Eden and Egyptland: The Biblical South in Toomer’s Cane and Ellison’s Invisible Man
Both Jean Toomer and Ralph Ellison allude heavily to Old Testament imagery as they illustrate the Southern American landscape in their respective novels, Cane and Invisible Man. Toomer compares, through spirituals and spiritual-derived language, slavery’s legacy in the South to the plight of the Hebrew slaves of Egypt. In this sense, he describes Christianity in the Southern U.S. as a mostly redemptive force that can, at best, lead black people out of hardship and, at worst, support the status quo of segregation. Ellison, on the other hand, depicts the Southern college at which the first part of the novel takes place as a false Eden that the narrator falls from. As the narrator’s vision of blissful ignorance unravels, Ellison continues to employ religious metaphors in critiquing the lie of progress he had been taught. So, while Toomer more evenly highlights the good and bad aspects of Southern Christianity, both authors appropriate sermonic language to argue that the palliation of injustice by religious fervor holds back the Southern Black community nearly as much as white prejudice does.
Toomer sets his scene of the Biblical South with both poetic and vernacular references to pre-Exodus Egypt and the enslaved Israelites. One of Cane’s most repeated images is the “Smoke from the pyramidal sawdust pile” (Georgia Dusk 17) that reflects the immaterial, ominous, and unfulfilled cry for salvation that lingers through the aftermath of slavery. Smoke is a symbol of prophecy that brings to mind sacrifice and messages to heaven, while the pyramids more directly allude to slavery in ancient Egypt. Toomer confirms this with a context-less exclamation from an unknown narrator that “God has left the Moses-people for the nigger” (Carma 14). Toomer makes a clearer connection between the enslaved followers of Moses and the poor African-Americans of the rural South, but also implies that the arrival of Moses’ God may not bring the salvation Southern Blacks hope for, as external prejudice persists with or without internal faith. Although Toomer highlights the hope-bringing capacity of gospel song in many of the spiritual poems, he casts them in more of an ironic light when he uses religion to reflect the stagnation of the Southern landscape. In one story,” the setting of a Southern church is described statically and despondently: “There was no wind. The autumn sun, the bell from Ebenezer Chruch, listless and heavy. Even the pines were stale, sticky, like the smell of food that makes you sick” (Becky 10).
Throughout Cane, wind predicts change, so its absence implies a Southern landscape devoid of real moral improvement. Furthermore, the supposed agent of change – Christianity – like spoiled food, once sustenance, is now poison. In this frame of reference, Cane’s earlier religious symbols reveal their doomed nature. In the first story, the sawmill’s “pyramidal sawdust pile smouldered” but “It is a year before one completely burns. Meanwhile the smoke curls up and hands in odd wraiths about the trees” and the sawdust’s smoke “is so heavy you tasted it in water” (Karintha 6). Toomer’s motif of religious uproar, while still born out of righteous revolt against Pharaonic bondage, is now shown to be a lingering, unhealthy influence. Transformed into a spiritual, the prophetic outcry becomes “Smoke is on the hills, O rise / And take my soul to Jesus” (Karintha 6). Yet, the song remains a solemn plea for change rather than a threat against oppressors, as Moses’ sermons were. As such, the smoke remains and the wind stops blowing, stifling the land, symbolically preventing progress away from the sorrows of discrimination. Toomer argues that, by mythologizing Southern Blacks as a helpless people in need of divine intervention, traditional narratives have become ineffectual.
Ellison expands upon much of Toomer’s critique of Southern religion by transposing the hardships of the Old Testament into one man’s life rather than into the lives of all the African-Americans of Georgia. The narrator’s journey begins in an idyllic, but isolated campus “lined with hedges and wild roses that dazzled the eyes in the summer sun” where the “moon kissed the steeple and flooded the perfumed nights” (Invisible Man 36). For all intents and purposes, the college is Eden, a paradise on Earth bounded by a “forbidden road” that “turned off to the insane asylum,” which is suggestive of the immoral, chaotic pre-Fall world (34, 35). According to the Biblical narrative of the Fall of Man, the narrator encounters sin through his exchange with Trueblood, at whose house he finds “a hard red apple stamped out of tin,” symbolizing the forbidden knowledge of evil (53). Finally, on his way out from the college, from whence he has been exiled for sharing Trueblood’s sin, the narrator recognizes ‘the tempting serpent’ as “a mocassin wiggl[ing] swiftly along the gray concrete” that produces “a feeling that [he] was heading into the unknown,” symbolizing the finality of the Fall (156).The twist from the traditional Bible story comes with the revelation that there is as much sin within Eden as without, which is what causes the narrator’s fall. When he is expelled, the narrator learns that Dr. Bledsoe, the supposed paragon of upwards mobility, would “have every Negro in the country hanging on tree limbs by morning if it means staying where [he is]” (143). The exposed selfishness of his benefactor and the punishment he receives for doing what he is told drives the narrator out of his ‘mental Eden’ into a crueler world of hidden intentions and the sin of lying. The narrator realized this to some extent earlier when he acknowledges that “those who had set [him] here in Eden” are the hypocritical white founders “who trailed their words to [Blacks] through blood and violence and ridicule and condescension with drawling smiles, and who exhorted and threatened, intimidated with innocent words” (112). This sentiment, in response to Homer Barbee’s formulaic and insincere sermon on “humility,” comes to the narrator as a suspicion that there is deceit pervading the college’s sanctuary.
