James Weldon Johnson, Along This Way (1933): Part One

In these latter years, since I have witnessed and participated in so many hard fights by Negros, through petitions, legal proceedings, and by political action, to secure high schools, I look back with almost unbelief at the simplicity, the assurance and ease with which I accomplished what I set out to do. Scarcely did the school board, to say nothing of the white people in general of Jacksonville, know it was being done. This is all there was to the plan in its beginnings: I first got the members of the class interested in the project; then I persuaded their parents to let them come back in the following year. (275)

In case you need it spelled out, that is a superb example of direct action by—in this case—a school principal. No law suits, no demonstrations, not direct confrontation to the power regimen. When James Weldon Johnson wanted to start a high school for black children, he just did it and dared the school board to stop him. How much of the struggle for racial equality was fought in just this way? Perhaps more than our standard textbook descriptions of the civil rights movement suggests.

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Along This Way is the autobiography of James Weldon Johnson, written five or six years before his death. It is one of the most interesting and compelling autobiographies I had a chance to read. We learn that there was much in The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man that was truth. He did learn Spanish from cigar rollers, went to school in Atlanta, had a familiarity with both Florida and New York City, participated in the black cultural life of the turn of the last century. All of this Johnson had in common with his protagonist. Also similar—but I guess this was someone everything in a racially-divided society came to terms with—was the education about racial hierarchy, taught at a young age.

The autobiography is in four parts. Part one focuses on Johnson’s upbringing, early education, intellectual growth, and life in college. Part two covers mostly the period where he was principal of Stanton School in Jacksonville, but this was also a period where he was intensely active in writing music and even operas along with his brother. For a period of years, this activity seemed to take up more of his time and energy than his full-time job as principal. (Parts three and four will be looked at in the next post).

Looking back on his life, Johnson was acutely aware of hierarchy and institutional rules. He experienced this in his family, but also in his education. His college created a very rigid disciplinary system suggesting an effort to control almost every aspect of his life. He recalled one moment when he stole away for a smoke, only to find out the next day the college’s surveillance system (whether it was a direct gaze or informers) revealed his crime to the authorities. Meetings with women were similarly regulated and controlled. We learned earlier in the story, however, that learning to smoke as an important part of his education as any other and was key to his social network in his teenage years. The big rules, however, were those of a racist society and Jim Crow.

We learn that before he was a formal activist for civil rights, he was challenging racism in his everyday life through evasion and sometimes direct confrontation. In one wonderful example, he challenged racial divisions in the train cars by pointing out that he could not stay in the “colored” car because some whites stayed there. (This seemed to be a common crossing of the color line.) He said that if he was to break the law, he would prefer to do it in first class. We learn about Homer Plessy or Rosa Parks, but I suspect incidents like this were actually part of the everyday life in the Jim Crow South. The point of all of this was that the lines were surprisingly fragile. It was because they were so fragile that force had to be so commonly applied. In another example we are presented with, Johnson was merely seen in public with a light-skinned woman and was nearly lynched. He reply to the police was, “The lady with me is white, but no legally so.” (316) His conclusion from this incident is important to reflect on, especially in an age where sexual possessiveness still inspires violence.

Through it all I discerned one clear and certain truth: in the core of the heart of the American race problem the sex factor is rooted; rooted so deeply that it is not always recognized when it shows at the surface. Other factors are obvious and are the ones we dare to deal with; but, regardless of how we deal with these, the race situation will continue to be acute as long as the sex factor persists. Taken alone, it furnished a sufficient mainspring for the rationalization of all the complexes of white racial superiority. It may be innate; I do not know. But I do know that it is strong and bitter; and that its strength and bitterness are magnified and intensified by the white man’s perception, more or less, of the Negro complex of sexual superiority.” (318)

This autobiography had a wonderful start. I expect the second half to deal more with Johnson’s life as an activist and writer. I look forward to thinking on his recollections.

