Cane | Study Guide

Jean Toomer

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Cane | Themes


Race and Racism

Jean Toomer rejected the concept of race, but his writing reflects a world where race is paramount. Cane considers race in the United States from many angles, including racialized crimes and racial dividing lines. He also leaves open the possibility of transcendence and hope for the African American community.

Pain and violence pervade Cane as Toomer describes the black experience in the South. The black woman in "Face" wears the effects of a lifetime of sorrow. "Song of the Son" mourns dead slaves, and characters like Dan Moore in "Box Seat" and Kabnis consider how slavery's legacy affects their daily lives. "Kabnis" and "Blood-Burning Moon" describe the overt, racially motivated brutality of lynchings in Georgia.

Cane also depicts the consequences that characters experience when they cross the strict dividing lines of racial identity. When the white title character in "Becky" has two mixed-race sons, the town punishes her entire family. Hanby in "Kabnis" attempts to assimilate into white culture as much as possible, and the black community rejects everything he stands for. Wealthy characters like John and Esther are called "dictie"—pompous or stuck-up—by other black people. Light-skinned African Americans face constant questions about where they belong. When people in a club in Chicago see Paul in "Bona and Paul" they wonder, "What is he, a Spaniard, an Indian, an Italian, a Mexican, a Hindu, or ... Japanese?" Toomer shows how desperately society clings to racial categories.

Racial distinctions breed a fascination with the "other"—specifically a fascination with black people. Esther, captivated by the street preacher Barlo, imagines having his "black, singed, woolly, tobacco-juice baby." Bob in "Blood-Burning Moon" desires Louisa because of her mystery and his own feeling of domination.

Despite the complexities and dangers of being black in America, there's much to celebrate. "Seventh Street" and "Theater" celebrate the vibrancy of urban black culture. Part 1's poems and stories connect the unique beauty of rural Georgia to its black residents, particularly in "Georgia Dusk" and "Conversion." Toomer wanted Cane to increase the African American community's knowledge and appreciation of their heritage. In a letter to writer Sherwood Anderson, he wrote, "My art will aid in giving the Negro to himself."

Religion and Spirituality

When characters or speakers want to express deep emotion, Cane uses the language of Christian religion and biblical myth. Narration in several poems and stories includes calls to Jesus. Judgment Day is referenced in "Cotton Song" and "Seventh Street." The word sin is used in "Kabnis" and "Blood-Burning Moon" to address the crimes of white Americans against black Americans.

Stories acknowledge Christianity's significant role in the black community. Church choirs sing loud spirituals in the background of "Kabnis." In "Rhobert," mourners honor a dying man by singing the spiritual "Deep River" about hope for a Christian afterlife. In "Esther," crowds flock to hear a street preacher's impassioned story of an imprisoned Jesus. Characters like Dan, Barlo, and Lewis serve as prophets who bring revelations to their communities.

Toomer is also critical of Christianity's impact on African Americans. "Conversion" indirectly addresses the forced conversion of African slaves to Christianity. Father John in "Kabnis" believes white people "made th[e] Bible lie" by using the Bible to justify oppression.

Cane occasionally mentions Judaism as a faith built on sorrow and wandering, similar to the Christianity of African slaves. "Carma" mentions the Hebrew leader Moses and his followers, the "Moses-people," comparing the legacy of exile shared by African Americans and Jews. The title character in "Fern" is compared to a "Jewish cantor" or singer because of the deep sorrow in her voice.

The book also alludes to a deeper spirituality and the possibility of unseen worlds within the real world. "Georgia Dusk" imagines the rituals of ancient African religions transplanted to rural Georgia. Characters in "Fern," "Kabnis," and "Box Seat" experience supernatural visions; a woman mentioned in "Fern" draws the mother of Christ on a courthouse wall. "Prayer" and "Calling Jesus" refer to the soul and spirit as important parts of the human experience, or invisible aspects of the visible body.

Desire and Longing

Cane is a book full of longing for connection, intimacy, community, and hope.

Sexual desire motivates male and female characters throughout the book. Karintha, Fern, Avey, and Dorris get part of their power and mystery from their consciousness of male desire and the way they accept, reject, or thwart it. Esther, Bona, and Dorris negotiate their own complex needs. Esther's desire for Barlo is enhanced by his "otherness," which seems exciting and exotic to her. Bona has a similar desire for Paul. Dorris desires John for the stability he can offer her. Toomer writes frankly about physical intimacy as a driving force behind human behavior. The poem "Her Lips Are Copper Wire" compares a woman's kiss to electric power, strong and dangerous.

Longing for connection is deeper and more sorrowful. Many characters want what they'll never get. The narrator of "Avey" hopes in vain for a better life for her and a return to the idealized past she represents. John and Dorris in "Theater" don't achieve the intimacy they want. The story "Kabnis" is driven by the title character's unfulfilled desire to express the feelings in his soul and to connect to his past. This separation from the past creates an unquenchable longing in the African American experience, a longing Toomer compares to hunger and thirst in the poem "harvest."

North versus South

Toomer compares and contrasts the cultures of rural Southern towns and large Northern cities. Washington, D.C., though geographically close to the South, is considered a Northern city in the book. The city's speed and vibrant life described in Part 2's "Seventh Street" and "Theater" contrast with the slower-paced agrarian lifestyle of Part 1's stories and poems.

Attitudes and cultures also vary drastically in the two regions. When Paul in "Bona and Paul" tries to figure out Bona's feelings for him, he considers Southern and Northern attitudes toward black people. Someone from the South will "love or hate" black people while "in Chicago you'll have the courage to neither love or hate." The South's dramatic legacy of racism and slavery shapes Southerners' behavior decades after the Civil War (1861–65). When Kabnis moves to the South he experiences culture shock, astonished by the constant state of fear and wariness black Southerners live in. Northerners in the South, like Lewis in "Kabnis" and the narrator in "Fern," are suspected of being "dictie," or pompous with a false sense of superiority.

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