An American white and a non-American black read Jean Toomer’s Cane (1923) and all this is brought to life through an encounter with Oluwamuyiwa Winifred Adebayo
Reading is listening to the words of others. I picked up Jean Toomer’s Cane to hear words from an old rural black Georgia that was still touched by slavery, a root of present-day race relations. As a white outsider who did not know the South when I moved to Atlanta in 2005, I was looking for an inside view. What I found was an appreciation for black beauty and a deeper realization that I cannot know what it is like to live in a black body.
I had missed my chance to talk about Cane to Dr. Rudolph P. Byrd , founder of the James Weldon Johnson Institute for the Study of Race and Difference, Emory College of Arts and Sciences (see excellent video here), who was on faculty at the Emory’s Graduate Institute of the Liberal Arts, where I’d come to study. He was at the time co-editing a new edition of Cane, and he died in 2011, the year it was published. I remember Dr. Byrd’s elegant dress and demeanor from passing in the halls.
In reading Rudolph P. Byrd and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., I learned that Toomer was not an insider to old rural black Georgia culture. A mixed-race middle-class Washingtonian, Toomer came to Georgia in 1922 for only three months to serve as acting principal of Sparta Agricultural and Industrial Institute, a black institution in the small town of Sparta, about 80 miles southeast of Atlanta. According to Toomer quoted there, “I had always wanted to see the heart of the South. Here was my chance.” Toomer had ancestors on both sides of his family from Georgia. In Sparta Toomer encountered a black folk culture of folksongs and spirituals for the first time, and he tried to capture it writing before it disappeared. This fragmented work moves in three parts from vignettes about the rural South to short stories about the urban north, to a play in prose set again in the rural South. It combines poetry, prose, and drama. Characters are black, white, and mixed race. It seems that Toomer struggled with his racial identity; he could pass as white but was repeatedly classified as black and sent to segregated black schools. His masterpiece Cane was became a classic of the Harlem Renaissance, but Toomer himself subsequently denied his black race and drifted away from writing into obscurity. The book but not the man remains with us to celebrate that race.
The title Cane suggests several things — sugar cane, caning, Cain, cane weaving — that may be found in the book. I did not know that sugar cane was among the crops grown around Sparta (even to this day). Cane brakes figure frequently in Cane as areas of meeting, and cane stalks, cane leaves and cane syrup appear as sources of sweetness. Cane imagery also finds its way into the urban stories, as though an ancestral land is calling.
Other crops included cotton, corn, wheat, potatoes, beans, peaches, and strawberries.
Cane was written during Jim Crow, and Toomer’s poetic portrait of a black woman seems to highlight pain:
What inspired me in Cane left me was a depiction of black beauty and vitality in modern style. The first third of Cane is dense with the beauty of women, sundown, smoke rising, moons, song, pine and resin, and the red clay of Georgia. Here Toomer captures in jazz beats the color of a character’s skin:
And there are many passages singing such beauty. This celebration of black beauty on its own terms must have been bold in 1923.
And it may still be today. Ifemelu, the Nigerian-born main character of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel Americanah (2013), was also reading Jean Toomer’s Cane as she sat in an African hair salon in Trenton, NJ, getting her hair braided one last time for her journey home after living for 13 years in the US.
Ifemelu is a young woman of a generation of Nigerians that sought education abroad in the United States or United Kingdom. Her only experience of the US before moving here was with wealthier Nigerians who had visited, including her aunt, the kept-woman of a Nigerian general, who came to Atlanta to have her baby, presumably because the hospitals were better.
In coming to the US to study and work, Ifemelu says she encounters race for the first time and struggles to interpret what it means. Her skin color seems to anger white Americans when they think she is superior to them and comfort them when they realize she is subordinate. When Ifemelu tries to get a job, her recruiter seems to advise her to appear less black: “lose the braids and straighten your hair.” She encounters whites tip-toeing around discussions of race or flaunting their allegiance to her, only to get it wrong. When her white employer’s sister compares an African-American unfavorably to a Ugandan, Ifemelu provides the insight, “Maybe when the African American’s father was not allowed to vote because he was black, the Ugandan’s father was running for parliament or studying at Oxford.” Adichie dares to show interactions between Africans and Africans, and Africans and African-Americans, African-Americans and whites, and Africans and whites, and there is tension and kinship in all the combinations. Ifemelu is thrown into a camp with African-Americans only because of a broad skin color and not because of shared experience. In her effort to understand race, Ifemelu starts a blog called “Raceteenth or Various Observations about American Blacks (those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black.” The blog becomes so popular that she can support herself from its ads, so that she is effectively living the American Dream. Then she becomes homesick for Nigeria.
