I want to post a handful of quotes that I think will be useful for the continuation of our discussion of Toomer’s Cane on Tuesday. I take both from J. Martin Favor’s book, Authentic Blackness: The Folk in the New Negro Renaissance (Duke UP, 1999). The first is from a letter that Toomer sent to Claude McKay in 1922:
“from my own point of view I am naturally and inevitably an American. I have strived for a spiritual fusion analogous to the fact of racial intermingling” (56)
The second is Favor’s own analysis of how geography, the movement of peoples, and The Great Migration shape and guide Toomer’s representation of African American culture and identity. Referring to Toomer’s time spent teaching in Georgia, Favor writes:
“Far from being an utterly organic, inevitable occurrence, Toomer’s connection to ‘black’ geography was noticeably planned. His adoption of a folk geography is as much a type of consumption as a reconnection; Toomer goes south to gain access to a part of the matrix of discourses he is creating both in Cane and in his developing theory of “American.” In consciously seeking out a southern geography, he is engaged in the performative act of ‘widening’ and ‘deepening’ his own notion of identity. Concurrently, he is also acting out a reverse migration that mirrors the historical Great Migration of the period.” (61)
The final quote I will provide is taken from literary scholar and critic Walter Benn Michaels’s book on American modernism titled Our America: Nativism, Modernism, and Pluralism (Duke UP 1995). This quote is a little complicated, but I think it will help to bring out some of the questions that we’ll be working over in our discussion. For our purposes, we can think of culture as being the beliefs and practices of a particular group:
“The fact, in other words, that something belongs to our culture cannot count as a motive for our doing it since, if it does belong to our culture, we already do it and if we don’t do it (if we stopped, or haven’t yet started doing it) it doesn’t belong to our culture…. It is only if we think that our culture is not whatever beliefs and practices we actually happen to have but is instead the beliefs and practices that should properly go with the sort of people we happen to be that the fact of something belonging to our culture can count as a reason for doing it. But to think this is to appeal to something that must be beyond culture and that cannot be derived from culture precisely because our sense of what culture is properly ours must be derived from it. This has been the function of race…. Our sense of culture is characteristically meant to displace race, but … culture has turned out to be a way of continuing rather than repudiating racial thought” (page to come).
Have a great weekend and I look forward to a thoughtful discussion on Tuesday!