Published: Aug. 1, 2005 By

[1] “Would you like to know how it feels to be an American Negro? Would you like to know what Negroes are thinking and doing? Would you like to see their daily life pictured?” asks an advertisement for W.E.B. DuBois’s monthly magazine The Crisis, printed in the March 1925 issue of Survey Graphic, which served as a precursor to Alain Locke’s New Negro Anthology“.  It’s only in the last question—”Would you like to see the ‘facts’ as Negroes see them?”—that these voyeuristic images are cut by the promise of facts. Yet even the “facts” are in quotation marks, so unstable are facts in this mysterious African American world. The final tag line makes one last pitch in the sale of this spectacle, for it touts The Crisis as “the most hated, most popular and most widely discussed magazine dealing with questions of race prejudice” (Wintz 95).

[2] The ad’s graphics further the impression that the life of a “Negro” is bodily, physical, and at odds with the purportedly more intellectual white readers to whom the advertisement speaks. Given the magazine’s stated role as a catalyst to spark discussion, one might expect its promotional materials to include photos of DuBois or other intellectual contributors. Instead, the bottom of the page sports silhouettes of jauntily dancing women, their crinolines flung up in the back, while a photo of a “Negro” girl is centered at the top of the page. This pudgy, beribboned girl, about five years old, looks a bit like she’s in shock. From a twenty-first century perspective, although the girl’s cheeks are well-rounded, her wide-eyed expression is oddly reminiscent of a poster child for Care or UNICEFThe clash between the magazine’s stated goals and its visual message suggests that in the literary marketplace of the early twentieth century, images of African Americans, and particularly of African American women, were not only objectified, but defused into passive objects of sympathy or sexuality. Such figures are, as Lauren Berlant explains, “transformed into trademarks and corporate logos, prosthetic bodies that ideally replace the body of pain with the projected image of safety and satisfaction commodities represent” (114).

[3] The voyeuristic economy of exchange to which this ad capitulates, in seeming contradiction to the intellectual goals of the magazine, highlights a major ideological clash within the Harlem Renaissance itself. This article will examine representations of rural women in Jean Toomer’s Cane as a focal point for the tensions underlying one of the major goals of the Harlem Renaissance: the celebration of black sexuality as a rejection of white middle-class values. The seemingly subversive representations that stemmed from this goal—and especially the representations of women, through which most of these impulses were expressed—were not only at odds with attempts to police the sexuality of black women, but were, ultimately, reabsorbed by the eugenic rhetoric thriving in the popular culture of the time. In other words, although the Harlem Renaissance reacted against the sexualized stereotype of African American women, it also repeatedly fell back into this stereotype in its attempts to resist the mores of the white middle class. Thus, the stereotyped sexualization of black female figures—as suggested by the Crisis ad, and prevalent throughout the literary and other cultural works of the Harlem Renaissance—is both freeing and restricting for African American women, and serves as both a response to, and an effect of, the eugenic imaginary that suffused America in the early part of the century.

[4] The ideology of eugenics, although now predominantly remembered as a means for Hitler to breed his Aryan race, had begun to flourish in America, fueled by categorization and stereotype, well before its horrific culmination in German concentration camps. Nationwide representations of those figures who supposedly threatened the American gene pool—whether poor, immigrant, or African American—both clashed and dovetailed with such representations within the African American community. Racist and nativist strains of the national narrative deemed African American women the main “troublemakers,” “the paradigm problem citizen[s]”(Berlant 113). As sexologist Magnus Hirschfield incisively stated after his exile from Germany in the early 1930s, eugenicists’ primary concern boiled down to the imperative that “race and women must not be left to their own devices” (qtd. in Doyle 10).

[5] In response to eugenic national imperatives, much African American discourse, attempting to resist stereotypes of hyper-sexualization, worked to police the sexuality and reproduction of African American women, especially those women migrating from the South. Hazel Carby explains that in the early part of the century, “the major discursive elements were already in place that would define black female urban behavior . . . as pathological” (117) and in need of surveillance. The war over “proper” and “improper” conduct for African American women raged throughout the Harlem Renaissance. Langston Hughes, for example, advocated “truly racial” representation as a means of breaking African American writers out of their former constraints, which were maintained for the benefit of the “Philadelphia club women”—Hughes’ term for the African American middle-class women who internalized “years of study under white teachers, a lifetime of white books, pictures, and papers,” and especially “white manners, morals, and Puritan standards [that] make [them] dislike the spirituals” (58). With advocates like Hughes, African American women were “allowed” to let loose their sexuality as an expression of a culture not beholden to mores that many saw as white-imposed. The problem, however, was that those arguing for African American women’s sexual freedom were predominantly African American men. As these men orchestrated this emancipation in the black community, they left women little say in the matter—a matter so intimately associated with women’s own bodies. While a range of African American female voices provided groundwork in the nineteenth century for these discussions (c.f. Athey), black female writers in the early twentieth-century still needed to find covert or oblique ways to express sexuality. Literary black women such as Nella Larsen and Jessie Fauset “could only hint at the idea of black women as sexual subjects behind the safe and protective covers of traditional narrative subjects and conventions,” explains Deborah McDowell (xiii). In the midst of these overt and covert battles, representations of African American women developed strict categorical boundaries that centered mainly around the presence or absence of sexuality.

