Reading Cane in the Anthropocene: Toomer on Race, Power, and Nature.
Cane denounces human exceptionalism and recovers nature, but this is not the sanitized, Western, passive construction of nature from which people of color have suffered and generally been excluded. Cane's nature is vibrant, unpredictable, varied, inclusive, and other. Perhaps more importantly, Cane demands that we acknowledge the many ways humans, nonhumans, nature, and culture are inextricably entangled, so that it is impossible to consider the natural world in Cane without treating histories implicit in the environments inscribed there. By doing so, however, we "free" nature--it is not what we thought it was. Although debate over the naming of the Anthropocene continues, (2) the fact that a new geological epoch defined by human impact is upon us is generally agreed upon, which is to say that the Anthropocene is far from a "social construction." There are both material and discursive implications of the Anthropocene--like modernity, the term refers to a variety of changes that are both epistemological and ontological. Yet, whether we decide to think through the Anthropocene or not, the phenomenon that this term describes is there, initiated by us and acting on us, now independent of human life yet deeply entangled with it. A similar reality motivates new material feminists Stacy Alaimo and Susan Hekman to reclaim nature, not as a social construct, but as an
active, signifying force; an agent in its own terms; a realm of multiple, inter-and intra-active cultures. This sort of nature--a nature that is, expressly, not the mirror image of culture --is emerging from the overlapping fields of material feminism, environmental philosophy, and green cultural studies. (12)
This nature, which is not the "repository of sexism, racism, and homophobia" (12), has rich applications for the study of African American literature, including Cane, in the Anthropocene.
The vitality of the material world throws the falseness of historically oppressive binaries into relief for the characters in Cane and for the reader. Nature provides important proof of the limitations of human power that those who benefit from systems like slavery hope to ignore; forces like drought, an invasive pest species, or a typhoon make it clear that all humans are vulnerable to the same natural forces, whether master or slave, rich or poor. Though bodily vulnerability is a shared reality of the human condition, not all bodies are equally vulnerable; certainly, racially marked bodies are disproportionately subjected to toxic environments. (3) The Anthropocene--with its global warming, extreme weather events, and rising sea levels--exposes such inequalities as well in the way low-emission island and coastal nations suffer from the carbon footprint of global superpowers like the US and China, for instance. Places like Bangladesh and the Maldives are doubly vulnerable because they lack the economic resources and infrastructure to shield citizens from the conditions that will soon overtake these island nations completely.
Ecocritical and new material approaches to Cane can complement more traditional critical emphases on the novel's genre-defying impressionism and poetics. In addition to its obvious interest in the aesthetic, the sensory, the liminal, and the paradoxical, we must remember that Cane engages a specific reality formed from a distinct set of material conditions and with very real, material consequences. Indeed, the text is inseparable from the material conditions that produced it. In a letter to The Liberator, Toomer described his time in Sparta, Georgia, which inspired him to write Cane:
A visit to Georgia last fall was the starting point of almost everything of worth that I have done. I heard folk-songs come from the lips of Negro peasants. I saw the rich dusk beauty that I had heard many false accounts about, and of which, till then, I was somewhat skeptical. And a deep part of my nature, a part that I had repressed, sprang suddenly to life and responded to them. (North 166)
Introducing the 1923 edition, Waldo Frank wrote that Cane not only describes the South, but it is the "aesthetic equivalent of the land": "This book is the South" (118, 117). Through its deep connection with place, Cane carefully captures important histories of capitalism and empire (4) and demonstrates the great potential for human systems to reorganize nature, often to the detriment of both human and nonhuman bodies.
Certainly, the world of Cane exists as it does because of transplanted species--human bodies and sugarcane, for the success of the cash crop system in the South depended on importation of non-native bodies. Toomer's title species, sugarcane, is not native to the Western hemisphere but transplanted like the human bodies exploited for labor. Likewise, scientists note that a defining characteristic of the anthropocentric age is the total rearrangement of species on the globe due to human activity. Elizabeth Kolbert puts it this way in The Sixth Extinction:
One of the striking characteristics of the Anthropocene is the hash it's made of the principles of geographic distribution. If highways, clear-cuts, and soybean plantations create islands where none before existed, global trade and global travel do the reverse: they deny even the remotest islands their remoteness. The process of remixing the world's flora and fauna, which began slowly, along the routes of early human migration, has, in recent decades, accelerated to the point where in some parts of the world, non-native plants now outnumber native ones. During any given twenty-four-hour period, it is estimated that ten thousand different species are being moved around the world just in ballast water. (198)
Reading Cane as an environmentally aware text, then, the intentional transplantation of sugarcane and African slaves, and the unintentional transplantation of species like the boll weevil, point to the material conditions of the Anthropocene in unexpected ways. The power of the collective human species to interfere with Earth's systems and processes is becoming undeniable, but Cane also reminds us that marked bodies--in this case African slaves and their descendants--experience the effects of the driving forces of the Anthropocene first and to a disproportionate degree.
