How Jean Toomer Rejected the Black-White Binary


Arts & Culture

… to be a Negro is—is?—
to be a Negro, is. To Be.

from “Toomer,” by Elizabeth Alexander


Jean Toomer had a complex relationship to his first and only major publication, the 1923 book Cane. The “novel,” which Penguin Classics has recently reissued with an introduction by the literary scholar George Hutchinson and a foreword by the novelist Zinzi Clemmons, is a heterogeneous collection of short stories, prose vignettes, and poetry that became an unlikely landmark of Harlem Renaissance literature. Its searching fragments dramatize the disappearance of African-American folk culture as black people migrated out of the agrarian Jim Crow South and into Northern industrial cities. It is a haunting and haunted celebration of that culture as it was sacrificed to the machine of modernity. Toomer termed the book a “swan song” for the black folk past.

The literary world was then (as it is now, perhaps) hungry for representative black voices; as Hutchinson writes, “Many stressed the ‘authenticity’ of Toomer’s African-Americans and the lyrical voice with which he conjured them into being.” This act of conjuring lured critics into reflexively accepting the book as a representation of the black South—and Toomer as the voice of that South. As his one-time friend Waldo Frank remarked in a forward to the book’s original edition, “This book is the South.” Cane transformed Toomer into a Negro literary star whose influence would filter down through African-American literary history: his interest in the folk tradition crystallized the Harlem Renaissance’s search for a useable Negro past, and would be instructive for later writers from Zora Neale Hurston to Ralph Ellison to Elizabeth Alexander.

For Toomer, however, this close identification with black folk culture, and the Negro in general, was inimical to his own self-conception. He largely attempted to evade conventional modes of racial identification. As he pursued a career as a writer, the young artist began to articulate an idiosyncratic and highly individualistic notion of race wherein he was “American, neither black nor white, rejecting these divisions, accepting people as people.” On official government documents, he would identify alternately as Negro and white. Writing to the Liberator about his racial identity in August of 1922, he declared quite congenially that he possessed “seven blood mixtures,” and that because of this, his racial “position in America has been a curious one. I have lived equally amid the two race groups. Now white, now colored. From my own point of view I am naturally and inevitably an American. I have striven for a spiritual fusion analogous to the fact of racial intermingling.”

In the face of American laws that protected power by policing arbitrary racial boundaries, Toomer insisted upon a nuanced and unconventional sense of racial identity centered around the reality of racial hybridity—a reality that American law sought to erase. Cane’s appearance effaced the writer’s hybrid self-conception: executives at the venerable modernist publishing house Boni and Liveright, as well as literary critics, firmly anchored Toomer and his writing to the New Negro movement. Whatever Toomer intended to achieve with Cane, the result was his conscription into the role of “Negro writer.” The friction between Toomer’s idiosyncratic race ideology and his publisher’s conventional race thinking materialized most clearly around Boni and Liveright’s attempts to promote Cane as a Negro text. “My racial composition and my position in the world are realities which I alone may determine,” an incensed Toomer wrote to Horace Liveright in 1923. “… I expect and demand acceptance of myself on their basis. I do not expect to be told what I should consider myself to be.”

But Toomer could not override Cane’s reception as a primarily Negro text, and the public’s perception of him as a Negro writer. Almost immediately after the book’s publication, he retreated from the spotlight in search of a philosophical and spiritual course of study that could accommodate his expansive sense of self. He eventually fell under the sway of the Russian mystic George Gurdjieff, whose philosophy figured mankind as unable to access a broad consciousness of their essential selves because of an adherence to socially given modes of thought.

Toomer applied Gurdjieff’s thought to the question of race. Writing in a 1924 fragment that he later delivered as a speech in Harlem, Toomer declared that he sought nothing less than the “detaching [of] the essential Negro [individual] from the social crust” in order to achieve a life that is “conscious and dynamic, its processes naturally involving an extension of experience and the uncovering of new materials.” In a 1929 journal entry titled “From Place to Place,” he declared his status as “a travelled person” whom few people would mistake for “a ‘home’ type of man, liking a settled habitat. On the contrary, they quickly form the opinion that I am cosmopolitan … [and that] moving about is for me a natural form of life.”

As Hutchinson’s introduction makes clear, the meaning and implications of Toomer’s evasive racial philosophy is still a subject of active scholarly interest. In an afterword to Liveright’s 2011 edition of the text Rudolph Byrd and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., reached the conclusion that Jean Toomer intended Cane to function as a “transport out of blackness,” and stated that the writer intentionally passed as a white man. In a veiled rejection of that logic, Hutchinson argues that Toomer’s ever-shifting presentation of himself was “hardly the act of a black man attempting to ‘pass’ as white,” and agrees with Allyson Hobbs that Toomer was “struggling to convey a holistic understanding” of racial identity for which American racial discourse had no language.

