Refusing to be labeled black or white, writer Jean Toomer (1894-1967) was first exalted, then criticized, ignored, and forgotten. However, during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1960s and 1970s, Toomer was not only rediscovered but also "hailed as one of America's finest African American writers," noted the University of North Carolina's (UNC) website dedicated to English studies. Thus, he became "something he wouldn't have liked"—labeled. Toomer believed that "my racial composition and my position in the world are realities which I alone may determine," quoted the Southern Literary Journal.
Raised Both Black and White
Born Nathan Eugene Pinchback Toomer on December 26, 1894, in Washington D.C., Toomer, until the age of 18, was perceived by others and lived alternatively as a black and as a white young man. After his father abandoned the family when Toomer was only one year old, he and his mother, Nina, moved in with her father, Pinckney Benton Stewart Pinchback, the first United States governor of African American descent.
While living with his grandfather in Washington D.C., Toomer attended an all-black elementary school, but lived in an affluent white neighborhood. However, when his mother remarried and moved her new family to New York, Toomer's life turned 180 degrees. In New York, he entered an all-white high school but lived in an all-black neighborhood. In 1909, after his mother's death, Toomer's life once again turned 180 degrees. He moved back into his grandfather's home in Washington D.C. and graduated from an all-black high school.
Living in both black and white worlds affected Toomer greatly. He saw that the world—both the black world and white world—had labeled him based on his appearance. Being a "fair-skinned, straight-nosed, straight-haired" African American, as UNC online described him, allowed Toomer acceptable entrance into the white world. However, by not looking absolutely "passable" white also allowed him entrance into the black world. This dual-entrance ability "added to his sense of isolation from any group identity," noted Black Issues Book Review. As a result, Toomer, by 1914, began rejecting all attempts to be classified by anyone in any world as "black" or "white." Toomer became the only label he would never refuse, "American."
Prepared to Be a Writer
Throughout the mid-1900s, Toomer continued his education by attending a variety of colleges including the University of Wisconsin and the City College of New York. He also studied many subjects such as agriculture, psychology, and literature. Yet, he never earned a degree. Unbeknownst to even himself, Toomer was not preparing for one career, but for his life as a seeker of knowledge and for his life as a writer.
Toomer began his life as a writer in 1918; for the next few years, he wrote many short stories and poems. Most reflected Toomer's steadfast idea that there was not a black or white race, but a "new race, that I was one of the first conscious members of this race … American," quoted Darwin Turner in The Wayward and the Seeking. However, these short stories and poems were not widely accepted or read by a popular audience. Unaffected, Toomer continued to write but abruptly stopped just two years later.
Adopted New Philosophy
In 1920, Toomer met writer Waldo Frank. Frank believed that a writer's or artist's duty and responsibility was to "[shape] American culture and society," stated Black Issues Book Review. Since Toomer had proclaimed that he was of no race but American, he adopted Frank's philosophy that as an American he should use his writing to "[set] the cultural agenda in a way that legislation or political activism could not."
Shortly after adopting Frank's beliefs, Toomer discovered a new philosophy—the philosophy of idealism. In order to delve into this new philosophy, Toomer stopped writing. Seeking knowledge, he began to study idealism which led him to believe that "in life nothing is only physical. There is also the symbolical. White and Black … In general, the great contrasts. The pair of opposites," further quoted Turner in The Wayward and the Seeking. Toomer's role in this philosophy was not so much that of a writer, but as a "reconciler" between the great contrasts of black and white.
To further his role as a "reconciler," Toomer sought out other writers who believed in and who demonstrated this idealistic philosophy in their work. He found the Imagist poetics or Symbolists: Charles Baudelaire and Walt Whitman. These writers, with "their insistence on fresh vision and on the perfect clean economical line was just what I had been looking for," commented Toomer in The Wayward and the Seeking. Yet, it was not only these writers or this new philosophy which would result in Toomer's most praised and most criticized novel. It was another geographical move—this time to the South.
Published a Literary Masterpiece
In 1921, Toomer began working and living in Sparta, Georgia. During this time in American history, the segregation of the races could be most blatantly seen in the rural South. No longer could Toomer remain focused on being only a "reconciler," a seeker of knowledge, or believe in one race, American. In the South, race could not be ignored. This indisputable fact forced Toomer to confront his own personal views on what others had labeled him—both black and white. How he did so was by writing Cane.
Like Toomer's own three-part identity—black, white, American—the structure of Cane is segregated into three sections. The first focuses on African American life in the South. By detailing the lives of six African American women, Toomer, in this section creates "the idealization of rural African Americans" noted the Southern Literary Journal. In section two, Toomer presents the opposite identity from section one—the urban North. He portrays this urban North as "a place of shallow, materialistic and antimystical striving," further noted the Southern Literary Journal. The third section once again shifts identities this time back to the rural South. However, Toomer focuses on an artist plagued by what role he should play in the world—should he represent the African American race or strive to become unidentified with any race.
