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Day 2

Cane by Jean Toomer

"Fern" to "Esther"

August 4, 2022 by Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts


When a woman seeks, you will have observed, her eyes deny. Fern’s eyes desired nothing that you could give her; there was no reason why they should withhold

We are again in the puzzle of an irresistible woman—figured as denying, withholding. This idea of a woman's sexuality is type for Toomer. The woman is known by her effect on others. Alice Walker wrote of Toomer's women "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."

And yet the desire of men, and "their offerings" is rendered somehow pathetic and ineffectual. "Men were everlastingly bringing her their bodies. Something in her got tired of them.."

her eyes

what she sees her point of view

to all these things she gave a yassur or nassur,

“Doesnt it make you mad?”

what she says

As you know, men are apt to idolize or fear that which they cannot understand, especially if it be a woman.

As maddeningly incomplete as these women can be, as Toomer has figured them, there are also sharp moments of truth.

Besides, picture if you can, this cream-colored solitary girl sitting at a tenement window looking down on the indifferent throngs of Harlem. Better that she listen to folk-songs at dusk in Georgia, you would say, and so would I. Or, suppose she came up North and married. Even a doctor or a lawyer, say, one who would be sure to get along—that is, make money. You and I know, who have had experience in such things, that love is not a thing like prejudice which can be bettered by changes of town. Could men in Washington, Chicago, or New York, more than the men of Georgia, bring her something left vacant by the bestowal of their bodies? You and I who know men in these cities will have to say, they could not. See her out and out a prostitute along State Street in Chicago. See her move into a southern town where white men are more aggressive. See her become a white man’s concubine... Something I must do for her.

When Toomer offers this catalogue of Fern's possibilities, her abstraction and the ineffectuality of the men who "offered their bodies to her" comes into focus. Whether she flees towards Harlem and the world, or remains in her place of origin; whether the wife of a doctor or lawyer, a prostitute or a white man's concubine—these are all varieties of the same trap. And yet the narrator still wants to rescue her, transport her by his talk: "Push back the fringe of pines upon new horizons."


Her cheeks are too flat and dead for a girl of nine.

We meet the title character Esther, another young girls grown old before their time—following a recurring theme.

Barlo is in a religious trance. Town folks know it. They are not startled. They are not afraid. They gather round.

What is this religiosity—or madness, and why is it familiar? It has something to do with the milieu. The nearness to spirit—like Beck who is embraced and rejected. Indeed we know Barlo from Becky's tale. It is he who throws the Bible on the collapsed house.

Silently, all await the prophet’s voice

The acceptable madness of the prophet, who must be kept close because of what he is in proximity to: grace and transcendence

Soda bottles, five fingers full of shine, are passed to those who want them. A couple of stray dogs start a fight.

As Barlo's holds court the whites gather round preparation for imminent violence, and the violence as a contagion.

“Jesus has been awhisperin strange words deep down, O way down deep, deep in my ears.”

The atmosphere of this prophetic voice is close to some of the incantation of earlier poems, recall: "the pines whisper to Jesus."

I saw a vision. I saw a man arise, an he was big an black an powerful—”Some one yells, “Preach it, preacher, preach it!”

As Barlo lays out his prophetic vision, which is a vision of black power, he is immediately anointed. Not mad, but a preacher. In history we have Nat Turner as another prophet revolutionary.

The sheriff...swears in three deputies. “Wall, y cant never tell what a nigger like King Barlo might be up t.”

How quickly white men are drafted to uphold the violent power of the state. This recalls actual events: in the May 1921 Greenwood massacre in Tulsa, 200 white male civilians were deputized by the authorities to carry out violent reprisals against black men seeking self-defense. This would have been earlier in the year that Toomer traveled to Georgia. Details of the race riot were widely reported.

—but his head was caught up in th clouds. An while he was agazin at th heavens, heart filled up with th Lord, some little white-ant biddies came an tied his feet to chains. They led him t th coast, they led him t th sea, they led him across th ocean an they didnt set him free. The old coast didnt miss him, an th new coast wasnt free, he left the old-coast brothers, t give birth t you an me. O Lord, great God Almighty, t give birth t you an me.”

Barlo spins an allegory of the transatlantic slave trade, and "to the people he assumes the outlines of his visioned African." But this vision of power, rooted in an understanding of history and origins, tumbles into something familiar and placating, a docile Christianity:

“Brothers an sisters, turn your faces t th sweet face of the Lord, an fill your hearts with glory. Open your eyes an see th dawnin of th mornin light. Open your ears—

an inspired Negress, of wide reputation for being sanctified, drew a portrait of a black madonna on the court-house wall.

The effects of Barlo's presence; this same drawing by one of the women Alice Walker called "Saints" is mentioned in "Fern." A nearness to spirit; an art forged by limitation and grace. Thinking of the so-called "outsider art" of Gertrude Morgan and Minnie Evans, among others.

He became the starting point of the only living patterns that her mind was to know. Esther begins to dream.

When Esther witnesses Barlo's prophecy she experiences a kind of initiation. The patterns of her mind are aroused to visions and hallucinations of her own: images of creation and destruction, all while she is contained by the expectations of her class and caste, the "dictie" light-skinned daughter of the grocery store's owner.

fired sun-bleached southern shanties

This brings to mind the "shack" sculptures and drawings of artist Beverly Buchanan.

She wants her mind to be like that. Solid, contained, and blank as a sheet of darkened ice.

I loved this moment, a portrait of Esther's interior, from her own subject position (for once).

The corrugated iron canopies and mule- and horse-gnawed hitching posts bring her a strange composure. Ghosts of the commonplaces of her daily life take stride with her and become her companions. And the echoes of her heels upon the flagging are rhythmically monotonous and soothing.

There is no air, no street, and the town has completely disappeared.

At the moment of Esther's transgression, before and after her attempt to seduce Barlo, the setting takes on phantasmagorical significance. How far she has to go...

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