It takes Bledsoe’s reversal, however, to truly convince the narrator that his Eden was illusory. Even removed from the Fall narrative, Ellison is critical of religion’s role in “masking” African-American independence as evident in Barbee’s overwrought speech. As he inflates the Founder’s life to prophetic heroism, Barbee claims that the students’ “parents followed this remarkable man across the black sea of prejudice, safely out of the land of ignorance, through the storms of fear and anger, shouting LET MY PEOPLE GO! when it was necessary, whispering it during those times when whispering was wisest” (120). Drawing upon the same Moses parallel that Toomer also used to ironic effect, Ellison sets Barbee’s vision of the Founder as an example of a prophet whose creed, while bringing the hope to flee bondage, depreciates the social value of his followers. Within the statement that the Founder led his people out of “the land of ignorance” is the ambiguity of whether that land is the American South or Africa, which was referred to as such by proponents of slavery and by slaves such as Phillis Wheatley who were educated through Christianization. Likewise, the “black sea of prejudice” is ambiguously either an expression condemning interracial tensions or the intolerance that came from mutual misunderstandings between oppressed, uneducated blacks. Finally, Ellison implies that the god-like Founder was uncharacteristically submissive when he would whisper a message of defiance in order to avoid strife.
As symbolistic writers, Ellison and Toomer imbue every image, motif, and allusion with a different meaning, depending on context. Their use of religious language and iconography, especially, works to subvert traditional notions of ‘freedom’ and ‘progress’. Through their portrayal of a Southern landscape stifled by unanswered prayer and hollow preaching, Ralph Ellison and Jean Toomer advocate for racial equality through an upheaval of tradition.
Expectations Compromise Reality
Esther endured five long years of loneliness. Her determination to prove herself and fulfill her desire left her more alone and disappointed than her initial hunger for companionship. In “Esther” by Jean Toomer, Esther’s morality and desires are shown to be degraded through several aspects. The townspeople cause the audience to realize Esther is more unhinged from years of desire than was revealed from her own point of view. Esther’s morality is shown to decay because she was so desperate to have the child she dreamed of and loved, she was willing to risk the sin of conception without marriage. The opposite descriptions of Esther and Barlo create a distinction in the reader’s mind to separate the two in more than just race and appearance. By placing her faith and future in a man she actually knew nothing about in order to pass the years, Esther’s five year long wait resulted in anticlimactic regret. In order to illustrate Esther’s descent into hopelessness, Toomer employs the townspeople’s reaction, Esther’s inner thoughts, and the juxtaposed descriptions of the two main characters to portray how Esther’s hope for her future is eventually degraded.
The townspeople’s speculation at Esther’s sense of urgency when Barlo appears back in town is not merely small talk, it reveals the outside perspective of Esther’s wait, particularly her degradation during the five years. In Esther’s eyes, she is simply living a dull life and yearning to have a human connection, specifically a baby, with King Barlo. So she waits. During the five years, her connection with the outside world dissipates and she becomes weary. Her interactions with the customers degrade from them calling her a “sweet-natured, accommodating girl,” to Esther only seeing “vague black faces”(32-33). When Barlo finally arrives, she hurriedly closes the shop, determined to get to him first, and the townspeople take notice of her, claiming “she always was a little off, a little crazy, I reckon” (34). This judgement from the townsfolk reveals how Esther is kept at a distance from them. The influence from the outside world is so present in Esther’s thoughts, it makes its way into her dream of claiming a baby: “Her joy in it changes the town folks’ jeers to harmless jealousy, and she is left alone” (32). This tidbit of her dream also encapsulates another one of her desires that is eventually degraded: the desire to be accepted in her surroundings. Esther’s loneliness without a husband at twenty-seven and no men showing interest in her translates into her extreme hope for Barlo to come back and conceive a child with her. All of her inner plans, which of course are not visible to the public shopping at her family’s store, would seem crazy to the public as well. Observing her from the outside, the townspeople’s comments at her actions remind us that Esther is not simply a lonely girl, her hopes and mentality were degraded- and it shows.
