Cristina Stanciu: On "Portrait in Georgia"

“The Sinister Figure”: James Weldon Johnson’s “The White Witch” (1922) and Jean Toomer’s “Portrait in Georgia” (1923)

Before Richard Wright made the white female body less threatening to black masculinity in his acclaimed novel Native Son (1940) by mutilating the sexualized body of Mary Dalton in Bigger Thomas’s act of self-defense and political statement, the representation of the white female’s destructive power over black masculine subjectivity has been a recurrent theme in African American literature. The emphasis on the white body as sexual subject enticing the black man into the inherent dangers of white ideology displays two complex features: on the one hand, the white woman’s subjectivity -- while voiceless within the boundaries of her race -- is defined in relation to her sexual fantasies with the racial other; on the other hand, the taboo, untouchable white female body devours the black male body, thus giving “the primitive” a new meaning. As Rachel Blau DuPlessis argues, conventionally, black women were associated with “the primitive,” albeit the “libidinous” and “sexually free,” thus fulfilling the white ideological “reading” of the “primitive,” in opposition to the topos of cultural resistance it represented for African Americans (128). Nevertheless, Johnson’s “The White Witch” suggests, underneath the archetypal features of the beautiful white female body lies the savage, primitive, animal nature of the “panther” hunting for her prey, an episode which completely redefines the traditional “portrait” of the Southern belle:

 

And back behind those smiling lips,

And down within those laughing eyes,

And underneath the soft caress

Of hand and voice and purring sighs,

The shadow of the panther lurks.

The spirit of the vampire lies. (lines 25-30)

 

Johnson’s “The White Witch” uses the image of the white female body and its “vampiric” attributes to signal, at the literal level, the threat its luring presence implies; moreover, Johnson’s use of a speaker whose voice, one might argue, comes from the great beyond, intensifies the dramatism of the message and cautions “the younger brothers” against her sexual games. Thus the poem becomes a warning against the enticements of white sexuality: “O brothers mine, take care! Take care!” (line1). Similarly, Jean Toomer’s “Portrait in Georgia,” also read by critics as a portrait OF Georgia in its racial violence, examines the superimposed images of a black woman’s body and the ashes of a lynched black (male) body. As George Hutchinson has aptly remarked, Johnson’s white witch remains a “seductive” figure in comparison with Toomer’s “sinister figure” (233). However, it seems only fair to notice that Johnson’s portrait remains “seductive” only at a superficial level. While the last two lines in Toomer’s poem allude to a consumed death of the black male -- “And her slim body, white as the ash / of black flesh after flame” (lines 6-7) -- a similarly sinister message can be read in between Johnson’s lines: “My body like a living coal” (line 38). This line could be interpreted as a direct allusion to the lynch mob’s fire and immanent death despite its literal sexual connotation. Moreover, the allusion to KKK’s white ghostly costumes haunting the Southern nights may open up a new perspective on reading the “witch.” Despite lack of direct evidence, one may speculate that Toomer’s poem is written in direct response to Johnson’s “The White Witch,” given the common images and theme they share, as well as Toomer’s rearticulation of the white figure on the framework created by Johnson (hair, eyes, lips, breath, body), with a deliberate gender ambiguity. Also, chronologically, Toomer’s “Portrait in Georgia” is published a year after Johnson’s.

The ethereal appearance of the “white witch” at dusk (both a poetic and a threatening, illusory time) is suggestive of her dual nature: on the one hand, a fairy-tale character (her external body is recreated by the speaker in colorful images); on the other, a life-threatening “vampire” (the internal body is suggested by an accumulation of prepositional phrases that direct the reader’s attention to the preying essence of this luring body: “back behind [those smiling lips],” “down within [those laughing eyes],” and “underneath the soft caress,” lines 25-27). Consequently, under the conventional portrait of the white woman (red lips, fair face, blue eyes, golden hair – the Arian ideal) lies the destructive Medusa, an epitome of the modern white world in search for “primal passions” (line 51), threatening black masculinity. If, indeed, we can read both Johnson’s and Toomer’s poems as exemplary representations of the black persons’ contact with the white world in the big cities during the Great Migration – the white body becoming thus the female-gendered white world – then both poems may reflect the modernism’s lack of vitality and its appeal to the “primitive” in order to revigorate the Western waste land.* Johnson’s speaker cautions the young brothers against the modernity’s (albeit “the white witch’s”) entrapment of their racial capital in an attempt to revitalize modernity. Rachel Blau DuPlessis’ argument, informed by art historian Gill Perry, emphasizes the white culture’s appropriation of primitive tropes in its artistic endeavors, as a critique of modernity. Moreover, she insists that “blacks have often been used by whites as an image of the unconscious of whites – fecund, productive, creative […] in the factory of whiteness” (122-23). Johnson’s poem cautions the black ethnicity against succumbing to such ideological traps, underlining the impossibility of such a (racial) union, “cruel-sweet”:

 

She feels the old Antaean strength

In you, the great dynamic beat

Of primal passions, and she sees

In you the last besieged retreat

Of love relentless, lusty, fierce,

Love pain-ecstatic, cruel-sweet. (Johnson, “The White Witch,” lines 49-54)

 

