This is me as Jean Toomer, author of Cane. (Me and him go wayyy back). Just a lil background: Toomer had some (racial) identity issues. I am addressing this throughout the poem. Additional Note: I have tried, but have not captured Toomer’s beautiful poetic voice.
For a Fragmented Man: I have seen the world Split in two No desire exists in my body to reconcile the halves My purpose is to exist on the world’s periphery To swallow sound quietly To avoid brown women with jagged eyes and wide arms that cannot help but brush up against me I have given women like her all I am able to give— Yes, I was a Negro when it was convenient, and I saw hopeful eyes dim at the sight of my departure from darkness, but what could I do? If I am truly to be a fugitive in life and art, no brown hands can stifle my ascendancy. If I am truly to be a universal man, I must forget songs of the south, and erase my Dark self from national consciousnesses If I want to slip throughout the corners of scrutiny undetected, I must sever my body from nurturing hands— this will not be difficult to do— This universality I speak of is attainable for everyone, if we realize that racial identity is a lie whispered into our ears to keep our spirits caged in We can all release this useless burden if we simply make the attempt This is why I did not make it to the Harlem Renaissance— why I refuse to be enshrined in Negro literature volumes My work does not define me I refuse to be defined by others I can define myself— as an American, and as a man My career has imploded, but this is for the better— I grew weary of fair brown and yellow women dressed in their furs, gesturing at the chinks in my armor, saying, “There he is. There’s Jean Toomer— the Negro who is afraid to be a Negro.” I am not afraid. I am not afraid of those women. Their fancy jewels will cut their hands and feet mercilessly, their bodies will fall, limp, to the ground— as their shouts reverberate in the ears of the passersby, a bleak melancholy will fall over Harlem. It will be my fault. I will relinquish my throne, never to return. As I flee, my body will disintegrate— hair and fingernails evaporating into a universality only I can understand. Some writers will scourge the Earth looking for my body, looking for truths and essentialisms that never existed in my bloodstream— they will plant them there however, so they can claim my body and utilize it for literary experiments. I have seen the world severed into pieces, and, like the world, my body’s lakes and oceans cannot re-unite— they have parted for a purpose I am reconfiguring my body into one that detects only Americans, not Negroes or whites. This “new Negro” is not me. I am the old American— as old as the legacy of this nation, as old as weary backs resting in patio chairs. Grandfather Pinchback’s skin was as bright as summer— he used racial severances to achieve otherworldly fame we all grew accustomed to. My grandfather told half-truths in order to ascend into lofty echelons. That is all. Sometimes, people ask me how it feels to be traitor. How tough are the lies on my body. How can I breathe in the reality I have fabricated. They ask if it hurts. If I am hungry for the food Negro women fed me— There is a fault line in my soul. Every once in a while, the tectonic plates in my body shift, rupturing vital organs and severing blood vessels. And I erupt and die. But I die so that I can live, I tell them. I die so that I can be reborn— and each time I enter the Earth again I am less and less Negro and more and more human. They look at me, eyes wide, pupils expanding into incomprehensibility. They murmur, “What is this Negro trying to say?” And I erupt: “I am an American! I am a fugitive! I believe in the power of Art to rectify any social situation! I believe in books and words and integration. Integration is integral. Essential. Life-altering and mind bending— will you try to fly with me?” When I ask these Negro ladies to fly, they retreat slowly, softly, sinking out of my view. I realize my plan is ill-conceived, but I have flown so many times I can no longer think about shattering into the ground. Each piece of flesh retains its integrity. Each piece is unique. I write to live. I write to extinguish uncertainties about who I am. I am everything and nothing. I am more and less. I pervade existence but I hardly make a sound. I drift from region to region, collecting parts of myself that have grown since my last rebirth. If you catch me holding thumbs and ears in my hands, know that they once belonged to me. When I tell others that I am blue, they gaze at me questioningly. “How can you be blue?” they ask. “You look perfectly normal to me.” Writing Cane was an exercise in therapy; I was reconciling myself with myself. Fusing the parts of myself that refused to fit. Wandering over tall hills, tumbling into low valleys, trying desperately to reconfigure my worn spirit. The Tempest is a play as well as the name of the condition raging in my heart. I knew those women working in the fields in my story; their backs were pinched and tight from toiling in the sun for those long hours I know you all so well. How dare you project your feelings of (racial) helplessness on to me! I am trying to help myself, and if Art can serve me in my quest, so be it. I am tired of seeing shredded limbs on the floor after battles I fight with myself. I am tired of heaving myself wearily onto chairs, counters, and loveseats. I wish to define myself. I wish to be light. Airy Free. Blue (2010)
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