The 1923 Novel That Helps Us Understand Today’s Racial Climate

First published in 1923, Cane is a series of lyrical vignettes about life in rural Georgia told from the point of view of an ambivalently black teacher from the north. Cane’s protagonist is loosely based off of the author, Jean Toomer, a black man descended from mixed-race former slaves. Throughout his life, Toomer traveled across the color line, insisting that he wanted his work to be known beyond the confines of black literature.

Andrew Mitchell Davenport looks at the creation of Cane alongside his own personal history as a black man with racially ambiguous features in an essay for Lapham’s Quarterly, where he beautifully muses on the difficulty of forming a solid black identity in the wake of violent white supremacy, past and present.

I took the train north to New Haven one evening this spring. I had just read Cane for the first time as an adult, no longer in college. I am now twenty-seven, the age Toomer was when he wrote his masterpiece. I thought of how Toomer drafted Cane on trains returning to Washington from Georgia—did he sit in the black car or the white car?—and how he might have timed the rhythms of his words to the ringing of the rails, striking downhome talk and folksong into modernist poetry. I caught the reflection of my white-looking features in the train window and wondered at how my appearance eases me through time. How so many of my people have lit out for whiteness, never to return. My “white” Mormon cousins out West. Would there come a time, even worse weather, when I too might deny my past? I remembered my enslaved ancestors, their courage, the land they purchased when freed by the Union forces. At the Yale library, reading through papers Toomer kept during his time in Sparta and in his later time of exile, I witnessed how pain and fear—of the world, of one’s self—could be twisted into a terrible, haunting beauty.

Read the essay