[6] Even Jean Toomer, iconoclastic voice of the Harlem Renaissance, found it difficult to resist the pull of stereotype when characterizing the rural African American women of his 1923 experimental novel Cane,one of the most complex literary products to emerge during the Harlem Renaissance—and the text that sparked the literary branch of the movement according to many accounts. A self-declared racial border figure, Toomer clashed with the New Negro movement mostly because of its promotion of a separatist, often purist ideology, described by Alain Locke as a “renewed race-spirit that consciously and proudly sets itself apart” (introduction to New Negro xxvii). More interested in his identity as an American than as a “Negro,” Toomer never actively tried to pass as white (although he was often mistaken for white), but instead insisted on the diversity of his heritage. Much as Toomer resisted seeing the nation through a dichotomous black and white lens, he likewise resisted a well-packaged, consumable paring down of both his writing and his own heritage, identity, and authority as author, whether the pressure to simplify his identity came from his publisher or from the New Negro movement. In a 1923 letter, for example, Toomer excoriates Horace Liveright (one-half the namesake of his publishing company, Boni and Liveright) for trying to encourage him to sell himself as a “Negro” author. “I do not expect to be told what I should consider myself to be,” Toomer scolds. “As a Boni and Liveright author, I make the distinction between my fundamental position and the position which your publicity department may wish to establish for me in order that Cane reach as large a public as possible. . . . Feature Negro if you wish, but do not expect me to feature it in advertisements for you. I have sufficiently featured Negro in Cane” (Cane appendix 157).

[7] Members of the New Negro movement similarly disregarded Toomer’s insistence on the diversity of his identity. In his 1926 essay “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” Langston Hughes writes that, “Most of the colored people who did read Cane hate it. They are afraid of it. . . . [L]ike the singing of Robeson it is truly racial” (55, 58). Yet if his work is “truly racial,” why did Toomer withhold permission from Alain Locke to include two of his stories in the New Negroanthology (Hutchinson ix)? Toomer continued to resist what he saw as oversimplification of his identity, and to insist on his “amalgamated” background, portraying himself in his later essays as a representative of a U.S. that, he purported, was soon to overcome race prejudice with its constant if often unacknowledged cross-breeding. In the 1928 essay, “A Crock of Problems,” for example, Toomer asserts, largely in response to the spate of public poking and prodding into his race after the publication of Cane, that “It is evident that in point of fact none of the standard color labels fit me. I am not white. I am not black. I am not red. I am not yellow. I am not brown [, although] any one of these can be made to fit me; I can be tagged with anything” (56).

[8] Although Toomer seemed genuinely to believe in amalgamation as the best method for healing the racial woes of the nation, he failed to reconcile the ideological convergence between amalgamation and eugenic ideology, the latter of which had become common in the rhetoric of non-dominant groups in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries (Athey). In his 1929 essay “Race Problems and Modern Society,” Toomer echoes eugenic rhetoric of “stock” and “breeding” in portraying “the positive aspect of the race problem” as a need to consider the promotion of “a selective fusion of the racial and cultural factors of America, in order that the best possible stock and culture may be produced. This implies the need and desirability of breeding on the basis of biological fitness. It implies the need and desirability of existing and exchanging on the basis of intelligence, character, and ability. It means that the process of racial and cultural amalgamation should be guided by these standards” (74). Toomer then laments a general lack of action on the U.S. reproductive front: “We have, as I have said, enough knowledge to start solving this problem. Why don’t we do something?” he asks (Ibid.). Thus, although his main goal is not purity, but a stepped-up miscegenation (an ideology with roots in the writings of DuBois (Hasian Jr. 67)), Toomer ends up advancing a decidedly eugenic course of action.

[9] Women’s reproductive capacity places them at the center of Toomer’s project for the simple reason that no eugenic plan can be carried out—literally, no ideal race can be reproduced—without women’s reproductive help. Yet Cane, paradoxically, rather than hailing women as producers of a perfectly amalgamated race, instead appears obsessed with thwarting and threatening women’s reproduction, as if its author feels uncomfortable reducing their roles to breeders. Despite this ambivalence, Toomer’s drive to diversify America’s “new race” reduces the range of women’s identities; although he tries in Cane to present women who break stereotypes, they ultimately fall back into the niches carved out for them by both white and black society.

[10] Despite initially subversive intentions, then, Toomer’s complicated response to popular eugenic forces—a response formulated in resistance not only to American racism but also to the codification and purification of the “New Negro”—echoes restrictive efforts to police reproduction. His attempts in Cane to resist stereotype are visible and even valiant. Nevertheless, in a capitulation to the stereotypes endlessly reproduced by the culture at large, he ends up “selling” his women out by turning them into passive creatures subject to the whims of the reader’s voyeurism. Toomer’s struggles illustrate the ability of eugenic ideology to absorb forces created in opposition to its tenets, much as his attempts to encourage hybrid identities in his fiction ultimately result in the reduction of those identities. Further, while his black female characters fail to reproduce, this restriction on their literary reproduction paradoxically results in a proliferation rather than a reduction of stereotyped identities. My examination of Toomer’s acrobatic attempts to negotiate expression and co-optation in one of the literary works most celebrated by the New Negro movement develops a more complex picture not only of the power, but also the ubiquity, of eugenic ideology in the era. Eugenic thought, often dismissed as a popular fad or a mindset harbored by fringe enthusiasts, was not only a commanding, but also a colonizing presence during the Harlem Renaissance, which led even hard-thinking authors like Jean Toomer to sacrifice his female characters to the auction block, and to hawk rather than liberate their bodies.