By the way, if you have not hear it. This is “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” written by Johnson and his brother Rosamond and sometimes called the “Negro National Hymn.”

James Weldon Johnson, “The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man” (1912)

The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man was written in 1912, at a time when race relations could not have been worse in post-Civil War America. Jim Crow had been fully established throughout the South by then, lynching was commonplace, and the Chicago Race Riots would be only a few years away. As any history student knows there were two major responses to this. Booker T. Washington argued for the reduction of racial tensions through the ending of agitation for social equality, while building up the wealth and skills of the black working class. W. E. B. Du Bois wanted to fight at that moment for full social and legal equality, resting his arguments on a clear demonstration of intellectual equality. James Weldon Johnson was of the Du Bois camp. He wrote for The Crisis, edited his own newspapers in support of civil rights, and argued for social equality. At the same time, his first novel gives a third set of strategies, which were much more common and maybe—in the final analysis—more historically significant. These made up the uncountable day to day acts of resistance, interracial cooperation and community, and outright neglect of the often unwritten codes of Jim Crow. The narrator of the novel chooses one of these strategies in the end, that of “passing.” (See my posts on Charles Chesnutt for more on this.) This constituted a form of opting out. Not opting out of being black, but a refusal to accept the social laws imposed on him. That only a few could embrace this strategy does not really matter. As the novel shows there were plenty of other coping and evasion strategies.

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The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man—as most of you probably know—follows the early life of a light-skinned African-American, who was raised without even a full awareness that he was black, until a teacher made this clear to him in a classroom exercise. From there, his story reads a bit like Booker T. Washington’s autobiography. The narrator is talented and eager to go to college, saving up enough money for two years of college in Atlanta. Once his money is stolen by a Pullman sleeping car porter, he gives up his plans and his narrative diverges from Washington’s. He takes a job rolling cigarettes, eventually becoming the “reader” in the factory. His job was to read the news and novels to the workers. He later moves north to get involved in the ragtime culture of the city, befriending a white “millionaire” who becomes his benefactor. After witnessing the murder of a white woman by a jealous lover in the club he was working, he goes to Europe with his benefactor. After a while he feels a type of Jim Crow relationship between the two of them and he decides to return to the United States. There he witnesses a lynching, which convinces him to being passing as white. He meets a white woman and begins a relationship. It is revealed that he is passing (apparently with a subtle use of words), but she comes to terms with it and they proceed to have a happy life together.

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As the final chapter shows, the narrator did not choose to pass because he felt ashamed of being black. He only felt that in the context of his lover discovering that he was passing, and then it was only temporary.

I felt her hand grow cold, and when I looked up she was gazing at me with a wild, fixed stare as though I was some object she had never seen. Under the strange light in her eyes I felt that I was growing black and thick-featured and crimp-haired. She appeared to have comprehended what I said. [. . .] When I got into the street I felt very much as I did the night after meeting my father and sister at the opera in Paris, even a similar desperate inclination to get drunk; but my self-control was stronger. This was the only time in my life that I ever felt absolute regret at being colored, that I cursed the drops of African blood in my veins, and wished that I were really white. (123)

The point being, it seems, is that the narrator was passing in order to simply evade the grotesque inequalities of American racism. My guess is that this was Johnson’s answer to arguments made by whites that passing was either impossible or the result of blacks feeling ashamed.

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What was most memorable to me in this novel was the rich descriptions of everyday life among the working and non-working African-American poor. In the cigar factories we see a rich cultural life carried on informally by the “readers.” The ragtime clubs and bars of New York City created spaces for interracial cooperation in seeking out pleasure. I suppose we often make too little of this as an authentic survival strategy. But as part of the rich texture of everyday life, pleasure seeking must be seen as a crucial element of the challenge to racism. These clubs may have done more to break down the barriers of racism than all the propaganda newspapers. As we see below, there were not entirely all well-meaning. Some it seems sought to profit from mocking blacks, but even so shows the integration of everyday life was possible and I think should be looked at as part of the struggle.

