Q&A with Jean Toomer: Race, Repression, and Revolution author Barbara Foley

Barbara Foley is a professor of English at Rutgers University-Newark. She is the author of Spectres of 1919: Class and Nation in the Making of the New Negro. She answered some questions about her book Jean Toomer: Race, Repression, and Revolution.

Q: How is Jean Toomer best known?

Barbara Foley: Toomer, author of Cane (1923) is widely known as the first—and for some critics the best—writer associated with the movement that has come to be known as the Harlem Renaissance. He is also widely acknowledged to be an experimental modernist of the first rank, since his Cane—an amalgam of prose, poetry, and drama—defies generic classification. A light-skinned man of partly African descent, from a relatively privileged class background among Washington DC’s “Negro Four Hundred,” Toomer was an early interrogator of racial categorization—although what is for some critics a cagey critique of racial essentialism is, for others, a flight from being identified as African American. Finally, Cane—which is based on Toomer’s three-month stay in the Deep South in 1921—is widely read as a nostalgic evocation of a folk way of life on the cusp of disappearance with modernity. While he is credited with acknowledging the harshness of Jim Crow, however, he is generally seen as an apolitical writer. This last point is one that I contest vigorously in my book.

Q: How did you determine that Toomer had significant intellectual and political connections with socialism, and how do these affect the way we can read Cane?

Foley: I first encountered Toomer’s strongly leftist political views in his early published writings in the Socialist Party press, where he proposed a class-based analysis of the causes of race riots and a critique of imperialist war-profiteering. I then found these views buttressed in his unpublished journals and autobiographies. These discoveries led me to reread Cane (which, I must confess, I had originally read as largely apolitical!). I discovered not only references to well-known instances of lynching and debt peonage but also a symbolic subtext alluding to contemporaneous historical events, such as the 1919 race riot in Washington and the Russian Revolution. Perhaps most significant has been the discovery—which will no doubt be contested in reviews of my book—that Cane’s preoccupation with rape, infanticide and failed maternity can be read as a commentary on not just the violent exploitation entailed by Jim Crow but also the crushing of revolutions (except in the USSR) in the wake of the Great War. This symbolic subtext constitutes what I call—invoking Fredric Jameson’s work—the “political unconscious” of Cane.

Q: You also make the case that Cane testifies to the presence of certain repressed family secrets. What are these, and how do these complicate the notion of the “political unconscious,” which is usually seen as a broadly social, not an individual, phenomenon?

Foley: Well, I don’t want to create a “spoiler”; I want people to read the book! Suffice it to say that there is good reason to argue that Toomer discovered that the second wife of his father, Nathan Toomer, had been Amanda America Dickson, said to be the richest colored woman in America. He learned, too, that her adult son had come close to sexually violating his adolescent step-sister, Nathan Toomer’s youngest daughter (and hence Jean Toomer’s half-sister). Traces of this quasi-Gothic saga, I propose, can be found in Cane, where personal emotions of anger and shame interface with Toomer’s radical critique of the economic basis of Jim Crow in capitalism. Embedded in my argument that the political unconscious of Cane is at once broadly social and deeply personal is a call for greater attention to authorial biography in Marxist approaches to literary analysis.

Q: How was Toomer involved with or influenced by the New Negro Movement and the project of Young America?

Foley: Toomer’s ties with Young America—and particular its leading figure Waldo Frank—have been well documented in other Toomer criticism. What I add to ongoing debates is, I hope, an appreciation of the complexity of Toomer’s attitude toward Frank, whom he greatly admired, even as he was skeptical of Young America’s claims to cultural pluralism.  As regards the New Negro Movement, I argue that, when he wrote Cane, Toomer viewed himself as a Negro and—while he would later retell the story—had a productive working relationship with Alain Locke, editor of The New Negro: An Interpretation. Critical to a full understanding of Toomer’s connection with the New Negro Movement, I propose, is a fuller understanding of his key relationships with a Washington-based group of African American women, a number of whom had significant ties to the socialist left.

Q: What contributions will your book make to scholarship on the Harlem Renaissance?

Foley: Well, time will tell!  Perhaps, above all, I am hopeful that Jean Toomer: Race, Repression, and Revolution will remind scholars of the necessity of keeping global movements in mind when considering what appear to be nation-based historical phenomena. Toomer might have written Cane had there not been a Russian Revolution; but it would have been a very different book.


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