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On "Portrait in Georgia"


John Callahan

. . . if religion failed to keep blacks in subservience, there were other means. "Portrait in Georgia," the sequel to "Conversion," uses the figure-ground pattern to expose the white southern obsession behind the blood sacrifice of lynching. Through Toomer's newly made eyes, the image of a southern belle dissolves into a black man tortured and burned alive at the stake. One by one, the woman's features yield to the paraphernalia of lynching, until in a final chilling montage her white body becomes a simile for the black victim:

And her slim body, white as the ash
    of black flesh after flame.

The poem's silent imagery summons the black folk voices of "Blood-Burning Moon" that improvise desperately against the spell of violence hovering over the land as pregnantly as the full "red nigger moon."

from In The African-American Grain: The Pursuit of Voice in Twentieth-Century Black Fiction. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1988. Copyright 1988 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois


Vera M. Kutzinski

. . . The sweet fragrance of boiling syrup, so intense that it can be tasted, is also the lingering odor of death that clings to the sensuous southern landscape. That the effects of this violence cannot be contained within the conventions of literary romanticism is most evident in two short poems, "Face" and "Portrait in Georgia," which I quote in their entirety:

Hair—
silver-gray,
like streams of stars,
Brows—
recurved canoes
quivered by the ripples blown by pain,
Her eyes—
mist of tears
condensing on the flesh below
And her channeled muscles
are cluster grapes of sorrow
purple in the evening sun
nearly ripe for worms.

Hair—braided chestnut,
        coiled like a lyncher's rope,
Eyes—fagots,
Lips—old scars, or the first red blisters,
Breach—the last sweet scent of cane,
And her slim body, white as the ash
        of black flesh after flame.

These structurally similar catalogues of female features do not even attempt to mediate linguistically the stark contrast between the synecdochic outlines of a woman's body and the images of pain and brutality that devastate that body in the process of visualizing it. Along with the poems' syntax, all expectations of beauty disintegrate before our very eyes as what might have been visions of loveliness decompose into a grotesque living corpse and a monstrous charred body There is no narrative voice here to relieve the oppressive, almost clinical silence, to offer us a distraction, an escape from what is barely even recognizable as human. These images are shocking not because they appeal to feelings either of guilt or of outrage but because they do not allow us to keep intact a reassuring distance between mind and body. The purple of the Georgia dusk may well be beautiful, the sweet scent of cane may well be sensuous, but only if we can forget that that purple is also the color of bloated, decaying flesh and that the sugarcane's intense sweetness is also the sickening stench of burned bodies.

from "Unseasonal Flowers: Nature and History in Placido and Toomer." Yale Journal of Criticism 3 (Spring 1990), 153-179.


George Hutchinson

The poem "Portrait in Georgia" is another haunting evocation of the racial boundary, curiously merging the image of a white woman and of a lynched black person—implied to be a man burned to death for "despoiling white womanhood." . . . On one level, the white woman becomes a sinister figure, rather like the seductive "White Witch" of a James Weldon Johnson poem of that name, or like Lula in Amiri Baraka's Dutchman. But Toomer goes beyond these writers in suggesting an identity between the figures joined in his poem. By superimposing the images of the white woman, the apparatus of lynching, and the burning flesh of the black man, Toomer graphically embodies both a union of black male and white female and the terrifying method of exorcising that union to maintain a racial difference the poem linguistically defies.

from "Toomer and American Racial Discourse," Texas Studies in Literature and Langauge 35 (Summer 1993) 226-250.


 Susan Gubar

In one of the short, imagistic poems he included in Cane (1923). Toomer linked America's racechange imperative "Make white!" to lynching. Through its grotesque personification of those who perpetrate racial violence, "Portrait in Georgia" hints that the hurt inflicted on victims boomerangs to damage the victimizers:

Hair--braided chestnut,
    coiled like a lyncher's rope,
Eyes--fagots,
Lips--old scars, or the first red blisters,
Breath--the last sweet scent of cane,
And her slim body, white as the ash
    of black flesh after flame.

