white women list him as white (Byrd and Gates).

Most of his formative years were spent in all-white neighborhoods, although he attended the all-black Dunbar High School in Washington. The profound and varied racial influences within Toomer’s life would inspire his writing and his philosophical pursuit to transcend the self, as seen in his novel Cane and his poem “The Blue Meridian.”

After his graduation from high school in 1914, Toomer questioned the labeling of race according to skin color, instead embracing his self-appointed identity as an “American.” In his words:

I wrote a poem called “The First American,” the idea of which was that here in America we are in the process of forming a new race, that I was one of the first conscious members of this race. . . . I had seen the divisions, the separatisms and antagonisms . . . [yet] a new type of man was arising in this country—not European, not African, not Asiatic—but American. And in this American I saw the divisions mended, the differences reconciled—saw that (1) we would in truth be a united people existing in the United States, saw that (2) we would in truth be once again members of a united human race (Turner, ed., The Wayward and the Seeking, p. 121)…

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