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  • Jean Toomer’s Washington and the Politics of Class: from “Blue Veins” to Seventh-street Rebels

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 1

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.

It is a critical commonplace that Jean Toomer’s Cane is a largely autobiographical work displaying its author’s discovery of his profound [End Page 289] identification with African Americans and their culture. This concern is signaled 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” (Rusch 16); 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 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 labeling 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 in the Baltimore Afro-American that “I have not lived as [a Negro], nor do I really know whether there is colored blood in me or not” (qtd. in Estes-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, “American Racial Discourse”). 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. 2

I have no disagreement with the proposition that racial consciousness is central to Cane. I shall stress here, however, 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. [End Page 290] 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. While commentators have, moreover, frequently noted in passing Toomer’s youthful interest in socialist politics and working-class movements, they have routinely dismissed this interest as a...

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