(Originally published in Modern Fiction Studies, 6/1/95, Vol 42 (Number 2), p289-321)
Familiarity, in most people, indicates not a sentiment of comradeship, an emotion of brotherhood, but simply a lack of respect and reverence tempered by the unkindly . . . desire to level down whatever is above them, to assert their own puny egos at whatever damage to those fragile tissues of elevation which constitute the worthwhile meshes of our civilization.
--Jean Toomer, 1921
It is generally established that the causes of race prejudice may primarily be found in the economic structure that compels one worker to compete against another and that furthermore renders it advantageous for the exploiting classes to inculcate, foster, and aggravate that competition.
--Jean Toomer, 1919
It is a critical commonplace that Jean Toomer's Cane is a largely autobiographical work displaying its author's discovery of his profound identification with African Americans and their culture. This concern is signalled in Toomer's own often-quoted statements: the 1922 Liberator letter in which he remarked that "my growing need for artistic expression has pulled me deeper and deeper into the Negro group" and that, during his visit to Georgia the previous fall, "a deep part of my nature, a part I had repressed, sprang suddenly to life and responded" to the "rich dusk beauty" of "Negro peasants" with "folk-songs [at their] lips"; the 1923 letter to Sherwood Anderson noting that "my seed was planted in the cane- and cotton-fields, . . . . was planted in myself down there" (Rusch 16, 17). But the tenuousness of Toomer's identification with his black ancestry-- both before and after the composition of Cane--has also been noted: his 1914 registration at the University of Wisconsin as a person of "French Cosmopolitan" heritage (Krasny 42); his break with Waldo Frank over the latter's labelling Cane as the work of a "Negro writer" and his reluctance to have excerpts included in Alain Locke's The New Negro (1925); his subsequent statement to James Weldon Johnson that the "Negro Art movement. . . is for those who have and will benefit [sic] by it. . . [but] is not for me" (11 July 1930, TP, Box 4, Folder 119); his 1934 remark that "I have not lived as [a Negro], nor do I really know whether there is any colored blood in me or not" (Baltimore Afro- American, 1 December 1934: 1; cited in Hicks 9). Critics differ in their assessments of Toomer's resolution to the dilemma of racial identification. Some view him as a perceptive commentator on the social construction of race who was--and continues to be-- victimized by the pigeon-holing of a race-obsessed society (Bradley, Byrd, Hutchinson ). Others view him as an elitist and a coward--even a racist--who, while briefly energized by an acknowledgement of his blackness in the Cane period, could not come to terms with being black in the United States and ultimately fled over the color line (Margolies, Gibson, Miller). Most scholars situate him somewhere in between these psychological and ideological poles. It is widely agreed, however, that Cane is a complex and contradictory articulation of racial consciousness by a complex and contradictory human being.1
While I have no disagreement with the proposition that racial consciousness is central to Cane, I shall stress here an issue that is often obscured in discussions of Toomer's attitudes toward and conceptions of race--namely, the imprint left by his consciousness of class. Scholars and biographers have noted that Toomer's youth was spent in the financially comfortable and socially select environment provided in the home of his maternal grandfather, P. B. S. Pinchback, who had been Acting Governor of Louisiana during Reconstruction and subsequently became a prominent member of Washington's light-skinned black elite. But they have tended to underemphasize the complex admixture of snobbery and social activism shaping the outlook of the aristocracy of color among whom Toomer was raised. Commentators have, moreover, frequently noted in passing Toomer's youthful interest in socialist politics and working-class movements. But they have routinely dismissed this interest as a trivial phase and have seriously understressed the continuing left-wing political inflection in Toomer's work. In most readings of Cane, in other words, race is decoupled from class: Toomer's articulation of the problematic of racial identification is usually construed largely in isolation from considerations of economic power and social stratification. Even as they treat the patently social issues of race and racism, many Cane critics divest these questions of their full import by positing Toomer's "search for identity" primarily as an individual's subjective quest for reconciliation with his own mixed heritage, thus obscuring the historical and economic forces that render "race" such a profoundly ideological concept in the first place.
What I hope to demonstrate in this essay is that re-coupling race with class permits us to re-situate in history the consciousness that produced Cane--which, as my two epigraphs indicate, was contradictory indeed. I have elsewhere remarked that the first and third sections of Cane are much more fully engaged with the social realities of Hancock County, Georgia--its history of slave rebellion, its lynch violence, its oppressive religious and educational institutions--than is widely acknowledged (Foley forthcoming). I shall argue here that Toomer's formative experiences among the capital's "blue-veined" aristocracy of color, as well as his brief but passionate engagement with socialist politics, had a profound impact upon the categories through which he perceived and articulated racial issues in the Washington, D. C., portion of Cane.
* * *
Willard Gatewood notes that the "black upper class" that rose to ascendancy in the post-Civil War period
justified its claims to a privileged status on various grounds, including its record of achievement, status as antebellum free people of color, culture and education, and to a lesser, degree, wealth. They viewed themselves as the products of a natural selection from which they had emerged as the strongest and fittest of the race. They stood in sharp contrast to those who belonged to the `submerged masses.' (24)
While groupings of black aristocrats were present in cities throughout the South, the Midwest, and the East, "[f]rom the end of Reconstruction until at least World War I Washington was the center of the black aristocracy in the United States. . . . No other city possessed such a concentration of `old families,' . . . whose emphasis on family background, good breeding, occupation, respectability, and color bound them into an exclusive, self- consciously elitist group" (Gatewood 39). Dubbed the "Negro Four Hundred" by the Washington Bee, for several decades the capital's principal black newspaper, this elite numbered "not more than ninety to a hundred families" (Constance Green 141) but exerted an influence far beyond its numbers.