Brilliantly collapsing several planes of meaning, Toomer presents a woman (with hair, eyes, lips, breath, and a slim body catalogued as in a love sonnet), an illness much like advanced stages of syphilis (scars, red blisters); and lynching (a coiled rope, fagots to fuel the flame). The pathologized portrait of Georgia that emerges is a sexchanged personification of the character Anne Spencer called the "ghoul," here a murderous femme fatale. Like a syphilitic whore, this deathly dame demands the sacrifice of the black man who undergoes a racechange from black flesh into white ash because of a fiery consummation in "flame[s]" that invoke the hot passion of the miscegenation used to justify such scapegoating but also the whole burnt offering of the sacrificed body, which is the literal meaning of the word holocaust. To fall from the primacy of color into whiteness is to be excoriated, a word connoting condemnation that literally means being stripped of one's skin. In the shocking protests of Spencer and Toomer, whiteness emerges as simply the fantastic, destructive belief in superiority Du Bois had analyzed in "The Souls of White Folk." White ash is all that remains of black flesh after flame. For, as Walter Benn Michaels notes, "whiteness is produced by (rather than produces) the burning of black flesh" in a poem that turns out to be a "narrative of the origins of racial difference, a narrative in which white bodies are depicted as the consequence of violence against black bodies."

From Racechanges: White Skin, Black Face in American Culture. Copyright 1997 by Susan Gubar.


Charles Scruggs and Lee VanDemarr

. . . The great power of "Portrait in Georgia" resides in the relations between Petrarchan enumeration of parts ("Hair . . . / Eyes . . . / . . . / Breath . . . / body) and their transformation in death. The "clear-cut" images of the poem not only create a "mystery" of identity within the poem but point to the larger mystery of miscegenation within the text itself. "Portrait in Georgia" becomes a microcosm of the collage structure of Cane, the narrative technique which, by taking away the connectives, compels the reader to look for "the evidence of things not seen." As something unseen, miscegenation was a sin condemned in public but practiced in private.

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


Farah Jasmine Griffen

. . . Jean Toomer's Cane (1923) is a bittersweet elegy to the beauty and the horror of the South. "Portrait in Georgia" and "Blood-Burning Moon" foreshadow and document, respectively, the lynching which spurs the movement of the text North. "Portrait in Georgia" might also be a portrait of Georgia. In this poem, Toomer establishes some of the major tropes of the migration narrative—tropes that are later revised and revisited by those African-American artists who follow him. The object of this poem is a woman whose braided hair is likened to a lyncher's rope and whose slim white-skinned body is actually made of the ash of burned black flesh. As is always the case with Toomer, the land is compared to a woman. This time it is a white woman.

In the poem and the story, the races arc bound together in a relationship of interdependence. The image of Southern white womanhood is fragile and dying because of this dependence. The poet identifies the matrix linking Southern white womanhood to the lynching of black men. He is neither the first nor the last to do so: A black woman, Ida B. Wells and a white woman, Jessie Daniel Ames, precede and follow him, respectively. In publications like "Southern Horrors," (1892) "A Red Record: Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynching in the United States 1892-1894" (1895), and "Mob Rule in New Orleans" (1900), Wells explored the connections between the sexual exploitation of black women, the economic exploitation of black people, and the practice of lynching. According to Wells, the political and economic threat to the Southern status quo posed by black people invited the violence enacted upon them. As the founder of the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching, Ames articulated an understanding of the connections between white women and lynching from the perspective of a Southern white woman. According to Ames's biographer, Jacquelyn Dowd Hall, for Ames, "Lynching, far from offering a shield against sexual assault, served as a weapon of both racial and sexual terror, planting fear in women's minds and dependency in their hearts.

from "Who Set You Flowin'?" The African-American Migration Narrative. New York: Oxford UP, 1995.


