The Chronicle Review

Jean Toomer's Conflicted Racial Identity

The Granger Collection, New York

Jean Toomer, who wrote Cane, a modernist masterpiece, in 1923, identified himself racially as "American."
February 06, 2011

On August 4, 1922, about a year before he published his first book, Cane, Jean Toomer, age 27, wrote to his first love, a black teenager named Mae Wright, confessing his ambivalence about the dogged pursuit by African-Americans of Anglo-American cultural ideals: "We who have Negro blood in our veins, who are culturally and emotionally the most removed from Puritan tradition, are its most tenacious supporters." That would be one of the last times he admitted his own Negro ancestry, either publicly or privately. Six years later, Georgia O'Keeffe—Toomer's friend and later lover—wrote to her husband, Alfred Stieglitz, describing the way Toomer, then living in Chicago, was identifying himself: "It seems that in Chicago they do not know that he has Negro blood—he seems to claim French extraction."

When we were working on a new Norton critical edition of Cane, a masterpiece of modernism composed of fiction, poetry, and drama, we confronted the question of Toomer's race. Literary critics and biographers have long speculated about how he identified himself, but too often they have chosen not to conduct research into public documents about the topic. Was Toomer—a central figure in two faces of American modernism, the New Negro (or Harlem Renaissance) Movement and the Lost Generation—a Negro who, following the publication of Cane, passed for white?

Toomer is known for proclaiming a new, mixed racial identity, which he called "American." In an era of de jure segregation, such a claim was defiantly transgressive. But he may have been far more conflicted about his identity than his noble attempt to question American received categories of "race" might suggest.

Given the importance of the subject, we commissioned some original biographical research by the genealogist Megan Smolenyak. We can now understand more fully than ever conflicts within Toomer's thinking about his race, as he expressed them in public documents, including the federal census, two draft registrations, his marriage license to the white writer Margery Latimer, and in statements to the news media.

In June 1917, Nathan Eugene Pinchback Toomer registered for the draft in Washington. He is recorded as an unemployed student, single, having an unspecified disability (two of his biographers have suggested "bad eyes and a hernia gotten in a basketball game"). He is listed as a "Negro." The 1920 census shows Toomer boarding with other lodgers in the home of an Italian couple on East Ninth Street in Manhattan. The census enumerator inaccurately listed his birthplace as New York, suggesting that Toomer may not have provided the information himself. His race is listed as "white."

In the 1930 census, Toomer is listed as a resident, with many others, at 11 Fifth Avenue. Because of the accuracy of the other data contained in the document—including his birthplace, his parents' states of birth, and his occupation as a freelance writer—it is likely that he furnished the details himself. The enumerator listed him as "white." At the very least, if we are right, Toomer did not correct the designation.

A year later, on October 30, 1931, Toomer married Latimer in Portage, Wis. Both the bride and groom are identified as "white" on the marriage license. According to Cynthia Earl Kerman and Richard Elridge, Toomer biographers, Latimer was aware of what she termed "the racial thing": that is, that Toomer was a Negro. Though she shared Toomer's vision of a new race in America, probably neither she nor he was prepared for headlines like the one published regarding the marriage: "Negro Who Wed White Writer Sees New Race." While Toomer proclaimed that his union was evidence of a "new race in America, ... neither white nor black nor in-between," and that it was simply one between "two Americans," the news media chose to focus upon only the most sensational aspects of the nuptials.

In 1942, Toomer registered once again for the draft. He identified himself as Nathan Jean Toomer, married to Marjorie C. Toomer. She was his second wife, the white daughter of a wealthy stockbroker whom he had married in Taos, N.M., after his first wife died in childbirth. He is described as 5-foot-10, 178 pounds, with black hair and eyes, and a "dark brown complexion." He is identified as a "Negro."

It is clear from these documents that Toomer self-identified as Negro in 1917, when he first registered for the draft. Then either he or a roommate decided to give his identity as "white" on the census of 1920. Similarly, Toomer either self-identified as "white" to the enumerator of the 1930 census or failed to say that he was, in fact, born a Negro (at that time, enumerators had the sole authority to determine the race of a resident). A year later, on his marriage license, he self-identified as "white." He is identified as a "Negro" again, however, on his World War II draft registration—perhaps because the registrar, Edith Rider, who was black, according to the 1930 census, would have known from news-media accounts of his two interracial marriages.

In the course of the 25 years between his 1917 and 1942 draft registrations, it seems that Toomer was endlessly deconstructing his Negro ancestry. During his childhood and adolescence in Washington, as a member of the mulatto elite, he lived in both the white and the black worlds. At times he resided in white neighborhoods, but he was educated in all-black schools. Toomer would write that it was his experience in that special world, "midway between the white and Negro worlds," that led him to develop his novel "racial position" as early as 1914, at the age of 20, when he defined himself as an "American, neither white nor black."