Beside the people I have just been describing there was at the place every night one or two parties of white people, men and women, who were out sight-seeing, or slumming. They generally came in cabs; some of them would stay only for a few minutes, while others sometimes stayed until morning. There was also another set of white people who came frequently; it was made up of variety performers and others to delineated darky characters; they came to get their imitations first hand from the Negro entertainer they saw there. There was still another set of white patrons composed of women; these were not occasional visitors, but five or six of them were regular habitues. (66)

The Pullman sleeping car porter suggests yet another survival strategy composed of committing petty crimes, in this case victimizing black travelers as they moved in great numbers between the northern cities and the South on the railroads.

One more part of this book is important for anarchists to consider. It is easy to see in the porter’s actions reason to mistrust each other and see the difficulty of solidarity, but the gambling halls that the narrator visited early in the story paint another picture, that of a sort of baseline communism. When the narrator won, the social pressure to share his winnings was overwhelming. By the end of the night he had little of winnings left. Most had been given out in the forms of drinks or covering others bets. While it seems he was taken advantage of by a room full of his peers, another analysis of this could be that you see the customers at the gambling den forming a collective socializing both profits and losses. In that system no one (except maybe the gambling hall) will come out rich, everyone will get an enjoyable evening and no one will entirely lose their shirt.

In my final judgment, I will say that The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man is still about the nature of the decision to being passing—a common theme in Harlem Renaissance literature—but it is also paints a rich picture of social life among the excluded.

Mark Twain: “Pudd’nhead Wilson: A Tale” (1894)

“Tom had long ago taught Roxy ‘her place.’ It has been many days now since she have ventured a caress of a fondling epithet in his quarter. Such things, from a ‘nigger,’ were repulsive to him, and she had been warned to keep her distance and remember who she was. She saw her darling gradually cease from being her son, she saw that detail perish utterly; all that was left was master–master, pure and simple, and it was not a gentle mastership, either. She saw herself sink from the sublime height of motherhood to the somber deeps of unmodified slavery. The abyss of separation between her and her boy were complete. She was merely his chattel, now, his convenience, his dog, his cringing and helpless slave, he humble and unresisting victim of his capricious temper and vicious nature.” (939)

Mark Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson is the last of his great Mississippi writings and turns out to be an important reminder of the brutality of slavery and the absurdity of Jim Crow segregation. The novel came out two years after Homer Plessy was arrested for purchasing a train ticket for a white car in New Orleans. Plessy was 1/8th black and could easily pass as white. Mark Twain must have been influenced by this case of attempted “passing” when he wrote Pudd’nhead Wilson, which takes the concept of passing in order to show how ridiculous the color line was and how easily it could be shattered, but also how destructive and vile it could be.

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The plot of the novel centers on a slave in the Driscoll household, Roxy, who has a child on the same day as her master’s wife. The two children look similar. Roxy’s son is 1/16th black. After being threatened with being sold “down the river,” and broken away from her home and family, she decided to switch the babies. Her son grew up as a white man named Tom and became Roxy’s master. Growing up white in a slave society ensures that Tom grows up into an odious person. He goes into debt and murders his uncle, blaming some Italian tourists. During the trial, the title character, a brilliant lawyer who gained a reputation as a town idiot for a poorly constructed joke, exposes the truth through the study of fingerprints. Tom is revealed as a black slave, the property of the Driscoll family. In order to repair their losses, they sell the former master, now slave, “down the river.” At the same time, they resort the rightful Driscoll heir, despite having been raised as a black slave all of his life.