Reproducing Propriety, Sexuality, and the American Citizen

[11] In some senses, Cane can be read as a representation of what it might mean to “do [the] something” that Toomer called for in “Race Problems and Modern Society,” and to take a few steps toward a national project of amalgamation. The novel would especially seem to welcome such a reading because of the praise it received for rupturing the veneer of decorum that dictated the social behavior of much of the African American middle-class, and particularly its women, at the turn of the century. W.E.B. DuBois, despite a social stance that had earlier verged on priggish in the name of “moral uplift,” was one of the first critics to praise Toomer for encouraging black sexuality by portraying somewhat “loose” African American women—women free of the social restrictions by which Miss Manners lorded (or “ladied”) over white middle-class women. In his review of Cane in The Crisis,DuBois wrote that “The world of black folk will some day arise and point to Jean Toomer as a writer who first dared to emancipate the colored world from the conventions of sex” (Cane appendix 170).  As George Hutchinson elaborates, “To Toomer, Hughes, and McKay—the first black writers to assault Victorian prudery in African-American literature directly, the example of [a sexually ‘liberated’] Whitman was far more important than the precepts of Freud, and the same can be said of many of the white people who took a serious interest in African-American culture during the Twenties” (110).

[12] Yet because of the power dynamics inherent in such a sexually subversive representation, African American men may have felt emancipated in throwing off their shackles of “purity,” but many African American women likely felt quite the opposite: confined, as if their brothers were selling them out (in the worst sense of the phrase) by putting them on display as specifically sexualized beings to market the race. When spared such public sexualization, African American women were instead called upon to actually reproduce the race. Shawn Michelle Smith highlights the contiguity of these two roles—roles with roots in the slave era, and which African American women were eager to escape. “As she was forced to serve as sexual surrogate for the ‘pure’ white woman,” writes Smith, the African American woman “was also forced to reproduce a flow of commodities through her own body” (46).

[13] By the time of the New Negro (also the height of eugenics and nativist modernism), that “flow” of human “commodities” was of course no longer channeled into the bondage of slavery at the moment of birth. The Civil War had ended over half a century ago, yet African American offspring continued to be inescapably politicized. Depending on one’s stance on race and the face of the nation, African American infants could signal either a boon or a threat to the makeup of the population—and in this age of high-powered nation-building, much of the white public consciousness was particularly concerned about the color of the bodies being reproduced. African American women became symbolic representatives of the potential for bodily subversion of the nation’s popular eugenic rhetoric. Thus, despite the implication that African American women were more “free,”  their identities were in many ways becoming increasingly restricted. Sexually charged praise such as DuBois’s, for example, set African American women up as weapons, or at least as argumentative tools, in the battle against eugenicists who were encouraging such women not to reproduce.

[14] Elise Johnson McDougald was one of the few Harlem Renaissance writers who tried to discuss African American women’s increasingly restricted identities. In her New Negro anthology essay, “The Task of Negro Womanhood,” McDougald describes African American women’s “double task”: “Pressure has been exerted upon her, both from without and within her group. Her emotional and sex life is a reflex of her economic station. . . . The Negro woman does not maintain any moral standard which may be assigned chiefly to qualities of race, any more than a white woman does. Yet she has been singled out and advertised as having lower sex standards” (379). “Advertised” here is a telling word, which emphasizes the role of the public image in restricting identity while reproducing stereotype. While white women’s reproduction, for example, generally signaled “mother” and its attendant images of a nuclear American family assumed white and middle class, for all intents and purposes the “mother” category wasn’t even open to African American women in their public representation. The tenacious “mammy” category, which continued to usurp the “mother” option for African American women, was explicitly non-reproductive, for a mammy’s focus must be devoted to her white masters’ and mistresses’ offspring, rather than to offspring of her own. A mere whiff of sexuality would shift an African American woman from “mammy” to “whore” status, barring entry not only to the “mother” option but also to the “virgin” option so “generously” offered to white women.

[15] To Toomer’s credit, however, the African American women ofCane don’t fit easily into the two categories of mammy and whore that they were generally afforded by the public sphere. They slip back and forth between the roles, much like Toomer’s own amalgamated identity slides between the elements of his myriad heritage. Yet although many of the women of Cane appear to have backgrounds as well amalgamated as Toomer’s, all of these women stop short of successful reproduction. In an ironic echo of the nativist rhetoric thriving in the heyday of eugenics (c.f. Hasian Jr. 53-54), Toomer later redefined Cane as an elegy, a “swan song” for a distinct African American identity (Rusch 24). “There is nothing about these pieces of the buoyant expression of a new race,” he wrote quite bluntly to Waldo Frank (Toomer 151). Toomer explains further that in “those pieces that come nearest to the old Negro, to the spirit saturated in folk-song, . . . the dominant emotion is a sadness derived from a sense of fading, from a knowledge of my futility to check solution” (Ibid.). The pull between these two readings—between the celebration of a thriving cultural identity that critics saw in the work, and Toomer’s funereal hymn of that same identity’s last throes—becomes a central theme in Cane: Toomer’s narrators idolize the novel’s rural women, yet the novel as a whole restricts their reproduction.