Toomer may, indeed, have arrived at that definition as a young man, but as a young artist, he wrestled with the question of racial identity through various protagonists bearing uncanny resemblances to himself. The first short story he wrote, the autobiographical "Bona and Paul," composed in 1918, takes passing for white as its central theme. Equally important, his assertion that "Kabnis is me"—in his December 1922 letter to the novelist and social critic Waldo Frank, concerning his relationship to a character of mixed-race ancestry deeply conflicted about his Negro past—is another salient example of how Toomer's ambivalence about race manifested itself in Cane. Further, in a comment to a reporter in 1934 and in the manuscript of his unpublished autobiography, Toomer made the highly unlikely suggestion (given all extant documentation) that his grandfather P.B.S. Pinchback, the most famous black politician in the Reconstruction era, opportunistically passed for black to gain political advantage from the freedmen in New Orleans.

Toomer's deeply conflicted position on his black ancestry is also reflected in the publication of Cane. Indeed, his angry reaction to Frank's introduction, with its matter-of-fact identification of the author as a Negro, and later his refusal to cooperate with Horace Liveright, the publisher, in "featuring Negro" in the marketing of Cane in fall 1923, reflect that conflict. He all but said to Liveright: "I was not a Negro." However, according to the pioneering literary critic Darwin Turner, Toomer, in his correspondence with the writer Sherwood Anderson just a year before the publication of Cane, "never opposed Anderson's obvious assumption that he was 'Negro.' In fact, Anderson began the correspondence because Toomer had been identified to him as a 'Negro.'" Toomer's contradictory stances vis-à-vis Liveright and Anderson reveal the depth of his ambivalence in the weeks before the publication of the work that would link him to a literary tradition from which he would spend the rest of his life attempting to flee.

Toomer became angry with Alain Locke, one of the architects of the Harlem Renaissance, for reprinting excerpts of Cane in the The New Negro in 1925 (he was silent regarding Locke's decision to reprint the poem "Song of the Son" in the 1925 issue of the white magazine Survey Graphic). Toomer's attitude smacks of denial and ingratitude, given Locke's early and consistent support.

And then in 1934, almost 10 years after the publication of The New Negro, Toomer refused to contribute to Nancy Cunard's 1934 anthology The Negro, stating that "though I am interested in and deeply value the Negro, I am not a Negro." In that same year, following the announcement of his marriage to Marjorie Content, Toomer, most improbably, observed to the newspaper the Baltimore Afro-American that "I would not consider it libelous for anyone to refer to me as a colored man, but I have not lived as one, nor do I really know whether there is colored blood in me or not." Toomer then went on to make his claim that his grandfather was a white man who passed for black, saying that "my maternal grandfather ... referred to himself as having Negro blood in order to get Negro votes." But note, the death certificate of Toomer's grandfather, including details provided by his son, Toomer's "beloved uncle Bismarck," lists Pinchback's race as "colored."

By that time, Walter Pinchback, Toomer's uncle, was the only living relative who could challenge Toomer's public denials of his Negro ancestry. In a conciliatory gesture toward his nephew (who was the only member of his family to pass), Walter (whom the Baltimore Afro-American carefully says identified himself his entire life as "colored," adding that his mother, father, and grandfather did as well) said that "Toomer had a right to belong to either race he desired." In a series of three articles about Toomer and his race, the newspaper, after repeatedly underscoring Toomer's Negro identity and pointing out that he graduated from all-black Dunbar High School and "has always been referred to as a colored writer and was known in colored circles here and in New York some years ago," said it supported Toomer's decision, but as a blow against segregation and anti-miscegenenation laws: "Every time the races are scrambled, by legal marriage, we set an example for thousands of white residents in Dixie who believe in social equality only after dark."

Toomer's claims stand out as particularly disingenuous in light of facts like his weeklong sojourn with Frank in 1922 in Spartanburg, S.C., where they masqueraded as (in Toomer's words) "blood brothers," that is, as Negroes. After serving as Frank's "host in a black world," Toomer returned to Washington, and for two weeks worked as an assistant to the manager of the Howard Theatre, which served the capital's African-American community, and where he gathered material for such stories as "Box Seat" and "Theater," published in Cane.

Why is it so important, as we read Cane, to understand Toomer's conflicts over his racial identity? What light does it shine on scholarship about his work, about African-American literature, and the way our society has dealt with race? The first reason is the simple, or rather complicated, fact that Toomer himself thought it was important. Important? Toomer obsessed over it, endlessly circling back upon it in the comfortable isolation of his upper-middle-class home in Bucks County, Pa.