Very few of the Negro aristocrats possessed wealth comparable to that owned by the white American ruling class; especially after the turn of the century, all were to one degree or another restricted by the increasing pressures of Jim Crow racism. Most of the wealthiest members of the "Negro Four Hundred" led lives entirely apart from their "cave-dwelling" white counterparts: white socialite Mrs. John Logan noted in 1901 that "no matter to what degree of affuence, education, or culture a colored man may rise, neither he nor his family will have any social relations with white people" (Logan 521). Some "white Negroes" who were light enough to be taken for Caucasian "passed over the line" into white society (Fannie Williams ). But many light-skinned blacks able to "pass"--as well as the greater number of darker-shaded people--enjoyed both security and comfort in black high society. It was not until 1920 that the category of "mulatto" would disappear from the racial categories included in the U. S. Census (Hutchinson  229). Some men among the Negro aristocracy worked in law and medicine; Paul Laurence Dunbar noted in 1900 that "there are so many engaged in [the professions] that it would keep one busy counting or attempting to count the dark-skinned lawyers and doctors one meets in a day" (Dunbar 32). Others worked in education or government--at times "passing" in the increasingly segregated workplaces of the nation's capital but living black lives after work. Among the women, some presided over political and cultural salons; some involved themselves in the club movement, which aimed to mobilize "the few competent in behalf of the many incompetent" to work for "the social uplift of the negro race" (Fannie Williams  101, 99). While occasionally, as Constance Green has pointed out, the "well-educated" daughters of some families, "barred from suitable occupations by an inflexible caste system, drifte[ed] into the life of the demi-monde" (138), for the most part the offspring of the Negro aristocracy were models of bourgeois conduct, taking their cues from texts such as E. Azalia Hackley's The Colored Girl Beautiful (1916) and Edward S. Green's National Capital Code of Etiquette (1920). The families of the "Negro Four Hundred" favored resorts such as Harper's Ferry, Saratoga, Newport, and Cape May during the summer months. They educated their children at the M Street High School (after 1916 called Dunbar High School)--"the only example in our history of a separate black school that was able, somehow, to be equal," notes Kenneth Clark (Anderson 104)--before sending them on to the Ivy League or the prestigious black colleges. Many in the Negro aristocracy hoped that, by demonstrating their gentility, they would eventually earn full assimilation into white society; in the meanwhile, however, they lived lives of refinement and ease.2
The aristocracy of color occupied a relatively secure position in Washington society for some four decades (1880-1920). They were, however, by no means invulnerable to criticism--not only by the upper-class whites who disdained them but by other blacks who castigated them for their separation from the black masses. Nowhere was this criticism sharper than around the issue of "blue veinism"--a "reference to a skin light enough to reveal one's blue veins" (Gatewood 153). John E. Bruce, a black columnist who wrote for many years under the name "Bruce Grit," as early as 1877 published a withering satiric commentary on "Washington's Colored Society" as
a species of African humanity which is forever and ever informing the uninitiated what a narrow escape they had from being born white. They have small hands, aristocratic insteps and wear blue veins, they have auburn hair and finely chiselled features. . . . They are opposed to manual labor, their physical organization couldn't stand it, they prefer light work such as shuffling cards or dice. . . . Around the festive board, they are unequalled for their verbosity and especially for their aptness in tracing their ancestry. (cited in Frazier 300)
Encouraging Alain Locke's 1915 efforts to aid Arthur Schomburg in setting up his collection of African-American historical and cultural documents, Bruce noted that
your Washington atmosphere (intellectual) is not conducive to the development of a great racial movement such as you have in hand. The Washington Negro has not yet learned how to think black. Some of them are too white, in color and education, to correctly appreciate the value and importance to the race of this movement to assemble historical data and facts for the use and benefit of the coming generation. (4 May 1915, Locke Papers, Box 164-17, Folder 40)
W. Calvin Chase, editor and publisher of the Washington Bee, was from the 1880s to the 1920s another "vocal foe of those upper-class Negroes [he] characterized as `would-be whites'" (Gatewood 161; see also Chase, Anonymous). Case derided the Negro aristocracy's pretensions to culture, declaring that, in the Monday Night Literary (later called the Mu-So-Litt), "there is more intelligence excluded than [included]" (Constance Green 139). He also lambasted the elite's "colorphobia": "There is as much color prejudice among certain classes of colored people," he declared, "as there is among certain classes of white people" (Bee 27 February 1915). The Bee especially chided schoolteachers who "blatantly drew the color line against their darker brethren," noting that the colorphobia among educators was surpassed only by that of government clerks (Gatewood 260). While one graduate claimed that Dunbar "wasn't a school for the whites" and that "[b]rains were recognized, not money," another recalled that "teachers looked down on you if you were not from a professional family and if you were dark-complexioned" (cited in Anderson 104).
The years 1880-1920 were the heyday of Washington's black aristocracy, but the capital's reputation for elitism and intra-racial color prejudice persisted well into the twentieth century. Langston Hughes, writing about his experiences in Washington in the mid-1920s, commented upon the Negro aristocrats' propensity to boast about their college degrees and possessions, their "well-ancestored" pedigrees, and their own light skins. Recalling with distaste one young Washingtonian's proud claim that at his fraternity dance the women were "nothing but pinks. . . --looki[ing] just like `fay women," Hughes concluded that his associates' ideals "seemed most Nordic and un-Negro . . . . [T]hey appeared to be moving away from the masses of the race rather than holding an identity with them." The works of Jean Toomer and other Washington-based black writers, he learned, were unknown in "society" circles : "[i]n supposedly intellectual gatherings I listened to conversation as arid as the sides of the Washington monument." Seventh Street, by contrast, was "always teemingly alive with dark working people who hadn't yet acquired `culture' and the manners of stage ambassadors, and pinks and blacks and yellows were still friends without apologies" (Hughes  226-27). Seventh-Street blacks, "folks with practically no family trees at all . . . who work hard for a living with their hands, . . . looked at the dome of the Capitol and laughed out loud" (Hughes  208-09). It was the migrants of Seventh Street, not the "pinks" of the capital's upper-class enclaves, that inspired Hughes' prolific poetic production during his Washington period (Rampersad 103). Melvin B. Tolson, writing to Locke as late as 1942, remarked on the same phenomenon, noting that to him Washington was "the copestone of Negro snobbery" and citing his friend Melville J. Herskovits to the effect that "the Negro bourgeoisie [is] the most bourgeois of the bourgeoisie" (16 December 1942, LP, Box 164-90, Folder 11).
While his work would not be read by most of them, Toomer grew up among Washington's aristocrats of color. His grandfather Pinchback had been one of the wealthiest members of the black elite in New Orleans. Soon after the Pinchbacks' 1893 move to the upscale Bacon Street neighborhood in the capital city, the estimated value of Pinchback's fortune was some $90,000, and he enjoyed an income of $10,000 per year (Gatewood 44; Haskins 252). Toomer's grandparents blended easily into the "Negro Four Hundred":
The `Governor' built a red brick thirteen-room house on Bacon Street near the Chinese embassy. Heated throughout by hot water radiators and lavishly furnished, the house contained two large parlors and a fine library. A succession of cooks and maids, in addition to a gardener known as Old Willis, a former slave, attended the house and spacious grounds. Present at their house-warming reception . . . was the `creme de la creme of Washington's colored society.' (Gatewood 43)
Through Pinchback's inveterate gambling and several poor investments, the family fortunes declined dramatically after 1910, when the family sold the Bacon Street house and moved to more modest quarters in a middle-class black neighborhood. Nonetheless, it was in this house that Jean Toomer spent his childhood. Jean Toomer was a descendant of "the most exclusive and persistent mulatto elite in America" (Williamson 147).
Like most other members of the aristocracy of color, Pinchback exhibited contradictory attitudes toward the lower classes of blacks. On the one hand, his commitment to racial uplift was evinced in his decision to enter political life on behalf of his people. Indeed, Pinchback--with his light complexion, Creole wife, and substantial fortune--had the option to live his life as a white man; as W. E. B. Du Bois noted, the New Orleans aristocrat "[t]o all intents and purposes . . . was an educated well-to-do congenial white man with but a few drops of Negro blood" (cited in Rankin 427). On the other hand, Pinchback was not above categorizing the masses of blacks in terms at times indistinguishable from those used by white racists. As he wrote in 1912 to a friend with reference to his disappointment at many blacks' continuing allegiance to Theodore Roosevelt, "Lincoln made a mistake when he freed the mass of niggers" (Gatewood 170). Toomer came from an environment where "nigger" was not merely an innocuous term connoting relaxed familiarity but a carrier of distinct class and racial overtones.
By 1920 Washington's black aristocracy was on the wane. In part its decline can be traced to the increasing racism of the federal government, embodied in the segregation of government offices. Begun under the Republicans, office segregation became near universal in the Wilson administration, during which "piece by piece the world of colored Washington fell apart." A 1913 NAACP report noted that "those segregated are regarded as a people apart, almost as lepers." Booker T. Washington wrote in the same year that he had "never seen the colored people [of Washington] so discouraged and so bitter as they are at the present time" (Constance Green 171, 173, 177). The Bee fulminated against the "race discrimination" extending from federal offices to churches and theatres, calling it "as great an outrage as was ever committed under the protecting eyes of the government since the time when fugitive slaves were restored to their so-called owners" (Bee 10 May 1913). The message to blacks in the capital city was clear. The perception that no dark- skinned individual would be exempt from Jim Crow led increasing numbers of Negro aristocrats to the realization that "they could not remain detached from the lower-class black" (Constance Green 177). Meetings of two thousand denounced segregation (Bee 21 November 1914). By 1916 the Washington, D. C., branch of the NAACP, with 1,164 members, was the largest in the country; the Bee, which had previously declared that "Negro leadership . . . is a sham and a mockery" and that "all this about the advancement of Colored People could be poured into a two-ounce bottle" (Bee 27 February 1915), was now supporting the NAACP and calling for racial solidarity (Chase 173).