Last month at a meeting in Chapel Hill, NC, I received the gift of meeting Oluwamuyiwa Winifred (“Winnie”) Adebayo, Assistant Professor of Nursing at Penn State who is Nigerian born, and we connected over Americanah. Winnie told me that she identified with Ifemelu, as a former international student who discovered race only in coming to the US: “In Nigeria we have issues but we never think of skin color.”
Winnie told me that one thing in the book that spoke to her was Ifemelu’s “hair journey.” Winnie described some of the issues with black hair. Water shrinks and tightens pure black hair, unlike white hair, and is a threat to styled hair; she has to plan around hair washing, rain, and swimming. Relaxers soften black hair and make it more manageable but with chemicals that may be hazardous. Like Ifemelu, Winnie eventually her way to the Natural Hair Movement and renounced relaxers. The decision embraces “hair as it grows out of my head,” according to Winnie.
Here Winnie reads Ifemelu’s words (pp 365-6) on how black women and their beauty issues are left out of American fashion magazines:
As someone living within American beauty norms and taking them for granted, I was moved by this passage. You can see more of Winnie on her lifestyle blog, Winie’s Student World.
It may be that images of natural black hair are appearing in more public spaces these days. One example is the artist Chuck Close’s mosaics in the new subway line that opened in Manhattan in 2017:
But back to Cane. Why is Ifemelu reading it? It is left to the reader to decide. Ifemelu has just broken up with African-American professor boyfriend Blaine, who called the book “precious” and steered her away from it; because of his comments she now thinks she’ll like it. As the story weaves back in time and returns to the hair salon, Ifemelu returns to Cane and suddenly wants to postpone going home, thinking she’s being hasty. A white customer comes into the salon wanting braids, and soon after greeting the braiders she comments that it is wonderful that the US gives Africans a chance for a better life. She then reaches out to Ifemelu, trying to engage her over her book. In her state of mind Ifemelu doesn’t want to engage and doesn’t encourage the conversation, saying, “It may not be the kind of book you would like if you have particular tastes. He mixes prose and verse.” The woman is persistent and moves on to discuss her own upcoming trip to Africa and the books she’s reading to prepare. The tension between Ifemelu and the woman mounts, and when the conversation ends Ifemelu begins a long reflection on the complexities of her experiences with a white ex-boyfriend and their attempts to understand each other. To me one of the strongest statements in the book was that blacks don’t want to think about race but can’t help it in the US: “The black guy on the street in New York doesn’t want to think about race, until he tries to hail a cab … until a cop pulls him over….”(p. 429)
Maybe Ifemelu picked up Cane, like me, to try to touch a past that influenced today’s African-Americans. I think she knows that as an outsider to African-American culture, it is a deep and long journey. In a sense she gives up and goes home to her own people. Ironically, when she gets there she’s teased for having turned into an Americanah, someone with American ways and pretensions that are foreign to Nigerians – having been changed by her experience. As for me, I am an outsider both to African-American culture and to black race and always will be. But these books offer a white person the chance to listen and take a leap of imagination and empathy. They are also a touchstone for real conversations.
Addendum: On February 21, 2019, the New York Times published “City bans discrimination based on hair” describing new guidelines released by the New York City Commission on Human Rights establishing the right to maintain “natural hair, treated or untreated hairstyles such as locs, cornrows, twists, braids, Bantu knots, fades, Afros, and/or the right to keep hair in an uncut or untrimmed state.” The guidelines follow the highly publicized incident in December involving New Jersey high school wrestler Andrew Johnson who had his dreadlocks forcibly cut before a match.
[Last modified: March 10, 2019]