The third person narration limited to Esther reveals her degraded inner thoughts plotting her unrealistic confrontation with Barlo, as well as her crushing disappointment when he is not exactly as she remembered. When Esther realizes Barlo is no longer the man from her memory, she rushes out of the house and finds that “There is no air, no street, and the town has completely disappeared” (36). The disappearance of Esther’s surroundings is parallel with her mind: both have become completely degraded. Quite possibly, Esther’s only reason for staying in the town which held nothing for her was for the chance of seeing Barlo again. Now, since that plan has dissolved, her cause and hope for life has as well.
The polar opposite characterizations of Barlo and Esther create juxtaposition in the reader’s mind and emphasize the ridiculousness of Esther’s hope to unite with Barlo. Esther is white passing, and has had a very “safe” life managing her family’s shop and simply waiting, never experiencing the racism that Barlo likely experienced. Yet in her safe life, Esther has also never experienced the human connection that she so craves, that Barlo seems to have no trouble in obtaining. Descriptions like “a clean-muscled, magnificent, black- skinned Negro” compared to “like a little white child, starched, frilled” distinctly categorize the two characters, and separate them in the audience’s perspective. (29) The fact that Esther is the daughter of the richest colored man in town, yet passes as white, is another way Esther and Barlo differ. Barlo is a known black man. He travels, he picks cotton, and falls into his religious trances which the town knows him by. Yet for all of Esther and Barlo’s differences, they both degrade by the end: Esther is weary, desperate, and lonely. Barlo is an impaired, repulsive man, ruined by his money. The fact that Esther and Barlo both decay physically and mentally only worsens the result of Esther’s wait, because she did not expect the object of her imagination with such a robust physical state, and spiritual mental state, to decay in the similar unfortunate way that she did.
Jean Toomer’s “Esther” illustrates Esther’s descent into hopelessness as she allowed her expectations to compromise her reality. Placing all her confidence into one man based off of a few shallow impressions and expecting him to want to love her upon first sight shows Esther’s innocence and decay simultaneously. The lack of human connection throughout her years has made her so vulnerable and naive that she believes Barlo will indeed give her the child she desires. Esther’s desperation is revealed in the townspeople’s reaction, her own inner thoughts, and her and Barlow’s degradation.
The Portrayal of African Americans
Many southern writers are known for obscuring the boundaries between human and nonhuman–especially in regard to African Americans. When executed properly, authors are capable of conveying to the reader how African Americans were not typically seen as equally human as whites in both the North and the South. This particular technique is especially prevalent in Cane by Jean Toomer.
Due to the unusual combination of short stories, poems, and even a drama, the structure of Cane is quite fragmented. Additionally, the unfinished circles that appear at the beginning of each section extends this idea of incompleteness or inadequacy. When looking back after reading this book, it is quite obvious how the structure as well as the unfinished circles directly relate to how African Americans were seen as insufficient or lacking. The fact that the author claims that there are alternative starting and ending points for the book only exemplifies the fact that it doesn’t matter when in history you start looking at the treatment of African Americans because no matter where you end, they are still treated unequally to at least some degree. Due to this ununified format, the reader is unable to get to know or sympathize with the characters because there is no tangible plot. This illustrates the idea that African Americans were not worth getting to know or relating to because they weren’t important.
Particularly in the first section of the book, the imagery of the surrounding landscape and environment is vividly connected to the previously enslaved African Americans who inhabited it. While the land is well appreciated and beautiful, it will always be linked to African Americans in a way that is unsettling and unforgettable. This connection is evident in “Song of the Son” which describes how “one seed becomes an everlasting song, a singing tree, caroling softly the souls of slavery” (18). No matter how much time passes, the soft whispers of slavery will never disappear. Almost anyone can appreciate and acknowledge nature; however, these same people typically are the ones contributing to the destruction of the environment as well. This concept is similar to how whites can acknowledge that blacks exist and some even feel bad for them, but these same people don’t contribute to bettering their circumstances. Also, many of the blacks were associated with dusk, a beautiful yet unsettling part of the day; in “Fern,” the narrator explains that he feels strange at dusk and how he feels that “things unseen to men were tangibly immediate” at dusk (25). Dusk is a reminder to whites of the horrors of slavery and how these horrors continue to be commonplace throughout the south. Lastly, in “Bona and Paul” a sense of white supremacy is expressed when Paul says that “white faces are petals of roses. [And] that dark faces are petals of dusk.”(107). Page after page there are examples of using imagery of nature as a means of making African Americans seem inferior to whites.
