|Author Jean Toomer: He's African American!|
by Jean Toomer
It makes sense that the first significant African American novelist-writer wouldn't consider himself an African-American writer, and would be so upset by such a designation that he would move to France and turn to spiritualism, never writing another novel. Jean Toomer is present on the 1001 Books To Read Before You Die list as the first African-American author. Post Uncle Tom's Cabin, African American's were a central THEME in American literature, but typically as characters in the work of well meaning Whites. The rise of African American authors, alongside other non-traditional literary voices, is one of the key occurrences in literature in the 20th century, so even as a one hit wonder, being first in time within that category is a significant achievement.
The vehicle for the emergence of African American literature written by African Americans was the Harlem Renaissance. The Harlem Renaissance was a multiple discipline artistic frisson that reached across music, studio arts (painting, sculpture) and literature. In the area of literature, the Harlem Renaissance produced the first world famous African American novelists, short story writers, novelists and poets.
Jean Toomer was the mixed-race or "Creole" son of an established Creole family from Georgia. He moved to Washington DC as a child and was raised in a comfortable, middle-class neighborhood. He studied at several colleges but graduated from none of them, eventually moving to New York, where he landed in 1919. In 1920, he returned to Washington DC to care for his ailing parents. In 1921, he took a job as a school teacher in rural, African-American Georgia, where he was exposed to that culture for the first time.
Cane is not a conventional novel, but rather a mix of short stories and poems. The characters are largely African Americans: The only white character I remember is a deranged lover who is killed by an African American romantic rival via a slit throat. Toomer is free with his use of the 'N' word and discusses sex frankly and without prudery. The frequent dropping of the n bomb might be one reason this book is little read. Another might be the non-standard format combination of poetry and prose. Regardless of present popularity, it is the first significant work of literature by an African American in the period immediately prior to the Harlem Renaissance (which gave birth to MANY significant works of literature by African American authors.) so it is very much worth seeking out.
Also, Cane is only 160 pages, so you can read it in a sitting.