In 1923, Jean Toomer published Cane, a collection of stories, poems, plays, and drawings about Black life in the South. Critics loved this unusual book, and it influenced writers who would go on to create the Harlem Renaissance of literary fame. This book inspired Langston Hughes to write about interracial relationships in the South, and it inspired Zora Neale Hurston to write about the Black South lovingly, with hope for the future.
After Cane, Toomer was no longer included in White literary circles, and he never belonged to any Black ones. Cane disappeared in the mid to late 1920s, so not much was learned about Toomer’s life until Cane was reissued in 1969 during the Black studies movement. Arna Bontemps had access to the Special Collections at Fisk University, and she wrote about Toomer’s life for the first time after going through his autobiographical writings.
Unfortunately, Toomer died in 1967, but we do know that he lived in Washington D.C. and that he lived with his grandparents while they were dying. Toomer did not live in the South; Cane was inspired by a three-month trip to Georgia. We also know that Toomer felt somewhat conflicted about his racial identity.
The Wayward and the Seeking is a collection of writings that brought to life new facts about Toomer’s life. His mother is described as a smart woman who struggled against a domineering father all her life. She died when Toomer was fifteen, probably of a home abortion. Toomer’s grandfather also ruled over his grandmother, who had some African blood, until he became very ill. Only near death did Toomer’s grandmother become truly alive.
Reader’s will interpret Toomer’s chosen racial identification in different ways. Some will be upset to know that Toomer lived as a White man and blinded himself to the realities of American racism.
When he attended the University of Wisconsin, Toomer had to quit playing football because his teammates mistook him for Native American and tormented him. Other than that incident, Toomer passed as White without question. After Cane, Toomer wrote mostly about White people. He never portrayed racism in his books, either.
Some readers will be proud that Jean Toomer defied racial stereotypes and labeled himself only as American. Others will read Toomer as an opportunist who took his first chance to pass as White. Toomer’s grandfather, who was White or mostly White, led Union troops in the South during the Civil War. When the war was over, he claimed to have Black blood until he gained quite a bit of political power. After he gained office, he did nothing to help Black people, but grew very rich.
Toomer’s opportunism went both ways. He used his Black blood to get Cane excerpts published in the Liberator. After the book was published, though, he wouldn’t let himself be marketed as a Black writer. He married a White novelist who died a year later, then remarried another White woman and lived with Quakers. He died at seventy-three in a nursing home.
Walker interprets Cane as Toomer’s good-bye to Black life. Toomer seemed to love Black life, but chose to live as White instead.