Day 12Cane by Jean Toomer
"Kabnis," section 6
August 14, 2022 by Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts
The cellar swims in a pale phosphorescence. The table, the chairs, the figure of the old man are amœba-like shadows which move about and float in it. In the corner under the steps, close to the floor, a solid blackness. A sound comes from it. A forcible yawn. Part of the blackness detaches itself so that it may be seen against the grayness of the wall. It moves forward and then seems to be clothing itself in odd dangling bits of shadow. The voice of Halsey, vibrant and deepened, calls.
This section opens as a beautiful tableau vivant: we have light and shadow and sound. It is not quite earthly or human, but moves.
Youre an old man, a dead fish man, an black at that. Theyve put y here t die, damn fool y are not t know it. Do y know how many feet youre under ground? I’ll tell y. Twenty. An do y think you’ll ever see th light of day again, even if you wasnt blind? Do y think youre out of slavery? Huh? Youre where they used t throw th worked-out, no-count slaves. On a damp clammy floor of a dark scum-hole. An they called that an infirmary.
Kabnis has already named Father John, "Father of Hell." The cellar below the wheelwright shop, away from sunlight, is cast as a location out of time, where enslavement is ongoing and death is always on the way.
She is lovely in her fresh energy of the morning, in the calm untested confidence and nascent maternity which rise from the purpose of her present mission.
What a contrast drawn between Carrie, her propriety and "nascent maternity" against the night women, Stella and Cora. Interestingly the women never seem to inhabit the same space, though Carrie would have passed them to bring the food downstairs. I'd love a scene between these three women. Instead, Carrie is sent down to help Kabnis. Similarly the other women, at the end of section 5, competed over who would get to "nurse" him.
Carrie K.: He’s deaf an blind, but I reckon he hears, an sees too, from th things I’ve heard.
Kabnis: No. Cant. Cant I tell you. How’s he do it?
Carrie K.: Dunno, except I’ve heard that th souls of old folks have a way of seein things.
Kabnis: An I’ve heard them call that superstition.
Carrie, who is held up as a paragon of piety, is the one who understands how Father John's supernatural perception.
And when Father John suddenly begins to speak, it is Carrie who urges him to continue.
Father John: Th sin whats fixed... (Hesitates.)
Carrie K. (restraining a comment from Kabnis): Go on, Father.
Father John: ... upon th white folks—
Kabnis: Suppose youre talkin about that bastard race thats roamin round th country. It looks like sin, if thats what y mean. Give us somethin new an up t date.
Father John:—f tellin Jesus—lies. O th sin th white folks 'mitted when they made th Bible lie.
When Father John finally speaks, it is the voice of a witness. It has already been suggested that Father was born enslaved; Kabnis ranted earlier about Father having "died way back there in th 'sixties." What he has carried through time, through "death"—what he has seen and what he can speak of, is distilled to this one declaration—emphasizing the hypocrisy and brutality in which the characters are all trapped.
Much could be said about how the Bible was made to lie, but the meaning closest to the surface is bound up with another of the story's concerns: education. For instance, in the rare occasions when schools existed for the enslaved, instruction in literacy was tied to religious education, and a version of Christianity that exhorted slaves to be obedient and docile. Hanby can be seen as representative of this tradition. But a counter-strain grew up among black people, in which the enslaved identified with the journey of the Israelites out of bondage.
Carrie K.: Brother Ralph, is that your best Amen?
She turns him to her and takes his hot cheeks in her firm cool hands. Her palms draw the fever out. With its passing, Kabnis crumples. He sinks to his knees before her, ashamed, exhausted. His eyes squeeze tight. Carrie presses his face tenderly against her. The suffocation of her fresh starched dress feels good to him. Carrie is about to lift her hands in prayer, when Halsey, at the head of the stairs, calls down.
After Father John speaks Kabnis begins to launch another tirade but Carrie intervenes. Elsewhere in the book, sudden physical confrontations have involved men overwhelming women, or a stifling force field between two figures. Here, Carrie's actions toward Kabnis directly echo her first meeting with Lewis, when Lewis took her hands and "'[t]hey feel like warm cheeks against his palms."
With her gesture, Carrie ministers to Kabnis, her hands heal, or at least subdue him. Her dress, clean, stiff and proper literally suffocates him but this "feels good". Carrie receives him and is about to pray when she is interrupted.
Carrie is one of the "Saints" Alice Walker wrote of when invoking Toomer at the beginning of her essay "In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens": "black women whose spirituality was so intense, so deep, so unconscious, that they were themselves unaware of the richness they held." It bears noting that Walker does not see this as an ideal state, to be a Saint is the only alternative when a black woman cannot be an artist.
Carrie notices his robe. She catches up to him, points to it, and helps him take it off. He hangs it, with an exaggerated ceremony, on its nail in the corner.
The costume that Kabnis has worn during the drunken carousing hangs in contrast to Carrie's starched dress.
Light streaks through the iron-barred cellar window. Within its soft circle, the figures of Carrie and Father John.
Outside, the sun arises from its cradle in the tree-tops of the forest. Shadows of pines are dreams the sun shakes from its eyes. The sun arises. Gold-glowing child, it steps into the sky and sends a birth-song.
Another tableau. What is the picture made by the figures of Carrie and Father John in the light? How do we reconcile Carrie's prayer to Jesus with Father John's understanding of a Bible made to lie?
This image of the sun cradled by the trees echoes something from earlier in the novella: "The half-moon is a white child that sleeps upon the tree-tops of the forest." It is this white child to whom the wind sings the brutal "sleep-song" of the white child at the black mother's breast. Now we have the rising sun, a "gold-glowing child" sings a "birth song." Is this an image of hope?