First, Cane describes the same cut-and-get-out method of lumbering that William Faulkner was critical of in texts such as Go Down, Moses, a practice that stripped the land quickly and completely. Like Faulkner's wilderness, which "soared, musing, inattentive, myriad, eternal, green; older than any mill-shed, longer than any spur line" (307), Toomer's anthropomorphism can be read as a subtle protest against this profitable, but ecologically devastating, business. While Faulkner's trees watch ominously but silently, Toomer imbues his trees with the capacity for expression, even language. And as the pines "whisper to Jesus" (9) as they do throughout Cane, they protest institutional racism as well as destructive environmental practices, for the impetus behind both is the same. Significantly, for those who are not in power, trees are imagined as compatriots and fellow musician-poets, as in the poem "Georgia Dusk," where the "pine trees are guitars, / Strumming, pine-needles fall like sheets of rain ... / Their voices rise ... the chorus of the cane" (20). Here, human voice and expressive matter intermingle and a reader is unsure if the pronoun "their" refers to the trees or the men who "go singing through the footpaths of the swamp" (19-20). This entwining of human and tree suggests a shared materiality that only amplifies the injustices that the companionable trees and black bodies face. The fourth stanza of "Georgia Dusk" foreshadows the black bodies that will succumb to violence and the shared materiality and vulnerability of human and nonhuman--the image of a lynched female body "white as the ash / of black flesh after flame" in "Portrait in Georgia" (38) or Tom Burwell's "ghost of a yell" (48) that accompanies the stench of his burning flesh in the air of "Blood Burning Moon," for instance:
Smoke from the pyramidal sawdust pile Curls up, blue ghosts of trees, tarrying low Where only chips and stumps are left to show The solid proof of former domicile. (19)
Figuring the smoke as the "ghosts of trees," Toomer here grants the natural world a type of vitality that informs the central concept of nature presented by Cane, one that is less in line with dominating Western ideas at the time and more conducive to care and concern for others, a picture of nature that ultimately resonates with current scholarship in the environmental humanities. Additionally, suggesting that logging is the destruction of domiciles speaks to a comprehensive view of ecosystems; rather than seeing trees solely for their use-values, Toomer considers the repercussions of eliminating trees that housed innumerable species, species that might seem dispensable but certainly are not.
Further, as trees were too often implicated in lynchings and witness to a variety of other injustices by no consensus of their own, the "ghosts of trees" conjures the entangled violence that human and nonhuman are subjected to by the forces of capitalism and empire. A reader shudders at the retelling of Marne Lamkins's violent murder in "Kabnis," made more horrific by the unconscionable murder of her unborn baby whose body is fastened to a tree with a knife, simply because a "nigger baby aint supposed t live" (124). In a 2017 interview on the Generation Anthropocene podcast, poet Camille Dungy, a prominent voice in contemporary black nature writing, describes the complex relationship she and other people of color have with both natural and built environments. Trees, specifically, remind her of the ways in which human endeavors are entangled with environments:
If I walk under a tree, what are the other memories that I have either through my, kind of, epigenetic code, or a direct family memory or just stories? Trees were sites of lynchings, open spaces were sites of danger, of hunts where the prey, the quarry were human beings. I can't necessarily walk out into open space and be like "oh I feel so safe and secure" in the way that the white folks in the REI commercials get to be. (Chang n.p.)
The editors of The Colors of Nature, Alison Deming and Lauret Savoy, echo the fact that the natural world is undeniably a site of trauma, pain, rage, and grief for too many: "I recalled an African-American friend cajoling me to see that in his familial past the woods were not a place one might go for solace and recreation but a place where one might be dragged, beaten, or lynched" (12). (5) In the twenty-first century, African American writers who formulate the natural world as a site of violence and antagonistic to human subjects have an unexpected resonance. Yet, as Cane forces a reader to confront unjust human practices, Toomer is equally invested in unsettling any stereotype that would describe the natural as only violent; instead, the black characters are nurtured, protected, and inspired by nature as they recognize that the institutions that oppress them are far from "natural."
The pervasive sawmill and the "smouldering," "pyramidal" pile of sawdust (5) that frequently appears throughout the book contributes to the smoke that becomes one of Cane's central motifs. In the opening vignette, "Karintha," smoke "curls up and hangs in odd wraiths about the trees, curls up, and spreads itself out over the valley," and is "so heavy you tasted it in water." In addition, throughout Cane Toomer is careful to remind his reader of the length of time that it will take the discarded remains in a sawdust pile to burn--"it is a year before one completely burns" (5). Lingering long after the lumber is carried away, the sawdust piles speak to the waste and futility of logging practices. Taken one step further, the sawdust pile is a text that tells a narrative--of human impact and biodegradation, but also a narrative of the human story on Earth, the narrative of Cane. Smoke infiltrates the atmosphere and human bodies--it bums eyes and acts on taste buds--and smoke signifies the physical and chemical transformation of the trees (and other organic matter). The smoke heeds its reader to consider both the source and the consequences, as it lingers and seems trapped between the covers of the book like emissions that cannot escape the Earth's atmosphere. In the devastating cruelty of systematic racism, the smoke that results from the burning of human bodies, such as Tom Burwell's in "Blood Burning Moon," suggests the shared materiality of human and nonhuman and the entwined fates of millions of species as irresponsible environmental practices such as deforestation threaten biodiversity and contribute to a warming globe.
