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.
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