How one is raised, in respect to hierarchical institutions, matters a great deal in the formation of values. I recently saw a talk about a study that showed that even when playing a rigged game of Monopoly, the winner became progressively more arrogant and indifferent to others. We have no way of knowing how Tom would have grown up if he stayed a slave, but we can guess that he would have been like Chambers, the real Driscoll son, raised by Roxy. As one of the chapter-leading quotes from “Pudd’nhead Wilson’s Calendar” states: “TRAINING is everything. The peace was once a bitter almond; cauliflower is nothing but cabbage with a college education.” (941) Twain’s point seems to be the foolishness of the color line, especially when enforced with Jim Crow laws. A more radical claim at the time than today, but worth remembering when we feel eager to condemn others for not sharing our values. There are reasons people have warped perspectives of justice or are incapable of empathy. We need to crush those institutions that cultivate people who behave indifferently to each other.

Another theme of the novel is the utter brutality of slavery. At the turn of the last century, a couple decades after the failure of Reconstruction, slavery was being presented by white historians and Confederate apologists as a benign, even progressive institution. Twain was one of the few voices remembering slavery as it was. The threat of being sold “down the river” was a threat to maintain control and discipline enslaved men and women, but it was also part of the psychological torture masters used. Before Roxy decides to switch the children, she thought about murder as a preferable solution to being eventually sold to plantations in the deep South. In the face of this slaves had some means of resistance. They could steal. This was the cause of the initial threats to sell the slaves to the South. Roxy would later use blackmail to extort money from her master (in reality her son). Still, as the final pages remind us, this resistance has little force against the legal power of masters to violently destroy families.

A third important theme in the novel is the falsehood of perceptions and image. Wealth and status are presented as fictions. If a slave can become master, and a master become a slave, just by changing hats, it is not clear where the ownership of wealth really is. The wealth and power that the elite control is ultimately just a piece of paper, enforced by courts and law. In this story, the courts begin investigating a murder but eventually turn it into a property transaction. “They rightfully claimed that ‘Tom’ was lawfully their property and had been so for eight years; that they had already lost sufficiently in being deprived of his services during that long period, and ought not to be required to add anything to that loss; that if he had been delivered up to them in the first place, they would have sold him and he could not have murdered Judge Driscoll; therefore it was not he that had really committed the murder, the guilt lay with the erroneous inventory.” (1056) This is the perverse logic of property. I suppose all the crimes of corporations can be just as easily ignored and turned into a source of profit for someone.

A great, morally significant novel.

Wallace Thurman, “The Blacker the Berry” (1929)

The title of Wallace Thurman’s The Blacker the Berry: A Novel of Negro Life comes from an African-American folk saying (“the blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice”). By this time, the question of passing had been heavily debated. In the same year as The Blacker the Berry, Nella Larsen published Passing. Thurman’s approach was quite different and may suggest a movement toward a more self-confident black nationalism (or at least what we could call “black pride”). This theme was hinted at in Plum Bun, when the main character Angela learned that passing was not really necessary in places of strong black institutions (like Harlem). The Blacker the Berry takes a very dark skinned woman, named Emma Lou, from a predominately white part of the country (“a semi-white world, totally surrounded by an all-white one”) — someone for whom passing was never an option — and shows how she developed an acceptance of her skin color and her community. Like other characters in these Harlem Renaissance novels, Emma Lou was fleeing something. Some fled by leaving the country, others fled the South, still others fled their lives as blacks through passing. Emma Lou–poor, dark skinned, and not very self-assured–flees without any of the advantages some of her counterparts had.

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Wallace Thurman died at the age of 32 of tuberculosis and only produced three novels and a handful of other works, of which the most significance was his play Harlem: A Melodrama of Negro Life in Harlem. Before writing stories he worked a journalist, starting his own failed journal and editing for The Messenger and Fire!!  Other parts of his life were somewhat sketchy and suggest an interesting–if short–life.  His grandmother ran a bootlegging tavern in Utah, where he was born. His mother went through six husbands. Thurman himself married Louise Thompson (later Patterson) for only a few weeks. She later suggested that Thurman was a homosexual.  He bounced around from job to job, from project to project, but lived in Harlem during the peak of the literary activity of the Harlem Renaissance from 1925 until his death in 1934.  The novel is slightly autobiographical in that both Thurman and Emma Lou were raised in Utah, studied at UCLA and settled in Harlem.