This proposed new epoch, the Anthropocene, replaces the Holocene --the unusually stable period of roughly the last 11,000 years that supported the development of sophisticated agricultural practices and allowed for massive, and recently rapid and destructive, human population growth. From many viewpoints, industrial agriculture is a positive outcome of the Holocene epoch because industrial farming has supported the proliferation of our species and, at least temporarily, bypassed natural limitations of production. But the human and nonhuman costs are high. We now know that agricultural practices are an unexpected culprit in the system of the Anthropocene. In "She Stood in Tears Amid the Alien Corn: Thinking Through Agrilogistics" (2013), for example, Timothy Morton lists the following as among the "immediate unintended consequences of agriculture--epidemics, drastic social and gender stratification, and general misery (exemplified by the sudden decrease in average human height in the Fertile Crescent)" (93). In addition, Kolbert points to agricultural runoff as one of the causes of ocean acidification, which in turn damages coral reefs and leads to another list of unintended consequences (141). Human bodies and physical environments bear the evidence of agricultural practices, and, as Cane reminds us, the transatlantic slave trade is one of the many systems that scarred both humanity's and earth's histories.
Because of its context, we expect Cane to be critical of the cash crop system, but Cane's critique of agriculture suggests a more nuanced sensibility toward the collective human impact on the natural world and the human and nonhuman bodies most affected. In the frequently canonized poem "Reapers" and elsewhere, Toomer reminds us of a long history when mechanized agriculture, human, and nonhuman animal become entangled. "Reapers" is perhaps the most explicit illustration of Toomer's sensitivity to all life and the way capital-driven practices impact voiceless, even "undesirable," persons:
Black horses drive a mower through the weeds And there, a field rat, startled, squealing bleeds, His belly close to ground. I see the blade, Blood-stained, continue cutting weeds and shade. (6)
The poem is obviously critical of agriculture as business. While mechanized agriculture was successful from the standpoint of human "progress," in Toomer's depiction, it is more harmful to black bodies and the natural world--the mower murders a rat and is accompanied with "squealing," but the scythes are "silent" (6). The speaker feels compassion for the rat, who, like himself is a victim of a system that disregards colored and nonhuman bodies. The rat is given the personal pronoun "his" rather than "its," suggesting yet again Toomer's sensitivity toward animal life. Obviously, agriculture-as-business is far from some Jeffersonian ideal of the American imagination. "Reapers" makes this clear as the poem first relies on associations to the Grim Reaper, then condemns agribusiness as the scythes that open the poem are joined by the relentless, indifferent, blood-stained mower, a symbol of the ceaseless drive of capitalism to use up resources and discard the waste. Cane is suspicious of unchecked human programs--including industrialization and urbanization--and for good reason: according to some historians, the cotton gin actually increased the demand for slave labor (Lakwete 187).
When Toomer described Cane as a "swan-song" of a dying culture (Nicholls 21), he eulogized a way of life lost to modernization and incited criticism from those who felt Toomer, an outsider, romanticized the harsh conditions of Southern blacks. Yet, Cane's song of the rural South adds an important voice to our understanding of African Americans' historically complicated relationship to place, the early twentieth-century Great Migration, and the historical and current tension between growing ecological awareness and dependence on destructive practices. During the Renaissance of the 1920s and 30s, cities like Harlem came to symbolize new freedom and opportunity, but Cane's urban fragments, and more specifically the interplay between the urban fragments and the bookending Georgia sections, resist such simplification. In the verse "Song of the Son," for example, it is "just before an epoch's sun declines," and the "sun is setting on / A song-lit race of slaves" (17). The poet, then, becomes the vehicle to carry on "the everlasting song" (18). Likewise, Claude McKay's 1922 volume Harlem Shadows both celebrates Harlem's energy and possibility and mourns the loss of home--Jamaica, for this poet--and a markedly rural way of life. By the time of Richard Wright's Native Son (1940) and Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man (1952), urban places are far from the utopias they were once imagined to be, and many African Americans have become displaced or subjected to poor living conditions.