[16] The policing of these women’s reproduction becomes a version of popular eugenics flipped on its head as Cane develops its own hierarchy of “good” and “bad” genetic inheritance. “Well-mixed” characters, having balanced out the extremes of their “white” and “black” ancestry, are represented as more positive, while the novel’s poorly amalgamated characters are portrayed as ostracized and dysfunctional. This odd hierarchy of skin tone and heritage is most pronounced in the novel’s rural women: in general, the most positive women are well-mixed, the most negative women too light or too dark. Toomer is of course not a eugenicist; yet within his dark mirror of the mainstream eugenic universe, it’s specifically non-mixed or insufficiently mixed women—those too “African” or too light-skinned—whom Toomer’s swan song puts to rest, in a hierarchy that replicates rather than subverts the nation’s nativist bent toward exclusive heritage. Whereas eugenic ideology jealously guarded supposedly pure bloodlines, Toomer’s hierarchy of amalgamation instead—but almost as enthusiastically—lauds thoroughly mixed blood.

[17] More than simple evidence of his moral qualms, however, Toomer’s attempts to reconcile his burgeoning amalgamative ideology with the literary auctioning of Canes women betray a cognitive clash that shows itself in the complicated representations of the novel’s women. Whether out of a gallantry that would save them from base voyeurism, or out of the same stubbornness that sparked his resistance to his publishers’ marketing techniques, Toomer throughout the novel complicates the representations of these women at the same time that he polices their reproductive efforts. The result of these contradictory influences fills Toomer’s stories of the rural South with a motley collection of stillborns, orphans, and self-proclaimed virgins. All in all, Toomer presents the women of Cane as a series of mysterious and mysteriously erotic characters who cater to readers’ fascination with the life of the “American Negro”—and in the end, the only rural woman in Cane who has managed to reproduce is white.

Subversive Complexity, Stillborn Ambivalence

[18] Instances of failed reproduction in Cane far outweigh the book’s successful births, which are not only scarce but wholly metaphorical and atmospheric. In the closing play “Kabnis,” for example, the sun’s “birth-song” as a “Gold-glowing child” (117) is one among many examples of nature—the sun, the pines, the earth—gestating and thriving far more successfully than any of the humans in the novel. The book begins with a vignette about “Karintha,” whose skin is not black like night but of a slightly lighter color “like dusk, / When the sun goes down” (4). Although Karintha is clearly a well-amalgamated character “who carries beauty,” she is less capable of carrying a child, for she births what’s agreed by most critics to be a stillborn: “A child fell out of her womb onto a bed of pine-needles in the forest” (4). Another representation of failed reproduction is a graffitied black madonna mentioned in two of the stories. The madonna at first seems to signal a reproductive blessing. Her mention, however, ultimately marks not the reproductive miracle of immaculate conception, but rather two textual turning points of martyred reproductive failure. The book’s most explicit swan-song scenario is played out in its final pairing, as Carrie Kate—the most positive, and arguably the most carefully amalgamated character in the book—is matched up not with one of the story’s young, virile men, but with Father John, a blind and aged survivor from the slave era. Although the meeting of minds between Carrie Kate and Father John is oddly sexualized, it of course can’t prove reproductive (c.f. Blake 211).

[19] “For all the care the narrator lavishes upon them,” writes Charles Harmon, “characters like [the rural women] Karintha, Carma, and Fern remain symbols for the narrative voice, not equals with the narrative voice” (93). Although Toomer’s narrator changes somewhat in each story, his basic role as observer remains the same. The narrator represents Toomer’s memory of his time as a Northern interloper in the “true” black Georgia South, and is consistently either condescending toward or detached from Toomer’s fictionalized Southern characters—his female characters in particular. Viewed through the lens of Anne McClintock, Toomer’s detached representation of his amalgamated women reflects a “nationalistic” ideology despite the women’s ultimate failure to reproduce: “[T]he temporal anomaly within nationalism—veering between nostalgia for the past and the impatient, progressive sloughing off of the past—is typically resolved by figuring the contradiction in the representation oftime as a natural division of gender. Women are represented as the atavistic and authentic body of national tradition (inert, backward-looking, and natural), embodying nationalism’s conservative principle of continuity” (358). Toomer’s female symbols aren’t as neatly contained as McClintock’s statement would suggest, but the statement is nevertheless helpful in reading Canethe women’s childlike, “atavistic” status—characterized by a narrative detachment that will become more apparent in the next three sections—reduces them to symbols doomed to the past tense of Toomer’s swan song, making them also more “folk-like,” and by extension, more marketable.

[20] Thus, the symbolic status of these women streamlines their characters for “exchange” within the national literary marketplace. Berlant speaks of the effects of such stereotyping on the consumer marketplace more generally in her discussion of Delilah, the Aunt Jemima figure in Imitation of Life, who “can pass through American culture because she has given her body over to its representation of her subject position. Her very darkness, which over-embodies her in the national public sphere, also domesticates her, because she is entirely intelligible to the juridical satisfaction of the white mind” (126). Toomer’s ambivalence toward such a project of representative exchange, however, shows up in his slippery categorizations of his women, which make them not “entirely intelligible,” but much less neatly packaged than the market would like. To represent these blurred representations, I’ve divided Toomer’s rural women into two redefined categories: mother and (virgin). A third category, “whore,” needs no redefinition because African American women were “allowed” (if not forced) to adopt it.


