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Jean Toomer and Politics: Introduction

Gino Michael Pellegrini

The occasion that brings this special session roundtable together at the 2012 MLA Annual Conference is the recent publication of the second Norton Critical Edition of Jean Toomer’s Cane, in which the editors Rudolph Byrd and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. articulate their provocative new thesis that Toomer “was a Negro who decided to pass for white” (lxx). More specifically, they depict Toomer in their “Introduction” as a self-serving, disingenuous, and conflicted individual who saw Cane as a means to escape his black ancestry and pass into a life of white privilege. They wonder, given the highly segregated milieu in which he grew up, how he could have possibly reached the conclusion that he was not a Negro, but the embodiment of a new race, and the harbinger of a new America. They conclude that he was an anomaly not only within the black community but also within his own family given that Federal Census records show that his “mother, father, grandfather, and grandmother all self-identified as Negroes” (lxvi).

With their provocative new thesis, Byrd and Gates have created the need for additional critical conversations about his work, life, and legacy. Indeed, they express their “hope” in their Chronicle article that the new edition and, in particular, the genealogical documents they provide, will quote “provoke discussion and debate” about Toomer and lead to readings that are more “sympathetic” than theirs. Hence, they are likely pleased that we are gathered here to challenge their reading of Toomer.

Specifically, presenters in this roundtable agree that the Byrd/Gates thesis deflects critical attention away from what might be most relevant in Toomer for contemporary audiences—namely, his political vision. In other words, Byrd and Gates impede readers from working toward a sound understanding of Toomer and Cane by neglecting the question of his politics. In opposition to Byrd and Gates, presenters in this roundtable will deliver papers that foreground, examine, and flesh out Jean Toomer the political radical. Though presenters differ in their interpretations, a common aim amongst presenters is to investigate, recover, and delineate the ideas, intellectual influences, tensions, circumstances, and limitations within Toomer’s milieu that constituted his political vision. Another important aim of this roundtable is to contemporize Toomer’s vision. That is, we want to consider how his vision, however construed, might constructively address present-day stalemates over issues of multi-culture, identity politics, class, amalgamation, and solidarity.

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