Cane's insistence on treating the material realities of place extends to urban environments as well. Seventh Street is a "bastard of Prohibition and the War" in the sketch by that name (53). This is the same Seventh Street that runs through a historically black section of Washington, DC. In his description, Toomer hints at the complicated social and political factors involved with African American movement north and toward urban centers. The increasingly exasperated refrain "Who set you flowing?" implicates human subjects and activities in its demand: "Who?" rather than "What?" becomes an important distinction. While it is tempting to locate the impetus for The Great Migration solely in terms of labor market--supply and demand is a much simpler and more attractive explanation than systematic racism--Cheryl Lester is one scholar who reminds us of the unspeakable violence of the Jim Crow era and other, even more obvious, motivations for black people to leave the South in the early twentieth century. Lester's essay "Racial Awareness and Arrested Development: The Sound and the Fury and the Great Migration (1915-1928)" notes that the migration was an act of protest, a demonstration of black agency and self-determination, and a crucial step toward the awareness of southern racialism (129-31).
Further, Toomer's account of Seventh Street as a "bastard of Prohibition and the War" draws attention to repressed histories that complicate the celebration of Harlem and other urban centers as the land of opportunity. Daniel Okrent, author of Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, identifies a "strong racist element" in Prohibition, which is best understood as not really about alcohol consumption; rather, Okrent argues, Prohibition becomes a catch-all for a variety of political agendas insistent on the disenfranchisement of African Americans (Gross n.p.). Prohibition was yet another expression of systematic control that, at its height, even regulated soft drink distribution and consumption. (6) In "Jim Crow's Drug War," Michael Cohen notes that wealthy whites feared that consuming any sort of "drug" might result in unruly minorities seeking pleasure, breaking the law, or exhibiting general slovenliness (56). Toomer draws on these stereotypes when he suggests that it is black blood that contains the real "drug": "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?" (53). Here, there is something essential, and enviable, in African American identity that is irreconcilable with the dominant culture. Seventh Street is a "crude-boned, soft-skinned wedge of nigger life breathing its loafer air, jazz songs and love, thrusting unconscious rhythms, black reddish blood into the white and whitewashed wood of Washington" (53). Song is consistently figured as the epitome of pure expression in Cane, and despite all attempts to suppress it, song finds its way into nooks and crannies; it pushes back and disrupts. In this way, song is analogous to nature, where water seeps around dams and ailanthus trees spring up in the cracks of concrete. In some ways, then, repression reveals the true character of things like song and nature. Proving its resistance, Seventh Street also performs a song, albeit in a different key than the folksongs of the Georgia countryside. Nevertheless, the song is composed from the interaction of both human and nonhuman agents, just like the ubiquitous wind, tree, and human chorus in the Georgia sections.
Moreover, Toomer carefully describes the way sugar production is dependent on the subjugation of human and nonhuman bodies. Indeed, the modern sugar industry evolved directly alongside institutionalized slavery, as the demand for sugar stimulated sugar plantations first in the Caribbean and then the southern United States. In "Blood Burning Moon," for example, Toomer breaks from the action of Tom Burwell and Bob Stone to offer the following description:
A large pile of cane-stalks lay like ribboned shadows upon the ground. A mule, harnessed to a pole, trudged lazily round and round the pivot of the grinder. Beneath a swaying oil lamp, a Negro alternately whipped out at the mule, and fed cane stalks to the grinder. A fat boy waddled pails of fresh ground juice between the grinder and the boiling stove. Steam came from the copper boiling pan. The scent of cane came from the copper pan and drenched the forest and the hill that sloped to factory town, beneath its fragrance. (41)
Toomer's description of sugar production here is strikingly accurate, from the grinding of the mill to the boiling and curing process. Several historians have noted that this intensive process created particularly harsh and dangerous conditions for slaves and indentured workers. Sugarcane processing, specifically the feeding of the mills, reportedly resulted in ground up appendages and bodies ("Conditions in the Sugar Works" n.p.), another byproduct of the business of agriculture. Cane's attention to sugarcane production is also important because the Cotton Belt has traditionally gained more attention from scholars and in the popular imagination, as John Rodrigue argues in Reconstruction in the Cane Fields. (7) We might also consider how sugar's ability to act on the human body--to lure and addict us--is indicative of the way human history is always already entangled with the material world. Often referred to as "white gold" in early literature, sugar has indelibly left its mark on human history and human bodies in profound ways (diabetes, obesity, and tooth decay, to name just a few). (8) Cane depicts the enticement of sugar, as men chew on the "white pulp of stalks, but there was no need for them to, if all they wanted was to taste the cane. One tasted it in factory town" (41). The bittersweet pervasiveness of the sugar underscores the cruelty of a system that forces a man to smell and taste sweetness that he cannot fully possess. The black bodies in Cane are taunted by the very material--sugar--that enslaves them; it is manufactured for the pleasure and wealth of those in power over them. This is one of the many ways Cane demands that the reader consider the condition of the Anthropocene in which nature acts on us and eludes us simultaneously.