[21] Especially in the post-reconstruction era, explains Robyn Wiegman, the perpetuation of racial stereotypes “offer[ed] the dominant culture a very powerful means through which the entire black population could be disciplined as innately—if no longer legally—inferior” (14). Wiegman here refers to the African American “rapist” male, but the tactic of dredging up a supposedly biological excuse to justify poor treatment of African Americans certainly applies as well to the stereotype of “loose” African American women—whose threat might have been less violent, but still presaged the same ultimate disaster of a “sullied” gene pool. Acting within this social context, however, the motives behind Toomer’s sexualization of African American women can also be read as a reclamation project, a means of representationally rehumanizing, after slavery, a population of bodies seen by much of the nation as less than human, and even androgynous. “In the conflict between scientific and popular constructions of the African (-American) as a species beneath ‘man,'” writes Wiegman, “and the political struggle for enfranchisement and human status, the claim to sex differences—to be a ‘man’ or ‘woman’—works to define and invoke a social subjectivity (and hence psychic interiority) previously denied the slave” (11). This regendering as a means of rehumanization after slavery, then, was echoed in the “resexualization” of women’s representations after the restrictive propriety of the postemancipation era.

[22] Characters like Karintha, however, illustrate the casualties that can result from such a “humanizing” representation of sexuality—the type of newly sexualized representation for which DuBois and others praised CaneSuch characters emphasize instead the point where sexualized “humanization” of women again becomes dehumanizing, cheapening the women themselves as their sexuality is translated to a less complicated, marketable symbol. According to Toomer’s narrator, Karintha was virtually born sexualized, for “Men had always wanted her, this Karintha, even as a child” (3). The reader becomes entranced, lulled by Toomer’s lush description of Karintha’s beauty and the rhythm of his prose so as nearly to miss these details that mention the stillborn child that “fell out of her womb” in the forest (4). Perhaps her beauty doesn’t positively influence her character precisely because it’s “carried” like a baby, a separate being—and in fact, in an extension of this gestational metaphor, the reader discovers at the end of the story that Karintha’s “beauty” is as stillborn as her baby, that “the soul of [Karintha] was a growing thing ripened too soon” (4). Many have read this phrase as an elliptical reinforcement of other hints in the story that Karintha turned to prostitution. Whether or not Toomer intended such a specific reading of Karintha’s fate, what’s clear in this vignette is not only the clash between humanizing sexuality and the dehumanizing market of bodily exchange that drives men to “all want to bring her money” (4), but also, overall, the uncertain standing of Karintha between these two poles. Karintha’s most clearly defined characterization, after all, is not as a mother, but as a failed mother.

[23] Thus, this first story perhaps makes the most sense as an attempt by Toomer at the start of the book to acknowledge his frustration with the misreading of black women—the absorption of the stereotyped image of the sexualized black female into the racist imaginary and the economy of exchange on which eugenics is built. Not only does the story repeatedly mention that “Young men all want to bring her money” because of her beauty, but these men more explicitly “counted the time to pass before she would be old enough to mate with them” (3). At the end of the story’s three pages, however, the narrator writes that their efforts have failed—and the first of Cane‘s African American women fails to reproduce. Although Karintha’s failure to reproduce could be seen as a capitulation to the eugenic national imaginary, which saw Karintha as a threat to the gene pool, it’s also an attempt to protect her from being reabsorbed into the societal structure that marks her as a purely sexual, stereotyped being. “They will bring their money; they will die not having found it out” (4), writes the detached narrator, as Toomer ultimately thwarts Karintha’s easy exchange in the literary marketplace: not only are the young men incapable of “finding [her] out,” but the vague ending leaves Karintha elusive to the reader.


[24] Perhaps the most diversely amalgamated woman in the book is Fern, who prompts the narrator, enchanted by both her eyes and “the creamy brown color of her upper lip” (16), to hear “at first sight of her . . . a Jewish cantor sing” (17). The narrator in “Fern” seems especially concerned with his audience’s reaction to his inability to neatly “read” and represent this exceptionally amalgamated black/white/Jewish subject; she always manages to slip out from under his attempts at description, and he repeatedly implores the reader for input, asking “What could I do for her?” and “Would you tell your wife or sweetheart about a girl you saw? Your thoughts can help me, and I would like to know” (18).

[25] What makes Fern a source of particular anxiety for the narrator, however, is her refusal to reproduce. Rather than passing her well-amalgamated blood on to a new generation, she “became a virgin” in the eyes of the men in her town; thus, in contrast to Karintha, Fern chooses sexual absence over the sexual excess traditionally slapped onto attractive African American women. “A sort of superstition crept into their consciousness of her being somehow above them,” explains the narrator. “Being above them meant that she was not to be approached by anyone—she became a virgin. Now a virgin in a small Southern town is by no means the usual thing, if you will believe me. That the sexes were made to mate is the practice of the South. Particularly, black folks were made to mate” (16-17). The only way Fern can accomplish this category shift for herself is consciously to disassociate herself from her black body, which the men of the town, in keeping with the dominant stereotype, initially viewed as sexualized: “When she was young, a few men took her, but got no joy from it,” explains the narrator. “Men were everlastingly bringing her their bodies, [but] something inside of her got tired of them, I guess” (16).

[26] Appropriately, given Fern’s attempt to will herself a virgin, this is the first story in which the black madonna is mentioned. The narrator tells of a black woman who “once saw the mother of Christ and drew her on the courthouse wall” (19)—in charcoal, of course, rather than in white chalk. Fern’s black-Jewish self, however, proves not truly viable as a madonna: in her almost purely representative role, Fern has become iconized like the madonna, even “atavistic” in McClintock’s sense, “resting listless-like on the railing of her porch, back propped against a post, head tilted a little forward because there was a nail in the porch post just where her head came which for some reason or other she never took the trouble to pull out” (17). Yet unlike the madonna, Fern fails at her seeming attempts to reproduce immaculately. Like a doll on a hook, or more pointedly, perhaps, like a figure of already crucified martyrdom (c.f. Westerfield), Fernie May Rosen’s mere existence for the narrator as a beautiful product of American amalgamation accomplishes nothing—and even breeds frustration—in its barely registered presence. According to this narrator, white society can’t comprehend Fern’s attractiveness: “What white men thought of Fern I can arrive at only by analogy. They let her alone” (17). In a similar untranslatability of categories and stereotypes, it seems that the immaculate conception symbolized by the black madonna simply can’t apply to an African American body, and the narrator ends the story with a more vague impression of religious transcendence. As if Fern’s category subversion breaks even the boundary between her skin and the landscape around it, the narrator “from a train window . . . [s]aw her face flow into them, the countryside and something that I call God, flowing into them” (19).