Wallace Thurman

Wallace Thurman

The libertarian lessons of The Blacker the Berry seem to me to come down to two questions. One regards the proper role of migration and mobility. The second is about overcoming the bounds that race and color imposed on blacks themselves. Indeed, we see throughout the tale that some of the most debilitating color consciousness came from other blacks in Emma Lou’s life (family, friends in college, employment agencies, etc.)

In The Blacker the Berry, mobility at first glance seems potentially liberating. Emma Lou encountered many unfortunate environments that restricted her development. She also always left with a finality and decisiveness that suggested a certain amount of bravery. “Emma Lou yet felt that she must manage in some way to escape both home and school. That she must find happiness somewhere else. The idea her Uncle Joe had given her about the provinciality of people in small towns re-entered her mind. After all Los Angeles, too, was a small town mentally, people by mentally small southern Negroes. It was no better than Boise. She was not determined to go East where life was more cosmopolitan and people were more civilized.” (728) Emma Lou constantly rejects the advice of her family to return home, against suggesting autonomy.  Yet, we also know that her movement is always a flight from the discomfort the experiences due to her skin color.  She feared being unable to marry, feared getting a job, or imagined  a place “where money was more plentiful and more easily saved.” (728) As liberating as mobility can be, we should be wary of this very unPromethean flight without purpose because it suggests a unwillingness to fight where you are.

Of course, the dominant theme is “intra-racial color prejudice.”  In fact, this was clearly one of the most important concerns of black writers during the Harlem Renaissance. From her youth, Emma Lou was reminded by everyone, including her closest relatives, that she was a problem child simply for having been born dark skinned. There was plenty of fault to go around, they did not quite blame Emma. If only her mother had married a “yellow” man?  “Everything possible had been done to alleviate the unhappy condition, every suggested agent had been employed, but her skin, despite bleachings, scourgings, and powderings, had remained black–fast black–as nature had planned and effected.” (693) Mind you, this is the first page of the novel.  And I do not have space in this blog to list the examples of this type of “intra-racial color prejudice.”  Trust me, through, it accompanies almost every page of this short novel. She experienced it in college, when she was avoided by other black students. Her only friend was another dark-skinned woman who perhaps did a better job of playing the role that nature and American racism assigned to her.

Harlem was objectively better for Emma Lou. At least here, color prejudice was discussed and admitted by the people she encountered.  She also finds a broader circle of allies and companions and lovers. Many people in Harlem, black and white, encourage her to make the most of her life. Even a boss at an employment agency, sending people out to mind-numbing secretarial jobs saw promise in her and urges her to become a teacher after finishing school in New York. And while she did not take that advice, she found economic independence not long after her arrival in Harlem.  The albatross over her psychology, however, remained her skin color.

Her final choice is to fight where she stands. “She was tired of running up blind alleys all of which seemed to converge  and lead her ultimately to the same blank wall.  Her motto from now on would be ‘find–not seek.’ All things were at one’s finger-tips. Life was most kind to those who were judicious in the selections, and she, weakling that she now realized she was, had not been a connoisseur.”  (829) This choice of her does not eliminate the need for institutional or social transformation, but its optimism suggests that her decision to settle in Harlem would not be due to paralysis.

Jessie Redmon Fauset, “Plum Bun” (1929)

Earlier, I considered Nella Larsen’s Quicksand, which posited the dilemma between mobility and tradition. The hero of that story was able to escape from confinement and drudgery through most of her early life, but her commitment to the color line, her embrace of a black identity and her ultimate inability to cross that line led to a miserable later life. In Jessie Redmon Fauset’s Plum Bun: A Novel Without a Moral, we see another perspective on the color line. In Plum Bun, Angela Murray, is able to pass as a white (unlike her darker-skinned sister). She takes advantage of this ability, dating white men and pursuing an artistic career, but us ultimately confined by other forces: capitalism, gender, and ultimately race (which Angela can never fully escape).