The 1919 Washington race riot brought to the fore the desperation of the black masses and the Negro aristocracy's increasing cynicism about the prospects for racial progress. Sparked by salacious press reports of black male sexual assaults, the riot was begun at Seventh Street and Pennsylvania Avenue by several hundred white ex-servicemen who, joined by more than a thousand white civilians, "proceeded to take over the city from the Capitol to the White House" (Lee Williams 26). "This Nation's Capital is in a disgrace," declared the Bee. "The great Capital of the Nation is in the hands of a mob, and innocent colored citizens are assaulted." In several pockets of the black community, however, the attackers were met with armed resistance. Guns were rushed into the city by blacks in nearby Baltimore, and in the southwest portion of the capital, the Bee boasted, "the colored population held its own" (Bee 26 July 1919). James Weldon Johnson hailed the decision of Washington's blacks "not to run, but to fight. . . in defense of their lives and homes." A woman writing to the Crisis anticipated the language of Claude McKay's "If We Must Die" in her comment that "[t]he Washington riot gave me the thrill that comes once in a lifetime. . . . At last our men had stood like men, struck back, were no longer dumb, driven cattle" (Lee Williams 56, 59).
The government's response to the riot, however, was to harden its segregationist posture. Although the violence, which seethed out of control for almost a week, had been initiated entirely by whites, "only eight or nine of the hundred-odd persons arrested were whites, and of these only one was convicted for carrying a concealed weapon" (Constance Green 192). The Bee editorialized, "It is is strange that every effort was made to disarm defenseless colored citizens and no effort made to disarm the whites" (Bee 26 July 1919). The NAACP asked for an indictment of the Washington Post for its role in inciting the riots (Bee 2 August 1919). The elite's newfound solidarity with the masses, however, increasingly meant sharing their segregated status. When the Lincoln Memorial was dedicated in 1922, members of Washington's Negro aristocracy, to their great indignation, were seated with all other blacks in a roped-off Jim Crow section. "The rising tide of racism and the fading of hopes for an integrated society," concludes Gatewood, "as well as the decline in the economic base of the old upper class, eroded the prestige and influence of a group that had nurtured ties with whites and advocated assimilation to the larger society" (335).
The Negro aristocracy was also threatened by internal changes. Some of these were generational: "The ranks of the old guard, who had displayed pride in family tradition and been most insistent on drawing the line against what they considered the vulgar and uncouth, had been depleted by death" (Gatewood 335). The failure of Pinchback's sons Bismarck and Walter to secure prosperous and stable careers--even of Pinchback's wandering grandson Jean to find a suitable vocation--conformed to a pattern not uncommon among Washington's "black Four Hundred." Moreover, by the 1920s, passing--as a mode of life, not simply a temporary convenience--had become an increasingly common phenomenon among Washington's light-skinned black elite. One theatre in the nation's capital "employed a black doorman to spot and bounce intruders whose racial origins were undetectable by whites." While "no Negro despised the doorman for earning his job in that fashion--a job was a job-- . . . passing tended to disrupt the solidarity of the top level of Washington's colored world" (Constance Green 207-08). By the end of Toomer's adolescence, not only had his own family, as Toomer himself put it, "declined into almost poverty" (Turner 90), but "the old families that rose to prominence after the Civil War are passing [and] [o]thers, commercialized and socially climbing, are taking their place" (Toomer to Waldo Frank, 26 April 1922, Frank Papers, Box 23, Part I). The hierarchical social framework that had validated the Pinchbacks' sense of exclusiveness had been significantly undermined.3
Toomer's mature attitude toward the privilege of his early years was ambivalent. Some of his comments exhibit a dispassionate objectivity. His grandfather, he remarked in his autobiographical writings of the 1930s, had possessed "ideals and aims for his children" that were "similar to those of most ruling-class Americans of his time" (Turner 26). Toomer himself experienced "feeling [like] a member of the upper class, the governing class, the aristocracy" (TP, Box 19, Folder 501). Although the Bacon Street house was in a white neighborhood and Toomer passed the first six or seven years of his life "as a white boy" (TP, Box 19, Folder 500), families such as the Francises and the Terrells, who occupied the top of the "blue vein" pyramid, were "friends of the family" (TP, Box 19, Folder 498). Passing his high school years in the relaxed and privileged atmosphere of M Street High School, with evening river cruises on the Potomac and what he called "lyric interludes at Harper's Ferry and Arundel" (Turner 88), Toomer enjoyed a comfortable life. His youthful teenage friends among Washington's black aristocracy "had simply not been imprinted" with racial consciousness, Toomer concluded. "They lived within their own world, not on the antagonistic periphery of it where clashes are most likely to occur. (Even with a race riot going on, the deep centers of both groups can be quite calm.). . . . They seldom or never came in contact with members of the white group in any way that would make them racially self-conscious" (Turner 86).
At times, however, a certain lingering pride in his elite origins emerges from Toomer's retrospective descriptions:
In the Washington of those days--and those days have gone now--there was a flowering of a natural but transient aristocracy, thrown up by the, for them, creative conditions of the post-war period. These people, whose racial strains were mixed and for the most part unknown, happened to find themselves in the colored group. They had a personal refinement, a certain inward culture and beauty, a warmth of feeling such as I have seldom encountered elsewhere or again. . . .
Those of my new friends who became my best friends were, in a racial sense, no different from the boys and girls I had known in white groups. They behaved as American youths of that age and class behave. . . . They were my kind, as much as the children of my early Washington years had been. (Turner 85)
Toomer's characterization of Washington's black elite as a "natural" aristocracy, possessing "personal refinement" and "inward culture and beauty," as well as his assertion that his peers from this group were "my kind," suggest that--as both experiencing youth and contemplative man--Toomer to a degree associated privilege with merit.
Toomer's struggles with the ambiguity of his own racial appearance--which many scholars see as formative of his complex attitudes toward race--are thus inseparable from his consciousness of his inherited class position. His adolescent decision to "say nothing [about his racial identity] unless the question was raised" produced "outraged . . . feelings" in the young Toomer. The reason for this outrage, however, was that he felt threatened that his "aristocracy might be invaded," as he later confessed. "I might be called to question by louts, white, black or any other color" (93). What is noteworthy here is not so much Toomer's ambivalence about how he should define his racial identity--the point most commonly noted by biographers and critics--as the peculiar admixture of antiracism and snobbery on Toomer's part. Not only does he claim to belong to an "aristocracy"; he refers to "my aristocracy" almost as an intrinsic feature of his make-up.
