Suzanne Lynch: On "Portrait in Georgia"

Jean Toomer paints his "Portrait in Georgia" in one continuous movement, beginning with his portrait’s hair and moving down her face toward the rest of her body. While each detail is true to a physical description, it also serves to unmask the central cultural conflict of the American South. He documents hair, eyes, lips, breath, and body, with each feature simultaneously revealing a cultural history stalled in division. From this position Toomer explores the hostility directed towards blacks in general, and mixed-race women in particular with the respective intention of reaching beyond the fragments of body to a "higher consciousness" (Toomer) of racial understanding.

In the absence of any unity Toomer’s portrait reflects definite oppositions between what is visible and what is knowable. His first image of "braided chestnut" hair is, in a somewhat vague perceptual sense, a teasing image that tantalizes us with multiple visions of race. By omitting qualities of texture from the description, Toomer cleverly thwarts any conclusions we might make about the woman’s race. The image of hair does, however, suggest an element of strength, which, of course, further reinforces the racial discomfort fostered by the intangibility of this Georgia woman. And just in case the reader, pulled by some pathology of the ordinary, feels an uncontrollable inclination to racialize this woman, Toomer ruptures this attempt, in similar fashion, by once again avoiding any direct impression of race. "Her slim body, white as ash/ of black flesh after flame" concretizes the slipperiness of racial authority through an indirect comparison of her body to both white ash and black flesh. The reader should note that the only definitive descriptor Toomer offers is her slimness and all else is left to in the realm of supposition. Positioning this woman as neither black nor white, within a world so polarized by color, makes her a destabilizing force within the power dynamics of the culture. She obstructs the system of knowledge that clearly identifies subject positions by race. In this way, Toomer constructs a self-articulated woman who disputes and disables the stability of racial essentialisms, albeit, at the consequence of violent negations. If the poem strips this Georgia woman of her wholeness and reduces her to a series of fragments, it also accounts for that effect by placing her in a social setting of violent white dominance. This, however, does not silence this woman who straddles the line between white and black, for the simple fact that Toomer resurrects her—body and voice—though an art that whispers to a consciousness about the inefficacy of racial segregation, and for that matter, the racial violence directed towards black woman who, either out of love or submission, give themselves up to white men.

Since the poem is organized around racial principles of inclusion and exclusion, of acceptance and rejection, of realities and falsehoods, it is helpful in part to see Toomer’s portrait as an articulation of the emotional and intellectual response to the increasing prevalence of racial dissolution. Apprehension about miscegenation and increasing fear of the invisibility of blackness at the turn of the century created a destructive and dehumanizing environment for those unwilling or unable to conform to racial singularity. Toomer’s Georgia woman, thus, symbolic of the idea that the lives of black and whites are indelibly "braided" in a common southern experience, faces her punishment for exposing the myth of a white purity, supposedly uncontaminated by blackness. For this she becomes her own executioner. Her braided chestnut hair "coiled like a lyncher’s rope" is used to disintegrate the very union it represents, while simultaneously erasing her example as the literal truth of America’s identity.

Disturbing as the individual portrait is, the poem also intends an equally pointed reflection, on American history as a whole. The scarred, blistered lips heal just enough to speak of a woman’s story of human suffering. She does this with the breath of "cane" and with a self-consciousness that links her to the exploitation and abuse that so many marginal southern women faced within an oppressive economy. Such images position Toomer’s Georgia woman, not only as a woman destroyed by irrational fear, but also, more sadly, as a woman destroyed by economic dominance. With this understanding of the poem’s broader, historical context, we can then credit Toomer with creating a voice that grants agency to this mixed-race woman--ironically, though a gradual death that in the end fuses a spiritual and physical return to the land. One might argue, as many scholars have already done for sections of Cane, that this Georgia woman, through her death simultaneously reclaims both her black and white ancestral investment in this southern land. In other words, she claims her dual heritage that was previously denied to her by America’s own internal conflict over race.

Intimating that in the end we are all reduced to ashes—ashes to ashes—that we "Sink into the earth/ To resurrect--/ To project into this conscious world/ An example of the organic; To enact a mystery among facts" (BM)—Toomer’s final image of "her slim body, white as ash/ of black flesh after the flame," renders a subtle, if uneasy, idealization of a world where our similarities link us in common understanding. As a recorder of history, Toomer offers his portrait as an invitation to rethink matters of race representation, and more importantly, race division. The poem also demonstrates the inclinations of its writer, as he works through his own consciousness, he opens the route to racial transcendence through a final integration in which our differences combine in a common product.

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