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Day 8

Cane by Jean Toomer

"Kabnis," sections 1-2

August 10, 2022 by Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts

And cracks between the boards are black. These cracks are the lips the night winds use for whispering. Night winds in Georgia are vagrant poets, whispering. Kabnis, against his will, lets his book slip down, and listens to them. The warm whiteness of his bed, the lamp-light, do not protect him from the weird chill of their song.

For the first time, it feels like Toomer is naming the speaker of his verse. It is the voice of the night wind.

God, if I could develop that in words.

A poet's yearning.

A rat had run across the thin boards of the ceiling. Kabnis thrusts his head out from the covers. Through the cracks, a powdery faded red dust sprays down on him. Dust of slave-fields, dried, scattered...

The ever-present deep history of the land, carried by the dust that remains.

rock a-by baby… Black mother sways, holding a white child on her bosom.when the bough bends..Her breath hums through pine-cones.cradle will fall..Teat moon-children at your breasts,down will come baby… Black mother.

A lullaby as twisted as the reality it depicts: the use of enslaved black women as wet nurses for white children. Historian Stephanie Jones-Rogers has called this "intimate labor." Traces of this are captured in assorted historical photographs showing black women with their white charges. And the archive of newspaper advertisements selling wet nurses also reveals the ubiquity of the practice.

“God Almighty, dear God, dear Jesus, do not torture me with beauty. Take it away. Give me an ugly world. Ha, ugly. Stinking like unwashed niggers. Dear Jesus, do not chain me to myself and set these hills and valleys, heaving with folk-songs, so close to me that I cannot reach them. There is a radiant beauty in the night that touches and... tortures me. Ugh. Hell. Get up, you damn fool. Look around. Whats beautiful there? Hog pens and chicken yards. Dirty red mud. Stinking outhouse. Whats beauty anyway but ugliness if it hurts you? God, he doesnt exist, but nevertheless He is ugly. Hence, what comes from Him is ugly. Lynchers and business men…

From one moment to the next, Kabnis turns from being dumbstruck by the beauty of his setting to cursing it. It feels notable that the hills and valleys are "so close to me that I cannot reach them." What is intervening? They are "heaving with folk-songs" and perhaps it is the folk expression of the people—and their impoverishment and degradation among hog pens, chicken yards, outhouses and lynchers—that stands between him and beauty.

He is conscious now of the night wind, and of how it chills him.

We have learned that it is the night wind which sings—but he is only now aware of its chill. Consider what has happened so far, the wind and its songs have been acting upon him.

His gaze drifts down into the vale, across the swamp, up over the solid dusk bank of pines, and rests, bewildered-like, on the court-house tower. It is dull silver in the moonlight. White child that sleeps upon the top of pines. Kabnis’ mind clears. He sees himself yanked beneath that tower. He sees white minds, with indolent assumption, juggle justice and a nigger...

The threat of white supremacy represented by the courthouse interrupts his survey of the landscape.

Somewhere, far off in the straight line of his sight, is Augusta. Christ, how cut off from everything he is. And hours, hours north, why not say a lifetime north? Washington sleeps. Its still, peaceful streets, how desirable they are. Its people whom he had always halfway despised. New York? Impossible. It was a fiction. He had dreamed it. An impotent nostalgia grips him. It becomes intolerable. He forces himself to narrow to a cabin silhouetted on a knoll about a mile away. Peace. Negroes within it are content. They farm. They sing. They love. They sleep. Kabnis wonders if perhaps they can feel him. If perhaps he gives them bad dreams. Things are so immediate in Georgia.

Kabnis is situating himself—what is near, what is far. He names cities, graduating in distance and size: Augusta, Washington, New York—modernity is far away—"a lifetime north" where New York was "impossible… a fiction." What is nearby? Kabnis the Northerner can see only a different fiction: the image of the happy, singing black peasant. He wonders whether he is affecting them (as the wind has been affecting him?).

If that old bastard comes over here and smells smoke, I’m done for. Hell of a note, cant even smoke. The stillness of it: where they burn and hang men, you cant smoke. Cant take a swig of licker. What do they think this is, anyway, some sort of temperance school?

Temperance coexisting with lynch mob terrorism

I swear I feel their fingers...

So much is active in the atmosphere...

Kabnis: Things are better now though since that stir about those peonage cases, arent they?

This seems to refer to the Williams and Manning trials in 1921 which I mentioned in earlier notes for "Portrait" (Day 3)... A detailed history is here.