That such elitist attitudes characterized not just the retrospective Toomer of the 1930s but also the Toomer of the Cane period is evidenced by the following comment in the memorandum book that Toomer apparently carried around with him in Georgia:
Familiarity, in most people, indicates not a sentiment of comradeship, an emotion of brotherhood, but simply a lack of respect and reverence tempered by the unkindly .. . desire to level down whatever is above them, to assert their own puny egos at whatever damage to those fragile tissues of elevation which constitute the worthwhile meshes of our civilization. (n.d., Memorandum Book, TP, Box 60, Folder 1410)
It is the scion of Bacon Street who here bemoans the "level[ling]" threat posed by "familiarity" to the "fragile tissues of elevation" that presumably hold society together.4
It would be a serious distortion, however, to assert that all Toomer drew from his Washington heritage was a nostalgia for bygone days of aristocratic glory. In the first place, as is indicated by the burgeoning figures of capital city NAACP membership in the latter nineteen-teens, the reaction of black Washington's upper and middle classes to Wilsonian segregation was hardly passive. As Maria Onita Estes-Hicks has pointed out, one result of the imposition of Jim Crow upon the previously exempted Washington elite was the growth of a significant cultural nationalist movement that antedated both Garveyism and the Harlem Renaissance. Du Bois's "Star of Ethiopia" pageant, which featured a "massive background of an Egyptian temple . . . and a thousand actors," was performed before audiences "aggregating fourteen thousand" (Du Bois 272). During Jean Toomer's last years there, M Street High School was a hotbed of debate over the relative merits of Booker T. Washington's and Du Bois's educational philosophies--debates in which the latter doubtless usually won, since a "group of exceptionally inspiring teachers" at M Street were recent NAACP recruits who were "pass[ing] the torch to their students" (Constance Green 174). As Estes-Hicks notes, Toomer's autobiographical writings are silent on the heady atmosphere at M Street; nonetheless, it is difficult to believe that he was not affected by the debate-- especially since Pinchback was closely aligned with Washington and regularly put him up when the educator came to the capital city on business (Estes-Hicks 71). Even if the NAACP in Washington was, as Calvin Chase at times charged, a "caste organization" (Gatewood 317), its elitism was increasingly activist. At least some members of the Negro aristocracy among whom Toomer was raised were concerned with more then the niceties outlined in Edward Green's book of etiquette.
Moreover, the community of black artists and intellectuals in the capital city, while drawn largely from the ranks of the upper class, were not as stodgy and respectable as has often been supposed. Refuting the commonly-held notion that Toomer cut his artistic teeth among the white modernist crowd clustered in Greenwich Village, George Hutchinson has recently demonstrated that, during the year preceding the fall 1921 trip to Sparta that inspired most of Cane, Toomer helped to organize a study group including Alain Locke, Georgia Douglas Johnson, and other Washington-based black writers. In fact, Hutchinson argues, Toomer's theory that "Americans" were the products of racial admixtures, and that the categories of "black" and "white" belie the nation's sociological complexity, cannot be understood apart from the collective discourse over race in which this largely "blue-veined" study group engaged (Hutchinson ). Also noteworthy about the Washington writers group is that they engaged in a study of slavery and the economics of racism. As Toomer noted to Locke in January 1921, the group was hearing reports on T. R. R. Cobb's An Historical Sketch of Slavery, "Twenty Years of an African Slaver," and "the same subject dug mostly out of Wells"--presumably H. G. Wells's An Outline of History, published in 1920 (26 January 1921, LP Box 164-90, F. 12). A number of texts produced by writers in the group addressed racial violence, featuring the 1919 race riots and various recent lynching incidents. Indeed, Toomer's fictional portrait of the grotesque lynching of Mary Turner (who is called Mame Lamkins in the "Kabnis" section of Cane) was predated by portraits of the Turner murder by Carrie Clifford and Angelina Grimke, both colleagues in the writers group (Ronald Johnson 489; Hull 129-31). Conservative as they may have been in their literary tastes and in their guiding conception of racial uplift, the members of the Washington writers group--particularly, it would seem, the women--insistently focused upon the oppression endured by the black masses. Toomer was to a degree biting that hand that had fed him when he complained in 1922 that his work was "growing". . . [d]espite the inhibitions of Washington, despite my absolute lack of anything like creative friendship" (Toomer to Frank, 24 March 1922, FP).5
While Toomer was clearly affected by the strains of progressivism among Washington's black elite, at least as important to his thinking about racial oppression and class stratification, I would contend, was his short-lived but deeply influential experience with the U. S. socialist movement. Toomer's biographers routinely treat his contact with left-wing ideas as a mere youthful flirtation, quickly ended by exposure to the "real" proletariat during his ten-day experience working among pipefitters in a New Jersey shipyard in 1918 (Kerman and Eldridge 71; McKay 45). Indeed, Toomer's biographers omit from their bibliographies of Toomer's works two articles published in 1919 in the The New York Call, organ of the Socialist Party in New York. Yet these articles reveal a Toomer directing both lyrical and analytical powers toward the articulation of a class analysis of U. S. society.6
In the first, a June 1919 piece entitled "Ghouls," Toomer creates a grotesque parable in which "war profiteers," with "[full] cheeks" and "eyes glow[ing] with the light of conquest," sweep into coffers coins borne in by slaves--"coins of all shapes and sizes . . . , coins stained with the tears of children, wrung from the breasts of mothers. . . red and gory with the blood of men." The slaves, first driven from the room while the "masters . . . divide the spoil," finally "with a peculiar light in their eyes . . . stal[k] in and plac[e] upon the table a bundle." The tale ends on a note combining Gothicism with proletarian didacticism: "The profiteers, mindful only of the treat before them, ripped open the bag and grabbed at its contents. But they recoiled, afraid, for they had touched there the hearts of men" ("Ghouls" 3). That Toomer chose not to assign his slaves a particular racial designation implies an analysis here of slavery as wage-slavery; the only significant colors in the sketch are red and gold. While couched in the mythic idiom of parable, "Ghouls" offers a biting Marxist critique of the historically specific phenomenon of capitalist profiteering during World War I.
The second New York Call article, an August 1919 piece entitled "Reflections on the Race Riots," shows Toomer viewing the phenomenon of U. S. racism from an explicitly Marxist standpoint. Applauding Washington's black population for its militancy in resisting racist violence, Toomer notes, "It now confronts the nation, so voluble in acclamation of the democratic ideal, so reticent in applying what it professes, to either extend to the Negro (and other workers) the essentials of a democratic commonwealth or else exist from day to day never knowing when a clash may occur, in the light of which the Washington riot will diminish and pale. . . . This is essentially a time for action." Clearly Toomer views black oppression as a form of proletarian oppression and sees the race riot as a possible presage of larger-scale insurrectionary class violence. If only because it offers a view of Toomer's politics so different from what one has come to expect, the article's analysis of the material basis of racism is worth quoting at length:
In the literature of the Socialist movement in this country there is to be found a rational explanation of the causes of race hatred, and in the light of these, a definite solution, striking at the very root of the evil, is proposed. It is generally established that the causes of race prejudice may primarily be found in the economic structure that compels one worker to compete against another and that furthermore renders it advantageous for the exploiting classes to inculcate, foster, and aggravate that competition. If this be true, then it follows that the nucleus of race co-operation lies in the substitution of a socialized community for a competitive one. To me, it appears that nothing less than just such an economic readjustment will ever bring concord to the two races; for, as long as there are governing classes and as long as these classes feel it to their gain to keep the masses in constant conflict, just so long will a controlled press and educational system incite and promote race hatred. Where there is advantage to be secured by racial antagonism, heaven and hell will be invoked to that purpose. Demagogues may storm and saints may plead; but America will remain a grotesque storm-center torn by passion and hatred until our democratic pretensions are replaced by a socialised reality. ("Reflections on the Race Riots" 8)
Toomer may not have become an active organizer for the working-class movement or continued writing for the Call. But clearly in 1919 he adhered to a class analysis of the structural underpinning of racism in the capitalist economy and advocated socialist revolution as the only plausible solution to the problems of racial oppression and working-class division.
