The Trick of Transcending Race.
Jean Toomer's grudging acceptance of a colleague's praise for the portrayal of the black South in Cane, his seminal work, fairly characterizes the writer's attitude toward race in America. Not wanting to be "limited to Negro," Toomer cultivated a literary and social identity' that eschewed racial affiliation. Toomer saw himself as a member of a burgeoning (American" race--one that transcended traditional ideas of race by subsuming, both physically and culturally, combinations of the various bloodlines present in American society. Yet, despite his claims toward racelessness, Cane, published in 1923, remains one of the most important contributions to Harlem Renaissance literature and Toomer an experimental pioneer of African American letters.
Though his later works--Essentials (1931), The Wayward and the Seeking (1980) and a considerable body of unpublished material housed in Yale University's Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library--have garnered less critical attention, there is every indication that Toomer's stature will continue to grow with scholarly contributions from home, and abroad. In December 2000, Rutgers University Press published a new study, Jean Toomer and the Harlem Renaissance: Dream-Fluted Cane, by French scholars Genevieve Fabre and Michel Feith.
Toomer spent much of his childhood in the care of his maternal grandparents. His grandfather, P.B.S. Pinchback was a Louisiana politician whose claim to black heritage Toomer considered dubious, though Pinchback consistently championed black causes. Toomer's formative years were shaped by the Washington D.C. neighborhood where Pinchback's political career eventually led the family. The idyllic upper-middle class neighborhood and lifestyle effectively erased consciousness of racial dynamics in the young Toomer. The death of his mother from an attack of appendicitis when he was fifteen added to his sense of isolation from any group identity.
It may seem natural then, that Toomer should befriend the write Waldo Frank who offered him a means of rationalizing and employing his sense of isolation to creative ends. Frank believed that artists had a profound influence and responsibility in shaping American culture and society. Unified by a post WWI sense of multiculturalism, according to Frank, minority groups were in a unique position to claim possession of American cultural identity. It was the artist's responsibility then, to help shape that identity by setting the cultural agenda in a way that legislation or political activism could not.
Many of his contemporaries among the African American literati justifiably took Toomer's rejection of race as an insult. The issue of identity was of paramount concern throughout the Harlem Renaissance. "Passing" novels examined the inanity of political divisions along what, in many cases, were arbitrary phenotypical distinctions. Certainly, Toomer's ideas would have struck some at the time as Uncle Tom-ism, if not outright self-hatred.
Largely overlooked for nearly half a century, Cane was rediscovered through reprints in the late sixties with fanfare and debate centering on the author's controversial racial politics. During the Black Arts Movement of the late `60s and `70s, Toomer's rejection of race sounded, more importantly, like a rejection of white cultural hegemony. By his own account, Toomer reports "seven blood mixtures: French, Dutch, Welsh, Negro, German, Jewish, and Indian" which led him to "strive for a spiritual fusion analogous to the fact of racial intermingling." In her study of Jean Toomer, Jean Toomer, Artist: A Study of His Literary Life and Work, 1894-1936, Nellie McKay suggests Toomer "wanted to see black reaction against the Anglo-Saxon ideal." By rejecting race, Toomer attempted to enter certain truths of American genealogy into social consciousness. Truly ahead of his time, contemporary scholarship suggests that his ideas are the work of an early cultural revolutionary. While African American writers today are still wrestling with issues of identity, Toomer presents boundless opportunities for exploration.
Liveright, 1993, $8.95, ISBN 0-871-40151-7
The Wayward and the Seeking
Howard University Press, 1984, $7.95 ISBN 0-882-58028-0
Hill Street Press, LLC, 1999, $14.95 ISBN 1-892-51425-7
Jean Toomer: Selected Essays and Literary Criticism
University of Tennessee Press, 1996 $25.00, ISBN 0-870-49938-6
Gregory Pardlo, a native of Delaware Valley, completed his undergraduate work at Rutgers University, Camden and is currently completing an MFA at New York University as a New York Times Fellow in poetry. He is also a fellow of the Cave Canem African American poet's retreat. An associate editor of Painted Bride Quarterly, his publications include Hawai'i Review and Calalloo. He teaches at NYU and John Jay College College and lives in Manhattan. Mr. Pardlo looks back at the life of celebrated Harlem Renaissance Writer Jean Toomer on page 12.
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|Title Annotation:||Jean Toomer|
|Author:||Pardlo, Gregory A.|
|Publication:||Black Issues Book Review|
|Article Type:||Brief Article|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2001|
|Next Article:||on the shelf.|