Jean Toomer

Hello again CREAD family, our celebration of National Poetry Month is drawing to a close but you know that doesn’t mean we stop “biggin’ up” the brilliance and accomplishments of our people.  So in preparing to tell you all about one of the most important contributors to the Harlem Renaissance, Jean Toomer I made an interesting discovery. Toomer’s novel Cane (1923) is considered his best work as a writer, although he was also known for his poetry about African American life.  Cane is categorized as a novel but in actuality was a sort of multi-genre text mixing and non-traditional in structure because it mixed narrative prose, poetry and play-like dialogues.
cane cover

In learning more about Toomer’s work I was fascinated by this small discovery.  In the novel, Cane, there is a vignette entitled, “Becky” which is about an “ostracized white woman with two black sons, living near the railway”.  Now I have to admit I laughed aloud at the name “Becky” but it also brought to mind Beyonce’s famous reference to Becky from her 2016 album, Lemonade. On the track titled, “Sorry”:

He only want me when I’m not there
He better call Becky with the good hair
He better call Becky with the good hair 

Beyonce sorry.png

What may seem coincidental I believe it speaks to the particular cultural referents of black people and what Professor Yohuru Williams suggests as cultural “time periods being in conversation with each other.”  Both references although nearly 100 years apart speak to the dynamics of race and sex in the context of the black relationships and community. To be clear if you are called “a Becky” it ain’t good. Becky is viewed as the white female who may or may not infiltrate black circles but is usually determined to establish a sexual connection to a black male from those social circles.

Cane is considered of great significance in Harlem Renaissance literature because it delves into the Southern rural black experience and the Northern urban black experience and their intersections. In the chapter called “Fern” he writes, “I felt strange, as I always do in Georgia, particularly at dusk. I felt that things unseen to men were tangibly immediate. It would not have surprised me had I had vision. People have them in Georgia more often than you would suppose. A black woman once saw the mother of Christ and drew her in charcoal on the courthouse wall…. When one is on the soil of one’s ancestors, most anything can come to one…”

Both Toomer and Mrs. Carter’s work affirms the richness and complexity of black culture and its rightful place in spaces where we seek to engage our students. Jose Vilson reminds us that as educators we must “be consistent learners if we are to be models for our students.” This means we look for opportunities to draw upon their current cultural riches while creating connections and deeper understanding of the origins of those riches (i.e. the Sankofa principle).

Learn more about Jean Toomer here.

Peace and love good people!

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