Charles Scruggs and Lee VanDemarr: On "Reapers"

The white South defined miscegenation practically as the rape of white women by black men. Within the black community, of course, the understanding was very different—by 1920 an estimated 70 percent of African-Americans were of mixed race, and that huge total had nothing to do with black men's rape of white women. Karintha's secrecy about her child indicates some communal violation beyond mere illegitimacy, and that disruption is hinted at in the poem that follows her story. "Reapers" describes a mechanical mower drawn by "black horses" that cuts up a squealing "field rat." More antipastoral than the work of Robert Burns, the poem depicts the suppressed anger of the black field hands, whose motivation is both economic and sexual. Killing the rat, they foreshadow Bane's slashing his friend in "Carma" and the death of Bob Stone in "Blood-Burning Moon." In the post-Reconstruction South, sexual exploitation of black women was an act of political terror, a way of intimidating both black women and black men. And although Karintha's child is a private scandal, the world of whispered facts and gossip, like secret miscegenation, powerfully affects the action in Cane.

[. . . .]

The African-American folk culture Toomer adapts and creates for the first section of Cane, the sorrow songs and blues lines between and within the stories, is a politicized culture. The subtle menace of "Reapers" and the direct challenge of "Cotton Song" both speak against the white South and its economic, social, and political systems. The songlike verses in "Carma" are not lyrics to nature, but refer to the secret history of miscegenation and its disruption of black family and society, as do the key images and lines from "Karintha" that are repeated in "Georgia Dusk," "Nullo," and eventually "Kabnis." Even an apparently simple lyric like "Evening Song," with its "Lakes and moon and fires" (35), anticipates "Blood-Burning Moon." Toomer also recognizes how black folk culture embraces Christianity, for slaves the religion of submission, and adapts it for resistance, as in the lines from "Cotton Song": "Shackles fall upon the Judgement Day / But Iets not wait for it" (15).

[. . . .]

Section 5 of "Kabnis" begins with night as "a pregnant Negress," the posibility of birth and change, but the same image recalls Karintha's child. And as the poems "Reapers" and "Cotton Song" indicate, black labor produces black labor—black birth is the source of the South's economic fecundity, cynically underscored by the cotton pickers themselves in the puns ("Hump . . . roll away") of their song (15).

[. . . .]

Like Gothic narratives, Cane progresses through circular repetition that both reveals and conceals. The ubiquitous dead child is one source of Cane's Gothicism, as are the lynched man or woman ("Portrait in Georgia," "Blood-Burning Moon," "Kabnis"), decaying flesh ("Face"), maimed or murdered animals ("Reapers," "Kabnis," "November Cotton Flower")—and these figures also bear witness to something hidden. Gothicism in Cane depends for its effects on the hidden past erupting into the present, upsetting the social order, and raising questions about good and evil that conventional morality cannot answer.


Title Charles Scruggs and Lee VanDemarr: On "Reapers" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Charles Scruggs, Lee VanDemarr Criticism Target Jean Toomer
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 14 Jun 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Jean Toomer and The Terrors of American History
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