In my mind, the sense of incessant movement that Toomer highlighted in “From Place to Place” is an essential aspect of this holistic understanding—what he called his “racial position” rather than an identity. Understanding Cane’s unique formulation of “blackness” as a position of being in or mode of moving about the world, as opposed to a rigid identity, requires an understanding of how highly Toomer valued the pursuit of an elusive movement over deadening stasis. This avoidance of stasis is crucial to grappling with Toomer’s ultimately frustrated—and frustrating—intellectual project. Far from being a book that, as Gates and Byrd have claimed, is intended to transcend blackness, Cane is the site where Toomer most artfully theorizes a surprisingly contemporary notion of what blackness means.


Born Nathan Pinchback Toomer in 1894, Jean Toomer came of age in the elite, upper class African-American world of Washington, D.C. His grandfather P.B.S. Pinchback, the fair-skinned son of a wealthy white planter and a mulatto slave, briefly served as acting governor of Louisiana—a tenure that made him the nation’s first black governor. In the milieu of the early twentieth-century black aristocracy, status was continuous with skin color; fair skin afforded Toomer’s family a level of privilege that rendered them somewhat distinct from other African Americans. Later in his life, Toomer would wistfully describe that milieu as unique in the history of American race, a community “such as never existed before and perhaps never will exist again in America—midway between the white and Negro worlds.”

In their 2011 afterword, Gates and Byrd suggest that Toomer intentionally downplayed the extent to which his family was rooted in an African-American cultural world. Still, however romanticized—and, perhaps, disingenuous—Toomer’s recollection of this supposedly liminal community was, it captured an important truth of his childhood racial experiences. The young Toomer was subject to a near-constant oscillation between black and white worlds, a movement enabled by the particular privileges that accrued to him as a member of the black elite. After Toomer’s father, a former slave from Georgia, abandoned the family, Jean was raised in his grandfather’s home in a wealthy white neighborhood of D.C. In accordance with the dictates of D.C.’s rigorously segregated education system, however, he was educated at the all-black Garnet School. He later lived with his mother in mostly white neighborhoods in New York, but after her death he returned to D.C.’s black elite to live with an uncle. During his adolescence, he attended the prestigious all-black Paul Laurence Dunbar High School, where his instructors included black luminaries like the historian Carter G. Woodson and the feminist sociologist Anna Julia Cooper.

Toomer eventually shirked the respectable career expectations attached to someone of his stature in favor of a seemingly aimless wandering. He attended six different colleges, studying everything from fitness to history without ever earning a degree, until a modest monetary gift from his grandfather enabled him to spend time in New York. An aspiring writer, he traversed the modernist cultural worlds of Greenwich Village’s white Lost Generation and Harlem’s New Negro movement. Such fluidity was an extension of the young writer’s early life in D.C.: as a fair-skinned, racially indeterminate man of mixed racial heritage whose life was characterized by a peripatetic crossing of the color line, Toomer possessed a unique perspective on the American racial hierarchy as a fundamentally porous and hybrid structure, wherein the black and white worlds interpenetrated one another. It was a structure that individuals could navigate and pass through, at least to the degree that their positions allowed such movement.

It’s through this prism that Toomer encountered Southern black folk culture. Though the budding writer was firmly rooted in the privileged milieu of Washington’s elite black society, his connection to his Southern heritage was more tenuous. That changed in the fall of 1921, when he accepted a short-term job at Sparta Agricultural and Industrial Institute, a school near Sparta, Georgia. His formative encounters with the black folk culture there would lead him to a new conception of his racial identity. Writing to Sherwood Anderson about his experiences in Sparta, Toomer recalled an encounter. “Here were Negroes and their singing,” he wrote. “I had never heard the spirituals and work songs. They were like a part of me. At times, I identified with my whole sense so intensely that I lost my own identity.”

Toomer’s description of his encounter is fascinating in part because it is so bizarrely articulated: I identified with my whole sense so intensely that I lost my own identity. The repetition of identity catches my attention here; I take Toomer to mean that he encountered blackness with such strength of perception that the matter of identity passed out of relevance for him. In this light, far from providing Toomer a simple sense of heritage or ancestry from which to write, the South provided him a space and language in which to elaborate his unstable sense of race. In the letter to Anderson, his description of the encounter with the spiritual does not model a simple process of identification. Rather the discovery of a black cultural inheritance in his own person exposes Toomer to an “identity” that is, paradoxically, the effacement, loss, and evasion of stable identity. This interface with black folk culture seems similar to what we have come to call fugitivity in contemporary parlance: an operation of perpetual evasion that transforms any attempt to formulate blackness into an endless elaboration of its possible iterations. This evasiveness, as the poet and critic Fred Moten has said, tends towards a desire to “think from no standpoint … to think outside the desire for a standpoint …”

When one knows to look, one recognizes that this sense of perpetual evasion, this straining toward an “outside” to conventional race ideology, exists throughout Cane. It is this desire to oscillate between positions that animates Cane’s conception of blackness. Indeed, the book posits oscillation as blackness’ operative quality. While Cane is often described as an attempt to capture and preserve a dying black folk culture, it might be more accurate to describe it as a book that takes such fleetingness as that culture’s chief characteristic, and which seeks a formal representation of blackness’ protean impulses.