Hailed by many critics of the time as a literary masterpiece, Cane nevertheless faded into obscurity. However, the ending of the book has provided clues as to why Toomer never again specifically focused on the black and white races as separate identities and how these identities can be harmoniously blended. Cane ends with the plagued artist watching a sunrise. As the sun rises, he theorizes that a bridge between races is not possible, yet a "bridge between himself and the universe" is, noted the Southern Literary Journal. Toomer's subsequent writings emphasized this philosophy.
Challenged Others to Think
Over the next 27 years, Toomer, unlike Cane, did not fade into obscurity. He married twice, became a father, and continued to challenge himself and others to think about their perception of the world. His belief that there is no black or white race, only American, never wavered; yet, how people should discover this belief changed with each new philosophy Toomer studied. For example, in 1938, Toomer traveled to India where he began writing about spiritual enlightenment. However, he struggled with India's "a life of withdrawal from the world," noted biographers Cynthia Kerman and Richard Eldridge in The Lives of Jean Toomer: A Hunger for Wholeness.
During the 1940s, Toomer continued to struggle to connect his understanding of idealism to another religion: Quakerism. He tried to work through this struggle by organizing a living space called the Mill House. The Mill House welcomed both Quakers and laymen and offered an opportunity for both to dismiss all separations of religions and cultures. One member of Mill House praised Toomer for the "opened doors we were ready to walk through," quoted BANC!. Toomer wrote many essays and lectured frequently about Mill House; however, unlike Cane, they were not widely read. By 1950, Toomer stopped writing altogether, slowly withdrew from public life, and on March 30, 1967, in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, he died.
Rediscovered Masterpiece and Writer
Why Toomer remained forgotten until the Harlem Renaissance has been widely debated. One popular theory is that Toomer was "frustrated by his inability to market much of his work," noted African American Review. Therefore, because of the time in which Toomer had been writing, he had been labeled a black writer. And, the white society had been taught not to read a novel, an essay, a poem, or other others works by a writer identified as "black."
The Southern Literary Journal has offered another popular theory as to why Toomer was forgotten. Toomer created his own obscurity by showing two faces—the "good" Toomer and the "bad" Toomer. The good Toomer "briefly and tactfully uses race to contain literary ambiguity [in Cane ], but the bad Toomer jettisons both race and literary ambiguity." In other words, Toomer was seen as a race traitor because he "challenged his culture's demand for absolute distinctions between white and black," noted African American Review. Consequently, because Toomer maintained his belief that he was no race but American, he pushed himself into obscurity.
However, this view changed during the 1960s and 1970s. Toomer was no longer seen as "bad" or a "race traitor." During this time of the Harlem Renaissance, "Toomer's rejection of race sounded, more importantly, like a rejection of white cultural hegemony," stated Black Issues Book Review. Therefore, Toomer became a cultural African American icon who, like civil rights activist Malcolm X, promoted the African American race as a separate identity.
Yet, by the 1990s, another theory would once again reemphasize that Toomer was not rejecting the white race or the black race. He accepted and truly believed that there is only one race, American. Integrating Roland Bartres classic 1956 essay Myth Today, Charles Harmon in the Southern Literary Journal offered his own interpretation of Cane using the philosophy of "neither/norism."
This philosophy, Bartres defined as "stating two opposites and balancing the one by the other so as to reject them both," Harmon quoted. Thus, Toomer, in Cane, which had presented both the black viewpoint and white viewpoint while ultimately rejecting both, had done just what Bartres defined. Therefore, Toomer should not be seen as "good" or "bad," rejecting the white hegemony, or as a race traitor—or in effect, a two-faced writer. What Toomer should be seen as is a writer who courageously challenged a belief by writing a masterpiece.
Ultimately, Toomer has been remembered as a significant writer—a significant African American writer. Although still labeled, Toomer's own words live on to reject that label. As quoted by the African American Review, Toomer never worried about how others saw him. He had always "simply gone and lived here and there. I have been what I am." And, as he further commented on racial identity, he urged people to realize that "both white and colored people share the same stupidity." However, it is Toomer's message to writers and artists that may truly silence his critics and his labelers: "Art … embraces all life … [its] noblest function … is to expand, elevate, and enrich that life."
Kerman, Cynthia and Richard Elrigde, The Lives of Jean Toomer: A Hunger for Wholeness, 1987.
Turner, Darwin, editor, The Wayward and the Seeking, 1980.
African American Review, Fall 1998.
BANC! 2, 1972.
Black Issues Book Review, January/February 2001.
Southern Literary Journal, Spring 2000.
Jean Toomer (1894-1967), University of North Carolina online, http://www.inc.edu/courses/eng81br1/toomer/html (February 28, 2003).