Thems th things you neither does a thing or talks about if y want t stay around this away, Professor.Halsey: Listen t what he’s tellin y, Kabnis. May come in handy some day.

The older local men are initiating Kabnis—how he must operate in order to survive.

But cant something be done?Layman: Sho. Yassur. An done first rate an well. Jes like Sam Raymon done it.Kabnis: Hows that? What did he do?Layman: Th white folks (reckon I oughtnt tell it) had jes knocked two others like you kill a cow—brained um with an ax, when they caught Sam Raymon by a stream. They was about t do fer him when he up an says, “White folks, I gotter die, I knows that. But wont y let me die in my own way?” Some was fer gettin after him, but th boss held um back an says, “Jes so longs th nigger dies—” An Sam fell down ont his knees an prayed, “O Lord, Ise comin to y,” an he up an jumps int th stream.

Interesting how the moral of this tale is unremarked upon. The way "Sam Raymon done it" is brought up as an answer to Kabnis's question "cant something be done?" What can be done is a black man begging for mercy—mercy being that he kill himself instead of the mob doing it. This is what can be "done first rate."

The sounds of emotive shouting from the church punctuate the moment.

Noted what I said th other day, an that werent fer notin down.Kabnis: What was that?Layman: Oh, a lynchin that took place bout a year ago. Th worst I know of round these parts.Halsey: Bill Burnam?Layman: Na. Mame Lamkins.Halsey grunts, but says nothing.The preacher’s voice rolls from the church in an insistent chanting monotone. At regular intervals it rises to a crescendo note. The sister begins to shout. Her voice, high-pitched and hysterical, is almost perfectly attuned to the nervous key of Kabnis. Halsey notices his distress, and is amused by it. Layman’s face is expressionless. Kabnis wants to hear the story of Mame Lamkins. He does not want to hear it. It can be no worse than the shouting.Kabnis (his chair rocking faster): What about Mame Lamkins?Halsey: Tell him, Layman.

The sounds of the church again interrupt a narrative of lynching. The correlation between the two is framed from Kabnis's point of view. Kabnis abhors the sounds of testifying and exultation from the black church—a kind of sublimation of the violent circumstances.

The story of Mame Lamkins seems drawn directly from the historical case of Mary Turner, lynched May 19, 1918, while eight months pregnant. Just as in the version told here, Turner's baby was cut from her womb. According to the Equal Justice Institute:

"The mob bound her feet, hanged her from a tree with her head facing down, threw gasoline on her, and burned the clothes off her body. Mrs. Turner was still alive when the mob took a large butcher’s knife to her abdomen, cutting the unborn baby from her body. When the baby fell from Mary Turner, a member of the mob crushed the crying baby’s head with his foot. The mob then riddled Mrs. Turner’s body with hundreds of bullets, killing her."

She was targeted for speaking out against her husband's lynching the previous day, and had threatened to bring legal action.

A shriek pierces the room. The bronze pieces on the mantel hum. The sister cries frantically: “Jesus, Jesus, I’ve found Jesus. O Lord, glory t God, one mo sinner is acomin home.” At the height of this, a stone, wrapped round with paper, crashes through the window.

At this moment, a convergence of terror: the story of Mame Lamkins's lynching, the sounds of a confession from the church, and the stone through the window, carrying a direct threat.

Kabnis knows that the command is meant for him. Fear squeezes him. Caves him in. As a violent external pressure would. Fear flows inside him. It fills him up. He bloats. He saves himself from bursting by dashing wildly from the room. Halsey and Layman stare stupidly at each other. The stone, the crumpled paper are things, huge things that weight them. Their thoughts are vaguely concerned with the texture of the stone, with the color of the paper. Then they remember the words, and begin to shift them about in sentences. Layman even construes them grammatically. Suddenly the sense of them comes back to Halsey. He grips Layman by the arm and they both follow after Kabnis.

Kabnis believes the threat is meant for him and reacts instinctively, fleeing. Halsey and Layman, the older men who have been sharing their knowledge of life and death in the South, are frozen by the event. The stillness of this moment is terrible and absurd. It is as if they are pinned to the ground "their thoughts are vague." They fall into a bizarre contemplation of the stone, the paper, its sentences. Their inaction in this brief moment is elongated by Toomer's choice to narrate it as a kind of freeze frame. It feels connected to the kind of self-preservation necessary to survive.

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