Jean Toomer’s Search for Identity in Taos

Jean Toomer, Taos, New Mexico, circa 1935. Courtesy Jill Quasha. Copyright the Estate of Marjorie Content. Jean Toomer, Taos, New Mexico, circa 1935. Courtesy Jill Quasha. Copyright the Estate of Marjorie Content.
By Darryl Lorenzo Wellington

Mysterious, mercurial, hard-to-pin down sociologically or racially—and even described as being unbearably vain and pretentious—why is Jean Toomer important? My attention turned to him shortly after I became the 2021-2023 poet laureate of Santa Fe. I researched Toomer while looking for Black literary precursors, given that he is one of the few figures in African American literature who has written about this region. Toomer is also an iconoclast, whom Henry Louis Gates called “an ex-Negro.” His New Mexico connection began at the point when he rejected conventional racial categorization.

Toomer was a literary trailblazer. He was, to my mind, one of the most important lyrical writers in the English language, possessing a gift comparable to Shelley or Hart Crane. He authored lines as biting and as immutable as:   

Black reapers with the sound of steel on stone   
Are sharpening scythes. I see them place the hones   
In their hip pockets as a thing that’s done,   
And start their silent swinging, one by one. 

The poem “Reapers” is in the mode that initially defined Toomer. It evokes the resilience exhibited by Black sharecroppers, bent but unbroken by continual hardship. It is one of similar pieces in Toomer’s classic work, Cane, intimately describing rural Black life in the South, or the psychological travails of Black people who journeyed North. Cane was published to great acclaim in 1923. It was immediately embraced as a seminal text in the cultural movement known as the Harlem Renaissance led by 1920s Black intelligentsia. Toomer subsequently “disappeared” and disassociated himself from the Harlem movement, even to the point of allowing Cane to fall out of print.  

Cane’s reputation was restored in the late 1960s by new scholars spearheading the first Black studies programs. Cane has been a staple of African American literary studies ever since. If you study the Harlem Renaissance, you study Cane. But in the past fifteen years, more attention has been paid to Toomer’s biographical lacuna. What happened to him after his “disappearance?” 

The story relies on examining his unpublished work, which today is still gradually seeping into print. In terms of literary detective work, the emphasis switches from the arguable literary quality of his post-Cane material to accessing the significance and symbolism of his personal biography, which has become a focal point for issues involving social construction, essentialism, multi-culturalism, communalism, individualism, and post-racial dreams. These issues extend from his time to ours.     

I note that renewed interest in Toomer’s biography compels a re-reading of Cane, being such an avant-garde and geographical book, like an experimental travelogue, with stories and poems honoring flash points in the Great Migration. A re-reading of Cane involves a partial rerouting since Toomer’s biography extends in another direction—the American Southwest.   

Cane successfully fused several settings and genres into rich, layered poetry, underpinned by a heavy sense of burden and apocalypse. It takes its title from a scene describing a tired sharecropper, as she falls asleep, and a stranger—possibly God—retrieves her cat.

Someone… echo Jesus…soft as the bare feet of Christ moving across bales of southern cotton, will steal in and cover it that it need not shiver, and carry it to her where she sleeps: cradled in dream-fluted cane.   

Cane. Jean Toomer, Boni and Liveright, 1923.
Cane. Jean Toomer, Boni and Liveright, 1923.

Given that the book’s primary subject is Black identity, Black psychology, and modes of Black survival, when initially published, Cane was heavily publicized for being the work of a ‘Negro”—that is, an American Black writer capturing the song and soul of his birth race. Readers then and now presumed the author drew from the “Black experience” to achieve literary immortality. These assumptions were not wholly inaccurate. Nor wholly accurate. The story is more complicated.    

From Fame to Obscurity

Born in 1894 in Washington, D.C., Toomer was the scion of a renowned light-skinned family, who were mixed race yet identified as Negro. They were culturally elite. Toomer boasted that his maternal grandfather, Pinkney Pinchback, had served as governor of Louisiana, during the brief, anomalous period in Reconstruction when Black people were free to vote.    