The human species' reorganization of nature includes denying select individuals and groups access to certain environments; more disturbingly, Cane reminds us, institutionalized racism can prevent a person from experiencing the natural world on a basic, sensory level. Obviously, in the Jim Crow South, black bodies were prohibited access to "white" parks, swimming pools, schools, and drinking fountains, but Toomer's achievement is that he captures the psychological condition of humans deeply aware of their dependence on nature, and in awe of the beauty and power of the natural world, yet incapable of fully attaining what we might call a genuine connection due to systems established by those in power. On this point, Cane has much to contribute to current conversations about environmental justice (led by scholars like Rob Nixon and Stacy Alaimo) as well as accounting for the lack of "nature writing" in the African American literary tradition.
The closing sketch, "Kabnis," addresses both the problem of environmental racism--essentially the disproportionate exposure of marked bodies to toxic, unstable, hazardous environments or the denial of necessary resources based on race or class--and the effects of environmental racism on the psyche. Kabnis is housed in a decrepit cabin, which he shares with the rats and a boisterous hen, whose presence both annoys and insults him, reminding him of his second-class personhood. In the strange new environment of the South, Kabnis is overcome with emotion, caught between an overwhelming sense of the injustice he faces and the beauty that surrounds him:
Kabnis is about to shake his fists heavenward. He looks up, and the night's beauty strikes him dumb. He falls to his knees. Sharp stones cut through his thin pajamas. The shock sends a shiver over him. He quivers. Tears mist his eyes. He writhes. "God Almighty, dear God, dear Jesus, do not torture me with beauty. Take it away. Give me an ugly world. Ha, ugly. Stinking like unwashed niggers. Dear Jesus, do not chain me to myself and set these hills and valleys, heaving with folk-songs, so close to me that I cannot reach them. There is a radiant beauty in the night that touches and ... tortures me." (114)
Read in the context of environmental justice, and still pervasive stereotypes that suggest black people are disinterested in nature and somehow innately urban, (9) this passage finds a man who is prohibited from experiencing an environment through no fault of his own but due to a complex system of environmental racism. Cane invites us to consider how "nature" and "naturalness" are held for ransom as a tool of oppression, both throughout human history and now, when toxic environments are on the rise but resources are scarce. Just as Kabnis's ecological awareness is a burden, the enchantment and sustenance the material world can provide is little solace to environmental refugees. Here, now, in the Anthropocene, we must consider the fact that Kabnis's reality is indicative of the human condition more broadly, as we destroy the very earth around us. In another moment, Esther "will not permit herself to notice the peculiar phosphorescent glitter of the sweet-gum leaves. Their movement would excite her" (35). The sweet gum leaves' inherent, material properties act on Esther and attune her to a reality that exists outside of the human, constructed reality. While humans have been extremely successful at imposing their will on others, we are becoming starkly aware of the limitations of human agency to reverse what has been set in motion. Indeed, the power of the nonhuman world both to create wonder and to expose us to vulnerabilities has never been clearer.
A final example comes from the free verse poem "Harvest Song." The speaker, a field slave, laments, "I crack a grain between my teeth. I do not taste it / I have been in the fields all day. My throat is dry. I hunger" (93). Though the slave hungers, there is no satisfaction in eating. The basic, animal, biological systems in his body are so infiltrated by the condition of slavery that he is prohibited even a basic interaction with the material world. In the next moment, again overcome by hunger, the speaker tells us:
I fear to call. What should they hear me, and offer me their grain, oats, or wheat, or corn? I have been in the fields all day. I fear I could not taste it. I fear knowledge of my hunger. (93)
The speaker is denied not only taste but also sight and hearing. First, sight: "My eyes are caked with dust of oatfields at harvest-time. /I am a blind man who stares across the hills, seeking stack'd fields of other harvesters" (93). The speaker repeats several times throughout the verse, "it would be good to see them." Next, hearing: "My ears are caked with dust of oatfields at harvest-time /I am a deaf man who strains to hear the calls of other harvesters whose throats are also dry" (94). Read in the twenty-first century, this moment in Cane evokes the more than one in ten people around the globe without access to clean drinking water (World Health Organization) and an estimated 800 million undernourished (Wallace-Wells n.p.). These rates are expected to increase with rising global temperatures and extreme drought. As it poignantly illustrates the desperate need to connect with other humans and the material world, "Harvest Song" describes the condition of environmental refugees and the 26.4 million people on average who are displaced from their homes each year due to natural hazards, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (8).