In our effort to map the genealogy of both academic and popular conceptions of race, Toomer's conflicts also help us distinguish between what we might think of as one's biological or genetic identity and one's cultural or ethnic identity. Biological identity is registered in one's genes and measured today through alleles and haplogroups, but cultural identity is, to a large degree, what scholars call socially constructed—arbitrary, fluid, contingent, and socially specific. Genetically, Jean Toomer was a light-complexioned Negro, descended from a long line of mulattoes. He was raised as a Negro American, in a family that identified as black. Like many African-Americans (one of us, for example, happens to be 50 percent European and 50 percent African, genetically), he had a significant amount of European ancestry. But not culturally. None of Toomer's direct ancestors chose to live or self-identify as white.

That is a matter about which there is a tremendous amount of confusion. Does it mean much to discover, as a mature adult, that one is as white as she or he is black, genetically? That would be to presuppose that genetic ancestry, or biology, has some inherently determining characteristics of personality formation. It does not.

The fact that Toomer's family tree consisted of a lot of light-skinned mulattoes who, for whatever reasons, married one another, is not exceptional. Many African-Americans' family trees are shaded in the very same way. Toomer was very much like the novelist Charles W. Chesnutt or the civil-rights leader Walter White or the many people who most certainly had to self-identify to a census enumerator to set the social or cultural rec­ord straight. (How else would a hapless census taker even begin to comprehend the nuances of Negritude that have so markedly defined the complex "black" identity in the United States?)

Toomer was right to declare that he was of mixed ancestry, and that the opposition between "white" and "black" was too simplistic. But he was wrong to say that he had never lived as a Negro. He lived as a Negro while growing up. And then he decided to live as an ex-Negro almost as soon as the print was dry on Cane.

In part—to his credit—Toomer did so as a rebellion against a racist form of racial classification. But clearly Toomer the artist had other reasons in choosing to reinvent himself precisely when he published his first book: as a tactic to enable his upward social and artistic mobility. It was important to flee his cultural identity when he became a published writer, we believe, because of all of the circumscriptions placed upon Negroes and Negro writers in America in the early 1920s, when he began his career.

Like the protagonist in James Weldon Johnson's novel The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man, Toomer probably wanted to live as he pleased outside the strictures of segregation and Jim Crow laws; to be judged as a writer for his talents alone, on their terms; to be free to chase the dreams about which he fantasized; to love the women he loved, without concern about the law—to live freely. And who can blame him? The philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah once wrote that "Race disables us." The more that we, as scholars, understand the full weight of race's burdens, the more understandable Toomer's admittedly imaginative denials become. Still ...

We hope that the documents that we share in our new edition will provoke discussion and debate among students and colleagues about those twin pillars of postmodern studies, the social construction of race and our society's essentialization of race, born in the pseudoscience of the Enlightenment.

As to interpretations of Cane, the new contextual information takes nothing away from the splendid complexity of this marvelously compelling text, our most sublime rendering of the moment of transition of the first great migration, the migration of the ex-slave from the plantation to the city, from feudalism to modernity, from the South to the North, and of all that was lost and all that was gained in that marvelously complex process.

Toomer, more than any other New Negro writer (from whom he so desperately wished to stand apart), saw and felt that moment, and found lyrical registers of language to record it. Rather than confine his imagination to that of a "Negro writer," he seized upon the critical success of Cane to attempt to escape the confines of race in America.

Jean Toomer—to draw upon a famous metaphor of W.E.B. Du Bois—did not want to ride in the Jim Crow car of American literary culture or of American social life. But Du Bois's point in coining the metaphor was that the Negro should be allowed to ride in the proverbial "white" section of the American social train as a Negro, and not as a Negro in whiteface, or as a Negro who had left his sisters and brothers back in the smelly, cinder-covered Jim Crow car at the rear of the train.

Confronting the long history of speculation about Toomer's race, we confronted again the role of race not just in the construction of identity, but also in the creation of a literary tradition. We felt that it was vital to add clarity to an often ambiguous, contradictory portrait of Toomer. In the process, we grew to appreciate more deeply the tragic pattern of ambivalence and denial that is part of his legacy as one of the most gifted imaginative artists of the 20th century.

Certainly, Toomer's choices make it clear that we are long past the point of accepting uncritically what a writer says about himself or herself. We should subject all claims to the same critical analysis that we bring to the text itself. They, too, make clear the many issues about race to be confronted in our teaching.

So we come back to our carefully considered judgment, based upon an analysis of genealogical evidence previously overlooked, that Jean Toomer—for all of his pioneering theorizing about what today we might call multicultural or mixed-raced ancestry—was a Negro who decided to pass for white.

The poet Elizabeth Alexander's "Toomer" evokes her subject's shifting, complex, contradictory stance on race: "I made up a language in which to exist." That line captures not only Toomer's pioneering position on race as a social construction, but also his effort to liberate himself through language from his life-long ambivalence about his black ancestry.

Rudolph P. Byrd is a professor of African-American studies and founding director of the James Weldon Johnson Institute at Emory University. Henry Louis Gates Jr. is a professor of African and African American studies and director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute at Harvard University. This essay is adapted from their introduction to a new edition of Jean Toomer's Cane, published in January by W.W. Norton.