Callaloo 25.4 (2002) 1238-1249
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"Been Shapin Words T Fit M Soul"
Cane, Language, and Social Change
Near the end of Jean Toomer's Cane, Ralph Kabnis reminds Halsey of the difference between preaching and oratory. "I was born an bred in a family of orators," Kabnis tells Halsey. "I didn't say preachers. I said orators. O R A T O R S . . . An since then, I've been shapin words after a design that branded here. Know whats here? M soul. Ever heard of that? Th hell y have. Been shapin words to fit m soul" (109). Ralph Kabnis's pride in himself as a secular word shaper has been explored in interpretations of Cane which focus on the novel's innovative use of language and literary form, and on Toomer as a modernist artist of the Harlem Renaissance. 1 More generally, Kabnis's view of himself as a secular orator has been used to support a critical framework for African-American writing which stresses, as William Andrews says, the "lasting tradition in African-American fiction of the hero as master wordsmith, a liberator through language" (14). Yet further analysis of Cane, particularly the "Kabnis" section, reveals a more complex view of language and its relation to social change. As a character, Ralph Kabnis is unable to use language as either shield or weapon against the often violent reality he finds in Georgia. At the same time, the text's retreat from the lyricism of "Karintha," to the dramatically presented nightmares of "Kabnis," casts doubt on the Harlem Renaissance proposition that the individual accomplishments of African-American writers will spur lasting social change.
For by the end of Cane, Kabnis, and readers of Toomer's masterpiece, have discovered the limits of a secularly based and individually created language. As "Kabnis" opens, the protagonist is trying to read. Interrupted by the "weird chill" of "vagrant poets" who sing a song that begins "White-man's land," Kabnis puts down his book. As he considers his dream that "My lips would sing for" the South, "my songs being the lips of its soul," Kabnis is again interrupted, this time by a rat whose passage sprays down "Dust of slavefields, dried, scattered . . . No use to read" (81). Unable to finish his book, Kabnis enters a nightmarish journey of violence, which begins when he wrings a chicken's neck, and continues as he questions Halsey and Layman about recent episodes of racial violence, including the death of Sam Raymon. Cornered by a lynch mob that had already murdered two other black men, Sam Raymon had jumped in a river so as to at least "die in my own way" (88).
The section climaxes with Layman's recitation of the horrific story of Mame Lamkins and her newborn child. Both suffered a brutal death at the hands of white men. Shortly after hearing this story, Kabnis flees from what he believes is a lynch mob [End Page 1238] (90, 92). By the end of Cane the meaning of the song that drew Kabnis from his book is clear to readers, if not to the character. "Burn, bear black children / Till poor rivers bring / Rest," testifies to the gruesome murders of Mame Lamkins and her baby, and to the death in a river of Sam Raymon.
The stories of both Sam Raymon and Mame Lamkins had real life counterparts. As Barbara Foley has shown convincingly, Sam Raymon's story parallels the so-called "Williams Death Farm" killings of February 1921, in which the bodies of eleven black men, sometimes chained in pairs, were discovered in rivers in Jasper County, Georgia. Jasper County is located 30 miles from Sparta, where Toomer lived in 1921 ("In the Land" 188-90). Similarly, the story of Mame Lamkins is quite clearly based on the horrific death of Mary Turner chronicled by Angelina Grimke and other anti-lynching activists. 2 Toomer was aware of both these infamous instances of racial violence, and incorporated them in significant ways in Cane.
The fact that he did so...