When he was writing and publishing Cane three years later, moreover, Toomer was still expressing unambiguously radical sentiments. He wrote to publisher Horace Liveright in 1923 that his next book would treat
this whole black and brown world heaving upward against, here and there mixing with the white. The mixture, however, is insufficient to absorb the heaving, hence it but accelerates and fires it. This upward heaving is to be symbolic of the proletariat or world upheaval. And it is likewise to be symbolic of the subconscious penetration of the conscious mind. (9 March 1923, TP, Box 1, Folder 16)
In his Cane-period journal, Toomer predicted the tragedy that would result if black anger were to find a non-class-conscious outlet:
If the workers could bellow, `We Want Power,' the walls of capitalism would collapse. They are as yet too weak for that. . . . If the Negro, consolidated on race rather than class interests, ever becomes strong enough to demand the exercise of Power, a race war will occur in America.
At this time, morever, Toomer saw his own writing as part of a project of class emancipation, for he somewhat apocalyptically noted that "[i]t is evidence of weakness that men like myself are not forced into the service of the governing class, or exiled, or murdered" (TP, Box 60, Folder 1411). While such comments exude a somewhat sophomoric idealism and hardly establish Toomer as a card-carrying leftist, they indicate that he, like many cultural radicals of the 1920s, saw no contradiction between psychic awakening, racial militancy, and class insurrection. The Toomer who wished to safeguard the "fragile tissues of elevation" was also drawn toward social and political movements that would abolish elevation altogether.7
* * *
A number of Toomer's early 1920s writings that are set in the nation's capital are significantly illuminated when considered in the context of the author's contradictory attitudes toward class. In "Withered Skin of Berries," the central dilemma of the tale's light-skinned government-worker protagonist, Vera, stems largely from her inability to acknowledge the yearnings of both body and spirit: like Esther of Cane and others among Toomer's "high yellow" characters, both female and male, she suffers from severe sexual repression and emotional alienation. Vera's struggle for racial and sexual self-knowledge is mapped by her choice among three suitors--her white co-worker Carl, the dark-skinned Art, and the light-skinned poet-rebel David Teyy (clearly an honorific portrait of Toomer himself). But the tale is also very much about the constrictions imposed upon Vera by racial discrimination in a workplace where an admission of her racial identity would entail dismissal, or at least transfer to another worksite. It is thus a tale specifically commenting on the impact of Wilsonian segregation upon Washington's "blue veins." Read in this context, the tale's continual reversion to the picturesque Lover's Leap at Harper's Ferry--which Vera visits with each of her suitors--takes on added significance. Vera's suicidal urge to plunge into the Potomac and "cross over into camp ground" is countered by David's plea that she envision the river as the still-flowing blood of John Brown: the resolution to individual fear, urges David/Toomer, rests in activist resistance to racism. Whether Vera will accede or comply with the constraints of her world is thus signalled by her attitude toward Harper's Ferry: is it a leisured site for middle-class romantic dalliances or a historic reminder of the continuing necessity for struggle? If we do not keep in mind the status of Harper's Ferry as a vacation spot favored by the "Negro Four Hundred" of Washington, the tale's strategic use of setting is rendered opaque, indeed unreadable.8
In Natalie Mann, Toomer's play about the quest for liberation from the strictures of bourgeois black society undertaken by a number of young black intellectuals and artists, Toomer's portraiture of Washington's "blue veins" is sharp and satiric. Mary Carson--a figure based on the actual sculptor of the same name who participated in the meetings of the Washington artists' group (Toomer to Frank, 26 April 1922, FP, Box 23, Part I)--is the play's principal representative of the intellectual pretensions and moral shortcomings of the capital city's would-be intelligentsia. In response to Carson's contention that "we are an intelligent section [of the colored people]" whose duty it is to "combat materialism with our own God-given weapons," the intrepid Mervis Newbolt responds, "Thats all very nice, Mrs. Carson, but dont you think there are more immediate problems which we ought to clear up first. . . . Lynching and Jim-Crowism, for example?" (Turner 258) While some critics have contended that, through Carson and her associates, Toomer is offering a satirical representation of the study group to which he himself belonged (Hutchinson 685; Estes-Hicks 215), Jeffrey Stewart is correct to point out that the broader target of Toomer's lampoon is the "aggressively assimilationist bourgeois society of Washington" (39). The intellectuals featured in Natalie Mann certainly bear a strong resemblance to "blue vein" cultural groups such as the Mu-So-Litt derided by Chase. Moreover, most members of the group portrayed in Natalie Mann do not evince the awareness of past and present racial violence that appears to have set the tone for the group with whom Toomer met.
Toomer's ambivalent attitudes toward his position of class privilege emerge in his doubled portrayal of himself in Natalie Mann. He clearly projects himself in the play's rebellious middle-class hero, Nathan Merilh, who is, Toomer noted to Frank, "mostly myself" (Toomer to Frank, 26 April 1922, FP, Box 23, Part I). But he also projects a part of himself in the character of the working-class Tome Mangrow, who says of Nathan, "Aint he got dictie airs? . . . . Aint he had easy times and nose-bags always full? Aint he got clean sheets and a soft bed to tuck into tonight? Wher'd they all come from? And what is he going to do with them? Steal an rob, an pay the police to protect his stealing?" Nathan's rejoinder projects his creator's divided estimate of his class inheritance. Unabashedly remarking that he has been "fortunate in wealth but still more fortunate in disposition, energy, and point of view," Nathan contends that his money has been "maliciously hostile" to his talents:
I have had to fight through. Money would have made me like my father. Education would have made me believe as all the upper classes do. My sole obligation would have been to preserve, to increase, what an all-wise God in His unfailing charity and beneficence had given me. Those who didnt have, werent supposed to have. Else He'd have given it to them. (Turner 280)
Toomer's uncertain irony in characterizing Nathan renders his hero's proclamation somewhat disingenuous: Nathan's repudiation of his tainted patrimony is partial at best. Nonetheless, through Mertis, Nathan, and Tome, Toomer clearly offers a sharp critique of the elite's complacency--a complacency unambiguously based in their outsider, indeed exploitative, relation to the masses. Composed at the same time he was writing Cane, Natalie Mann reveals that Toomer was highly critical of his inherited social status--even if he also found it hard to suppress a certain pride in the anguished self-awareness that this very class position had made possible for him.9
Above all, Cane takes on important new dimensions when read in the light of Toomer's conflicting class loyalties. Critics have frequently noted that the second part of Cane, which is set primarily in Washington, D.C., offers a sardonic commentary on a mechanized, commodified, and alienated urban setting. The portraiture of human possibility here is seen to contrast dramatically with the representation of an unalienated and sexually unrepressed--if materially oppressed--Georgia peasantry in the text's opening section (Reckley, Hollis, Schultz). Toomer himself described to Frank his intentions in the second part of Cane in the lyrical and organicist terms that characterize many of his statements about his own work:
I am trying to grasp Washington, Not as a cut and dried something to intellectualize, remember, and write about, but as a vital, living feature of my consciousness. I do not wish it to have the objective validity that smacks of the thin truth of most `historical' novels. I want it to be something that comes to birth in me. (Toomer to Frank, 5 May 1922, FP, Box 23, Part I).
