Susan Gubar: On "Portrait of Georgia"

In one of the short, imagistic poems he included in Cane (1923). Toomer linked America's racechange imperative "Make white!" to lynching. Through its grotesque personification of those who perpetrate racial violence, "Portrait in Georgia" hints that the hurt inflicted on victims boomerangs to damage the victimizers:

 

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.

 

Brilliantly collapsing several planes of meaning, Toomer presents a woman (with hair, eyes, lips, breath, and a slim body catalogued as in a love sonnet), an illness much like advanced stages of syphilis (scars, red blisters); and lynching (a coiled rope, fagots to fuel the flame). The pathologized portrait of Georgia that emerges is a sexchanged personification of the character Anne Spencer called the "ghoul," here a murderous femme fatale. Like a syphilitic whore, this deathly dame demands the sacrifice of the black man who undergoes a racechange from black flesh into white ash because of a fiery consummation in "flame[s]" that invoke the hot passion of the miscegenation used to justify such scapegoating but also the whole burnt offering of the sacrificed body, which is the literal meaning of the word holocaust. To fall from the primacy of color into whiteness is to be excoriated, a word connoting condemnation that literally means being stripped of one's skin. In the shocking protests of Spencer and Toomer, whiteness emerges as simply the fantastic, destructive belief in superiority Du Bois had analyzed in "The Souls of White Folk." White ash is all that remains of black flesh after flame. For, as Walter Benn Michaels notes, "whiteness is produced by (rather than produces) the burning of black flesh" in a poem that turns out to be a "narrative of the origins of racial difference, a narrative in which white bodies are depicted as the consequence of violence against black bodies."

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Title Susan Gubar: On "Portrait of Georgia" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Susan Gubar Criticism Target Jean Toomer
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 14 Jun 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Racechanges: White Skin, Black Face in American Culture
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