On the centennial of Jean Toomer’s Cane—and rural Georgia’s turn as the literary backdrop for a renaissance

The book, published during the Harlem Renaissance, is a brilliant experiment in racial memory and regional place-making and holding

On the centennial of Jean Toomer’s Cane—and rural Georgia’s turn as the literary backdrop for a renaissance

Photograph courtesy of Burnside Rare Books

One of my favorite lines in Jean Toomer’s masterwork Cane is “the pines whisper to Jesus.” I take it to mean what we cannot say out loud, we whisper to the trees, who then pass the message on to God. The truths, desires, and needs that are too painful—or powerful—to say out loud must be whispered to remain intact. Cane is a book of multiple whispers, sighs, and quiets about the early-20th-century South. Its title is a nod to the agrarian communities and labor that make up the rural South. The book was written after Toomer’s stay in Sparta, the seat of Hancock County in central Georgia, where he served as head of the Sparta Agricultural and Industrial Institute, an industrial school for African Americans. Cane was born on the train ride home to Toomer’s native Washington, D.C. A variety of poems, vignettes, and theatric writing, Cane’s hybridized structure signifies the complex spirit of Southernness.

Toomer aimed to capture Southern Black folklife, something he was adamant about preserving in its purest form. “The folk-spirit was walking in to die on the modern desert. That spirit was so beautiful. Its death was so tragic . . . And this was the feeling I put into Cane. Cane was a swan-song. It was a song of an end,” he wrote.

This is important, considering Cane’s 1923 publication amid the Harlem Renaissance, a social-cultural movement of Black people trying to establish not only their citizenship but their cultural productivity as Americans in the early 20th century. A cornerstone of the Harlem Renaissance was the Great Migration, a mass exodus of Black people out of the rural South and into northeastern, midwestern, and western cities in search of opportunity and space to exist without the fear of violent retaliation based on their skin color. Opinions of the South collapsed under the spreading belief of it being a place in need of escape—and not one of cultural vibrancy that buoyed the migration of Black folks leaving the region. They didn’t leave empty vessels; they took their culture with them.

Ironically, while adamant about preserving Black folks’ experiences, Toomer refused to be labeled a “Black” writer: “My racial composition and my position in the world are realities which I alone may determine,” he argued to his publisher after refusing to market Cane as a work of Black Modernism.

Toomer’s intentional straying away from traditional prose makes Cane a brilliant experiment in racial memory and regional place-making and holding. Divided into three sections, Cane presents rural Georgia’s Southernness as cyclical in nature: the folk, the migration or venturing outward of folks out of the South into northeastern cities, and the return to the region. I am especially fascinated with the first section of Cane’s vignettes about Southern women and their struggles to exist: Karintha, “perfect as dusk when the sun goes down” but hypersexualized at a young age; Becky, the white woman with two Black sons who is ostracized by Black folks and white folks alike for refusing to name their fathers; Carma, the Black woman who tires of her jealous husband; and Louisa, the young Black woman who is desired by both a Black and a white man with fatal consequences. The women featured in Cane are clearly folk-women, stoic and at times complicit in their lives but never far away from nature or the natural metaphors Toomer uses to describe them and their circumstances. Toomer’s characterization of Southern women in Cane is in conversation with his contemporaries like Zora Neale Hurston and later writers like Alice Walker. I can see Karintha at a kitchen table with Janie Mae Crawford, the main character in Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, comparing notes about pine trees and pear trees and how their desirability was not meant to be their own.

Cane is a testament to how the South imprints on people and forces a reckoning of self-awareness and bias about the region and where it fits in American society. And, while Toomer refused to be categorized as a Black writer, Cane is part of a long legacy of Southern Black literature that also does the work of documenting the South from a nonwhite lens. For example, it is not a stretch to connect Toomer’s lush description of Southern rural landscapes with Mississippi writer Jesmyn Ward’s equally beautiful descriptions of nature—descriptions that plunge her readers deep into the complexities of Southern rural Black life. A century later, ripe with possibilities of interpretation with its beautiful writing and ambiguous structuring about what makes the South unique, Cane still whispers.

This article appears in September 2023 issue.