|Jean Toomer|Scholars Say Chronicler of Black Life Passed for White
By FELICIA R. LEE - New York Times
Now Henry Louis Gates Jr., the Harvard scholar, and Rudolph P. Byrd, a professor at Emory University, say their research for a new edition of “Cane” documents that Toomer was “a Negro who decided to pass for white.”
They lob this intellectual grenade in their introduction to the book, which W. W. Norton & Company is to publish next month. Their judgment is based on “an analysis of archival evidence previously overlooked by other scholars,” Mr. Byrd and Mr. Gates write, including Toomer’s draft registrations and his and his family’s census records, which they consider alongside his writings and public statements.
Toomer’s racial complexity has long been intriguing to critics and scholars, but Mr. Gates and Mr. Byrd’s assertion about his identity is certain to spark debate. Richard Eldridge, a Toomer biographer, said recently that he had not read the new edition — and will stand corrected if its case is persuasive — but that Toomer never “passed” in the classic sense of pretending to be white. Rather, he said, Toomer (whose appearance was racially indeterminate) sought to transcend standard definitions of race.
“I think he never claimed that he was a white man,” Mr. Eldridge said. “He always claimed that he was a representative of a new, emergent race that was a combination of various races. He averred this virtually throughout his life.” Mr. Eldridge and Cynthia Earl Kerman are the authors of “The Lives of Jean Toomer: A Hunger for Wholeness” published in 1987 by Louisiana State University Press.
Toomer’s life — he was born in 1894 and died in 1967 — traversed many shifts in American racial politics, including times of soul-sapping racial oppression. And while he ended up writing other poetry, essays and drama, “Cane,” published in the Jim Crow era, was a sensation in its time and remains his contribution to the American literary canon...more