- Jean Toomer and Cane: “Mixed-Blood” Impossibilities
Even though Jean Toomer was black and white, his fascination with miscegenation in his hybrid short-story cycle Cane (1923) was puzzling and untimely. Joel Williamson writes that by 1915 the one-drop rule had been accepted by both blacks and whites in the North and South (109). Hence, mixed bloods with visible traces of blackness, including members of the former mulatto elite, would be judged as black by both blacks and whites. At best, they could be “in some way, satisfyingly black” (153). In this article, I put forward a reading of Toomer and Cane that explains his fascination with miscegenation in terms of his hope for what was possible in America. Specifically, his unique and solitary position vis-à-vis the New Negro in Black Washington and the Young American in White Manhattan provided him with the reasons, models, and ideals to believe that, in Cane, he could effectively voice and sketch out a mixed race sensibility and community that would be grasped and appreciated by the American public. However, in the process of writing Cane, he came face to face with the rigid categories and limits of the black-white color line in the Jim Crow era, which rendered unintelligible and unsustainable in the culture at large the mixed race sensibility and community he sought to express and develop. In other words, we see in Cane the ultimately futile clash of Toomer’s Young American ideals with the socio-political realities of the black-white color line. Cane reveals the pain and frustration of this clash through muffled and ambivalent narrative voices, and through sketches of unacknowledged, crippled, misunderstood, and lost mixed race protagonists. [End Page 1]
Jean Toomer between 1918 and 1923: Contingency, Politics, and the Promise of Art
In their book Jean Toomer and the Terrors of American History, Charles Scruggs and Lee VanDemarr contend that the Toomer who wrote Cane should be read first and foremost as a political writer, although it is true that by end of 1924 he had embraced the spiritual teachings of George Gurdjieff to such an extent that he “could no longer identify with the material that had inspired [Cane]” (Larson 22), and would henceforth eschew black identity. Gurdjieff was an Eastern European mystic of mysterious origin who eventually settled in France. Toomer was so swayed by Gurdjieff’s notion of spiritual wholeness that he actually became his disciple and traveled to France for advanced training (38). This significant turn of events in Toomer’s life has led many critics to read Cane as a kind of spiritual autobiography in which Toomer utilizes modernist form and narrative techniques in an attempt to transcend the polarities of racial categorization and achieve spiritual wholeness. However, critics who read Toomer strictly as a modernist and/or spiritualist tend to overlook connections between Cane and his early political writings. His belief in socialism and support for Negro rights are evident in “Reflections on the Race Riots,” an article about the Washington D.C. race riots of 1919, which Scruggs republished in the Arizona Quarterly alongside Toomer’s other pre-Cane political writings that originally appeared in the socialist newspaper, The New York Call. In this article, Toomer defends the Negroes who rioted in reaction to Washington police brutality. He refers to them as “difficult to exploit,” and attributes “race prejudice” to the “economic structure” and class exploitation. Added to this, he presents socialism both as a means to explain the plight of the Negro and as the one and only political system that can reform a racist nation (Scruggs 121). In 1919, The Nation also published two letters that Toomer wrote to the editor, one regarding socialism and the other regarding Negro rights (Letters 1–3).
His decision to voice his socialist and pro-Negro views in print was not without precedent either. He was intimately familiar with the political arena and with the role of being a public representative of the black masses and a defender of their civil rights inasmuch as he was raised by his grandfather, P. B.S. Pinchback, and his wife in their Washington D.C. home. Pinchback...