Cane reminds us that in the Anthropocene, nature--defined as the Earth and all of its systems, not some pristine wilderness place "over there"--is both life force and antagonist. Thinkers focused on the Anthropocene discuss this reversal and paradox of agency at length: the human species has significantly altered the composition of the planet, yet at this late stage of recognition, it is potentially beyond our control to reverse the effects of global warming, and, even more, we are now subjected to the very environment that we have created. Bruno Latour puts it this way in "Agency at the time of the Anthropocene": "Through a complete reversal of Western philosophy's most cherished trope, human societies have resigned themselves to playing the role of dumb object, while nature has unexpectedly taken on that of the active subject!" (11-12). Reading Cane in the frame of the Anthropocene, where headlines report the likes of "Air pollution in China is killing 4,000 people every day, a new study finds," grants Toomer's treatment of what Kimberly Ruffin calls the "ecological burden-and-beauty paradox" new prescience (3). Human systems--institutionalized racism, capitalism, empire, the Anthropocene--make the material of highest importance while creating a problem of accessibility. If we are most aware of things when they are broken, African American writers, and others writing from the margins, become authorities on the condition of the Anthropocene.
While it is clear that Cane recognizes the exceptional vulnerability of colored bodies, Toomer equally suggests that for disenfranchised humans, deep connection to the natural world can be a form of active resistance to destructive ideologies, bell hooks asserts this idea poignantly in her memoir-essay "Earthbound on Solid Ground":
Even when that land was owned by white oppressors, master and mistress, it was the earth itself that protected exploited black folks from dehumanization.... No man can make the sun or the rains come.... This relationship to the earth meant that southern black folks, whether they were impoverished or not, knew firsthand that white supremacy, with its systemic dehumanization of blackness, was not a form of absolute power. (68-69)
In part, hooks is responding to the pervasive feeling that African American voices have been excluded or minimized in the nature writing tradition and environmental conversations more broadly. Taken on its own terms, in all of its vibrant materiality, the natural world is more than a site of violence for hooks; nature also offers an alternative to destructive human practices. Likewise, the Anthropocene --characterized by global warming, Earth's sixth mass extinction event, rising sea levels, food and water scarcity--proves the limits of human power, regardless of status or net worth.
One way Cane demonstrates the absurdity of the "bourgeois belief in the regularity of the world" (Ghosh 36) is through a tiny insect: the boll weevil. The boll weevil is yet another species introduced to North America in the late nineteenth century, though as an unwelcome guest, probably by "hitching a ride" during trade and travel. (10) Kolbert further explains the consequences of species being moved around the world, calling the introduction of a new species into an environment a sort of Russian roulette:
As in the high-stakes game, two very different things can happen when a new organism shows up. The first, which may be called the empty chamber option, is nothing. Either because the climate is unsuitable, or because the creature can't find enough to eat, or because it gets eaten itself, or for a host of other possible reasons, the new arrival doesn't survive (or at least fails to produce). Most potential introductions go unrecorded--indeed, entirely unheeded--so it's hard to get precise figures; almost certainly, though, the vast majority of potential invaders don't make it. In the second option, not only does the introduced organism survive; it gives rise to a new generation, which in turn survives and gives rise to a new generation. This is what's known in the invasive species community as "establishment." (201)
The boll weevil certainly established itself in the South, becoming an economic game changer and a cultural icon--present in a variety of art forms--during the 1920s and 1930s. Yet the human role in the boll weevil's establishment is hardly noted, and people tend to ignore the larger impacts on systems that Kolbert speaks to. Predictably, capitalists were concerned about their profits rather than environmental health and used several questionable methods to rid themselves of the so-called pest. One method involved dusting crops, by hand or airplane, with the highly toxic poison calcium arsenate, for example. (11) To quantify the weevil's economic impact, we might consider that in 1915 (before the boll weevil was well established) Georgia produced "2.8 million bales of cotton. Less than ten years later, Georgia's annual cotton production had fallen to 600,000 bales" (USDA).
Yet it is not for economic reasons that Cane is especially interested in the boll weevil and other things that disrupt the dominant white agenda. Invasive species remind us of the limits of human power, as unintended consequences become nature's foil to attempts to control, order, or engineer ecosystems. For people of color in Cane, as well as elsewhere in the African American tradition, species that are perceived as pests to capitalists are mysterious but welcome reminders that the systems that oppress them are tenuous and constructed, and certainly not reinforced by nature. Cane's poem "November Cotton Flower" is instructive on this point and tellingly invokes the puckish weevil:
Boll-weevil's coming, and the winter's cold, Made cotton-stalks look rusty, seasons old, And cotton, scarce as any southern snow Was vanishing. (7)
This excerpt points to the economic impact of the boll weevil and the loss of cotton production. It is followed by other omens of impending natural disaster such as "drouth" ("drought") and dead birds found in wells (7). Out of this, the November cotton flower blooms--strangely out of season and invoking human impact on the Earth's climate. While the "Old folks" are initially startled, the flower "soon assumed / Significance":
Superstition saw Something it had never seen before: Brown eyes that loved without a trace of fear, Beauty so sudden for that time of year. (7)
Here, the untimely blooming of the cotton flower, like the boll weevil's ability to make cotton "scarce as any southern snow," is a source of hope and empowerment for the African Americans who witness it. Unfailingly, nature eventually resists domination. And in the Anthropocene, the "earth has itself intervened to revise those habits of thought that are based on the Cartesian dualism that arrogates all intelligence and agency to the human while denying them to every other kind of being," Amativ Ghosh observes (31). Ghosh might have qualified, as we always should, that certain humans have historically been granted all agency while denying others the same. Indeed, this is a point that many indigenous cultures and marked bodies have been unable to deny for a long time, even if others still cling to the last luxury of denial: far from passive, nature acts upon our bodies, foils plans, exposes vulnerabilities and our shared mortality. Thus, the boll weevil comes to signify the tenacity of the natural world in the Blues tradition and elsewhere in African American cultural production.
