A New Look At The Life Of Jean Toomer

Jean Toomer received much acclaim for his portrait of African-American life in the early 20th century in his 1923 book Cane. The Harlem Renaissance author wrote vivid vignettes in a series of poems and short stories in the book. Next week, the book will be re-released with a new introduction written by Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates and Emory University scholar Rudolph Byrd. In the 70-page introduction, the two scholars write that Toomer, a light-skinned black man of mixed heritage, chose to live much of his life as a black man passing as white. NPR's Robert Siegel talks with Byrd about the life of Toomer.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Jean Toomer was a writer whose 1923 book "Cane" wove poetry, prose and drama into its glimpses of African-American life in the early 20th century. "Cane" earned him a place among the leading lights of the Harlem Renaissance, and a new edition of the book has a different take on Toomer's life.

Toomer was a light-skinned man who spoke of himself as being neither white nor black. Well, two scholars of African-American literature, Henry Louis Gates Jr. of Harvard and Professor Rudolph Byrd of Emory University contribute an introduction to the new book, which is to be published next week.

And they conclude that Toomer - his writings notwithstanding - lived much of his life as a black man passing for white. Their investigation is one of both textual criticism and genealogical research.

Professor Byrd joins us now. Professor Gates is not with us because his father, Henry Louis Gates Sr., passed away this week, and we send our condolences.

Professor Byrd, welcome to the program.

Professor RUDOLPH BYRD (African-American Studies, Emory University): Mr. Siegel, it's a pleasure to be with you.

SIEGEL: And your conclusions are based on both facts and a reading of those facts. First, what did you find out?

Prof. BYRD: Oh, the newly unearthed facts are in census records. There's a draft registration and his marriage license. The census records list Toomer as white. The draft registrations record Toomer as Negro. And then, the marriage license lists both the bride and groom as white.

What is fascinating about these findings is that, first of all, this is information that has been overlooked, and so it adds an important dimension to the long speculation about Toomer's racial ancestry, which really began with the publication of "Cane" in 1923.

SIEGEL: Now, Toomer, in writings, distanced himself from the label Negro.

Prof. BYRD: Yes.

SIEGEL: But he did speak of lots of different blood that flowed in his veins.

Prof. BYRD: Yes.

SIEGEL: And he described himself as someone who had spent some years of his life - as they said in the day - in colored schools...

Prof. BYRD: Yes.

SIEGEL: ...and many years living as white.

Is that accurate? Is his description of how he grew up accurate?

Prof. BYRD: It is and it isn't. He did attend Henry Highland Garnet School, which was a black school. He did attend Paul Lawrence Dunbar High School, which was a black school.

SIEGEL: These were in Washington, D.C.

Prof. BYRD: These were in Washington, D.C. And so he lived his life, the early part of his life, in a white community in Washington, D.C., but he attended schools that were black. And these important autobiographical facts point to the world in which Toomer lived. That is he lived in a black world, except for that period when he was living in New Rochelle, New York, he lived in a black world.

SIEGEL: So when he wrote in the draft of an unpublished autobiography...

Prof. BYRD: Yes.

SIEGEL: ...that I'm quoting right now - when he entered college, "Fourteen years of my life, I had lived in the white group. Four years, I had lived in the colored group."

Prof. BYRD: Yes.

SIEGEL: That's almost the reverse of what the actual numbers were, you would say.

Prof. BYRD: Exactly right. And the position you're quoting from is his racial position, which he formulated in 1914. But it is a position that he reconstructed and wrote about in 1931. He states there: I am of the human race; I am neither white nor black but an American.

What Professor Gates and I discerned, buttressed by the new genealogical information is a pattern of ambivalence and then finally denial.

SIEGEL: Jean Toomer grew up in the home of his grandfather, who was a very well...

Prof. BYRD: Yes.

SIEGEL: ...known figure in his time: P.B.S. Pinchback.

Prof. BYRD: Yes.

SIEGEL: He was the son of a white Southerner and that Southerner's former slave, who was of mixed race herself...

Prof. BYRD: Yes.

SIEGEL: ...became a Union Army officer in the Civil War commanding black troops. And then in reconstruction, he was a politician, a governor, a senator.

Prof. BYRD: Yes.

SIEGEL: Toomer constructed a claim about his grandfather, Pinchback, saying...

Prof. BYRD: Yes.

SIEGEL: ...that Pinchback, in effect, had passed for black - that he was a white man who passed for black.

Prof. BYRD: Yes, he claimed he had Negro blood. In other words, he positions his grandfather as a kind of opportunist, but not as a person who cared at all about reforming the political and social landscape of Louisiana.

SIEGEL: The opportunism would have been at the moment of reconstruction, he could take advantage of being a freed black man in occupied Louisiana.

Prof. BYRD: Exactly. Toomer does this, as we argue in our introduction, because it was crucial for him to paint the roots of his family tree white.

SIEGEL: You and your colleague in this project, Professor Gates, write of the irony; that Jean Toomer initially celebrated as a figure of the Harlem Renaissance, is then - interest in him is greatly revived many decades later as a point really of black pride, it's read once again.

Prof. BYRD: Yes, that's one of the ironies of Toomer's life. So given the fact that Toomer did everything he could to distance himself from the work that linked him to African-Americans, a work where he was and would be identified as a Negro or a black writer, he would have been very disturbed. And there is something rather sad and tragic about that choice.

Professor Byrd, thank you very much for talking with us today.

Prof. BYRD: It was a pleasure.

SIEGEL: That's Professor Rudolph Byrd, professor of American studies and director of the James Weldon Johnson Institute at Emory University in Atlanta.

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