Martha Jane Nadell

The visual is not confined to Cane's prose vignettes. The text’s poems employ visual devices as well. The first section of Cane contains three poems that had been collected in the Modern Review as "Three Portraits." The first two poems, "Face" and "Portrait in Georgia," employ something like the Petrarchan conceit. They compare the elements of a woman's face to a variety of objects or states. "Face" (10) begins by describing hair simply as "silver gray" like stars and brows as "recurved canoes." Although the poem begins conventionally, elements of "pain" intrude into the portrait as it catalogs the woman's countenance. The eyes produce a "mist of tears."

And her channeled muscles
are cluster grapes of sorrow
purple in the evening sun
nearly ripe for worms.

The comparisons shift from beautiful stars to rotting grapes, suggesting pain without naming it.

"Portrait in Georgia" (29) defines the "pain" to which "Face" alludes. The face in this poem is constituted by the racist violence in the South:

Hair—braided chestnut, coiled like a lyncher's rope,
eyes—fagots
Lips—old scars, or the first red blisters,
Breath—the last sweet scent of cane,
And her slim body, white as the as the ash of black flesh after flame.

This poem is the scene of a brutal lynching. Southern racial violence dominates what could have been a conventional portrait poem. The "lyncher's rope," the "fagots" that burn the "black flesh" are images with which Toomer stresses how society's understanding of race has and will continue to produce unfathomable terror for African Americans. The visual images of "Face" become violent images in "Portrait in Georgia."

The poem is an extraordinary acknowledgement of the past of African Americans. Toomer recognizes that his desire for an ahistorical, free sense of the individual has a powerful enemy: the historical and present violence of the South. But if the two poems are so clearly about the social situation of the South, why does Toomer call them "portraits" and employ a woman's face as the central image? With the fragmentation of the poems and the list of the constituent parts of the face without cohesion that would make them into a unified whole, Toomer alludes to a type of modernist portrait that Stieglitz mastered, thereby attempting to diffuse some of the horror he portrays.

During the early 1920s, Stieglitz was engaged in one of his most famous projects; the portraits of O'Keeffe. Stieglitz photographed parts of her body, including her hands, face, breasts, and legs, making a series out of these fragmented body parts. This was a sort of American cubism, some have argued. Each part of O'Keeffe represented "her." However, within this impulse to depict the whole of a person's selves by means of a part, Stieglitz focused on the part as a thing in and of itself. Thus, the photograph of O'Keeffe's hands is as much about her as it is about her hands as hands and as a study in shape and design. The other effect of the composite portrait was that it represented O'Keeffe diachronically. Recognizing that individuals change across time and place, Stieglitz documented O'Keeffe as a mutable creature with many selves (Greenough, Stieglitz, 22).

Yet, Toomer's fragmented portraits are different, and it is here that we see his fundamental departure from the almost pure formalism of Stieglitz and O'Keeffe. The poems demand an accounting for lynching, for burning. They take an ethical stance on the racial system of the South by explicitly attacking the violence depicted later in "Blood-Burning Moon."

from Jean Toomer and the Harlem Renaissance. Ed. Genevieve Fabre and Michel Feith. Rutgers UP. Copyright Martha Jane Nadell.


Suzanne Lynch

Jean Toomer paints his "Portrait in Georgia" in one continuous movement, beginning with his portrait’s hair and moving down her face toward the rest of her body. While each detail is true to a physical description, it also serves to unmask the central cultural conflict of the American South. He documents hair, eyes, lips, breath, and body, with each feature simultaneously revealing a cultural history stalled in division. From this position Toomer explores the hostility directed towards blacks in general, and mixed-race women in particular with the respective intention of reaching beyond the fragments of body to a "higher consciousness" (Toomer) of racial understanding.