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Fauset also lived near the color line herself, having been rejected from Bryn Mawr because she was black but only after attending a white school.  She was classically educated  and earned a degree at Cornell.  Despite working for one summer at Fisk, she struggled to find steady work until she starting working as literary editor for The Crisis.  Before getting involved in the literary politics of the Harlem Renaissance (helping some of the major figures of that movement get published), she had worked in both white and black institutions. He was also raised in a large, poor family.  She also had to work at low paid jobs for much of her life, finally accepting a position at De Witt Clinton high school in New York City. Despite the fame she enjoyed in the 1930s, the crude capitalist exchange of bare survival for a life-time of labor evaporated her literary career.

The color line is a theme that these Harlem Renaissance novels I have been reading come back to again and again. One of the later novels of this period, Black No More, goes as far as to create a science-fiction setting where the color line can be completely abolished with a simple medical treatment. This is just a simple reminder that while the image of the Harlem Renaissance is often centered on the lively cultural environment and the debates over the proper use of that culture, almost all of the works were deeply political in their effort to circumvent and undermine the color line.

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I was reminded of Lu Xun’s essay “What Happens When Nora Leaves Home?,” when reading this. Passing is straight forward enough (I hesitate to say easy) for those with the right complexion, but color is not the only barrier to human equality. In this way, the novel asks the question: What happens when Angela leaves home to pass as white? As it turns out, simply passing is not that simple because exposure is always near. This was a truth first described by Charles Chesnutt in the early 20th century with his work on passing. But as a poor woman, Angela faced all sorts of other challenges, which leads to her ultimate decision to stay at the edge of the color line, reflected in her romance with biracial man.

The novel opens with great optimism about the potential freedom that comes from passing. Angela’s point of view seems to be that passing in itself is liberatory, but also foreshadow her difficulties. “Freedom! That was the note which Angela heard oftenest in the melody of living which was to be hers. With a wildness that fell just short of unreasonableness she hated restraint. Her father’s earlier days as coachman in a private family, he later successful, independent years as boss carpenter, her mother’s youth spent as a maid to a famous actress, all this was to Angela a manifestation of the sort of thing which happens to those enchained in might be by duty, by poverty, by weakness or by colour.” (438) Angela’s mother was also able to pass and it was from her that she learned that it could be a rather joyful game to play. It also had market potential. Angela used her ability to pass to seek out financial security. In one sense she is as free as the main character in Quicksand but is restrained by conditions and realities, not the internal acceptance of the ideology of race.

Angela’s search for personal autonomy, made possible by her ability to pass ran into the growing emphasis on racial pride, after she settled in Harlem. “It represented, the last word in racial pride, integrity, and even self-sacrifice. Here were people of a very high intellectual type, exponents of the realest and most essential refinement living cheek by jowl with coarse or ill-bred or even criminal, certainly indifferent, members of their race.” (650) But it also meant that she could enjoy the realities social freedom she was searching for.  White supremacy seemed unable to affect the vibrancy of Harlem.  It was in its own way an enclave that was recasting the color line. In her description of Harlem, we find a hidden discourse of black nationalism.

Nella Larsen, “Quicksand” (1928)

Quicksand is the story of a biracial woman, Helga Crane, with a Danish mother and a Caribbean father. Thus, like many Harlem Renaissance novels, Quicksand deals with the color line and its simultaneous flexibility (seen in the phenomenon of passing) and rigidity (in often violent and legally regulated race relations). In the same way, Crane is both flexible—almost totally inconstant—and tied down by race and her ultimate decision to marry and become a mother.