Despite Toomer's stated antipathy to the "thin truth" of historical mimesis, however, his success in "grasp[ing] Washington" as a "vital, living feature of [his] consciousness" did to a significant degree derive from his creation of a portrait possessing "objective validity." Part Two of Cane cannot be fully understood without reference to its depiction of the heightening of both race and class contradictions in the world of Toomer's young manhood.
"Bona and Paul," for example, gains a crucial historical dimension when read as a commentary not simply on its light- skinned hero's dilemma of racial identification but also on the increasing segregation of public facilities in the world in which Toomer attained maturity. While this tale is not set--as are all the other Part II sketches--in Washington, but in Chicago, it is plausible to assume that the job of the black doorman at the Crimson Gardens entails spotting light-skinned blacks seeking entry into the club. "As he swings the door for [Bona and Paul]," after all, the doorman's eyes "are knowing" (78). (That at least some public facilities were segregated in Chicago in the 1920s is pointed out in the opening chapter of Nella Larsen's Passing (1929), which shows two light-skinned black women passing as white to gain entry into Chicago's Drayton [Drake] Hotel.) Read in the context of the heightening of Jim Crow in the postwar period, "Bona and Paul" thus portrays a young man eager not only to validate his personal integrity, both racial and sexual, but also to defy segregation. "I came back to tell you, brother, that white faces are petals of roses. That dark faces are petals of dusk," remarks Paul to the doorman. "That I am going out and gather petals" (78). Paul's confession to the doorman--which costs him Bona--is perhaps less immature and gratuitous than is often supposed, for it will probably guarantee his future exclusion from the club his white friends like to frequent. Composed at a time when Washington's Negro aristocrats were still smarting from the recent lash of Wilsonian segregation, "Bona and Paul" articulates not so much the young Toomer's ambivalent racial identification as his profound resentment of the increasingly oppressive social practices making such identification a necessity.10
In "Avey," too, the situation of the autobiographical narrator gains in significance when put in the context of Toomer's youthful experiences in "blue-veined" Washington. The nameless hero is first taken into Avey's arms during a Potomac river cruise similar to the excursions Toomer used to enjoy with his friends in the fashionable young set. The hero is next drawn to Avey at Harper's Ferry, where his family--again, like Toomer's--passes its summer vacation. The two characters' adolescent romance is thus enabled by their common class backgrounds. When five years later the narrator reencounters Avey and finds that she has become a prostitute, however, he is inclined to attribute Avey's choice of vocation to her indolent sensuality--even though it is more likely that her family was one of those on the fringes of black bourgeois society that could not keep their educated but unemployable daughters from drifting into the demi-monde. That he has himself been working in a shipyard and "hik[ing] and bumm[ing]" (45) between New York and Washington--hardly activities of a youth of secure bourgeois status--simply evinces his blindness to the fact that Avey's declassing has just been gendered differently from his own. The narrator's smug approach to Avey is thus inseparable from a sense of class privilege that his gender has permitted him to retain:
I have a spot in Solder's Home to which I always go when I want the simple beauty of another's soul. . . . I know the policeman who watches the place of nights. . . I tell him that I do not come there with a girl to do the thing he's paid to watch out for. I look deep in his eyes when I say these things, and he believes me. . . .
Where Paul feels obliged to explain himself to the doorman with the knowing eyes, the "Avey" narrator clearly has the servant classes under control.
Toomer's portrayal of the egocentric young male artist in "Avey" has an irreducible class component.
I traced my development from the early days up to the present time, the phase in which I could understand her. I described her own nature and temperament. Told her how they needed a larger life for their expression. How incapable Washington was of understanding that need. . . I pointed out that in lieu of proper channels, her emotions had overflowed into paths that dissipated them. I talked, beautifully, I thought, about an art that would be born, an art that would open the way for women like her. (46)
In commentaries on this passage critics have routinely focused on Toomer's satiric representation of the self-absorbed male who at once displaces his own sexual urges onto Avey's "nature and temperament" while reducing her to an object of aesthetic contemplation (Blake 203-04; Hollis). Equally as important as the narrator's gendered portraiture, however, is his confident representation of himself as a self-appointed judge of "Washington's" incapacity to understand Avey's supposed need for fuller self-expression. For "Washington" here metonymically signifies not the metropolis itself, but that segment of its population that the narrator considers significant--namely, its culturally conservative elite. Toomer's early 1920s letters to Alain Locke and Waldo Frank contain similar references to the inhibiting and stultifying effect of "Washington" upon the artistic temperament. Treated, like Nathan Merilh of Natalie Mann, with an uncertain degree of irony, the narrator in "Avey" simultaneously criticizes the cultural shallowness and sexual repressiveness of his class and asserts his identification with that class.11
More than any of the sketches in Part II of Cane, however, the prose poem "Seventh Street" requires a dramatic reinterpretation when read as a gloss on the racial demographics of the nation's capital. The area around Seventh Street--the center of working-class Washington and a magnet for newly- migrated blacks from the South--is not a part of the city that Toomer is likely to have frequented as a child or youth. It was to Seventh Street, we will recall, that Hughes fled in order to escape the "blue veins." But when Toomer spoke of how his family's circle inhabited a "deep center" distant from the race riots, he was referring to more than the geographical or even the cultural distance between Seventh Street and the more secluded neighborhood further west and north where his family had lived. For Seventh Street had furnished the hub of the 1919 race riot about which Toomer had written in the New York Call. It was at the Knights of Columbus hut at the corner of Seventh Street and Pennsylvania Avenue that the ex-servicemen had started the riot; it was at the corner of Seventh and T Streets that the arms delivered from Baltimore to Washington's black community had been distributed (Green 191-94). Several of the sites designated in the Bee as flashpoints of racial violence had been along Seventh Street (Bee 26 July 1919), which the New York Times had in fact referred to as the riot's "bloodfield" (Lee Williams 40).
"Seventh Street," as critics have pointed out, is in part a primitivistic celebration of working-class black culture--"a crude-boned, soft-skinned wedge of nigger life, . . . thrusting unconscious rhythms, black reddish blood into the white and whitewashed wood of Washington." But while the sketch articulates in part the popular modernist view of blacks as the irrepressible id of civilized society, it also assails the state- sponsored violence of the government and the impotence of the "blue veins." "Seventh Street" plays upon both literal and figurative associations of its central image of flowing blood:
Blood suckers of the war would spin in a frenzy of dizziness if they drank your blood. Prohibition would put a stop to it. Who set you flowing? White and whitewash disappear in blood. Who set you flowing? Flowing down the smooth asphalt of Seventh Street, in shanties, brick office buildings, theaters, drug stores, restaurants, and cabarets? Eddying on the corners? (39)
The prose expressionistically treats "black reddish blood" as the return of the repressed, countering the puritanism of Prohibition with the uninhibited energy of the culture of the Southern migrants. But the "black reddish blood" also is said to cause a fearful "dizziness" among the cannibalistic "blood suckers of the war" who imbibe it--a dramatic conceit that recalls the dominant trope of Toomer's 1919 portraiture of war profiteers in "Ghouls." Above all, however, the almost surrealistic imagery of blood flowing through the streets quite naturalistically refers to the blood that was indeed let in the "bloodfield" that was Seventh Street; significantly, the blood in Toomer's sketch flows in "eddies" not just around the sites of leisure--cabarets, restaurants, theaters--but also around those of work, commerce, and domicile--office buildings, drug stores, shanties. The commonplace critical reading of this image as an expression of primitivist elan vital misses the urgency of Toomer's historical mimesis. He is linking the war overseas with the war at home.
