Women in the South (1974)
I described her own nature and temperament. Told how they needed a larger life for
their expression. . . . I pointed out that in lieu of proper channels, her emotions had
overflowed into paths that dissipated them. I talked, beautifully I thought, about an
art that would be born, an art that would open the way for women the likes of her. I
asked her to hope, and build up an inner life against the coming of that day. . . . I
sang, with a strange quiver in my voice, a promise song.
"Avey," Jean Toomer,
The poet speaking to a prostitute who falls asleep while he's talking-
When the poet Jean Toomer walked through the South in the early twenties, he
discovered a curious thing: Black women whose spirituality was so intense, so deep,
so unconscious, that they were themselves unaware of the richness they held. They
stumbled blindly through their lives: creatures so abused and mutilated in body, so
dimmed and confused by pain, that they considered themselves unworthy even of
hope. In the selfless abstractions their bodies became to the men who used them, they
became more than "sexual objects," more even than mere women: they became
Saints. Instead of being perceived as whole persons, their bodies became shrines:
what was thought to be their minds became temples suitable for worship. These crazy
"Saints" stared out at the world, wildly, like lunatics-or quietly, like suicides; and the
"God" that was in their gaze was as mute as a great stone.
Who were these "Saints"? These crazy, loony, pitiful women?
Some of them, without a doubt, were our mothers and grandmothers.
In the still heat of the Post-Reconstruction South, this is how they seemed to Jean
Toomer: exquisite butterflies trapped in an evil honey, toiling away their lives in an
era, a century, that did not acknowledge them, except as "the mule of the world." They
dreamed dreams that no one knew-not even themselves, in any coherent fashion-and
saw visions no one could understand. They wandered or sat about the countryside
crooning lullabies to ghosts, and drawing the mother of Christ in charcoal on
They forced their minds to desert their bodies and their striving spirits sought to rise,
like frail whirlwinds from the hard red clay. And when those frail whirlwinds fell, in
scattered particles, upon the ground, no one mourned. Instead, men lit candies to
celebrate the emptiness that remained, as people do who enter a beautiful but vacant
space to resurrect a God.