Most people surrounding him during his formative years were highly aware that he was from a special ancestry. Although Toomer sometimes attended majority-white schools in Washington and New York, to his peers, judged by the American one-drop standard, he was Black. His self-conception may have differed because families from Toomer’s class and background were sometimes called “elite mulatto.” Certainly, in his later years, he emphasized his cosmopolitanism and multi-cultural heritage, and when he revisited Cane—which he rarely did—he underscored that it was written by someone with little direct experience of Southern Black struggle and strife. 

Always restless and living an adventurous life, Toomer attended six colleges without graduating, experimented with bohemianism, then became interested in socialism, which in turn inspired his visit to the Deep South. Toomer took a job at an agricultural school in Sparta, Georgia, where he experienced a kind of epiphanic transformation, hearing folk songs, attending rural church services, and witnessing rituals among sharecroppers who lived under white hegemony. Beauty and horror converged against a Southern backdrop. Its pathos ignited intense, rich poetry inside him.   

Toomer’s time in Sparta, Georgia, was relatively brief—lasting only a few months—but his letters from 1921-23 record that he spent the next two years industriously wrestling stories he gathered in the Deep South into the literary masterpiece Cane. Following his apex in the public eye, when twenty-nine-year-old Toomer published Cane to acclaim, his paper trail becomes confused. Toomer never subsequently published a full-length volume. 

Jean Toomer, 1925. Gelatin silver print. National Gallery of Art, Washington, Alfred Stieglitz Collection, 1949.3.652.
Jean Toomer, 1925. Gelatin silver print. National Gallery of Art, Washington, Alfred Stieglitz Collection, 1949.3.652.

While enjoying flash-in-the-pan fame, Toomer briefly lived in Harlem, the center of Black intelligentsia. He corresponded with renowned writer Sherwood Anderson about possibly creating a Negro magazine, and in these letters, Toomer, vehemently proselytizing for Negro causes and social uplift, sounded like a Negro spokesperson. Perhaps Anderson expected this. Toomer assumed the Negro leadership mantle in other ways, too, discoursing freely on Black psychology in an essay on Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones. In another piece, he wrote, “The Negro says: I am. What I am, I am searching to find out. Also, what I may become.” 

Then, though he lived forty additional years, he fell off the Harlem Renaissance map.    

Esteemed poet Langston Hughes’s 1940 autobiography, The Big Sea, includes several sardonic paragraphs on Toomer’s vanishing act. Hughes blames Toomer’s investment in a quirky spiritualist quest, after he followed the teachings of Russian-born mystic George Gurdjieff.  

Gurdjieff (1867-1949) made a splash in Harlem in the 1920s. He required his students to make a daily practice of physical exercises and sacred dances toward the goal of liberating the consciousness from a state of “sleep” by stretching body and mind. The exercises purportedly pared away false identities, pride, vanity, or identification to any classification (including race) rather than human oneness. Gurdjieff was like a whirling cyclone, often initiating drama among his students as a means to siphon away their personal vanity, while he behaved like an overbearingly charismatic leader. Hughes had trouble taking Gurdjieff’s principles seriously, quipping with jovial wit, “Nobody in Harlem could afford to pay for Gurdjieff. And very few there have evolved souls.” 

