To Be Young, Gifted, and Mixed? Jean Toomer’s Cane and Questions of Identity

by Latoya Peterson

Cane book cover

Who exactly is Jean Toomer?

Scholars, academics, and American literature buffs know him as the author of Cane, one of the landmark works to emerge from the Harlem Renaissance.

And yet, Toomer’s legacy is a bit more complicated than just his work. Back in the 1920s, in spite of segregation, Toomer articulated a vision of multiracial identity that was rejected by the norms of the time. Splitting time between exclusively white and exclusively black environments, Toomer decided that he was neither – he considered himself an American, a mixture of several different races and nationalities. However, he grew increasingly frustrated with the restrictions placed upon him due to his identification with black literature – in later life, he allegedly denied having any “colored blood.” As a result of this, Toomer’s legacy and the meaning of Cane has been left open for wide open for interpretation – and a new release of Cane has done just that, with scholars Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Rudolph P. Byrd, asserting that Toomer wasn’t pioneering a new identity – he was trying to pass for white.

Felicia R. Lee sums up the controversy neatly in the first two paragraphs of her article in the New York Times:

Renown came to Jean Toomer with his 1923 book “Cane,” which mingled fiction, drama and poetry in a formally audacious effort to portray the complexity of black lives. But the racially mixed Toomer’s confounding efforts to defy being stuck in conventional racial categories and his disaffiliation with black culture made him perhaps the most enigmatic writer associated with the Harlem Renaissance.

Now Henry Louis Gates Jr., the Harvard scholar, and Rudolph P. Byrd, a professor at Emory University, say their research for a new edition of “Cane” documents that Toomer was “a Negro who decided to pass for white.”

This charge actually reflects quite a bit about our current conversations on race. Lee speaks to both Gates and a different biographer of Toomer, Richard Eldridge, and comes away with very different takes on Toomer’s identity:

“I think he never claimed that he was a white man,” Mr. Eldridge said. “He always claimed that he was a representative of a new, emergent race that was a combination of various races. He averred this virtually throughout his life.” Mr. Eldridge and Cynthia Earl Kerman are the authors of “The Lives of Jean Toomer: A Hunger for Wholeness” published in 1987 by Louisiana State University Press. […]

Archival research reveals a clearer picture, said Mr. Gates, the director of the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard: “Everyone on his family tree was black and didn’t claim to be anything else. Only Jean tried to cross over.”

The conversation swirling around Cane is fascinating, because it reveals how long we have been grappling with the same issues around race. As Toomer points out in his own words, race is a shifting social construct – people viewed him differently depending on their own conception of who he was. But Gates and Bryd interpret Toomer’s actions as a way of fleeing from blackness.

“He was running away from a cultural identity that he had inherited,” Mr. Gates said. And this came with consequences: “He never, ever wrote anything remotely approaching the originality and genius of ‘Cane,’ ” Mr. Gates said. “I believe it’s because he spent so much time running away from his identity.”

“I feel sorry for him,” he added.

(Thanks to Carmen for the tip! You just can’t quit, can you? 😛 )