[27] Despite her representation as a nonreproductive enigma, Fern’s amalgamative background grounds her in comparison to Esther, a near-white character of (so Toomer implies) poorly amalgamated blood. The story “Esther” represents Cane‘s most explicit clash between Toomer’s battling impulses to foster an “amalgamative hierarchy” among his characters, and to play to marketplace expectations by employing recognizable stereotypes. Too-white Esther is devoid of the sexuality of the previous characters; she spends her life detached from society and from her own body, yet obsessed with the “magnificent, black-skinned Negro” named Barlo. The hierarchy of amalgamation is clear from the story’s opening: “Esther’s hair falls in soft curls about her high-cheek-boned chalk-white face. Esther’s hair would be beautiful if there were more gloss to it. And if her face were not prematurely serious, one would call it pretty. Her cheeks are too flat and dead for a girl of nine.” Her father is considered black, but also light-skinned, and Esther “looks like a little white child, starched, frilled, as she walks slowly from her home towards her father’s grocery store” (22). Too “white” to possess sexual allure within her community, Esther is presented, even as she grows older, as devoid of sexual attractiveness, unfit for exchange as a stereotyped commodity. She instead absorbs the “appropriate” desexualized mores for her near-white skin—the strictures of Hughes’ Philadelphia club women—without conscious effort, or without even realizing that she has them. “Black folk who drift in to buy lard and snuff and flour of her call her a sweet-natured, accommodating girl. She learns their names. She forgets them” (24).

[28] It seems no coincidence, given Toomer’s underlying critique of non-amalgamated blood, that Esther’s light-skinned father is not only the “richest black man in town,” but also the townsperson portrayed with the least depth (the least bodily presence), because of the ease with which he plays up African American stereotypes to bolster his business. When Esther finishes school and begins to work for her father at age twenty-two (“To keep the money in the family”), he explains that “‘Good business comes from remembering that the white folks don’t divide the niggers, Esther. Be just as black as any man who has a silver dollar'” (24). From growing up in her father’s store, Esther has already internalized the workings of an economic system and, sensing her unsuitability for the sexual market, thinks to herself, “I don’t appeal to [men]. I wonder why” (24). She instead sets herself up (much like her Biblical counterpart) as a gift rather than as collateral, and prepares to hand herself over to Barlo, the love—really, the obsession—of her life. Given the “lopsided” amalgamation of her body, to offer herself to a dark-skinned man is not only a means of finding substance for herself, but also potentially of planting the seed for an infant body with a more grounded substance.

[29] The novel’s second mention of the graffitied black madonna serves as a catalyst for Barlo, Esther’s obsession, to leave town for the first time in the story. Esther is only nine at this point, but Barlo leaves “his image indelibly” upon her mind. “This much is certain,” says this narrator—a narrator much more matter-of-fact than the narrative persona of “Fern”—”an inspired Negress, of wide reputation for being sanctified, drew a portrait of a black madonna on the courthouse wall” (23). The placement of this mention of the madonna hints that Esther’s obsession, perhaps because of her own lack of bodily substance, is guaranteed not to be physically consummated—only immaculately imagined. Appropriately, at age sixteen, Esther conjures up yet another of Cane‘s not-quite-realized offspring. She daydreams of a fire—a clear metaphor for sex, or at least desire, throughout the novel—which the men of the town attempt to fuel with squirts of tobacco juice while “fat chunky Negro women, lean scrawny white women, pull their skirts up above their heads and display the most ludicrous underclothes.” All this fiery desire, thinly veiled ejaculation, and visions of “ludicrous” women’s drawers add up to a baby in Esther’s dream world. Since “the women scoot in all directions from the danger zone, . . . she alone is left to take the baby in her arms. But what a baby! Black, singed, woolly, tobacco-juice baby—ugly as sin. Once held to her breast, miraculous thing: its breath is sweet and its lips can nibble. She loves it frantically. Her joy in it changes the town folks’ jeers to harmless jealousy, and she is left alone” (24). Others may see her dream-baby’s dark skin as “singed” and hideous, but Esther sees it as a means of saving herself from her whiteness, her evacuated character. For Esther to focus on another, darker body is to ignore the fact that she herself is so little in her own body; both her imagined construction of Barlo and her imagined child serve as surrogate substance for the light-skinned, hardly present Esther—and this surrogate substance imaginatively “engenders [her] future,” in Hortense Spillers’ phrase (468). Quite bluntly, the narrator reconnects race to this scene’s defused sexuality by explaining in the next section that Esther’s obsession with Barlo helps her “listlessly [forget] that she is near white, and that her father is the richest colored man in town” (24).

