Jean Toomer (December 26, 1894 – March 30, 1967) was an American poet and novelist and an important figure of the Harlem Renaissance. His first book Cane is considered by many as his most significant. Toomer was born Nathan Eugene Pinchback Toomer in Washington, D.C. His father was a prosperous farmer, originally born into slavery in Georgia
"Her skin is like dusk on the eastern horizon,
O cant you see it, O cant you see it,
Her skin is like dusk on the eastern horizon
...When the sun goes down
Men had always wanted her, this Karintha, even as a child, Karintha carrying beauty, perfect as dusk when the sun goes down. Old men rode her hobby-horse upon their knees. Young men danced with her at frolics when they should have been dancing with their grown-up girls."
"Was Jean Toomer Negro? The scholars of the Black Arts movement who discovered Toomer's <i>Cane</i> (1923) in the 1960s assumed that he was. Recently, Henry Louis Gates, noting the relationship between the Black Arts movement and 'the larger political struggle for Black Power,' has suggested that '"lost" black primary texts' like <i>Cane</i> were 'resurrected' in part to perform the political function characteristic of the 'black traditions' generally - that of dismantling 'race prejudice' by proving 'the Negro' to be capable of the 'creation of art as a sign of civilization.'"
"He was a man who devoted an extraordinary amount of energy to define himself, authoring some seven autobiographies that never found publishers in his lifetime. In all of his self-definitions, Toomer dwells intensely on his racial identity, which he specifically differentiates from the races now acknowledge and name in the public discourse of the United States. he names his own race, the 'American' race, striving to claim the central term of our national discourse to signify an identity which few 'Americans' have been willing to acknowledge."
The book includes sketches of city life, portraits of rural women and a loosely autobiographical section titled “Kabnis” about a conflicted, racially mixed man.
Jean Toomer did not consider himself a “Negro.” Citing his mixed ancestry, he wrote that he considered himself a new type of man, simply a member of the “human race.” This caused some discomfort among other African American intellectuals who embraced Toomer's Cane and other writings as authentic examples of black experience.
In 1926 he attended the Gurdjieff Institute in France, dedicated to the expansion of consciousness and meditation, and upon his return led Gurdjieff groups in Harlem and Chicago in the late 1920s and early ’30s. He began a similar institution in Portage, Wis., in 1931.
In 1922, he moved to Sparta, Georgia to become a school principal. It was from this trip to the South that he began writing heavily about the African-American experience, eventually culminating with the publication of his most famous work, <i>Cane</i>, an experimental collection of stories and poems. It was hailed by critics and is seen as an important part of the Harlem Renaissance. The work is also categorized with that of other writers of the time, such as Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, and T.S. Eliot, for its contributions to Modernism.
In 1916, he became a devotee of socialism and gave lectures on the subject in a room that he rented out. Turned down by the Army during World War I in 1917, he became a Ford salesman in Chicago, then a substitute physical education teacher in the Milwaukee School System. In 1918 he went to work for a manufacturing company in New York, where he began to socialize in literary circles.
In 1914, he enrolled in the University of Wisconsin to major in agriculture, but quit after he found himself unable to win the race for the class presidency. Following that, he attended the Massachusetts College of Agriculture, then the American College of Physical Training in Chicago.
As a child, Toomer attended both all-white and all-black segregated schools, and from early on in his life he resisted being classified by race, preferring to call himself simply American. A descendent of both white and black heritage, his father left his family when he was only one year old, leaving Toomer to be raised by his mother and grandfather—Pinckney Benton Stewart Pinchback—who had been a Union soldier during the Civil War and later served as Acting Governor of Louisiana during Reconstruction.