African American Poetry (1870-1928): A Digital Anthology

Jean Toomer: Author Page

[Here, we are including just the poems from Jean Toomer's "Cane." For the full collection of poems and stories in a simple digital edition, please click here. The following introduction is by Amardeep Singh.]

Jean Toomer (1894-1967) wrote Cane in 1921 and 1922, inspired most directly by his experience as the principal of the Sparta Agricultural and Industrial Institute in rural Georgia. Toomer had grown up and lived largely in urban centers on the east coast -- Washington, DC and New York -- and the culture of the deep south was one of shock, but also inspiration. The first section of Cane features stories and poems related to rural black life in the South, including themes related to lynchinginterracial desire, and the many deep-seated structures of racial oppression that were in place at that time. Many stories and poems also engage black religion and spirituality in various ways, though Toomer's approach to Christianity is often ironic (in this he can be contrasted to many black women poets of this era, who used Christian themes more affirmatively).

The second section of Cane explores urban African-American life in Washington, DC and Chicago in the prohibition era. Several stories in this section, most notably "Avey," "Box-Seat," and "Theater," explore themes of art and aesthetics, with male protagonists working through their emergent artistic ambitions in connection with female romantic partners. (The gender politics of these stories is sometimes troubling; for more on this, readers might wish to consult Jennifer D. Williams' essay, "Jean Toomer's 'Cane' and the Erotics of Mourning" [2008].) Some stories explore themes of racial ambiguity that mirror those Toomer himself is known to have struggled with; a particularly notable story along these lines might be "Bona and Paul." (A story from the first section that explores racial ambiguity quite powerfully might be "Fern.")  Finally, it seems worth noting that even stories and poems related to urban life on the east coast frequently invoke the lingering memory of the South; an example might be "Theater ," where Dorris, a sophisticated modern woman who dances and sings professionally in Washington, DC, is described as invoking "canebrake loves and mangrove feastings" as she sings and dances in the 1920s jazz style. (A poem that does a version of this might be "Beehive.")

The third and final section of Cane consists of one long short story, "Kabnis," which is at least loosely autobiographical -- it features a light-skinned black man named Richard Kabnis, who is doing a stint as a teacher in a rural southern school, and struggling to find his place in a society he finds to be deeply alien. Many of the themes from the first two sections return in this story, which invokes white supremacy in the south (especially the specter of lynching), the cultural gap between southern and northern blacks, the bootleg liquor culture that emerged as a result of prohibition, and the hints of (taboo) interracial desire baked into the cake of southern American life. 

For further reading, this detailed biography by Scott W. Williams of the University of Buffalo might also be of interest. Finally, George Hutchinson's recent essay in New York Review of Books addresses many of the complexities of Toomer's racial identity that scholars continue to debate.

Readers interested in approaching the stories and poems in Cane thematically might find this visualization helpful. It a force-directed diagram showing relationships between the stories and poems in Cane based on semantic tags generated by the editor.

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