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Nella Larsen, like Helga Crane, was the issue of a biracial couple (Danish West Indies and a Danish mother). She spent much of her life travel ling between New York City and Europe, marrying a physicist along the way and finally settling down as a nurse, where she worked until the end of her life. She wrote one important novel in addition to Quicksand, called Passing, which apparently deals also with the color line. She was active in politics throughout the 20s and 30s but fell out of public life after some public humiliations.

Nella Larsen

Nella Larsen

The main theme of the novel seems to be restlessness. As the novel opens she is preparing to marry and is teaching in the U.S. South. This job—particularly the conservative values of the institution—frustrates and bores her. She lacked any of the family ties or religious loyalties that might connect her to the South and she, like so many others from the South, looked to moving to the northern cities. Her rootlessness takes her to Chicago where she has some family. The racial lines make this family reunion impossible and she seeks work. After being considered over-qualified for most jobs at the employment agencies, she lands a short-term gig as an assistant to a traveling speaker. This adventure takes her to Harlem and then Denmark and finally back to the United States where she married a black preacher, despite her lack of religious beliefs.

The rest of her life is one of imprisonment and boredom. Rather than a traditional narrative of expanding liberty, Helga Crane’s story ends in the prison of marriage and repeated child birth. But there are other times we see evidence of prisons in her life, most importantly regarding race. This is most clearly seen in her inability to accept a marriage proposal from a promising youth Danish artist because of her visceral dislike of interracial marriages. This belief, despite her parents, only shows how powerfully influenced she was by American racism. This block in her mind was the ultimate cause of her later imprisonment in marriage and her unhappiness.

Her ending thoughts suggest the horror of Crane’s later life. “The thought of her husband roused in her a deep and contemptuous hatred. At his every approach she had forcibly to subdue a furious inclination to scream out in protest. Shame, too, swept over her at every thought of her marriage. Marriage. This sacred thing of which parsons and other Christian folk ranted so sanctimoniously, how immoral—according to their own standards—it could be!” (430)

But let me end this short post by looking at Crane’s wanderlust, much more fascinating, troubling, and full of potential. It is a voice from her comparative youth. “In the actuality of the pleasant present and the delightful vision of an agreeable future she was contented, and happy. She did not analyze this contentment, this happiness, but vaguely, without putting it into works of even so tangible a thing as a thought, she knew it sprang from a sense of freedom, a release from the feeling of smallness which had hedged her in, first during her sorry, unchildlike childhood.” (344)

I think we need more of the petulant discontent, if propelled into a constant re-imagination of life, not just an endless stream from grumbling.

Jean Toomer, “Cane” (1923)

This week I will be reading the second volume of the Library of America’s collection of Harlem Renaissance novels.  I considered the works from the 1930s earlier.  The five novels in this collection are from the 1920s and begins with Jean Toomer’s brilliant novel Cane.

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Cane is not a difficult novel to read, but it is impressionistic, like much of high modernist writing.  Structurally, Cane mixes short vignettes drawn from subjective experiences of different people across black America, intermixed with poems.  At the end of the novel is the only lengthy piece, a play about a school teacher.  Many of these works were published before, and as an overall theme is either hard to find or broad, Cane can be read as short stories (and it is anthologized that way often enough).  If any work contested W. E. B. Du Bois’ belief that during a time of political struggle, fiction should take on the role of propaganda, it is Cane, which sought to present life as it was lived, even down to the scents.  What propaganda cannot do well is provide subjective experiences.  In contrast, Toomer floods Cane with those very subjective experiences.  Every small section of this novel provides the perspective of another person.  Men, women, mixed race, Southern, Northern, urban, rural, middle class, poor are all represented in the short vignettes that Toomer strings together elegantly.  While a work of the Harlem Renaissance, Cane is of the South.  It is either set there, or haunted by the memory of the South.  It reminds us that the Harlem Renaissance emerged from the dynamism that migration provides.  And as with any migrants, the writers of Harlem kept one foot in their old homes.  Toomer understood that he was engaged in a dialog with the the black literary establishment.  In the final section of Cane, about a teacher returning to Georgia we find the teacher getting the following explanation about why he must resign from his position.  “Professor Kabnis, to come straight to the point: the progress of the Negro race is jeopardized whenever the personal habits and examples set by its guides and mentors fall below the acknowledged and hard-won standard of its average member.  This institution . . . was founded, and has been maintained at a cost of great labor and untold sacrifice.  It purpose is to teach our youth to live better, cleaner, more noble lives.  To prove to the world that the Negro race can be just like any other race.” (107)  This language is not so far from that of Du Bois and other who believed that art should function to defend the image of the “New Negro.”  Toomer, of course, will have none of that.