Furthermore, Toomer's pairing of "white" with "whitewash" invites the reader to view the marble white of the capital's buildings--the Lincoln Memorial dedicated before a segregated audience in 1922, the White House and Capitol between which racist mobs had rampaged in 1919--as symbolic of the nation's hypocritical refusal to extend democratic rights to all its citizens. Toomer had offered just such a judgment of governmental duplicity four years before in "Reflections on the Race Riots," when he remarked that a nation "so voluble in acclamation of the democratic ideal" was "so reticent in applying what it professes." The pairing of "white" and "whitewash" further suggests an ironic equation between the complacency of the Negro elite--whom Toomer referred to on at least one occasion as "whitewash"--and the callousness of the ruling-class whites whose mode of existence the Negro aristocrats so sedulously emulated. The term "whitewash" thus refers not only to governmental racism but also to the complicity of the "blue veined" elite who inhabit their "deep center" away from the heart of the race riot. Even though the celebration of "nigger life" in "Seventh Street" smacks of a certain patronizing romanticism, it is noteworthy that Toomer here repudiates his grandfather's denigrating use of the term "nigger" and announces his allegiance to the black proletarian masses who had undertaken the first major urban resistance to racial violence in the nation's history. "Seventh Street" announces a partisanship that is at once cultural and political.12
* * *
The omission of any serious consideration of class in most Toomer criticism has divested Toomer's work of a crucial social and historical dimension. In part the blame for this distortion can be laid upon Toomer himself, whose comments about his own writing tended to stress its mythic, lyrical, and transhistorical qualities--that is, those features that have subsequently come to be seen as definitive of high modernism. In part, however, the stripping away of history from Toomer's early texts--most crucially affecting Cane--has been carried out by critics approaching Toomer through the lens of a high modernist a priori. That is, seeking a representation largely untrammelled by specific historical reference, many Toomer critics have, not unsurprisingly, discovered such a representation. This high modernist a priori has frequently been compounded by an anti- Marxist a priori which posits that writers' left-wing commitments--unless codified and repeatedly articulated as explicit doctrine--should not be taken especially seriously. Such a premise conveniently prevents scholars from asking the questions that would enable them to uncover those primary texts that would refute the premise--in Toomer's case, the almost universally neglected 1919 writings published in the New York Call. The resurrection of these writings does not require us to conclude that Toomer "really was" a radical after all; as I have pointed out, Toomer's class politics were as contradictory as his racial politics. But these writings--as well as the multiple references to social stratification throughout Toomer's portraiture of Washington society--require us to adjust the lenses through which we read his work.
The obfuscation of social and historical references in Cane and other early 1920s Toomer texts has also been enabled, however, by the dominant critical tendency to decouple race from class--or, in commentary acknowledging their interrelation, to assert that this relation is conjunctural rather than dialectical. Even analyses that reject essentialist notions of race and read Toomer as a racial deconstructionist avant la lettre ordinarily treat "race" itself as an autonomous--if highly mediated and socially constructed--phenomenon. What Toomer's autobiographical, dramatic, essayistic and fictional writings of the 1920s reveal, however, is that his conceptualization of American racial discourses and practices was profoundly shaped by his awareness of class--not only as a set of subject positions but also as a set of social relations and a basis for theorizing those social relations. We have recently been reminded that "race matters." Toomer, I believe, would have us remember that "class matters" as well--"matters," indeed, as the "matter" that makes "race" such a persistently agonizing and complex issue in U. S. society and in the texts where that society is represented.
1 The Toomer archive is replete with contradictory signals regarding Toomer's racial identity. Although he had stayed in Greenwich Village during a pre-Cane sojourn, when Toomer visited New York in 1923 he apparently considered staying at the Hotel Theresa in Harlem, to which he had inquiries about costs (TP, Box 3, Folder 97). Yet he turned down an invitation to contribute to Nancy Cunard's anthology Negro on the grounds that "though I am interested in and deeply value the Negro, I am not a Negro" (TP, Box 1, Folder 24). While Toomer's later statements about his racial identity appear to call into question whether or not he actually had any African heritage, his unpublished autobiography, on which he was working at the same time that he issued these denials, makes it clear that his grandfather Pinchback thought of himself as a black man. Describing the rationale behind the family's decision to send him to the black Garnet School rather than to the local white school, Toomer remarks, "For Pinckney Benton Stewart Pinchback to send his grandson to a white school, no, that will not do. It might look as if he were going back on his race and wanting me to be white" (TP, Box 19, Folder 500). It is, I think, best to view Toomer's later repudiations of black identity as a repudiation of racial designations as such. As he mused in his journal regarding a 1929 review of the French edition of Cane that dubbed its author a Negro, such occurrences pointed to "the real difficulties involved in managing this organism named Toomer" (TP, Box 61, Folder 1419).
2 For more on Harper's Ferry, see Terrell and, especially, Mae Wright Peck's comments in O'Daniel, "Jean Toomer and Mae Wright." For more on the M Street (Dunbar) School, see Terrell, Anderson, Lewis, Majors (229), and Robinson. For more on the goal of assimilation, see Murray.
3 It is not clear in Toomer's comment whether he means "passing" in the sense of going out of existence or of racial passing. In this context the two meanings overlap somewhat.
4 The memorandum book can be dated from the early Cane period because it contains fragments of some of the lyrics appearing in Cane. See below, Note 9.
5 In a January 1921 letter to Alain Locke, Toomer listed as the participants in the first two meetings of the group: poet Georgia Douglas Johnson (who was married to Henry Lincoln Johnson); Clarissa Scott (later Delany), daughter of Emmett Scott, Booker T. Washington biographer and Howard University administrator; Mary P. Burrill, playwright; E. C. Williams, former teacher at M Street School and head of Howard's Library School; Mary Craft, a descendant of the famous abolitionists and slave autobiogaphers William and Ellen Craft; and his friend of many years, Henry Kennedy. Angelina Grimke--also a former M Street English teacher--is not listed among the participants, but, given the tangency of her interests with those of Toomer, Johnson, and Clifford in the early 1920s, it is difficult to believe she did not attend at least some of the meetings. Jessie Redmon Fauset also is not listed among the participants. That she knew Toomer him quite well, however, is indicated by familiar references to Toomer in a later letter from Fauset to Johnson in 1924 (22 September 1924, Johnson Papers, Box 162-1, Folder 32].) Johnson's informal Saturday Night salon, dubbed the "Saturday Nighters," which emerged as the focal point of the capital's black intellectual activity in the mid-to late twenties-- involving such well-known figures as Jessie Fauset, Zora Neale Hurston, Marita Bonner, Hughes, and Bruce Nugent--clearly grew out of the early efforts of the 1920-22 Toomer discussion group that Toomer helped to found. Carrie Clifford's tribute to Mary Turner is contained in her poem "Little Mother (Upon the Lynching of Mary Turner)." Grimke addressed the Turner murder four times: in "Blackness," "The Waitin," "The Creaking," and "Goldie" (Hull 129-31; Grimke 218-51, 282-306). For abiding conservative elements in the discussion group, however, see Note 14. For more on Toomer's treatment of Turner, see Foley, "Georgia on My Mind."