This is most evident in Cane’s formal qualities, in the way it insists on gathering various short stories, poems and even stage drama beneath the rubric of “novel,” using heterogeneity to forcibly alter a genre category. The book’s final piece, a semi-autobiographical short story titled “Kabnis,” tells the story of the eponymous narrator’s frustrating stint teaching at a school in rural Georgia. Stymied and frustrated by a community that is smothered in inherited assumptions about what defines blackness, Kabnis revolts. Those assumptions “won’t fit int th mold thats branded on m soul,” he declares. “Th form thats burned int my soul is some twisted awful thing that crept in from a dream, a godam nightmare, an wont stay still unless I feed it. An it lives on words.” This notion of a misshapen, awful form that defies conventional expression haunts Kabnis; his challenge is to find words that might express what is inside. The story models that drive toward “Misshapen, split-gut, tortured, twisted words” via its form: the piece is a bizarre conflation of the short story and stage drama forms, one that largely eschews the lyricism for which Cane was so popular in favor of a gnomic aspect whose obscurity arises from the divergent formal qualities it pulls together. W.E.B. Du Bois fumed about this mercurial quality, wishing that Cane were a text he could “understand instead of vaguely guess at.”

Toomer’s emphasis on the heterogeneity at the heart of blackness is nowhere as clear as it is in “Song of the Son,” the poem that might be Cane’s most famous piece. With language that explicitly nods toward the tragedy of a fleeting folk culture, the poem lends itself easily to interpretation as an elegy for the death of an authentic black culture. The poem’s speaker mourns: “In time, for though the sun is setting on / A song-lit race of slaves, it has not set; / Though late, O soil, it is not too late yet / To catch thy plaintive soul, leaving, soon gone, / Leaving, to catch thy plaintive soul soon gone.” This swan song is not merely the occasion for mourning, however; soon, the speaker turns to address his ancestors directly. “O Negro slaves, dark purple ripened plums,” he begins. “Squeezed, and bursting in the pine-wood air / Passing, before they stripped the old tree bare / One plum was saved for me, one seed becomes / An everlasting song, a singing tree / Caroling softly souls of slavery / What they were, and that they are to me / Caroling softly souls of slavery.”

There’s a kind of divergence happening here, an acknowledgement that in trying to capture and preserve his heritage, the poem’s speaker is simultaneously transforming it. In the poem, preservation is inescapably tied up in a violent process of stripping, of forcible alteration, whereby the speaker lifts a single seed from the wholeness of folk culture. In extracting that seed from the old tree, the speaker might become the caretaker to a song of departed black slaves—but he also draws a distinction between who the slaves actually were and what they become as he subjects them to representation. Still, somehow, this divergence between history and artistic representation is united in a single, everlasting song—the black folk song that appears as a perennial expression of an unchanging racial culture, but actually obscures a persistent mutability.

In this way, Toomer presents blackness as an excess that vexes every attempt to restrain it. He figured blackness as a perpetual becoming, something that simply “is,” as the poet Elizabeth Alexander would later suggest in the poem “Toomer.” In place of narrow identity, he proffered an itinerant and changeable movement that refuses conventional notions of identity, insofar as it is nothing more than “an arbitrary figure of a Negro, composed of what another would have him be like.” To him, this instability was the blackness that American racial politics took pains to avoid acknowledging. In this sense, Cane represents one of the first attempts to chant, as Moten has formulated, an “open set of sentences of the kind blackness is x …” While Toomer might have (quite ironically) struggled for the rest of his career to discover a mode of expression in which to communicate such radical instability, Cane’s reappearance gives us the chance to recognize his inexpressible ideal as a step toward theorizing the mode of ceaseless predication we’ve come to know as “black study.”


Ismail Muhammad is a writer and critic living in Oakland, where he’s a staff writer for the Millionsand contributing editor at ZYZZYVA. His writing has appeared in Slate, the Los Angeles Review of Books, New Republic, The Nation, and other publications. He’s currently working on a novel about the Great Migration and queer archives of black history.