African American songs and literature often admire the weevil's persistence, endurance, and adaptability. The boll weevil is capable of wreaking havoc but is also an imagined comrade--almost always personified--in the resistance against the southern ruling class. In black cultural production, the weevil is often displaced and looking for a home, again suggesting a parallel between the black condition and the weevil's imagined state. (12) All of these elements are apparent in one version of the song "Boll Weevil," popularized by Huddie William Ledbetter, better known as the notorious "Lead Belly." (13) Though every recording and transcription is different due to the improvisatory nature of the Blues genre, most versions contain the lyrics: "Farmer take the boll weevil and put him in the ice. Boll weevil said to the farmer 'you treat me mighty nice.'" Here, and in various other scenarios--the farmer also typically puts the boll weevil on the sand--the weevil adapts and remains stoic. In "From Cotton Boll to Rock 'n' Roll: A Brief Account of the Boll Weevil as Musical Migrant," Andrew Scheiber reads the black interest in the boll weevil in light of the fact that "cotton was not just a crop or even an industry but part and parcel of a system of oppression in which many black peasants found themselves inescapably enmeshed" (108). Yet again, the environmental and the material are indistinguishable from human history. Some scholars point to the fact that the boll weevil infestation might have contributed to the Great Migration as well--with cotton production down, southern blacks were more likely to go elsewhere to find work. (14) The combination of the introduction of an invasive species, the unintended consequences of agriculture, drought, and flood undermines the illusion of total control and alerts us to the interconnectedness of human and nonhuman. This point, Cane suggests, has the potential to inspire a greater ethic of care for human and nonhuman others.
The mystery and the beauty of Cane reside in bodies that are contradictory to the dominant agenda--the boll weevil, blackness, femininity, and nature more generally. While Toomer was criticized for romanticizing the rural South--a place where "white folks get th boll, th niggers get th stalk" (120)--what ultimately emerges is the fact that although humans have collectively been very successful at modifying the earth, not all humans are equally culpable, nor equally vulnerable, and there are limitations to human power over nature. Ultimately, Toomer condemns "the male, who wishes to ripen a growing thing too soon" (3), and this attitude applies to the treatment of both Karintha (and other vulnerable bodies) and the material world. Karintha's beauty makes her a commodity from an early age, as men want her and take her, but "Men do not know that the soul of her was a growing thing ripened too soon" (5).
In this case, the attitude of the generalized male is characterized by greed rather than humility and is destructive to both human bodies and nonhuman bodies--Karintha's loss of innocence is a result of the same attitude that drives the system of cash crops, which rapes the soil, and the lumber industry, which turns trees to sawdust and disrupts numerous ecosystems in the process. Michael North notes that the repeated references to "a growing thing ripened too soon" signify "a cruel violation of the organic" (173). Female bodies are undeniably affected by patriarchal and racialized systems, but perhaps more importantly, the female body, like nature, defies domination in Cane. Karintha is "wild" (3) like dusk until the end, and Fern intrigues men but they cannot understand her (22), as her "unusually weird and open" (25) eyes "desired nothing that you could give her" (21). In "Blood-Burning Moon" the white Bob Stone is drawn to Louisa, though her blackness unsettles paradigms he's been conditioned to act upon: "She was lovely--in her way. Nigger way. What way was that? Damned if he knew. Must know. He'd known her long enough to know. Was there something about niggers that you couldnt know?" (44). Cane captures the vivacity, agency, and unpredictability of nature again and again. While some have found the treatment of female bodies problematic, the female characters in Cane as a whole possess the same kind of resilient wildness that animates the natural world. This is a wildness that Alaimo describes as "the very stuff of life itself": "nature's ongoing, material-semiotic intra-actions--actions that may well surprise, annoy, terrify, or baffle humans" ("Trans-Corporeal Feminisms" 249). Read in this way, Cane protests the systems behind institutionalized racism, sexism, and environmental irresponsibility, and makes them inseparable.