In the absence of any unity Toomer’s portrait reflects definite oppositions between what is visible and what is knowable. His first image of "braided chestnut" hair is, in a somewhat vague perceptual sense, a teasing image that tantalizes us with multiple visions of race. By omitting qualities of texture from the description, Toomer cleverly thwarts any conclusions we might make about the woman’s race. The image of hair does, however, suggest an element of strength, which, of course, further reinforces the racial discomfort fostered by the intangibility of this Georgia woman. And just in case the reader, pulled by some pathology of the ordinary, feels an uncontrollable inclination to racialize this woman, Toomer ruptures this attempt, in similar fashion, by once again avoiding any direct impression of race. "Her slim body, white as ash/ of black flesh after flame" concretizes the slipperiness of racial authority through an indirect comparison of her body to both white ash and black flesh. The reader should note that the only definitive descriptor Toomer offers is her slimness and all else is left to in the realm of supposition. Positioning this woman as neither black nor white, within a world so polarized by color, makes her a destabilizing force within the power dynamics of the culture. She obstructs the system of knowledge that clearly identifies subject positions by race. In this way, Toomer constructs a self-articulated woman who disputes and disables the stability of racial essentialisms, albeit, at the consequence of violent negations. If the poem strips this Georgia woman of her wholeness and reduces her to a series of fragments, it also accounts for that effect by placing her in a social setting of violent white dominance. This, however, does not silence this woman who straddles the line between white and black, for the simple fact that Toomer resurrects her—body and voice—though an art that whispers to a consciousness about the inefficacy of racial segregation, and for that matter, the racial violence directed towards black woman who, either out of love or submission, give themselves up to white men.

Since the poem is organized around racial principles of inclusion and exclusion, of acceptance and rejection, of realities and falsehoods, it is helpful in part to see Toomer’s portrait as an articulation of the emotional and intellectual response to the increasing prevalence of racial dissolution. Apprehension about miscegenation and increasing fear of the invisibility of blackness at the turn of the century created a destructive and dehumanizing environment for those unwilling or unable to conform to racial singularity. Toomer’s Georgia woman, thus, symbolic of the idea that the lives of black and whites are indelibly "braided" in a common southern experience, faces her punishment for exposing the myth of a white purity, supposedly uncontaminated by blackness. For this she becomes her own executioner. Her braided chestnut hair "coiled like a lyncher’s rope" is used to disintegrate the very union it represents, while simultaneously erasing her example as the literal truth of America’s identity.

Disturbing as the individual portrait is, the poem also intends an equally pointed reflection, on American history as a whole. The scarred, blistered lips heal just enough to speak of a woman’s story of human suffering. She does this with the breath of "cane" and with a self-consciousness that links her to the exploitation and abuse that so many marginal southern women faced within an oppressive economy. Such images position Toomer’s Georgia woman, not only as a woman destroyed by irrational fear, but also, more sadly, as a woman destroyed by economic dominance. With this understanding of the poem’s broader, historical context, we can then credit Toomer with creating a voice that grants agency to this mixed-race woman--ironically, though a gradual death that in the end fuses a spiritual and physical return to the land. One might argue, as many scholars have already done for sections of Cane, that this Georgia woman, through her death simultaneously reclaims both her black and white ancestral investment in this southern land. In other words, she claims her dual heritage that was previously denied to her by America’s own internal conflict over race.

Intimating that in the end we are all reduced to ashes—ashes to ashes—that we "Sink into the earth/ To resurrect--/ To project into this conscious world/ An example of the organic; To enact a mystery among facts" (BM)—Toomer’s final image of "her slim body, white as ash/ of black flesh after the flame," renders a subtle, if uneasy, idealization of a world where our similarities link us in common understanding. As a recorder of history, Toomer offers his portrait as an invitation to rethink matters of race representation, and more importantly, race division. The poem also demonstrates the inclinations of its writer, as he works through his own consciousness, he opens the route to racial transcendence through a final integration in which our differences combine in a common product.

