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John Callahaif religion failed to keep blacks in subservience, there were other means. " Portrait in Georgia, " the sequel to " Conversion, " uses the figure-ground pattern to expose the white southern obsession behind the blood sacrifice of lynching. Through Toomer's newly made eyes, the image of a southern belle dissolves into a black man tortured and burned alive at the stake. One by one, the womans features yield to the paraphernalia of lynching, until in a final chilling montage her white body becomes a simile for the black victim: And her slim body, white as the ash of black flesh after flame. The poems silent imagery summons the black folk voices of " Blood-Burning Moon" that improvise desperately against the spell of violence hovering over the land as pregnantly as the full " red nigger moon. " from In The African-American Grain: The Pursuit of Voice in Twentieth-Century Black Fiction. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1988. Copyright? 1988 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois Vera M.
KutzinskThe sweet fragrance of boiling syrup, so intense that it can be tasted, is also the lingering odor of death that clings to the sensuous southern landscape. That the effects of this violence cannot be contained within the conventions of literary romanticism is most evident in two short poems, " Face" and " Portrait in Georgia, " which I quote in their entirety: Hair silver-gray, like streams of stars, Brows recurved canoes quivered by the ripples blown by pain, Her eyes mist of tears condensing on the flesh below And her channeled muscles are cluster grapes of sorrow purple in the evening sun nearly ripe for worms. Hairbraided chestnut, coiled like a lynchers rope, Eyesfagots, Lipsold scars, or the first red blisters, Breach the last sweet scent of cane, And her slim body, white as the ash of black flesh after flame. These structurally similar catalogues of female features do not even attempt to mediate linguistically the stark contrast between the synecdochic outlines of a womans body and the images of pain and brutality that devastate that body in the process of visualizing it.
Along with the poems syntax, all expectations of beauty disintegrate before our very eyes as what might have been visions of loveliness decompose into a grotesque living corpse and a monstrous charred body There is no narrative voice here to relieve the oppressive, almost clinical silence, to offer us a distraction, an escape from what is barely even recognizable as human. These images are shocking not because they appeal to feelings either of guilt or of outrage but because they do not allow us to keep intact a reassuring distance between mind and body. The purple of the Georgia dusk may well be beautiful, the sweet scent of cane may well be sensuous, but only if we can forget that that purple is also the color of bloated, decaying flesh and that the sugarcane's intense sweetness is also the sickening stench of burned bodies. from " Unseasonal Flowers: Nature and History in Placido and Toomer. " Yale Journal of Criticism 3 (Spring 1990), 153 - 17 George Hutchinson The poem " Portrait in Georgia" is another haunting evocation of the racial boundary, curiously merging the image of a white woman and of a lynched black person implied to be a man burned to death for " despoiling white womanhood. " ... On one level, the white woman becomes a sinister figure, rather like the seductive " White Witch" of a James Weldon Johnson poem of that name, or like Lula in Amiri Barakas Dutchman.
But Toomer goes beyond these writers in suggesting an identity between the figures joined in his poem. By superimposing the images of the white woman, the apparatus of lynching, and the burning flesh of the black man, Toomer graphically embodies both a union of black male and white female and the terrifying method of exorcising that union to maintain a racial difference the poem linguistically defies. from " Toomer and American Racial Discourse, " Texas Studies in Literature and Langauge 35 (Summer 1993) 226 - 25 Susan Gubar In one of the short, imagistic poems he included in Cane (1923). Toomer linked Americas race change imperative " Make white! " to lynching. Through its grotesque personification of those who perpetrate racial violence, " Portrait in Georgia" hints that the hurt inflicted on victims boomerangs to damage the victimizer's: Hairbraided chestnut, coiled like a lynchers rope, Eyesfagots, Lipsold scars, or the first red blisters, Breaththe last sweet scent of cane, And her slim body, white as the ash of black flesh after flame. Brilliantly collapsing several planes of meaning, Toomer presents a woman (with hair, eyes, lips, breath, and a slim body catalogued as in a love sonnet), an illness much like advanced stages of syphilis (scars, red blisters); and lynching (a coiled rope, fagots to fuel the flame).
The pathologies portrait of Georgia that emerges is a s exchanged personification of the character Anne Spencer called the " ghoul, " here a murderous femme fatale. Like a syphilitic whore, this deathly dame demands the sacrifice of the black man who undergoes a race change from black flesh into white ash because of a fiery consummation in " flame[s]" that invoke the hot passion of the miscegenation used to justify such scapegoating but also the whole burnt offering of the sacrificed body, which is the literal meaning of the word holocaust. To fall from the primacy of color into whiteness is to be excoriated, a word connoting condemnation that literally means being stripped of ones skin. In the shocking protests of Spencer and Toomer, whiteness emerges as simply the fantastic, destructive belief in superiority Du Bois had analyzed in " The Souls of White Folk. " White ash is all that remains of black flesh after flame.
