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An Overview of the Event: Jean Toomer and Politics at the 2012 MLA

By Gino Pellegrini

This is my general overview of the “Jean Toomer and Politics” special session roundtable at the 2012 MLA Annual Convention. First, I want to thank Professors Barbara Foley, Charles Scruggs, and Belinda Wheeler for their excellent presentations, and a special thanks to Professor George Hutchinson for starting the Q & A. I am very much looking forward to continuing this conversation!

In her presentation, Belinda Wheeler focused on the “documents” (census, marriage, and draft) that Byrd and Gates include in the second Norton Critical Edition of Cane to support their claim that Toomer was a Negro who passed as white. Wheeler discussed how the documents, when examined carefully and in aggregate, weaken their claim. The documents show (and this is a point that Barbara Foley also made) that Toomer sometimes identified as black and sometimes as white at different junctures in his life, and this assumes that it was Toomer who actually authored the documents. In countering their claim, Wheeler also drew upon interviews that she had conducted with Susan Sandberg, the daughter of Marjorie Content, Toomer’s second wife, as well as with Jill Quasha, a friend of Sandberg and Content who knew the family well and authored a book on Content’s photography. Toomer was married to Content from 1934 until his death in 1967, and Wheeler’s important biographic research sheds light on how Toomer, post-Cane, identified and lived. Her interviews suggest that Toomer did not waver from his basic position that he was an American, neither black nor white, and that he tried to live his life free from the influence of racial categories and standards.

In his presentation, Charles Scruggs took issue with Byrd and Gates’s exclusion of Toomer’s political articles from 1919 as well as their disregard of the economic theme that is omnipresent in Cane. He found it curious that Byrd and Gates included essays by Foley and Pellegrini (both reference his political articles) in the second edition, but then made no mention of them in their sixty-three page introduction.  Regarding scholarly flaws, Scruggs criticized Byrd and Gates for referring to Cane as a novel; it is more accurately described as a short-story cycle such as Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio or Faulkner’s Go Down, Moses. Scruggs also questioned why Byrd and Gates had not defined and/or qualified their use of the term Lost Generation to classify Toomer and the group of artists and intellectuals to which he belonged (Young America), which included individuals such Randolph Bourne, Waldo Frank, Van Wyck Brooks, Sherwood Anderson, Lewis Mumford, Hart Crane, Gorham Munson, Georgia O’Keefe, Alfred Stieglitz, and others. Finally, Scruggs suggested that it was Mumford, not Frank, who possibly exerted the greatest influence on Toomer and Cane.

In her presentation, Barbara Foley suggested that the many scholarly flaws in the second edition are the result of Byrd and Gates’s “overreliance on secondary sources and failure to visit the archive.” Like Scruggs, she took issue with their exclusion of Toomer’s political writings, and their attempt to obscure his engagement with the ideas and politics of the radical left. Foley expressed her concern that Byrd and Gates, in their attempt to advance their own argument, impede readers from following “lines of inquiry” about Toomer and Cane that are of great importance within our current milieu. Foley also argued that Toomer continued to identify as a Negro writer after the publication of Cane—for example, in “The Negro Emergent” (1925).  Toomer’s Negro identity “bears a close resemblance to the class-conscious and militant New Negro of A. Philip Randolph and Chandler Owen’s black Marxist journal the Messenger,” and can be understood in opposition to Alain Locke’s pro-capitalist, culturalist conception of the New Negro.

My presentation focused on the relationship between Toomer’s political/artistic vision and cultural pluralism, which we know today as multiculturalism. I claimed that his vision is incompatible with the cultural pluralisms of his mentors, Alain Locke and Waldo Frank. I made the point that many of the unresolvable tensions in Cane can be attributed to the young Toomer’s inability to clearly see this incompatibility—hence, his attempt to account for both “Negro and mixed-blood America” and to write as both a Negro and as a representative of mixed-blood America. Further, I suggested that his ugly breakup with Locke and Frank after the publication of Cane is indicative of his eventual realization that the vision he wanted to develop was at odds with both their versions of cultural pluralism—cosmopolitan or not. In particular, I discussed how Toomer’s post-Cane writings reveal that, in comparison to his mentors, he held divergent views on amalgamation, social assimilation, big business, and the power of the Anglo-Saxon group.  Finally, I discussed how Toomer’s views on amalgamation and the American state anticipate, in many respects, the post-ethnic, cosmopolitan perspective that historian David Hollinger has developed over the past two decades.