The echoes of slavery can be seen in nature throughout this book. For example, the smoke that is repeatedly brought up is representative of how many whites viewed African Americans at this point in history. African Americans were visible to whites, but just as the wind can quickly disperse smoke into nothingness, blacks would disappear from the minds of whites almost as effortlessly as they came to mind. In other words, African Americans were not typically seen as real people deserving of more than simply following the orders of the superior race. Smoke could also be related to the myriad lynchings that took place in both the North and South; this depiction of burning bodies of lynched African Americans is portrayed in “Portrait in Georgia” when the narrator speaks of the “black flesh after flame”(38). Many of the lynchings that take place in the book are easily comparable to a crucifixion such as the one that takes place in the Bible. Smoke is also mentioned in relation to death. For instance, in “Karintha” when her baby dies, “the smoke curls up and hangs in odd wraiths about the trees, curls up, and spreads itself out over the valley” which is an example of how the possibility of death, due to numerous lynchings that took place, lingers in the minds of African Americans.
The obvious connection of this book’s title to the story of the “Mark of Cain” from the Bible relates to how many people used this story to justify slavery. God’s arbitrary preference for dark-skinned people to be slaves destined African Americans to be seen as less than human. White supremacy is a dominant theme in this book, and there are constant references as to how being black or even being associated with blacks makes one inferior. For example, in “Becky” even though she was a white woman, the fact that she had two black sons automatically made her an outcast in the community. Many whites held prejudices against blacks because they believed that African Americans were inherently worse and almost primitive in nature since essentially all they were good for was slave labor. Unexpectedly, Louisa from “Blood Burning Moon” views Tom and Bob, her love interests, as equals regardless of their differing races. It is interesting that from the eyes of Louisa, a black woman, race is totally irrelevant; however, Bob, the white man in this love triangle, describes being “embarrassed” and found the “contrast [of their skin] repulsive” (44). This intermingling of the races is confusing to the reader due to the prevailing thoughts of whites being the dominant race. Bob’s conflicting feelings about Louisa due to the color of her skin only confirms the predominant perceptions of African Americans as the inadequate or lesser race.
In “Prayer” the narrator has “confused the body with the soul”(92). This ties into how confusing and degrading it must have been for African Americans to think about their bodies in the context of an intolerant, bigoted America. African Americans were never able to feel a sense of belonging in their bodies; it is almost as if their bodies were cursed. This loss of identity is seen throughout the book, especially in regard to the women, because many of the characters are portrayed as being empty. For example, in “Fern” everyone desires her, yet she “sought nothing”(21). While African Americans were legally free, their version of freedom was quite different from the freedom whites experienced. This concept is illustrated when Bono explains how white men “tied his feet to chains. They led him t th coast, they led him t th sea, they led him across the ocean an they didn’t set him free. The old coast didnt miss him, an th new coast wasnt free…” (30). Despite blacks technical freedom from slavery after the Civil War, they were, in a sense, still enslaved by their past. This unfortunate feeling of not belonging and wanting to escape reality is demonstrated in “Beehive” when the narrator says that he wishes “[he] might fly out past the moon and curl forever in some far-off farmyard flower”(65). This quote insinuates that African Americans don’t necessarily wish that they could change who they are or what they look like; instead, they wish they could escape somewhere that they would be truly accepted for who they are as people instead of only being recognized and defined by the color of their skin.
The body is also linked to how many African Americans were raped, beaten, or killed before as well as after the Civil war when Jim Crow Laws were in place. Another connection to the body is how the women in the book served as empty, sexualized shells for men to indulge themselves. This idea is seen over and over again in stories such as “Karintha” in which “men had always wanted her” (3) or in “Fern” where men would look at her “spellbound”(23). This shallow connection that both black and white men have to the female body coexists alongside racism creating a confusing interracial relationship between men and women. African American women arguably were treated the worst because they were not only seen as inferior due to their race, but also due to the fact that they were women. Unfortunately, the women that appear throughout the book seem to only serve the purpose of satisfying the male gaze and their sexual desires–which leaves them feeling essentially purposeless.