[30] When Esther reaches age twenty-seven, Barlo returns to town. As Esther leaves work to prepare for her life’s mission of “giving” herself to Barlo, the narrator writes that “Her mind is a pink meshbag filled with baby toes” (26). This is debatably the most surreal line in the book, and the surprise of its oddity leaves it open to a number of interpretations. The fact that the image is populated by baby toes, rather than entire babies—in a meshbag, no less, which a) makes the toes visible from the outside, and b) is likely to lose a handful of toes through its holes—suggests that Esther’s reproductive potential is warped by her obsession. In keeping with Toomer’s larger pattern of foiling reproduction—especially of ill-amalgamated figures—Esther’s imagined reproduction fails to engender solid bodies, producing only parts, toes, as representations of her lack of a solid identity.

[31] As one could easily predict, hapless Esther’s pilgrimage turns sour when she finally meets Barlo. Dazed by her sexual anticipation, she comes face-to-face with Barlo for the first time, and he’s as aware of her skin tone as she has been of his: “Well, I’m sholy damned,” he exclaims, “—skuse  me, but what, what brought you here, lil milk-white gal?” (26). Esther’s lifelong dream is almost instantly disfigured in the face of Barlo’s bodily reality, her actual encounter with “real” bodily substance, for “She sees a smile, ugly and repulsive to her, working upward through thick licker fumes. Barlo seems hideous” (27). Reproductive potential is yet again thwarted as “The thought comes suddenly, that conception with a drunken man must be a mighty sin.” The implosion of Esther’s dream sucks her vision of the rest of the town away with it, for when she steps outside, “There is no air, no street, and the town has completely disappeared” (27). Any substance that Esther had envisioned in Barlo disappears, and she becomes even more thoroughly disembodied than before. Much as Fern’s category-subverting identity became part of the landscape, Esther disappears, and the town disappears along with her. As with the rest of Toomer’s listless women, Esther represents in her bodily absence an inability for such complicated citizens—for citizens whose insides don’t match their outsides, who can’t be translated into a system of exchange founded on stereotypes—to even register, ultimately, in the economy of exchange that constitutes their literary existence.


[32] Almost a mirror opposite of Esther, Carma’s “outside” doesn’t match her “inside” desires either, for although she has a “yellow flower face,” her complexion is “mangrove-gloomed” (12). The narrator observes Carma “strong as any man,” standing dressed in overalls “behind the old brown mule, driving the wagon home . . . [, a] Nigger woman driving a Georgia chariot down an old dust road” (12). Although not as feminine as Toomer’s other rural women, Carma’s sexuality is not in question, for while her husband was away at work, “She had others. No one blames her for that” (13). What they do blame Carma for is trying to deny her sexual exploits to her husband, pretending to shoot herself as a ploy for sympathy, and driving him so crazy that he slashes another man with a knife and ends up in a chain gang. At the end of “Carma,” the narrator claims to have told this brief story in “the crudest melodrama,” and Carma does fit the white readership’s melodramatic stereotypes of a mix between “dark” African sexuality and a “tragic mulatta” octoroon. The only difference from a standard melodrama is that this background music, far from syrupy, emanates from Carma’s body, for Carma “does not sing; her body is a song” (12), which clashes with her light-skinned face as it sings of “juju men, greegree, [and] witch-doctors,” with “The Dixie Pike” on which she drives her wagon “grown from a goat path in Africa” (12). As her name implies, Carma is “fated” to fade with the background music that accompanies the melodrama of Toomer’s swan song: her stereotyped image is represented, even lauded, but this oversexualized stereotype of the “African” (or Africanist) woman has sold too well on the literary market, has been too well internalized by a white readership fascinated with African primitivism. Carma’s self-destruction suggests that in Toomer’s eyes, her image must not be reproduced.

[33] In a further attempt to blast the oversexualization of African American women, the only other rural woman that fits into this category is Becky, a white welfare mom of sorts. Becky has birthed two half-black sons who have left her, yet her outright rejection by the community because of this mixed-race reproduction classifies her as a “whore” rather than a “mother.” Toomer simply including a subversive character like Becky could be seen as a political move that flew in the face of both sides of the black/white societal dichotomy. As Smith writes, dark-skinned women weren’t the only bodies enlisted for eugenic warfare in this era, for “as the criminal [and non-white] body was being scientifically essentialized, women’s sexuality itself was demonized as potentially criminal essence. . . . Thus, while her racial identity was essentialized at the top of a biological hierarchy, the white woman’s sexuality was posed as a force that threatened to destabilize not only her own social position but also the racial hierarchy she was expected to reproduce” (148). Toomer narratively acknowledges that to have breached racial lines with her reproductive capacity leaves Becky exiled in a no-man’s-land: he sets Becky at a literal “crossroads,” his description reminiscent of (yet predating) Langston Hughes’ poem “Cross,” as he plunks her shack down in the middle of a railroad intersection and forces the narrator to acknowledge his own role—as a judgmental, complicit local townsperson—in Becky’s plight.

[34] Echoing many traditional community rituals of shunning, Becky is repeatedly referred to as “dead” before she literally is. Becky’s two “Negro” sons are “no-good,” but most striking is the detail that, according to the narrator, they’re not at first amalgamated: their mother is white, yet they are black, with no mention of mixing between the blood of mother and offspring. The sons’ inheritance of Becky’s shunned status translates in the white public eye as black heritage, and in the black public eye as tainted with white heritage. “White or colored?” asks the narrator. The narrator thus ignores the absurd technicality of the “one drop rule,” yet nevertheless, as a representative of the general community resistant to the concept of amalgamation, he is unable to conceive of a third hybrid reading of Becky’s children. “No one knew [the sons’ race], and least of all themselves. They drifted around from job to job”(8), explains the narrator. Since their amalgamated background doesn’t register in this racially divided community, they must leave, unable to exist anywhere except on the “crossroads.”