But Gurdjieff’s philosophy answered a longing that Toomer’s prior success left unfulfilled. After discovering his mentor, Toomer became an important figure in Gurdjieff’s movement, spending the bulk of his energy over the next decade traveling to new cities to establish training institutes and communes (with limited success) based on living by its ethics. Sometimes Toomer—who throughout his life was known for having a flamboyant, difficult, and self-centered personality—was negatively critiqued by his fellow adherents, as when he self-consciously adopted Gurdjieff’s mannerisms, an affection others called obnoxious. The men were both strong-willed and eventually clashed, parting ways after a disagreement over finances. Toomer, in the meantime, filled several unpublished notebooks with heavy-handed Gurdjieff-inspired stories and married twice (both times to white women named variant spellings of “Majorie”). He lost touch with his Harlem associates. Or did he purposefully alienate himself? Langston Hughes framed the mystery in this manner, writing in The Big Sea:    

The next thing Harlem heard of Jean Toomer was that he had married Margery Latimer, a talented white novelist, and maintained to the newspapers that he was no more colored than white—as certainly his complexion indicated. When asked for permission to use some of his poems in the Book of American Negro Poetry, James Weldon Johnson reported that the poet, who, a few years before, was “caroling softly souls of slavery” now refused to permit his poems to appear in an anthology of Negro verse—which put all the critics, white and colored, in a great dilemma. How should they class the author of Cane in their lists and summaries?

With wit and insight, Hughes summarized the beginning of the great divide in Jean Toomer studies, reflecting the divergent lives of the man. The publication of Cane was both an end and a new beginning. Who was the soulful poet behind Cane, cited as a major influence by countless Black writers, including Toni Morrison and Alice Walker, vis-á-vis the man who refused to have work republished in an Afrocentric anthology? Who was Jean Toomer up to 1923, vis-á-vis the mystic sojourner who came afterward? His disparate career is like a house with two doors. It confounds some readers, depending on which door they enter. 

Toomer’s Shifting Self-Identification

Henry Louis Gates is the preeminent African American literary scholar today, and he has extensively studied Toomer’s surviving records. His conclusion is that, given Toomer’s background—judged alongside the extremity of his break with his Black roots—Toomer began “passing.” The word has unpleasant connotations. It critiques someone who falsifies their genealogy to gain privileges in the American racial hierarchy. Gates makes this argument primarily because Toomer began intentionally obscuring that his parents and grandparents lived and worked in Negro communities.    

In his earliest preserved document, a 1917 draft registration card, Toomer self-identified as “Negro.” On 1920 and 1930 census forms, he marked himself “white.” Eventually, Toomer claimed ignorance about whether he had any “colored blood.” Later in life, Toomer encouraged the assumption that he was East Indian. After 1923, he appeared overeager, or at least willing, to link himself to any heritage but Black heritage.

It is dismaying that the author of Cane actually, almost unbelievably, stated, “I would not consider it libelous for anyone to refer to me as a colored man, but I have not lived as one, nor do I really know whether there is colored blood in me or not”—while refusing to allow his work to be republished in any volume highlighting the word “Negro.” What could be a more hurtful irony?   

Gates relates the mystery of Toomer’s post-1923 decades to the author being a self-conflicted soul, preoccupied with misrepresentations. “He was running away from a cultural identity that he had inherited. He never, ever wrote anything remotely approaching the originality and genius of Cane. I believe it’s because he spent so much time running away from his identity.” In 2010, Gates said to the New York Times:   

The fact that Toomer’s family tree consisted of a lot of light-skinned mulattoes who married one another is not exceptional. Many African American family trees are shaded the same way… Toomer was right to declare he was of mixed ancestry, and that the opposition between black and white was too simplistic. But he was wrong to say he had never lived as a Negro. He lived as a Negro while growing up. 

Gates suggests these falsehoods were means of “passing” that eased his racial tensions or the burden of Blackness. Someone who “passes,” furthermore, however intellectually sophisticated, is victimized by an inferiority complex, or a horrendous level of internalized oppression. 

This is one point of view. In the last fifteen years, other critics have emphasized Toomer’s second life as visionary. He lived in a time of binary racial constraints; he admirably pushed back against them. “Passing” suggests someone chasing social standing or behaving disingenuously. Toomer’s letters indicate his reservations ran deeper. Even before he was thrust into the limelight, he grumbled in a pre-publication letter to his publisher, Horace Liveright, “My racial composition and my position in the world are realities which I alone may determine… Feature Negro, if you must, but do not expect me to feature it in advertisements for you.”    