By confusing the boundaries between African Americans and inanimate objects, as seen in Cane, authors are able to indirectly convey the prevailing sentiments in America in this post-war time period. Ideas such as white supremacy, misogyny, and racism were pervasive in this era. This technique is quite unsettling once the reader realizes what is actually happening. Using this strategy to categorize an entire group of people based on race as less than human opens the readers’ eyes to the realities of African Americans after the Civil war as well as the unfortunate realities of today. Despite the fact that feelings of white supremacy and racism exist today, there is no doubt that the circumstances of African Americans have significantly improved. Cane gives the reader a new perspective on how life really was during this time in history. Rather than always telling the reader exactly what people were thinking and feeling about one another, Toomer vaguely, yet repeatedly, suggests that the majority of people viewed African Americans as less than human and undeserving of equal treatment. He successfully gives the reader a glimpse of the realities of the time through this unique method of dehumanizing the African American race.
The Absence of Female Voices and Perspectives in Jean Toomer’s ‘Cane’
In his biographical introduction to Cane, Darwin Turner quotes William Stanley Braithwaite as saying, “In Jean Toomer, the author of Cane, we come upon the very first artist of the race, who with all an artist’s passion and sympathy for life, its hurts, its sympathies, its desires, its joys, its defeats and strange yearnings, can write about the Negro without the surrender or the compromise of the author’s vision.” This claim of primacy is both lofty and inaccurate, as it completely overlooks the works of previous black authors such as Olaudah Equiano, Phillis Wheatley, and Frederick Douglass, to name a few obvious contenders. After reading and rereading Toomer’s stories and poems, I could find no reason to hail the author as “the first artist of the race” who could “write about the Negro without the surrender or compromise of the author’s vision.” The most prominent issue in Cane is the overt absence of a female voice. There are numerous female characters and several stories named after them, but the women are presented more as objects for observation than as fully-formed characters. This is a bitter irony: Jean Toomer is celebrated as a literary voice for African American people, yet he does not permit the female half of those people to speak.
The first title character we meet is Karintha, a young girl “carrying beauty, perfect as dusk when the sun goes down.” Each paragraph in this brief story shows Karintha at a different age, but we never hear her voice. She is described through her relationships and interactions with men. It is through her mock-sexual actions at a young age with a “small boy who was not afraid to do her bidding” that we are first introduced to her. We are told that she has been “married many times” and that all the young men “want to bring her money”—a possible hint at prostitution. All the same, each of these pieces of information defines Karintha by her relation to men around her—either as wife or as paid lover.
The second female character to entitle her own story is Becky, “the white woman who had two Negro sons.” We are informed by a local man of how Becky was turned out by white and black society alike, and how her sons were hard, cold, and dangerous. The only sound Becky makes is a possible moan from underneath the ruins of her chimney at the end of the story, but even that is conjecture. Of course, Toomer is relating here the effects of miscegenation and the shunning inflicted by both racial groups; this would be a poignant moment, were Becky not one in a long line of silent women. By itself, “Becky” serves a purpose, but in a book already lacking a legitimate female presence, it just adds to the silence.
The final story named for the main female character it contains is “Avey.” We hear nothing from the title character; instead, she is revealed to us through the musings of a young man who feel he is in love with her. By the end of the story, the two of them have kissed once, and she is lying asleep in the grass as he watches over her protectively. We never hear what Avey wants; we never see her outside of the lens that the narrator provides. She, like the others, is a literary object that shows no personal volition.
Toomer’s poems are no exception to this female absence. Again, when he does give us a glimpse of a female character, it is only as a physical object via physical description. In “Face,” the female character is revealed through descriptions of her hair, brows, eyes, and muscles; in “Evening Song,” Cloine is an object to be observed as she “sleeps” and “dreams,” her “lips pressed against [the narrator’s] heart;” and in “Portrait in Georgia,” a description of hair, eyes, lips, breath, and body is all we have of the female character.
One cannot help but to take issue with the lack of a genuine female presence in Cane. As a person of biracial heritage—a term I hate to use because it suggests an inherent differentness based on skin color—Jean Toomer was able to walk in both the black and the white circles. He would have had first-hand knowledge of the prejudices and struggles associated with each, and he would have been subject to ridicule from both sides. This idea makes his omission an even graver literary folly. Was Jean Toomer was a misogynist? No. His portrayal of women is favorable throughout the book, but only in the way that an artist paints his subjects in a favorable light without showing the blemishes and scars. The portrayal is not real, and this lack of truth in the piece is an injustice that cannot be overlooked. If, as Braithwaite suggests, Jean Toomer is the first African American writer to write about the lives of people of color without losing his vision, then it could easily be postulated that Toomer’s vision is no inherently problematic. He seemingly places his female characters on a pedestal, but only to make them easier to objectify.