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5 Comments
  1. Year 2013 is the 90th anniversary of the novel Cane… We invite you submit to our CFP….
    Reflection, Reconnection and Renaissance: Jean Toomer’s Cane 90th Anniversary
    http://www.lorettagreenwilliams.com/Ethnographic-Case-Study.html

    October 16, 2012
  2. Your arguments haven’t evolved much since the 1990s. You attribute way too much causality to the NAACP and the African-American group for the demise of the multiracial option.

    I do agree though that the Interracial Voice should be given its fair due for playing a significant historical role in the development of the current multiracial identity movement. It was followed by college students, journalists, activists, academics, and the general public. Not all of the contributors and participants shared the same political views as Newt Gingrich and Ward Connerly. Charles Byrd should not have allowed Connerly to appropriate the website for his own political project.

    Also, what do you mean by “those who want complete freedom”?

    June 5, 2012
  3. It should be obvious, even if you haven’t had personal experience with this issue, that many people are frightened into publicly claiming a “black” identity when they really don’t want one. Nearly all writers for Interracial Voice received threats (racial name-calling, violence) from black-identified individuals for daring to challenge the “one drop” myth. It was the NAACP that led the charge against a simple “multiracial” option for the census, arguing that anyone who admits to being part-black becomes part of the collective property of blacks. The opposition didn’t come from “whites.” Without the opposition of blacks, you can bet that the “multiracial” option would have had little or no controversy.

    Now we face the prospect of seeing the activists of the multiracial movement written out of history by black-identified academics who lie about the movement. Students don’t even have access to primary documents of the movement – only secondary sources telling lies about us.

    It was a miracle that we even got the inadequate “check all that apply” option. We did create a respectability for mixed-race identifies that didn’t exist before. Furthermore, we did all this even though we are people of moderate income (no billionaire sugar daddies) and were total neophytes when it came to lobbying Congress. Yet, I have read “scholarly” books and articles claiming that the movement was started by Newt Gingrich, the media, white women in “interracial” marriages (no multiracial adults). It makes me want to scream. Hint: Any “scholar” who uses the term “multiracial project” is a liar; there is no such thing. Danzy Senna, with her mythological “Mulatto Millennium,” is a liar. The multiracial movement is very diverse and not at all centralized. I would say that the main divide is between those who want complete freedom (including the choice to be “white”) and those who still believe in the division of mankind into allegedly pure “whites” and so-called “people of color” (which might as well be called “Aryan” and “non-Aryan,” for all the sense it makes).

    June 4, 2012
  4. Dear AD,

    Thanks for your comments on Jean Toomer and Politics. I remember you from Interracial Voice and the Mavin discussion board. I remember that Toomer was very important for Charles Byrd. More than a decade has passed since then. I sympathize with your take on political project of Gates Inc., though I do not agree with you that Toomer should never be called black. Toomer also spent much of his life performing blackness, though there is the question of which definition of the Negro he subscribed to. There were competing definitions of the New Negro during the Harlem Renaissance. Barbara Foley suggests that he continued to identify as a Negro in leftist terms through 1927.

    May 22, 2012
  5. I am glad that Gates and Byrd are being challenged. Gates, especially has made a career out of “racial/ethnic kidnapping” or claiming mixed-whites and other non-blacks for the “African American” racial category. In other words, Gates has devoted his career to promoting the “one drop” myth. As we know from the work of Daniel Sharfstein, Frank W. Sweet, Ariela Gross, Peggy Pascoe and others, there is no clear dividing line between “white” and other “races,” nor has “Negro blood” by itself banished anyone from the “white race.” It is clear that Jean Toomer was “performing whiteness” for the great majority of his life. He should never be called “black” or “African American,” nor should anyone else that Gates and his ilk accuse of “passing for white.” In other words, stop claiming mixed-whites (Belle da Costa Green, James Augustine Healy and his siblings, etc.) as lighter versions of “black.”

    January 13, 2012

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