For, as Walter Benn Michaels notes, " whiteness is produced by (rather than produces) the burning of black flesh" in a poem that turns out to be a " narrative of the origins of racial difference, a narrative in which white bodies are depicted as the consequence of violence against black bodies. " From Racechange's: White Skin, Black Face in American Culture. Copyright? 1997 by Susan Gubar. Charles Scruggs and Lee VanDemarThe great power of " Portrait in Georgia" resides in the relations between Petrarchan enumeration of parts (" Hair... / Eyes... /... / Breath... / body) and their transformation in death. The " clear-cut" images of the poem not only create a " mystery" of identity within the poem but point to the larger mystery of miscegenation within the text itself. " Portrait in Georgia" becomes a microcosm of the collage structure of Cane, the narrative technique which, by taking away the connectives, compels the reader to look for " the evidence of things not seen. " As something unseen, miscegenation was a sin condemned in public but practiced in private. from Jean Toomer and The Terrors of American History. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P.
Farah Jasmine Griffe Jean Toomer's Cane (1923) is a bittersweet elegy to the beauty and the horror of the South. " Portrait in Georgia" and " Blood-Burning Moon" foreshadow and document, respectively, the lynching which spurs the movement of the text North. " Portrait in Georgia" might also be a portrait of Georgia. In this poem, Toomer establishes some of the major tropes of the migration narrative tropes that are later revised and revisited by those African-American artists who follow him. The object of this poem is a woman whose braided hair is likened to a lynchers rope and whose slim white-skinned body is actually made of the ash of burned black flesh. As is always the case with Toomer, the land is compared to a woman.
This time it is a white woman. In the poem and the story, the races arc bound together in a relationship of interdependence. The image of Southern white womanhood is fragile and dying because of this dependence. The poet identifies the matrix linking Southern white womanhood to the lynching of black men.
He is neither the first nor the last to do so: A black woman, Ida B. Wells and a white woman, Jessie Daniel Ames, precede and follow him, respectively. In publications like " Southern Horrors, " (1892) " A Red Record: Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynching in the United States 1892 - 1894 " (1895), and " Mob Rule in New Orleans" (1900), Wells explored the connections between the sexual exploitation of black women, the economic exploitation of black people, and the practice of lynching. According to Wells, the political and economic threat to the Southern status quo posed by black people invited the violence enacted upon them. As the founder of the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching, Ames articulated an understanding of the connections between white women and lynching from the perspective of a Southern white woman. According to Access biographer, Jacquelyn Dowd Hall, for Ames, " Lynching, far from offering a shield against sexual assault, served as a weapon of both racial and sexual terror, planting fear in womens minds and dependency in their hearts.
from " Who Set You Flow? " The African-American Migration Narrative. New York: Oxford UP, 199 Martha Jane Nadell The visual is not confined to Canes prose vignettes. The texts poems employ visual devices as well. The first section of Cane contains three poems that had been collected in the Modern Review as " Three Portraits. " The first two poems, " Face" and " Portrait in Georgia, " employ something like the Petrarchan conceit. They compare the elements of a womans face to a variety of objects or states. " Face" (10) begins by describing hair simply as " silver gray" like stars and brows as " recurved canoes. " Although the poem begins conventionally, elements of " pain" intrude into the portrait as it catalogs the womans countenance.
The eyes produce a " mist of tears. " And her channeled muscles are cluster grapes of sorrow purple in the evening sun nearly ripe for worms. The comparisons shift from beautiful stars to rotting grapes, suggesting pain without naming it. " Portrait in Georgia" (29) defines the " pain" to which " Face" alludes. The face in this poem is constituted by the racist violence in the South: Hairbraided chestnut, coiled like a lynchers rope, eyesfagots Lipsold scars, or the first red blisters, Breaththe last sweet scent of cane, And her slim body, white as the as the ash of black flesh after flame. This poem is the scene of a brutal lynching. Southern racial violence dominates what could have been a conventional portrait poem. The " lynchers rope, " the " fagots" that burn the " black flesh" are images with which Toomer stresses how society's understanding of race has and will continue to produce unfathomable terror for African Americans.
The visual images of " Face" become violent images in " Portrait in Georgia. " The poem is an extraordinary acknowledgement of the past of African Americans. Toomer recognizes that his desire for an a historical, free sense of the individual has a powerful enemy: the historical and present violence of the South. But if the two poems are so clearly about the social situation of the South, why does Toomer call them " portraits" and employ a womans face as the central image? With the fragmentation of the poems and the list of the constituent parts of the face without cohesion that would make them into a unified whole, Toomer alludes to a type of modernist portrait that Stieglitz mastered, thereby attempting to diffuse some of the horror he portrays. During the early 1920 s, Stieglitz was engaged in one of his most famous projects; the portraits of OKeeffe.
Stieglitz photographed parts of her body, including her hands, face, breasts, and legs, making a series out of these fragmented body parts. This was a sort of American cubism, some have argued. Each part of OKeeffe represented " her. " However, within this impulse to depict the whole of a persons selves by means of a part, Stieglitz focused on the part as a thing in and of itself. Thus, the photograph of Okeeffe's hands is as much about her as it is about her hands as hands and as a study in shape and design.