He married his first wife (who later died in childbirth) in 1931. Given Toomer’s name recognition and a hint of remnant notoriety from Cane, the powerful chain of Randolph Hearst-owned newspapers (less interested in his writing abilities than in pure sensationalism) snatched the story and ran ugly, rabble-rousing headlines, such as “Negro marries White Woman.” His problematic disavowal that he possessed Black ancestry warrants sympathy and understanding when considered alongside this particularly painful incident. Toomer shot off a forceful response to the press:

There is a new race in America. I am a member of this new race. It is neither white nor black nor in between. It is an American race, differing as much from white and black as white and black differ from each other. It is possible that there are Negro and Indian bloods in my descent along with English, Welsh, Scotch, French, Dutch and German. This is common in America; and it is from these strains that an American race is being born…. Now is the time of a new order, a new vision, a new ideal of man. I proclaim this new order. My marriage to Margery Latimer is the marriage of two Americans. 

Prior to 1923, Toomer might have argued for full Black equality, or against miscegenation laws. This was not his style after becoming—in Gates’s words—“an ex-Negro.” Challenges to the political system or specific systems of oppression had become peripheral. Like Perceval, searching for a grail, Toomer avowed “a new ideal” free of labels, while in his mostly unpublished post-Cane writings, he described an enlightened group of adherents who belong to a transformational type he calls (somewhat confusingly) “an American race.” But Toomer’s new American Eden needed a birthplace. This is why his search turned to the Southwest, leading him to the frontier cities—Taos and Santa Fe, New Mexico.   

The Quest for Racial Transcendence

Like innumerable readers, I initially encountered Toomer in college. His poetically apocalyptic language in Cane thrilled me. My fascination with him would be justified by his work alone; it is enhanced by my familiarity with points in his travelogue. I was raised in Georgia, near the area that inspired Cane. I have since relocated to the Southwest, and I am now living in New Mexico, near the areas that magnetized Toomer. 

I am a student of the state’s Black history. Though New Mexico’s Black population has historically been infinitesimal, its Black history presents a thrilling narrative, top-heavy with stories of persons who migrated in desperation or under tense circumstances, such as Buffalo Soldiers. Many Black people relocated to escape Jim Crow, which was less pervasive in New Mexico, given its small Black footprint. 

They all sought freedom, yet Toomer’s legacy proves that “freedom” is a relative concept. His story is the most unique. 

Previously unpublished writings, since collected in A Jean Toomer Reader (1993), and A Drama of the Southwest: The Critical Edition of a Forgotten Play, left unfinished in 1936, then belatedly published in 2016, reveal the previously underestimated extent that New Mexico compelled him. It is no exaggeration to write that of all the places he visited in the Southwest, only Taos, New Mexico ignited hopes that he could resolve the dilemma of race and identity that had pursued him since Cane.

Renowned art patron Mabel Dodge Luhan met Toomer in New York and funded him with $15,000 to establish a Gurdjieffian institute in Taos. These plans quickly disintegrated. But after Toomer arrived in 1926, he was too enamored to end his burgeoning romance. He later reflected, “I have never tried to put into words the unique gift of New Mexico to me… Something in New Mexico came to me fifteen years ago. It is a penetration deep under the skin.”

Note the reference to skin; there is an inference that through penetration of skin (and skin color), the truth-seeker finds peace. Color is both static—what separates people from other people—and symbolizes the spectrum, as the color wheel turns. These kinds of metaphors that play with the concept of race—sometimes engaging it as a nominally fixed or fluid concept—became common in Toomer’s New Mexico journals. 

He began filling notebooks with prose songs, comparing Taos to a germinal seed, and reiterating the word “God” whose metaphorical presence in New Mexico is as elemental as “a hawk in a tree.” His writing while in New Mexico assumes an apocalyptic quality, too, as though fate is speeding to a culmination, and race is a notion whose time is passing.