Copyright 2001 by Suzanne Lynch


 

Cristina Stanciu

“The Sinister Figure”: James Weldon Johnson’s “The White Witch” (1922)
and Jean Toomer’s “Portrait in Georgia” (1923)

Before Richard Wright made the white female body less threatening to black masculinity in his acclaimed novel Native Son (1940) by mutilating the sexualized body of Mary Dalton in Bigger Thomas’s act of self-defense and political statement, the representation of the white female’s destructive power over black masculine subjectivity has been a recurrent theme in African American literature. The emphasis on the white body as sexual subject enticing the black man into the inherent dangers of white ideology displays two complex features: on the one hand, the white woman’s subjectivity -- while voiceless within the boundaries of her race -- is defined in relation to her sexual fantasies with the racial other; on the other hand, the taboo, untouchable white female body devours the black male body, thus giving “the primitive” a new meaning. As Rachel Blau DuPlessis argues, conventionally, black women were associated with “the primitive,” albeit the “libidinous” and “sexually free,” thus fulfilling the white ideological “reading” of the “primitive,” in opposition to the topos of cultural resistance it represented for African Americans (128). Nevertheless, Johnson’s “The White Witch” suggests, underneath the archetypal features of the beautiful white female body lies the savage, primitive, animal nature of the “panther” hunting for her prey, an episode which completely redefines the traditional “portrait” of the Southern belle:

And back behind those smiling lips,
And down within those laughing eyes,
And underneath the soft caress
Of hand and voice and purring sighs,
The shadow of the panther lurks.
The spirit of the vampire lies. (lines 25-30)

Johnson’s “The White Witch” uses the image of the white female body and its “vampiric” attributes to signal, at the literal level, the threat its luring presence implies; moreover, Johnson’s use of a speaker whose voice, one might argue, comes from the great beyond, intensifies the dramatism of the message and cautions “the younger brothers” against her sexual games. Thus the poem becomes a warning against the enticements of white sexuality: “O brothers mine, take care! Take care!” (line1). Similarly, Jean Toomer’s “Portrait in Georgia,” also read by critics as a portrait OF Georgia in its racial violence, examines the superimposed images of a black woman’s body and the ashes of a lynched black (male) body. As George Hutchinson has aptly remarked, Johnson’s white witch remains a “seductive” figure in comparison with Toomer’s “sinister figure” (233). However, it seems only fair to notice that Johnson’s portrait remains “seductive” only at a superficial level. While the last two lines in Toomer’s poem allude to a consumed death of the black male -- “And her slim body, white as the ash / of black flesh after flame” (lines 6-7) -- a similarly sinister message can be read in between Johnson’s lines: “My body like a living coal” (line 38). This line could be interpreted as a direct allusion to the lynch mob’s fire and immanent death despite its literal sexual connotation. Moreover, the allusion to KKK’s white ghostly costumes haunting the Southern nights may open up a new perspective on reading the “witch.” Despite lack of direct evidence, one may speculate that Toomer’s poem is written in direct response to Johnson’s “The White Witch,” given the common images and theme they share, as well as Toomer’s rearticulation of the white figure on the framework created by Johnson (hair, eyes, lips, breath, body), with a deliberate gender ambiguity. Also, chronologically, Toomer’s “Portrait in Georgia” is published a year after Johnson’s.

The ethereal appearance of the “white witch” at dusk (both a poetic and a threatening, illusory time) is suggestive of her dual nature: on the one hand, a fairy-tale character (her external body is recreated by the speaker in colorful images); on the other, a life-threatening “vampire” (the internal body is suggested by an accumulation of prepositional phrases that direct the reader’s attention to the preying essence of this luring body: “back behind [those smiling lips],” “down within [those laughing eyes],” and “underneath the soft caress,” lines 25-27). Consequently, under the conventional portrait of the white woman (red lips, fair face, blue eyes, golden hair – the Arian ideal) lies the destructive Medusa, an epitome of the modern white world in search for “primal passions” (line 51), threatening black masculinity. If, indeed, we can read both Johnson’s and Toomer’s poems as exemplary representations of the black persons’ contact with the white world in the big cities during the Great Migration – the white body becoming thus the female-gendered white world – then both poems may reflect the modernism’s lack of vitality and its appeal to the “primitive” in order to revigorate the Western waste land.* Johnson’s speaker cautions the young brothers against the modernity’s (albeit “the white witch’s”) entrapment of their racial capital in an attempt to revitalize modernity. Rachel Blau DuPlessis’ argument, informed by art historian Gill Perry, emphasizes the white culture’s appropriation of primitive tropes in its artistic endeavors, as a critique of modernity. Moreover, she insists that “blacks have often been used by whites as an image of the unconscious of whites – fecund, productive, creative […] in the factory of whiteness” (122-23). Johnson’s poem cautions the black ethnicity against succumbing to such ideological traps, underlining the impossibility of such a (racial) union, “cruel-sweet”:

