The Harlem Renaissance was a time period when the African American art and culture started to thrive. This time period many African American people started feeling more assimilated with American culture then before. The migration from the suppressed south to the north is what ushered in the Harlem Renaissance period. This was also a time where African Americans had let down their inhibitions which in turn paved the way for the culture to come through. Still, many black people had to go through challenging times. Many of the southern blacks had to deal with racial beatings and lynching. The author who really drew a vivid picture of the lives of southern black people was Jean Toomer. Toomer wrote his famous novel Cane at the beginning of the Harlem Renaissance which further inspired other African American artist. In Cane, Toomer uses vibrant imagery of Georgia and symbolism to show the lives of southern black people. His stories “Portrait in Georgia” and “Georgia Dusk” mention lynchings that white people use in attempt to show black people who the powerful race is. Other stories like “Song of the Son” and “Cotton Song” echo the past history of slavery. One prominent theme that seems to be relevant in Cane is sexuality, or more prominently black women’s sexuality.
In the first story “Karintha”, Toomer tells of a girl who “Men had always wantedâ€¦even as a child” (Toomer 1). The lust of Karintha at a young age was one so tempting that even older men wished for youth so they would have a chance with her. This changes though when “She played ‘home’ with a small boy who was not afraid to do her bidding” (Toomer 1). This line seems to imply that Karintha married a man who could provide certain things to her. Further lines that talk about the old men who remind Karintha of when they use to lust after her, mentions that she “Smiles, and indulges them when she is in the mood for it,” which supports the idea that Karintha has turned into a prostitute. This is also evident when Toomer explains:
The attention given to Karintha was only used for her sexuality. Ultimately, the lust for Karintha dehumanized her existence and “The soul of her was a growing thing ripened too soon” (Toomer 2). This quote reinforces the idea of Karintha being a prostitute. From these actions it could also be implied that Karintha had a stillborn baby when Toomer writes “”But Karintha is a woman, and she has had a child. A child fell out of her womb onto a bed of pine-needles in the forest” (Toomer 2). At the beginning of this story, Toomer shows the innocence of a young Karintha, he then contrasted that to an older “used” Karintha.
Another story “Carma” is about a black woman who is “strong as any man” (Toomer 10). Carma’s promiscuous sexuality is what ultimately lands her husband in a chain gang. The story goes on to explain that Carma has an extramarital affair “She had others. No one blames her for that” (Toomer 11). She might not be blamed for that, but she is blamed after her husband finds out about the affair. This leads to Carma shooting herself to gain more sympathy from him. This does nothing but anger her husband who states “Twice deceived, and one deception proved the other,” then kills a man next to him (Toomer 11). Toomer portrays Carma as somewhat of a she devil for her promiscuous sexuality that angers her husband who ends up serving his time.
Toomer shows the opposite of the sexual promiscuity in the last two stories with “Fern”. Fern is a black woman whose body is sexualized by other men but she purposefully remains a virgin. While men thought that “Fern’s eyes said to them that she was easy,” really she did not feel obliged to satisfy their needs. Men could not believe that she would not have them and “A sort of superstition crept into their consciousness of her being somehow above them. Being above them meant that she was not to be approached by anyone. She became a virgin” (Toomer 14). It the story it says that while being a virgin is normal, not wanting to reproduce is not and that “black folks were made to mate” (Toomer 15). It could be assumed that Fern is portrayed as a Madonna, which would coincide with a line in another one of Toomer’s stories that mentions a “Negress” who “drew a portrait of a black Madonna on the courthouse wall” (Toomer 21). After the narrator spend time with Fern, he breaks down the real Fern who ended up fainting in his arms. The men in the town hear about this and the narrator is given dirty looks because they felt he had in some way threatened their “black Madonna”. Toomer uses vivid images of the landscape in the story. At the end, he connects Fern with the detailed landscape.
Toomer’s next story “Esther”, is a about a black girl who “looks like a little white child” (Toomer 20). Through the story Esther badly wants to associate herself to the black culture but finds it hard because she is lighter and her dad is the richest black person in town. Esther in not portrayed as a black temptress like in the other stories in Cane; she is considered not attractive. Esther dreams of being accepted into the black culture. In one, she dreams there is a fire in the town which could be seen as a metaphor for her desire. When the fire starts the women “scoot in all directions” leaving Esther with a baby who is “Black, signed, woolly, tobacco-juice baby-ugly as sin. Once held to her breast, miraculous thing: its breath is sweet and its lips can nibble” (Toomer 22). This can be interpreted as Esther thinking that she needs a dark skinned baby to feel less light skinned. While the people in her dream might see the baby as ugly, she sees it as her bond to darker skin, forgetting her own color. Esther knows that men do not notice her and even says “I don’t appeal to them. I wonder why” (Toomer 22). This is when her obsession with a black man named Barlo begins because it helps her forget she is lighter. She wants to offer herself to Barlo so she will be able to conceive her dark skinned child she had dreamed of, thus becoming more darkened. When Barlo returns to town she seeks to meet him face to face to give her body to him which does not turn out well as he recognizes her lighter skin tone. With the failed disappointment Esther tells herself “The thought comes suddenly, that conception with a drunken man must be a mighty sin” (Toomer 25). Her dreams to reproduce with Barlo failed, she becomes completely disembodied. At the end of this story, the town disappears along with her dreams.
While the men in African American culture tried so hard to get away from the view that white people had, believing black people to be over sexualized beings, Toomer portrayed his black women just as that. While there has been a social stigma surrounding the false belief that African American women are over sexualized, some of the stories such as “Karintha”, “Carma”, and “Fern” do nothing to discredit that belief. Granted, this was not a stronger theme in these stories that lynching or slavery was. That being said, the Harlem Renaissance period was a time when white people had started to notice African American art and Toomer tried to accurately display the real lives of African Americans in Cane.
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