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

In an unpublished 1935 memoir, Jean Toomer reminisces about his job as a soda jerk in high school and exults in his hard-won expertise: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.1

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 [End Page 279] 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.”2

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!’”3 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.4 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.5 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.”6 For many Harlem Renaissance writers, the soda fountain represented social barriers rather than chemical recombinations.7 In George Schuyler’s Black No More (1931), his newly white protagonist learns about a local Klan rally at a soda fountain.8 In The Big Sea (1940), Langston Hughes recalls stopping in St. Louis during a train trip in 1918 and being turned...