6 Toomer's letters to Georgia Douglas Johnson from New York in 1920 reveal a lonely young man writing to a mentor/mother figure whose support he greatly needs (especially 20 Feburary 1920, 4 March 1920, and 4 June 1920, Johnson Papers, Box 162-2, Folder 9). He also generously praises her work in these letters: "I read your lines and I swear that as love lyrics aiming not at the rhythmic . . . virtuosities of the genius but at the true expression of emotion and feeling filtered thru the imagination they come nearer my heart than anything I've read. Send me more" (4 March 1920). Such comments contrast with his condescending comments to John McClure about Johnson's poetry two years later: "[Johnson's] faculty of expression is not up to her sensibilities. Nor is she sufficiently conscious. I do not think she ever will be. The inhibitions and taboos and life- limitations she labors under make even her modest achievement remarkable" (22 July 1922, TP, Box 2, Folder 46). For a portrait of Johnson as the matron/intellectual center of the Washington New Negro movement, see Stewart. For more on this movement as a precursor to the Harlem Renaissance, see Moses.
7 For the bibliographical citation of the New York Call articles, I am indebted to Estes-Hicks's unpublished dissertation (134).
8 While Toomer came into contact with Socialists in Chicago in 1918, he may also have been influenced by the pro-socialist cast of Du Bois's thought at this time. Du Bois published several editorials quite favorable to socialism in the Crisis in 1920-21, and in his Darkwater: Voices from Within the Veil declared, "Whether known as Communism or Socialism or what not, these efforts are neither new nor strange nor terrible, but world-old and seeking an absolutely justifiable human ideal--the only ideal that can be sought: the direction of individual action in industry so as to secure the greatest good of all" (138). Du Bois's fable "The Princess of the Hither Isles," with its fairy- tale style and its apocalyptic imagery of hearts torn from the bodies of the oppressed, may also have been an influence on Toomer when he wrote "Ghouls" (75-80). ("The Princess of the Hither Isles" was published in Darkwater in 1920, but first issued in the Crisis in 1913.) Angelina Grimke, through her association with the Birth Control Review, was also in close touch with both Socialists and Communists in the early 1920s (see Mary Knoblauch to Grimke, 25 May 1920, Grimke Papers, Box 38-1, Folder 10, and Gertrude Nafe to Grimke, 28 October 1920, Grimke Papers, Box 38-1, Folder 13).
9 Toomer's statements on politics are as contradictory as those on racial identity. Kerman and Eldridge and McKay base their contention that Toomer rejected the left on the oft-quoted statement from him unpublished autobiography that his experience among the pipefitters led him to the realization that socialism "was for people like Shaw and Sidney Webb. . . . But as for working for a betterment in the lives of the proletariat, this was a pipe dream possible only to those who had never really experienced the proletariat (Turner 111-12.). But this cynical assessment was countered by a continual acknowledgement of the grounding of racism in capitalist exploitation. That Toomer had a stronger focus on class in mind in early drafts of Cane than in the published version is suggested by the rough (and not completely legible) version of "Reapers" appearing in his Cane-period memorandum book:
Black workmen with the sound of steel on stone
Are sharpening scythes they swing them through the reeds
Mules pulling a mowing machine fills [sic] ?
A rat with belly close to ground
A?machine. (TP, Box 60, Folder 1410)
The published version of the poem makes no mention of a "machine" and substitutes the words "reapers" for "workmen" and "Mules" for "Black horses." Elements of a class analysis of racism persist into Toomer's later writings, both unpublished and published. In an undated journal entry apparently from the 1930s, Toomer mused, "Under the cult of things--men must be treated as things. The upper class attitudes today toward the workers. Any upper class man, who considers the workers as human beings, is considered enemy to class, because he violates the code upon which it is founded" (TP, Box 65, Folder 1484). In "Race Problems and Modern Society" (1928), Toomer commented,
There are no such things as innate racial antipathies. We are not born with them. Either we acquire them from our environment, or else we do not have them at all. . . . There is no need to present new facts to support the statement that race problems are closely associated with our economic and political systems. . . . It is well known that whenever two or more races (or nationalities) meet in conditions that are mainly determined by acquisitive interests, race problems arise as by products [sic] of economic issues. The desire for land, the wish to exploit natural resources, the wish for cheap labor--wherever these motives have dominated a situation involving different races, whether the races are set in rivalry, or with one dominant and the other dominated, race problems also have sprung up. (81, 89)
In another undated essay, Toomer combined a spiritualist concern with the psychic effects of racist "binding" with a materialist formulation of racism as a "force" acting on black and white alike from without:
Negro and white or whoever is so held, both feel that they are being held to their detriment. Both feel the damaging effects of the binding force. But neither, of course, understand [sic] that it is precisely a force that is holding them. Therefore they do not and indeed cannot truly get together to overcome their common enemy. No, each separatistically [sic] blames the other. . . . Oppose the force, not the man. (Rusch 111)
10 Toomer wrote to Frank in July 1922 that, in his "last piece," he had "made partial use . . . of the opportunity for a vivid symbolism" in Harper's Ferry as a literary setting (Toomer to Frank, 19 July 1922, FP, Box 23, Part I). For more on racial discourse in this story, see Christensen and Hutchinson .
11 Toomer, who was fond of playing games with names, may have chosen the name "Tome Mangrow" not only for the obvious valorization implied in the surname but also for the resemblance to his own surname in the character's given name. "Nathan" was, moreover, both the name of Toomer's father and Toomer's own first name at birth (his full birthname was Nathan Eugene Toomer). Raised in the Pinchback household where the name of Toomer's father was never mentioned, Toomer was called "Eugene Pinchback" as a child. He took the name "Jean Toomer" soon before writing Cane and started calling himself "Nathan Eugene Toomer" once again in middle age. To propose that Tome and Nathan are doubles obviously signifies on both textual and extratextual levels.
12 "Bona and Paul" was the first piece written for Cane; it was probably composed in 1919 (Kerman and Eldridge 69).
13 In an undated letter to Frank, Toomer, quoting Alain Locke, observed, "Washington is stagnation" (n.d., FP, Box 23, Part I). For an astute discussion of the relation of gender to class in another of Cane's urban sketches, see Flowers.
14 In a 1922 letter to Frank, Toomer contrasted the "shanty [church] of the peasant Negro," where the worshippers manifest a "religious emotion, elemental, very near the sublime," with the "whitewashed article of respectable colored folk" (Toomer to Frank, 21 August 1922, FP, Box 23, Part I). Toomer's running battle with the conservatism of "blue-veined" Washington is reflected in an exchange over "Seventh Street" between himself and Mary Burrill, a participant in the Toomer-initiated discussion group and member of one of the leading families in the "Negro 400." Burrill wrote Toomer a somewhat frosty note in which she faulted Toomer's grammar in the sketch and commented that it "remains wrong because of the premise from which you start. The place has changed only in kind not in degree. It has always been the rendez vous of the shiftless Negro with his pockets full of ill-gotten gains." Toomer replied huffily, "You missed the change, the sudden influx of life into [Seventh Street] as a result of prohibition and the war. . . . If you were to experience the inner life of Seventh Street you would appreciate my contrast even more" (TP, Box 1, Folder 22).
Anderson, Jervis. "A Very Special Monument." New Yorker 54 (20 March 1978): 93-94, 100-02, 104-08, 110-21.
Anonymous. "`Color Lines' among the Colored People." Literary Digest 72 (18 March 1922): 42, 44.
Blake, Susan L. "The Spectatorial Artist and the Structure of Cane." CLA Journal 17 (June 1974): 516-34.
Bradley, David. "Looking Behind Cane." Southern Review (Summer 1985): 682-94.
Byrd, Rudolph. "Jean Toomer and the Afro-American Literary Tradition." Callaloo (Spring-Summer 1985): 310-19.
Chase, Hal. "William C. Chase and the Washington Bee." Negro History Bulletin 36 (December 1973): 172-74.
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