She feels the old Antaean strength
In you, the great dynamic beat
Of primal passions, and she sees
In you the last besieged retreat
Of love relentless, lusty, fierce,
Love pain-ecstatic, cruel-sweet. (Johnson, “The White Witch,” lines 49-54)

Whereas the geography of Johnson’s poem is not clearly defined, thus emphasizing flight from the “white witch” regardless of her topographic emergence, Jean Toomer’s portrait is located tentatively “in Georgia.” Barbara Foley has emphasized Toomer’s concern “with contemporaneous episodes of racial violence” (“In the Land of Cotton…” 184), underscoring an important aspect students of Jean Toomer, the modernist writer, tend to forget: “Toomer may have written in a densely symbolistic modernist idiom, but he did not substitute myth for history” (“Toomer’s Sparta” 749). Thus the social relations Toomer criticizes in this work, particularly chaotic and failed human relationships – including inter-racial relations -- need to be interpreted as the writer’s engagement with history rather than its disembodied transcendence. Besides establishing a racist “outline,” poems like “Face” and “Portrait in Georgia” deromanticize the traditional female embodiment by recreating a worn out “face” rather than a sexualized body, a fragmented body of “purple” and “channelled muscles” which announce the old body’s disintegration, portraying a different kind of natural fruition, as it becomes “nearly ripe for worms”:

Face –
silver-gray,
like streams of stars,
Brows –
recurved canoes
quivered by the ripples blown by pain,
Her eyes
mists of tears
condensing on the face below
And her channeled muscles
are cluster grapes of sorrow
purple in the evening sun
nearly ripe for worms. (Toomer, “Face”)

Discussing this poem, Laura Doyle has offered a very insightful approach of “Face” as a revision of the “body-cataloguing blazon poem” through a deromanticization of the female experience of embodiment (86). In the tradition of the blazon, “Face” offers a careful depiction of female body parts (face, brows, eyes), but the critique becomes implicit in Toomer’s emphasis on pain rather than youthful exuberance. As Eldridge suggests, however, the beauty of this woman does not derive from her association with “superior” attributes (202). Instead, the external beauty is replaced by inner suffering and pain, becoming a relevant instance of what Elaine Scarry has called “the body in pain.” Moreover, the fusion of the woman’s features -- which add a dose of masculinity (“her channeled muscles”) to this portrait of decaying and decomposing female body -- with natural phenomena, also in a state of in-betweenness, point to Toomer’s ironic use of the blazon tradition in a poem that defies formal (prosodic) constraints, and its adaptation to Southern soil. As Doyle concludes, “Unlike the idealized virgin in a Petrarchan blazon, this woman has gray hair, her body quivers with pain rather than desire or duplicity, and her fate is death rather than love” (86-87). The death of this “Face” figure – fragmented, but still bearing the unseen mark of race, rendered through the braided hair, “like a stream of stars” – seems to be emblematic of the death of the entire culture, “purple in the evening sun,” awaiting decomposition, being “nearly ripe for worms.