Whereas the geography of Johnson’s poem is not clearly defined, thus emphasizing flight from the “white witch” regardless of her topographic emergence, Jean Toomer’s portrait is located tentatively “in Georgia.” Barbara Foley has emphasized Toomer’s concern “with contemporaneous episodes of racial violence” (“In the Land of Cotton…” 184), underscoring an important aspect students of Jean Toomer, the modernist writer, tend to forget: “Toomer may have written in a densely symbolistic modernist idiom, but he did not substitute myth for history” (“Toomer’s Sparta” 749). Thus the social relations Toomer criticizes in this work, particularly chaotic and failed human relationships – including inter-racial relations -- need to be interpreted as the writer’s engagement with history rather than its disembodied transcendence. Besides establishing a racist “outline,” poems like “Face” and “Portrait in Georgia” deromanticize the traditional female embodiment by recreating a worn out “face” rather than a sexualized body, a fragmented body of “purple” and “channelled muscles” which announce the old body’s disintegration, portraying a different kind of natural fruition, as it becomes “nearly ripe for worms”:

 

Face –

silver-gray,

like streams of stars,

Brows –

recurved canoes

quivered by the ripples blown by pain,

Her eyes

mists of tears

condensing on the face below

And her channeled muscles

are cluster grapes of sorrow

purple in the evening sun

nearly ripe for worms. (Toomer, “Face”)

 

Discussing this poem, Laura Doyle has offered a very insightful approach of “Face” as a revision of the “body-cataloguing blazon poem” through a deromanticization of the female experience of embodiment (86). In the tradition of the blazon, “Face” offers a careful depiction of female body parts (face, brows, eyes), but the critique becomes implicit in Toomer’s emphasis on pain rather than youthful exuberance. As Eldridge suggests, however, the beauty of this woman does not derive from her association with “superior” attributes (202). Instead, the external beauty is replaced by inner suffering and pain, becoming a relevant instance of what Elaine Scarry has called “the body in pain.” Moreover, the fusion of the woman’s features -- which add a dose of masculinity (“her channeled muscles”) to this portrait of decaying and decomposing female body -- with natural phenomena, also in a state of in-betweenness, point to Toomer’s ironic use of the blazon tradition in a poem that defies formal (prosodic) constraints, and its adaptation to Southern soil. As Doyle concludes, “Unlike the idealized virgin in a Petrarchan blazon, this woman has gray hair, her body quivers with pain rather than desire or duplicity, and her fate is death rather than love” (86-87). The death of this “Face” figure – fragmented, but still bearing the unseen mark of race, rendered through the braided hair, “like a stream of stars” – seems to be emblematic of the death of the entire culture, “purple in the evening sun,” awaiting decomposition, being “nearly ripe for worms.

A less optimistic rendering of the racial body in pain is captured by “Portrait in Georgia,” a highly-anthologized Toomer poem, which shares functional similarly to “Face,” as a preamble to the lynching story in “Blood Burning Moon.” More specifically, in the same tradition of the blazon poem, celebrated features of a (white) woman’s body are ironically linked with the dismembered body parts of a lynched and burned body of a black person, significantly of ambiguous gender. This lyrical portrait of a lynching episode is materialized in “Blood Burning Moon” -- a story in Jean Toomer’s Cane, where “Face” and “Portrait in Georgia” also appeared -- which dramatizes Louisa’s race-inflected double desire, for the white man Bob Stone and the black man Tom Burwell (whose name, a corruption of “burn well,” becomes emblematic of his tragic fate):

 

Hair – braided chestnut,

           coiled like a lyncher’s rope,

Eyes – fagots,

Lips – old scars, or the first red blisters,

Breath – the last sweet scent of cane,

And her slim body, white as the ash

                        of black flesh after flame. (Toomer, “Portrait in Georgia”)

 

Each line opens with an object of physical desire – hair, eyes, lips, breath, slim body – which recreates a specific image of a lynching scene, thus unifying eros and thanatos in an attempt to define both interracial desire and to mark the racialized body with the scars of historical “discipline.” Critics have oscillated between reading the last two lines as a Georgian portrait of “a lynched and burned black woman” (Jones xvii), or a white woman -- a “sinister figure” (Hutchinson 233) – which causes the lynching of the generic balck male for despoiling white womanhood. Eldridge also subscribes to this latter interpretation, suggesting that “The message is clear in all its grim aspects: white woman, symbol of life and beauty, is equally the symbol of violence and death” (211-12). George Hutchinson offers a very insightful approach to this portrait of a “white woman” whom he compares with James Weldon Johnson’s “White Witch” and Amiri Baraka’s Lula in Dutchman, suggesting an identity between the fragments of bodies in Toomer’s poem:

By superimposing the images of the white woman, the apparatus of lynching, and the burning flesh of the black man, Toomer graphically embodies both a union of black male and white female and the terrifying method of exorcising that union to maintain a racial difference the poem linguistically defies. (233-34) (Hutchinson’s emphasis)

All the above-mentioned readings are legitimate and well supported, but they all miss Toomer’s deliberate superimposition of both racial features in a single, fragmented, ambiguously gendered body: “And her slim body, white as the ash / of black flesh after flame.” This superimposition of black and white images aims at collapsing not only racial boundaries – white and black bodies become one in death -- but sexual as well, by depicting the pained and incomplete embodiment of a new, nascent body, emerging after the consummation of the “flame” and the burning of black male and female bodies through an imaginative alchemy. Thus, by collapsing thegender binaries, both James Weldon Johnson and Jean Toomer signal in their poems the dangers of essentializing the body, and the threats of a long history of racism that facilitated the marking of a body by the other.

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Title Cristina Stanciu: On "Portrait in Georgia" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Cristina Stanciu Criticism Target Jean Toomer
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 14 Jun 2020
Publication Status Original Criticism Publication No Data
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