... Poor Catholic poor-white crazy woman, said the black folks' mouths" (8). But throughout the novel, it is factual treatment of race that dominates any emotional construction of race.
The central problem of identity in Cane is grounded in lack of acceptance of what has universally existed i.e. polarities. In the 1920s, writers like Toomer embraced a new kind of racial identity i.e. repudiation of race itself that emerged from accepting that world has always harbored differences and divergent viewpoints and thus different racial identities was also a norm and not something to be seen as a source of conflict.
Toomer sets the particular problem in the black world, but he sees it as the true artist does, whatever his race. The problem is the eternal one man must confront: the mind is the source of insight and of any art in life, but the mind also destroys the blood and passions that feed the life of the mind. Here is the black-white war that this novel moves toward, a war that is in the particulars of race if one chooses but is also beyond race as well, in the realm that Toomer was himself in. It is something of this special war, personal, racial, religious, national, that Toomer meant when he had Lewis say "Master; slave." This is our condition whether we put it that way, or say "Father-son": we are all masters to someone and all slaves to someone -- especially to ourselves; we are all fathers and all sons." (Kraft: 151)
Some considered the author a traitor but the truth remains that despite the attacks against him, Toomer was deeply attacked to his own culture and heritage. However he felt that we could use them as our strengths instead of our weakness. Toomer was not an aloof spectator as we see from various instances in the book where the author creates beautiful black characters and speaks of black culture with unfeigned fondness. In a letter to Claude McKay, Toomer explained:
Within the last two or three years, however, my growing need for artistic expression has pulled me deeper and deeper into the Negro group.... A visit to Georgia last fall was the starting point of almost everything of worth I have done. I heard folk-songs that came from the lips of Negro peasants.... And a deep part of my nature, a part I had repressed, sprang suddenly to life and responded to them. Now I cannot conceive of myself as aloof and separated. My point-of-view has not changed; it has deepened, it has widened. (Toomer in Wayward, 18)
So what was Toomer's idea of race? If he proposed transcending color-based identities, what other kind of identity did he want black people to adopt? Toomer believed in opting for a race that comprised "a blend of all European, African, Asian, and American Indian cultures." Thus Cane was written to challenge the notion that "good black... culture can pass the test of authenticity -- the reference to black experience and to black expressivity... [which] serve as the guarantees in the determination of which black... culture is right on, which is ours and which is not."(Hall: 28-29) in other words Cane served as an "odyssey... To know the spiritual truth of life, to reconcile the beauty and the pain of... Afro-American heritage, and to express... new consciousness in the magic of the word." (Bell: 99)
Those who understand Toomer and his deconstruction of race based on color are likely to resist any attempt made by critics and scholars to classify Cane as African-American literature. This is because Toomer was essentially a race-less artist who believed in seeing the world as it existed without trying to assign race-based definitions and descriptions to it. Contrary to popular belief, his rejection of race was not limited to black race only but Toomer believed in deconstructing race and sought to develop a new definition of it.
Cane is not an easy book to read, as it demands that we submit our white and black selves to seeing again the commonplaces of our existence, and then, within a new definition of these, to redirect our lives. Toomer's manifesto is truly revolutionary, for it is, like Hawthorne's and Faulkner's, directed at the reformation not of external forms, but of the heart of man, and it is only when man has the humility and endurance to make this transformation that his human process might, indeed, change. (Kraft: 152)
James Kraft "Jean Toomer's Cane"; Therman B. O'Daniel: Jean Toomer: A Critical Evaluation. College Language Association (U.S.) Howard University: Washington, DC. 1988
William Stanley Braithwaite, "The Negro in American Literature," in the New Negro, ed. Alain Locke (New York: Atheneum, 1969), 44.
Sherwood Anderson to Jean Toomer, 22. December 1922, reprinted in Jean Toomer, Cane, ed. Darwin Turner (New York: W.W. Norton, 1988), 160.
Jean Toomer to James Weldon Johnson, 11 July 1930, reprinted in a Jean Toomer Reader: Selected Unpublished Writings, ed. Frederik L. Rusch (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 106.
Bernard Bell, the Afro-American Novel and Its Tradition (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1987), 99.
Jean Toomer, quoted in Darwin T. Turner, ed., the Wayward and the Seeking (Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1980)