A less optimistic rendering of the racial body in pain is captured by “Portrait in Georgia,” a highly-anthologized Toomer poem, which shares functional similarly to “Face,” as a preamble to the lynching story in “Blood Burning Moon.” More specifically, in the same tradition of the blazon poem, celebrated features of a (white) woman’s body are ironically linked with the dismembered body parts of a lynched and burned body of a black person, significantly of ambiguous gender. This lyrical portrait of a lynching episode is materialized in “Blood Burning Moon” -- a story in Jean Toomer’s Cane, where “Face” and “Portrait in Georgia” also appeared -- which dramatizes Louisa’s race-inflected double desire, for the white man Bob Stone and the black man Tom Burwell (whose name, a corruption of “burn well,” becomes emblematic of his tragic fate):

Hair – braided chestnut,
           coiled like a lyncher’s rope,
Eyes – fagots,
Lips – old scars, or the first red blisters,
Breath – the last sweet scent of cane,
And her slim body, white as the ash
                        of black flesh after flame. (Toomer, “Portrait in Georgia”)

Each line opens with an object of physical desire – hair, eyes, lips, breath, slim body – which recreates a specific image of a lynching scene, thus unifying eros and thanatos in an attempt to define both interracial desire and to mark the racialized body with the scars of historical “discipline.” Critics have oscillated between reading the last two lines as a Georgian portrait of “a lynched and burned black woman” (Jones xvii), or a white woman -- a “sinister figure” (Hutchinson 233) – which causes the lynching of the generic balck male for despoiling white womanhood. Eldridge also subscribes to this latter interpretation, suggesting that “The message is clear in all its grim aspects: white woman, symbol of life and beauty, is equally the symbol of violence and death” (211-12). George Hutchinson offers a very insightful approach to this portrait of a “white woman” whom he compares with James Weldon Johnson’s “White Witch” and Amiri Baraka’s Lula in Dutchman, suggesting an identity between the fragments of bodies in Toomer’s poem:

By superimposing the images of the white woman, the apparatus of lynching, and the
burning flesh of the black man, Toomer graphically embodies both a union of black male
and white female and the terrifying method of exorcising that union to maintain a racial
difference the poem linguistically defies. (233-34) (Hutchinson’s emphasis)

All the above-mentioned readings are legitimate and well supported, but they all miss Toomer’s deliberate superimposition of both racial features in a single, fragmented, ambiguously gendered body: “And her slim body, white as the ash / of black flesh after flame.” This superimposition of black and white images aims at collapsing not only racial boundaries – white and black bodies become one in death -- but sexual as well, by depicting the pained and incomplete embodiment of a new, nascent body, emerging after the consummation of the “flame” and the burning of black male and female bodies through an imaginative alchemy. Thus, by collapsing thegender binaries, both James Weldon Johnson and Jean Toomer signal in their poems the dangers of essentializing the body, and the threats of a long history of racism that facilitated the marking of a body by the other.

________

Notes:
Johnson’s poem also appeared in 1922, the “Waste Land” year.

 

Works Cited

Blau DuPlessis, Rachel. Genders, Races, and Religious Cultures in Modern American Poetry, 1908-
1934. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge UP, 2001.

Doyle, Laura. “Swan Song for the Race Mother: Late-Romantic Narrative in Cane.” Bordering
on the Body. The Racial Matrix of Modern Fiction and Culture. New York: Oxford UP,
1994. 81-107.

Eldridge, Richard. “The Unifying Images in Part One of Jean Toomer’s Cane.” CLA Journal 22.3
(March 1979): 187-214.

Foley, Barbara. “’In the Land of Cotton’: Economics and Violence in Jean Toomer’s Cane. African
American Review 32.2 (Summer 1998): 181-98.

---. “Jean Toomer’s Sparta.” American Literature 67.4 (December 1995): 747-75.

Hutchinson, George. “Toomer and Radical Discourse.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language
35 (Summer 1993): 226-50.

Jones, Robert B. ---. Introduction. The Collected Poems of Jean Toomer. Eds. Robert B. Jones and

Margery Toomer Latimer. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina Press, 1988. ix-xxxv.
Scarry, Elaine. The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World. New York: Oxford UP,
1985.

 

 

Copyright © 2004 by Cristina Stanciu


 

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