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Day 3

Cane by Jean Toomer

"Conversion" to "Blood Burning Moon"

August 5, 2022 by Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts


African Guardian of Souls

During this reading I've been increasingly compelled by Toomer's scattered references to Africa. A gift of re-reading. A few things come to mind, one is that Cane appears more or less between two inflection points when the importance of African art and culture is entering the center by two different paths of modernism: one, through the Fauvists and Cubism (Matisse and Picasso were enthusiastic collectors of African art) and separately through the encouragement of philosopher & critic Alain Locke, who believed that Black writers would seek a source for their art by connecting with African origins... much to explore there...


The structure of this verse recalls the earlier poem "Face." I wonder if Toomer made more of these, almost as a traveler's sketchbook, during his time down South.

But here, Toomer's finely tuned skill for capturing externalities is transmuted. There is not one body being described but two. This features of this face, a face we know by the last line is white, are overlaid with the features of a mutilated black body—a victim of lynching. The National Memorial for Peace and Justice of the Equal Justice Institute documents hundreds of lynchings in Georgia between 1877-1950; a much earlier attempt to document the national crime, The Red Record, published in 1895 by Ida B. Wells, noted that "Georgia heads the list of lynching states."

Toomer's 1921 sojourn in Georgia overlapped with some notable atrocities. Earlier that year a plantation owner evaded investigation for enslaving convicts in peonage by murdering all of the workers on his land —which pushed the governor of Georgia to launch a state commission on the plight of "The Negro in Georgia." But published reports did not stop a lynching in December 1921, just 50 miles from Sparta, where Toomer lived and worked. This would have been toward the end of Toomer's time down south.

The particular overlay of the lynched body with the figure of a white woman is significant for pervasive logic deployed to rationalize lynchings throughout American history: the protection of a prized white womanhood from black predators. Ida B. Wells was violently pursued for stating the obvious in 1892: "Nobody in this section of the country believes the old threadbare lie that Negro men rape white women. If Southern white men are not careful, they will overreach themselves and public sentiment will have a reaction; a conclusion will then be reached which will be very damaging to the moral reputation of their women."


dusk came.

In this reading of Cane, I've been wanting to think more about time, and the different ways it is charted. Toomer was only in Georgia for about a season, so wouldn't have witnessed the turning of a year.

It is often dusk. Dusk is the time of day, dusk is the color of bodies.

There are other ways of keeping time: the amount of time it takes for a sawdust pile to burn; the amount of time it takes for young girls to grow into women (often prematurely); the sudden appearance of babies (usually a way of telling about illicit sex).

And significantly, the line drawings that thread through the book's beginning, middle, and end.

The artist Martin Puryear completed a series of woodcuts inspired by Cane, and especially those moons.


Definition of pine knot : "a joint of pine wood especially: one used for fuel"

Wanted this definition, another agricultural / land-based word out of use. But important for how many things burn in this book and how much pine.

Her skin was the color of oak leaves on young trees in fall. Her breasts, firm and up-pointed like ripe acorns. And her singing had the low murmur of winds in fig trees.

This figuring of women as landscape, as the natural world runs throughout. And how are the bodies of men figured?

His black balanced, and pulled against, the white of Stone, when she thought of them.

Another moment of a women's interior—what is balancing is not just color but their fixed places in the power structure...

The women sang lustily. Their songs were cotton-wads to stop their ears.

As she sang softly at the evil face of the full moon.

This image of the song as a way to block out reality. And Louisa is among the women singing against the moon.

Red nigger moon. Sinner! Blood-burning moon. Sinner! Come out that fact’ry door.

The verse as chorus, commanding the action, predicting it. The songs intertwine with the omen of the moon

boiling cane

Here is another way of telling time. Sugarcane in Georgia is harvested around November. So Toomer would have witnessed this in 1921—its sights and smells. "A mule, harnessed to a pole, trudged lazily round and round the pivot of the grinder."

Red nigger moon. Sinner! / Blood-burning moon. Sinner! / Come out that fact’ry door.

The choral quality of the verse begins to converge with the hallucinatory nature of the women singing against the spell of the moon.

his mind became consciously a white man’s.

Bob Stone's interior monologue is an ambulatory portrait of a mind contorted by white supremacy. He figures his position as a member of the white ruling class against his family's heritage as enslavers: "The contrast was repulsive to him. His family had lost ground. Hell no, his family still owned the niggers, practically. Damned if they did, or he wouldnt have to duck around so." This is explicitly tied to the reign of sexualized terror that governed the plantation "He went in as a master should and took her."

His mother? His sister? He shouldnt mention them, shouldnt think of them in this connection.

Then, with their eyes still upon him, he began to feel embarrassed. He felt the need of explaining things to them

She was lovely—in her way. Nigger way. What way was that? Damned if he knew. Must know. He’d known her long enough to know. Was there something about niggers that you couldnt know? Listening to them at church didnt tell you anything. Looking at them didnt tell you anything. Talking to them didnt tell you anything—unless it was gossip, unless they wanted to talk.

Nigger was something more. How much more? Something to be afraid of, more? Hell no. Who ever heard of being afraid of a nigger?

Why nigger? Why not, just gal?

Stone is trapped between the power he relishes and the twisted entanglement with Louisa, whom he desires, whom he must possess (as a master would have) but who is "worth it." Meanwhile whatever Louisa's worth to him, he dares not even *think* of her at the same moment as his mother and sister—this upholding of white womanhood.

Be gettin too hot f niggers round this away.”

The dangers that accrue leading to migration.

Again he lunged. Tom side-stepped and flung him to the ground. Straddled him.

The repetition of this line, as a kind of fight choreography, is masterful. 

Each blow sounded as if it smashed into a precious, irreplaceable soft something.

Perhaps the "precious, irreplaceable soft something" is whiteness itself; a treasured family heirloom guarded by women like Bob Stone's mother and sisters.

“Thats my game, sho.”

Tom Burwell's response when a knife is pulled—his confidence. He has already discussed his proficiency in knife fights. Elements of self-defense and resistance are under-discussed and under-documented. But there were many. Indeed, many instances of lynching and banishing stemmed from moments of self-defense. 

Negroes who had seen the fight slunk into their homes and blew the lamps out.

It is as if the black community immediately understands the consequences that would be visited upon all of them. See the Equal Justice Institute's History of Racial Injustice for a daily accounting of such incidents.

White men like ants upon a forage rushed about. Except for the taut hum of their moving, all was silent. Shotguns, revolvers, rope, kerosene, torches. Two high-powered cars with glaring search-lights. They came together. The taut hum rose to a low roar. Then nothing could be heard but the flop of their feet in the thick dust of the road. The moving body of their silence preceded them over the crest of the hill into factory town. It flattened the Negroes beneath it.

The anatomy of a lynch mob.

The mob pushed in. Its pressure, its momentum was too great. Drag him to the factory. Wood and stakes already there. Tom moved in the direction indicated. But they had to drag him. They reached the great door. Too many to get in there. The mob divided and flowed around the walls to either side. The big man shoved him through the door. The mob pressed in from the sides.

This illustration of the mob brings to mind how many took part in such violence. There were "too many to get in there." It is a great suppressed American history. "The mob yelled. The mob was silent." The pressure and momentum of the mob moving as one body, relates to the later silence and suppression of this collective culpability.

Like a hundred mobs yelling. Its yell thudded against the thick front wall and fell back. Ghost of a yell slipped through the flames and out the great door of the factory. It fluttered like a dying thing down the single street of factory town.

What a haunting sound.

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