“Cane” passed out of print, but not for long. It was rediscovered in the 1960s, and has been reissued every decade since. A new edition has been published, right on time, with a foreword by the novelist Zinzi Clemmons and a sharp, substantive introduction by the scholar George Hutchinson. As in its every appearance, the novel is again freshly positioned as a book for our times and angled to accommodate what we now know about Toomer’s racial identification.
For this is the riddle. Toomer was the grandson of the first black governor in America, of Louisiana, and grew up in the world of the light-skinned black elite in Washington. “Cane” was born out of a two-month stint of substitute teaching in Georgia (much of it written on the train rides home). “A visit to Georgia last fall was the starting point of almost everything of worth that I have done,” he wrote to the editors of the socialist magazine The Liberator. “I heard folk-songs come from the lips of Negro peasants. I saw the rich dusk beauty that I had heard many false accents about, and of which till then, I was somewhat skeptical. And a deep part of my nature, a part that I had repressed, sprang suddenly to life and responded to them. Now, I cannot conceive of myself as aloof and separated.”
A fleeting feeling. Toomer forbade his publisher to mention his race in the marketing for “Cane.” (“My racial composition and my position in the world are realities which I alone may determine.”) Nor would he allow his work to be included in black anthologies, insisting he was part of a new, emergent race, simply called American.
Toomer was “ahead of his time,” the novelist Danzy Senna has written, in fighting for freedom for himself and his work. “I made up a language in which to exist,” Elizabeth Alexander wrote, channeling him in her poem “Toomer.”
However, Rudolph P. Byrd and Henry Louis Gates Jr. have argued that a word already existed to describe Toomer: passing. From their analysis of how he identified, and allowed himself to be identified, on census and draft documents, they maintain it was not merely a desire to challenge or think beyond race that spurred Toomer but a wish to present as white. “Toomer probably wanted to live as he pleased outside the strictures of segregation and Jim Crow laws,” Byrd and Gates wrote, “to be judged as a writer for his talents alone, on their terms; to be free to chase the dreams about which he fantasized; to love the women he loved, without concern about the law — to live freely. And who can blame him?”