toomerJean Toomer himself was biracial and grew up in a white community in Washington D.C.  He studied in various places, including the University of Wisconsin and the Massachusetts College of Agriculture before settling down in New York.  His first marriage was to a white woman, Margery Latimer, although this was short-lived due to Latimer’s death in child-birth.  Many of the stories in Cane reflect elements of his life, especially mixed race sexuality and its challenge to the color line.  Toomer stated as much when defending his first marriage.  “There is a new race in America.  I am a member of this new race.  It is neither white nor black nor in-between.  It is the American race.” (846)  Of course, such an effort to redefine race in American was a threat to the power structure, which sustained so much of its power by manipulating the color line for its own interests.  (See the scholarship on the role of race in union busting throughout American industrial history.)

Thinking about Cane from a libertarian perspective, I was often thinking about how the form of a novel can either liberate or limit a writer’s expression.  Certainly, an entire novel could have been written about “Karintha,” a young woman who is constantly desired by the older men around her.  Toomer is able to condense her story into a few pages but as a reader we do not feel at all betrayed by the apparent negligence.  Indeed, it is so packed with meaning that this short vignette feels like a meal.  In this way, the line between the poems and the stories is not large.

caneThere are two major transgressions documented by Toomer in Cane: interracial sex and mobility.  Both of these transgressions profoundly informed the Harlem Renaissance generation and both were significant challenges to the color line.   Interestingly, under slavery both of these ensured the power of the masters.  Interracial sex enforced the power of white masters over black women and mobility (the domestic slave trade) remained a threat, weapon, or means of making money for masters.  In the post-slavery world, mobility was a threat to land owners and employers who wanted an easily exploited and low paid labor supply in the South.  Interracial sex, once a tool of control, was now a threat to the color line, enforced by legal restrictions on interracial cooperation (and even interaction).  Toomer shows us through some of these stories that blacks as well as white worked to prevent these transgressions.  “Becky,” a white woman with two black sons is ostracized by both sides of the color line.  Yet, the world Toomer describes is still very open with many opportunities for those of will and the walls of power seem everywhere fragile.  While they are there, certainly.  Class is a strong theme, but we do not feel the heavy walls of the bosses bearing down the characters like in some of the more consciously class-based novels (or even compared to James Baldwin’s work, which was heavily invested in the struggle for racial equality).  Toomer’s characters are not revolutionaries. They are people, often at the margins, often seizing weak points in the system.  One of these weak points seems to be the dynamism of Harlem (or all those urban areas in the North).  “Seventh Street is a bastard of Prohibition and the War.  A crude-boned, soft-skinned wedge of nigger life breathing its loafer air, jazz songs and love, thrusting unconscious rhythms, black reddish blood into the white and whitewashed wood of Washington.” (47)  Mobility grinds away at the walls of race.  This helps explain why Toomer’s stories are filled with wandering preachers, teachers moving from north to South, or students entering college in whitewashed Madison.  I am not certain if the mobile worker is truly more powerful, wise, or aware than anyone else, but in the American novel he is.