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Jean Toomer Portrait

Born Nathan Pinchback Jean Toomer in Washington, D.C., Toomer from the age of five was raised by his mother, until her death in 1909, and her father, P.B.S. Pinchback, lieutenant governor of Louisiana during Reconstruction when blacks had political power in the South. By 1919, he had enrolled and left several schools, including the Universities of Wisconsin and Chicago, New York University, and the American College of Physical Training. When he returned to Washington, he had completed one of the prose pieces for Cane (1923), his greatest work and one of the most important experimental mixed form texts of American modernism. He changed his name to Jean Toomer in 1921 and took a summer job as acting principal at the Sparta Agricultural and Industrial Institute in Georgia. This first trip to the South galvanized him and generated the rest of the poems, prose poems, stories, and the drama that comprise Cane, from which these selections are taken. Cane was a major contribution to African American literature, but Toomer's own racial self-image was conflicted, a conflict, of course, that is only possible in a culture that insists one have a racial identity. His mother's parents had lived in both white and black neighborhoods in racially segregated Washington. Toomer referred to himself simply as an American. In 1936 he wrote a long poem, "Blue Meridian," describing the fusion of white, black, and Native American races into a new people, the blue men. By then he had become deeply committed to the philosophy of the Armenian spiritualist Gurdjief.