Jean Toomer Part 9 of 15 Black Authors
Studying literature can be a lot like reading a dictionary in a different language: There are many authors and perspectives and ideas and styles and attitudes. Many of them are lost on me now until I see them show up in my teaching or reading. I have always been fond of words. I loved crossword puzzles, word games, word search puzzles, word scrambles, and anything else that I could find with words. If it had to do with words, I was a fan of it. I have always been that way. I don’t know why, and I don’t need an explanation. I like what I like.
I said all of that to say all of this. We don’t always understand a person or their reasoning, but that should not take away from their greatness. Jean Toomer was one of the first African American authors that didn’t want to be classified as an African American author. I felt some type of way about that when I first learned about him and his work. I discovered Cane in the seventh grade. I was in the library at school, and I was intrigued by what I read on the back cover. I remember thinking that I wanted to read it, but then I put it back and settled for Agatha Christie.
I wouldn’t find Cane again until college. Nostalgia set in, and I was excited that it was on my reading list for the African American Literature class that I was taking. The internet was not what it is now, so research was done in libraries off of microfiche and out of encyclopedias. Don’t know what those are? Look them up. I read the first chapter and was hooked on the book. I wanted to know more about the author, so I did some research. I also wrote questions all through that little paperback copy of Cane that I had. I will never forget the look on my professor’s face when she began the lecture on Jean Toomer. I was sitting in the front row all Girl Urkel, ready to listen, ask questions, and write. The lecture lasted fifteen minutes, and at the end of it, you could hear a pin drop.
I was disappointed. I wanted it to be different. I wanted to throw a childlike tantrum and tell the professor to take it all back. That can’t be true! Lies!! I was so angry. I left at break and was unsure if I was ever going back to that class. My research hadn’t produced any of what was said in the lecture. I went back to the library, and I emailed a different Professor and asked questions. I went back to class. If you know me, you know I’m too stubborn to stay away. I was early. I talked with the Professor and asked some of the questions I wanted to ask in class the last time. I don’t remember everything that she said. I do remember this, and these were her EXACT words: “I am not sure how a man that great could have been so lost.” Something happened to me. I was elevated to a new level of understanding. I understood at that very moment that words to a writer are like a cape, the cuffs, the lasso, heat vision, Mjolnir, or T’Challa like powers. Without them, writers are just regular people. Clark Kent, Bruce Wayne, Tony Stark, Diana Prince, or the likes, lost in the world and trying to find some good by using their words.
“We are each gifted in a unique and important way. It is our privilege and our adventure to discover our own special light.—Evelyn Mary Dunbar.
Nathan Pinchback Toomer A.K.A. Jean Toomer was a mixed-race writer best known for his novel Cane. Toomer would go on to change his name to Jean Toomer, dropping the Pinchback entirely. Some have said that he did this to hide his African American ancestry. Pinchback was the name of Toomer’s maternal grandfather, who was also the first black Governor of any U.S. state, Louisiana. Toomer decided that he did not want to be classified by any race and did what was known in those days as “passing.” Typically, that means that he didn’t say he wasn’t African American, but he didn’t say he was either. That is until it was time for Cane to be published. At the urging of the publisher, Toomer allowed himself to be marketed as an African American author to help with the popularity of the novel and to take advantage of the growing reputation of the Harlem Renaissance. The tactic worked, and Cane received critical acclaim from the likes of Richard Wright and Langston Hughes.
Toomer would face criticism for marrying a white woman. Margery Lattimer was also a known writer. After her death, Toomer would go on to marry Marjory Content, a Jewish woman and daughter of a wealthy stockbroker. Toomer would continue to write outside of the fiction genre, and he would never have the fame or acclaim that he reached with Cane again. It seems funny how the very thing that he seemed to hide from (his blackness) is the thing that lifted him to levels that he had never seen and to this day continues to keep his work in the hands of college students around the globe.
Jean Toomer died in 1967 and has since been studied and analyzed as well as complemented and criticized.
If we do the research, we will likely find that none of us are 100% of anything. It was decided by others how much Black heritage it takes to make a person Black. In fact, it is not how the world sees you, but how you see yourself. African Americans get upset when mixed-race people don’t want to own their Blackness. Often it is considered a slap in the face to the race. I can understand that. I can also understand wanting to be something else. Maybe not a different race, but I know how it feels to dream. Maybe it was all a dream for Toomer. It is complicated being mixed race and being asked to choose where you think you belong. Why should anyone have to choose? Why do we want to put people in boxes? It’s time for us to recognize that by doing that, we are, in a sense segregating.
I love being Black and hope to return as a Black woman for each life that it takes me to fulfill my wheel. However, I understand (that does not equate to agree with) how Toomer may have felt.
If I close my eyes and listen as the words of Cane fall upon my ears, it does not matter to me what color the writer is. I see the colors of life that the characters paint, and that rainbow is beautiful.
“We change the world not by what we say or do, but as a consequence of what we have become.”-David Hawkins.
References: “Jean Toomer”. (2014, February 16). Retrieved January 01, 2021, from https://youtu.be/bdzm5JrEKFQ