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On "Reapers"


Nellie McKay

Black reapers—men—prepare for the harvest by sharpening their scythes, but a mower, driven by black horses, cuts through the weeds with indifference, unknowingly destroying a field rat with its blades. Toomer creates a contrast between the knowledge and purpose of responsible human beings and the automated disinterestedness of machines. The reapers are deliberate in their preparations, and they have an objective and expectations of rewards. But no human awareness governs the actions of machines, which cannot comprehend the devastation they cause.

In establishing this division, Toomer indicts those who carry out acts of oppression against others and asserts that they act out of elements in themselves that are less than human. Such actions violate the human reason for being and the doer becomes like the machine, without the ability to nourish human life.

From Jean Toomer: Artist—A Study of His Literary Life and Work, 1894-1936. Copyright 1984 by The University of North Carolina Press.


Michael North

"Reapers" . . . is written in rhymed quatrains, rhymed so insistently, in fact, that it is possible to read the poem as having only two rhyming sounds for its eight lines. It is also rendered in complete, conventional sentences, and it has a fairly consistent iambic rhythm. The appropriateness of these conventions appears where they are most consistent:

Black reapers with the sound of steel on stones
Are sharpening scythes. I see them place the hones
In their hip-pockets as a thing that's done,
And start their silent swinging, one by one.

The rhythmic repetitions of the form stand for the repetitive nature of the work, which appears most obviously in the nearly perfect iambic line that represents the resumed swinging of the scythes. This sort of work is repetitive in a physical sense, relying as it does on a few movements reiterated again and again, and in a temporal sense, since it must be done every day, every season, season after season. It is "a thing that's done," a habit.

Toomer does not print the break between stanzas as a physical break, but everything changes there nevertheless:

Black horses drive a mower through the weeds,
And there, a field rat, startled, squealing bleeds,
His belly close to ground. I see the blade,
Blood-stained, continue cutting weeds and shade.

The break represents a major change in the life of this rural area, the change from manpower to machines, which changes everything else as well. As Toomer put it in a letter to Frank, "The supreme fact of mechanical civilization is that you become part of it, or get sloughed off (under)." The line describing the death of the field rat embodies this change in meaning and in sound. Instead of working slowly and rhythmically, the mower moves on ineluctably, even killing the living things before it, which make a sound that is the very antithesis of the soft silent swinging of the scythes. The dying squeal of the rat affects the poetry itself, which is least iambic and most interrupted just here, as if the line itself were cut mindlessly and inorganically.

From The Dialect of Modernism: Race, Language, and Twentieth-Century Literature. Copyright 1994 by Michael North.


Charles Scruggs anbd Lee VanDemarr

The white South defined miscegenation practically as the rape of white women by black men. Within the black community, of course, the understanding was very different—by 1920 an estimated 70 percent of African-Americans were of mixed race, and that huge total had nothing to do with black men's rape of white women. Karintha's secrecy about her child indicates some communal violation beyond mere illegitimacy, and that disruption is hinted at in the poem that follows her story. "Reapers" describes a mechanical mower drawn by "black horses" that cuts up a squealing "field rat." More antipastoral than the work of Robert Burns, the poem depicts the suppressed anger of the black field hands, whose motivation is both economic and sexual. Killing the rat, they foreshadow Bane's slashing his friend in "Carma" and the death of Bob Stone in "Blood-Burning Moon." In the post-Reconstruction South, sexual exploitation of black women was an act of political terror, a way of intimidating both black women and black men. And although Karintha's child is a private scandal, the world of whispered facts and gossip, like secret miscegenation, powerfully affects the action in Cane.

[. . . .]

The African-American folk culture Toomer adapts and creates for the first section of Cane, the sorrow songs and blues lines between and within the stories, is a politicized culture. The subtle menace of "Reapers" and the direct challenge of "Cotton Song" both speak against the white South and its economic, social, and political systems. The songlike verses in "Carma" are not lyrics to nature, but refer to the secret history of miscegenation and its disruption of black family and society, as do the key images and lines from "Karintha" that are repeated in "Georgia Dusk," "Nullo," and eventually "Kabnis." Even an apparently simple lyric like "Evening Song," with its "Lakes and moon and fires" (35), anticipates "Blood-Burning Moon." Toomer also recognizes how black folk culture embraces Christianity, for slaves the religion of submission, and adapts it for resistance, as in the lines from "Cotton Song": "Shackles fall upon the Judgement Day / But Iets not wait for it" (15).

[. . . .]

Section 5 of "Kabnis" begins with night as "a pregnant Negress," the posibility of birth and change, but the same image recalls Karintha's child. And as the poems "Reapers" and "Cotton Song" indicate, black labor produces black labor—black birth is the source of the South's economic fecundity, cynically underscored by the cotton pickers themselves in the puns ("Hump . . . roll away") of their song (15).

[. . . .]

Like Gothic narratives, Cane progresses through circular repetition that both reveals and conceals. The ubiquitous dead child is one source of Cane's Gothicism, as are the lynched man or woman ("Portrait in Georgia," "Blood-Burning Moon," "Kabnis"), decaying flesh ("Face"), maimed or murdered animals ("Reapers," "Kabnis," "November Cotton Flower")—and these figures also bear witness to something hidden. Gothicism in Cane depends for its effects on the hidden past erupting into the present, upsetting the social order, and raising questions about good and evil that conventional morality cannot answer.

from Jean Toomer and The Terrors of American History. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P.


Catherine Gunther Kodat

In Cane, the first-person narrative voice makes its debut in "Reapers," the brief poem that appears after "Karintha." Here, Tommer shows how the narrative "I" emerges in a vision of violence: the poet sees how the reapers sharpen their scythes for the work ahead, and how that harvesting work involves violence that is incidental and inevitable, as a mower slaughters a rat in the field and then goes on. The homology that was lightly sketched in "Karintha" between artistic capital and human capital emerges here in bolder strokes through the parallel between the actual harvest of "Reapers" and Toomer’s artistic "harvest," wherein disparate black folk materials—for example, the blues stanza and gospel shouts—are gathered together to total a larger whole. Both harvests, it is hinted, do violence; this exploration of representational violence is further developed in "Becky," the story of the white woman who has two black children and is consequently ostracized by the white and black communities.

from "To 'Flash White Light from Ebony': The Problem of Modernism in Jean Toomer's Cane." Twentieth-Century Literature 46 (Spring 2000), 1-19.


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