The other effect of the composite portrait was that it represented OKeeffe dia chronically. Recognizing that individuals change across time and place, Stieglitz documented OKeeffe as a mutable creature with many selves (Greenough, Stieglitz, 22). Yet, Toomer's fragmented portraits are different, and it is here that we see his fundamental departure from the almost pure formalism of Stieglitz and OKeeffe. The poems demand an accounting for lynching, for burning. They take an ethical stance on the racial system of the South by explicitly attacking the violence depicted later in " Blood-Burning Moon. " from Jean Toomer and the Harlem Renaissance. Ed.
Genevieve Fabre and Michel Feith. Rutgers UP. Copyright? Martha Jane Nadell.
Suzanne Lynch Jean Toomer paints his " Portrait in Georgia" in one continuous movement, beginning with his portraits hair and moving down her face toward the rest of her body. While each detail is true to a physical description, it also serves to unmask the central cultural conflict of the American South. He documents hair, eyes, lips, breath, and body, with each feature simultaneously revealing a cultural history stalled in division. From this position Toomer explores the hostility directed towards blacks in general, and mixed-race women in particular with the respective intention of reaching beyond the fragments of body to a " higher consciousness" (Toomer) of racial understanding. In the absence of any unity Toomer's portrait reflects definite oppositions between what is visible and what is knowable. His first image of " braided chestnut" hair is, in a somewhat vague perceptual sense, a teasing image that tantalizes us with multiple visions of race.
By omitting qualities of texture from the description, Toomer cleverly thwarts any conclusions we might make about the womans race. The image of hair does, however, suggest an element of strength, which, of course, further reinforces the racial discomfort fostered by the intangibility of this Georgia woman. And just in case the reader, pulled by some pathology of the ordinary, feels an uncontrollable inclination to racialize this woman, Toomer ruptures this attempt, in similar fashion, by once again avoiding any direct impression of race. " Her slim body, white as ash/ of black flesh after flame" concretizes the slipperiness of racial authority through an indirect comparison of her body to both white ash and black flesh. The reader should note that the only definitive descriptor Toomer offers is her slimness and all else is left to in the realm of supposition. Positioning this woman as neither black nor white, within a world so polarized by color, makes her a destabilizing force within the power dynamics of the culture. She obstructs the system of knowledge that clearly identifies subject positions by race.
In this way, Toomer constructs a self-articulated woman who disputes and disables the stability of racial essentialism's, albeit, at the consequence of violent negations. If the poem strips this Georgia woman of her wholeness and reduces her to a series of fragments, it also accounts for that effect by placing her in a social setting of violent white dominance. This, however, does not silence this woman who straddles the line between white and black, for the simple fact that Toomer resurrects herod and voice though an art that whispers to a consciousness about the inefficacy of racial segregation, and for that matter, the racial violence directed towards black woman who, either out of love or submission, give themselves up to white men. Since the poem is organized around racial principles of inclusion and exclusion, of acceptance and rejection, of realities and falsehoods, it is helpful in part to see Toomer's portrait as an articulation of the emotional and intellectual response to the increasing prevalence of racial dissolution. Apprehension about miscegenation and increasing fear of the invisibility of blackness at the turn of the century created a destructive and dehumanizing environment for those unwilling or unable to conform to racial singularity. Toomer's Georgia woman, thus, symbolic of the idea that the lives of black and whites are indelibly " braided" in a common southern experience, faces her punishment for exposing the myth of a white purity, supposedly uncontaminated by blackness.
For this she becomes her own executioner. Her braided chestnut hair " coiled like a lynchers rope" is used to disintegrate the very union it represents, while simultaneously erasing her example as the literal truth of Americas identity. Disturbing as the individual portrait is, the poem also intends an equally pointed reflection, on American history as a whole. The scarred, blistered lips heal just enough to speak of a womans story of human suffering.
She does this with the breath of " cane" and with a self-consciousness that links her to the exploitation and abuse that so many marginal southern women faced within an oppressive economy. Such images position Toomer's Georgia woman, not only as a woman destroyed by irrational fear, but also, more sadly, as a woman destroyed by economic dominance. With this understanding of the poems broader, historical context, we can then credit Toomer with creating a voice that grants agency to this mixed-race woman ironically, though a gradual death that in the end fuses a spiritual and physical return to the land. One might argue, as many scholars have already done for sections of Cane, that this Georgia woman, through her death simultaneously reclaims both her black and white ancestral investment in this southern land.
In other words, she claims her dual heritage that was previously denied to her by Americas own internal conflict over race. Intimating that in the end we are all reduced to ashes ashes to ashes that we " Sink into the earth/ To resurrect/ To project into this conscious world/ An example of the organic; To enact a mystery among facts" (BM) Toomer's final image of " her slim body, white as ash/ of black flesh after the flame, " renders a subtle, if uneasy, idealization of a world where our similarities link us in common understanding. As a recorder of history, Toomer offers his portrait as an invitation to rethink matters of race representation, and more importantly, race division. The poem also demonstrates the inclinations of its writer, as he works through his own consciousness, he opens the route to racial transcendence through a final integration in which our differences combine in a common product. 34 b
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