In "Earthbound on Solid Ground," bell hooks calls for a renewed connection to the earth, arguing that ecological awareness is a form of resistance: "For when [black folks] are forgetful and participate in the destruction and exploitation of the dark earth, we collude with the domination of the earth's dark people, both here and globally" (70). Far from rejecting nature as simply a site of violence, the black characters in Cane reclaim the beauty and vivacity of the natural world, while Toomer invites his reader to consider the ways in which the natural world might also be victim to destructive ideologies that have historically oppressed certain racial groups. Therefore, Cane adds an important voice to the American environmental tradition, a voice that perhaps has been underemphasized and anticipates the problem of thinking about racial identities in the Anthropocene, when discussions of the collective human species as geological agent potentially erase political categories.
In The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, Ghosh observes that the "Anthropocene has reversed the temporal order of modernity: those at the margins are now the first to experience the future that awaits all of us" (62). Ghosh is most obviously referring to environmental refugees--those millions of human and nonhuman citizens of island nations and coastal regions who are now or will be flooded from their homes as sea levels rise--and the unfortunate irony that those most affected also happen to be under-resourced and powerless on the global stage. Yet, if the climate crisis can be blamed on an "imaginative and cultural failure" (8), as Ghosh insists, it would behoove us to turn to the imaginations of those "at the margins" for insight. The conditions of the Anthropocene were felt first and most intensely by vulnerable bodies, yet Kimberly Ruffin and countless others note that "For as long as Africans have been Americans, they have had no entitlement to speak for or about nature" (1). (15) For John Wesley Work, Jr., the first African American scholar of folksong, song is a spontaneous reaction to the dislocation and trauma of slavery. Song is a "psychic phenomen[on]" and rather than weep, curse, or fight, the dislocated Africans, "through their bitter tears sang a sweet song, a weird song, a new song in a strange land" (17). Cane is a meditation on this experience of "sweetness" and "weirdness," and, reading Cane in the Anthropocene, a reader cannot help but think that this paradoxical experience of the world is now a shared condition of the human species. However, this does not mean that the experience of the Anthropocene is "fair" or "equal" nor that environmental racism can be ignored. Rather, the emergent Anthropocene might remind us that we are all exposed, estranged visitors subjected to the forces of the physical universe, and the illusion that one group might have control over another is simply derangement as the very world we depend on for life begins to act upon our bodies in new and profound ways.
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(1) For a discussion of atmospheric radiocarbon as the "golden spike," or geologic marker, of the Anthropocene, see Turney et. al.
(2) See Jason W. Moore's Anthropocene or Capitalocene? (2016) for a compilation of scholarship on this debate.
(3) See Rob Nixon's Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor or Stacy Alaimo's Bodily Natures for more on this.
(4) I use Amativ Ghosh's definition of empire: "an aspiration to dominance on the part of some of the most important structures of the world's most powerful states" (146).
(5) For more detailed discussions of these issues, see Daniel J. Martin's essay "Lynching Sites: Where Trauma and Pastoral Collide" and Scott Knickerbocker's reading of Marilyn Nelson's "A Wreath for Emmett Till" in Ecopoetics.
(6) See Grace Elizabeth Hale's "When Jim Crow Drank Coke."
(7) Also see Aronson and Budhos, Sugar Changed the World.
(8) The 2007 documentary The Price of Sugar reveals the ongoing injustices surrounding the global demand for sugar, as the poor and dispossessed are currently forced to work under extreme conditions to harvest the spice in the Dominican Republic.
(9) See Dorceta Taylor's work, including the essay "Women of Color, Environmental Justice, and Ecofeminism," for table summaries of empirical studies illustrating disproportionate distribution of resources, representatives, and involvement affecting the African American community, particularly women.
(10) The Global Invasive Species Database (issg.org) catalogues the thousands of species that are categorized invasive, along with all of the intentional and unintentional ways humans have interfered with normal distribution. As an example of the former, consider the fact that European starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) were allegedly introduced to the US as part of a movement to introduce all the birds of Shakespeare to the States (Global Invasive Species Database n.p.).
(11) 'See Alabama's Agricultural Experiment Station Reports. The second progress report (1929), by Robinson and Arant, describes methods and outcomes and is available online: aurora.auburn.edu/bitstream/handle/11200/1860/1049CIRC.pdf? sequence=l.
(12) Consider Granny's admonition to Janie in Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God, for instance: "us colored folks is branches without roots" (16).
(13) An original recording is available at www.youtube.com/watch?v= IjnLeoJZ3fg.
(14) See Robert Higgs, "The Boll Weevil, the Cotton Economy, and Black Migration: 1910-1930" for more on this connection.
(15) The strategy for many writers has been to anthologize a variety of primary texts in order to let black voices speak for themselves and by doing so illustrate the range of experiences with nature. Joining The Colors of Nature: Culture, Identity, and the Natural World (2002) in this project are Camille Dungy's Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry (2009) and Diane Glave's Rooted in the Earth: Reclaiming the African American En vironmental Heritage (2010).
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|Title Annotation:||Jean Toomer|
|Publication:||The Mississippi Quarterly|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2017|
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