[35] Given Toomer’s repeated emphasis of identity confusion arising from an ill-amalgamated heritage, however, it becomes clear that the sons’ poor mix of black and white blood, rather than one blood or the other, is responsible for their “turning bad.” As the narrator questions his own role in the family’s fate, Toomer criticizes the townspeople’s inability to accept either the boys’ category-subverting identities or Becky’s “freed” sexual mores, which prove to work quite differently for white women than for black women, especially when miscegenation is involved: “We, who had cast out their mother because of them, could we take them in? They answered blacks and white folks by shooting up two men and leaving town. ‘Goddamn the white folks; goddamn the niggers,’ they shouted as they left town. Becky? Smoke curled up from her chimney; she must be there” (8).

[36] When Becky’s shack collapses at the end of the story, the narrator rides up to it with Barlo, the same dark-skinned itinerant preacher from the story “Esther.” “Barlo, mumbling something, threw his Bible on the pile” under which he believed Becky’s body lay. “(No one has ever touched it),” adds the narrator, seemingly ashamed, and the story ends with an image of the Bible “flap[ping] its leaves with an aimless rustle on her mound” (9)—figuratively, on Becky’s now sterile genital “mound.” Just as the black madonna failed to transform Fern into a positive symbol, this halfhearted attempt at a religious blessing—especially because of its masculinized, almost territorial valence—does little for Becky upon her death, even if she serves as a martyr from the reader’s perspective. Toomer instills humanity back into a figure like Becky (Gubar 225), who has been shunned by both factions in her community: in the white community, for her reproductive “destabilization” as Smith puts it, and in the black community for her taboo boundary crossing, which is interpreted as an unconvincing and unacceptable shunning of her own “proper” race. More to the point, however, this emphasis on Becky’s “mound,” no longer reproductive, illustrates her role in Toomer’s predominantly African American swan song not as a surrogate mother, but as a surrogate whore. Thus Toomer, rather than eradicating the stereotype of illegitimate reproduction traditionally ascribed to African American women, simply displaces it onto Becky, while her sons get recategorized as black rather than white.

A Stereotypical Liberation

[37] In Against RacePaul Gilroy notes that iconized identity “ceases to be an ongoing process of self-making and social interaction. It becomes instead a thing to be possessed and displayed. It is a silent sign that closes down the possibility of communication across the gulf between one heavily defended island of particularity and its equally well fortified neighbors, between one national encampment and others” (103). As may be expected of any public figure, Toomer’s ideology over the course of his career contained contradictions, yet he always seems to have instinctively recognized the damage that stereotypes—whether self-constructed or societally constructed—could inflict upon individuals, a race, and a nation.

[38] Part of what fueled the Harlem Renaissance in the broader public eye, however, was the power of its stereotypes, not of its iconoclastic representations. Selling Cane involved a different language than writingCaneas an advertisement for the book in that same Survey Graphic issue suggests. A N.Y. Evening Postreviewer writes thatCane “achieve[s] striking effects,” and that Toomer’s “style is peculiarly suited to the subject—the Negro on the plantations of Georgia and in the crowded tenements of Washington” (Wintz 179). Thankfully, the ad contains a picture of Toomer rather than seemingly random female figures, yet it still hawks the promise of voyeurism. Although this voyeurism is verbal rather than visual, and thus somewhat more subtle, potential readers nevertheless are, as in theCrisis ad, offered a glimpse into a foreign and exotic world. This foreign and exotic world is of course populated with foreign and exotic women, and when Toomer repeatedly comments on white men’s detachment from the action of the stories, he ends up fueling this impression that white readers are getting an “exclusive peek” into the “Negro” world. When the character Esther first falls in love with Barlo, for example, “white men, unaware of him, continue squirting tobacco juice in his direction” (22), which suggests that the white reader is able to see what these men don’t see. Remember too that in “Fern,” the narrator stops the story to mention that “it is black folks whom I have been talking about thus far. What white men thought of Fern I can arrive at only by analogy” (17), again suggesting that the reader has been granted a privileged look into a world barred to or ignored by the average white reader. Whether sexualized or desexualized, the representation of the novel’s rural women always depends on somerelation to sexuality, which ultimately, despite Toomer’s efforts to blur their stereotypes, does little to free African American women from the stereotypes and voyeurism circulating in American society as a whole.

[39] As Tim Armstrong puts it, symbolic sexual “liberation” can be taken only so far under the rubric of a literary and cultural movement: “Women might be liberated from convention and sexual restraint, but not at the risk of jeopardizing their role as guardians of the future” (109). Toomer may have managed to thwart the reproduction of the women of Cane, which popular eugenics, the New Negro movement, and the nativist branch of modernism were all trying to conscript them to play, albeit in vastly different ways. Yet he nevertheless polices these women, dictating the terms of their imprisonment within their voyeuristic literary universe, and thus reiterating the policing of women that was taking place on a national scale during the eugenic era.

Sincerest thanks to Hamilton Carroll, Shane Graham, Susan Gubar, Joan Hawkins, Crystal Keels, Ann Kibbey, Kyle Schlabach, Laura Shackelford, Tyrone Simpson, Becky Wood, my Genders readers, and particularly Eva Cherniavsky for their incisive comments on numerous versions of this article.

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