What did Toomer see that struck him so deeply? Certainly, like tourists even today, he was struck by Native, Spanish, and white diversity—a kaleidoscope of clothes, facial features, and colors—an interplay that suggested social relations were significantly more fluid, more cross-cultural, and less rigid than elsewhere. Specifically, he discovered that New Mexico’s social landscape was heavily influenced by mestizaje, which means “of mixed race”—a sense of identity created by centuries of relations between Spanish, Mexican, Black, and Indigenous populations. To Toomer, the hordes of mestizaje were a provisional drawing—if not a complete picture—of a better world, as he pondered the mix of people he encountered.

What I do not know is—Do the elders of Taos vision the coming destruction as the end of man, or the matrix of new birth? Will resurrection follow this death? And if so, who will be resurrected. White men? Red men? Black men? An entirely new race?

In New Mexico, the pre-Cane Toomer became the most articulate version of the post-Cane Toomer. Perhaps the major moment representing his rejection of Negro identity occurred when Toomer sent a letter to James Weldon Johnson refusing to have his work republished in a Negro anthology, explaining, “I must withdraw from all things that emphasize racial or cultural division” to align himself with projects “that spring from the result of racial blendings here in America.” New Mexico, apparently, was a project Toomer considered worthy.

Having abandoned Gurdjieff, Toomer and his second wife, Marjorie Content, decided to build their own spiritual community in Taos, where they returned several times over the subsequent twenty years. 

Toomer’s writing by now placed a passionate emphasis on interracial unions. In “The Blue Meridian” a poem he worked on throughout the 1930s, he celebrated a people who achieved the “spiritual fusion… of racial amalgamation” so that their children were born blue and purple. The blue people stood at the highest point of human development. “The Blue Meridian,” which he labored over for years, can be long-winded, didactic, and heavily sentimental, but the Land of Enchantment represented the closest he had discovered to a providence of “racial amalgamation” in the United States. 

Choosing Taos was obviously a reaction against his demoralization in cities like Washington or Harlem, defined by strict racial classifications, Black-white binary oppositions, and civil rights politics. Taos is linked in his mind with birth and renewal—spiritual as well as physical birth—producing a mestizaje or blue people for the salvation of the nation. In 1939, Toomer visited India, where he was dismayed by the prevalence of poverty and sickness. He left India thankful that the possibility of humanity “cooperating upon a higher plane” survived in Taos, whose very name is a spell, synonymous with seed imagery.

Taos is an end-product. It is the end of the slope. It is an end-product of the Indians, and end-product of the Spaniards, an end-product of the Yankees and puritans. Out of the fertility which death makes in the soil, a new people with a new form may grow. I dedicate myself to the swift death of the old, to the whole birth of the new. In whatever place I start work, I will call that place Taos. 

Toomer, the Enigma 

Toomer’s unrealized plan to build a commune in Taos sired a major creative work, published posthumously. The University of New Mexico Press edition of A Drama of the Southwest, published in 2016, is a lasting record of Toomer’s vision. In it, Tom and Grace Eliot (a white couple who represent Toomer and Content) return to Taos where they have dreamt of buying land. The plan has been stymied by financial constraints, personal shortcomings, and indecision. Is New Mexico ready? The play reads like a series of static conversations, debating whether Taos is prepared to be the catalyst for racial, sexual, and intellectual transcendence. It ends irresolutely, although Tom Eliot’s unrepentant romanticism conflates possibility with accomplishment.

Toomer and Content instead settled in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, where they lived thirty years, and he spent his last two years in a nursing home. Toomer died in 1967, just as Cane was finally reprinted by University Place Press. We can only speculate about whether Toomer himself knew. 

According to Emily Lutenski, in her essay “A Small Man in Big Spaces,” during his decades in Doylestown, Toomer convinced his neighbors he was of East Indian origins. Why? His white neighbors in a segregated suburb would not accept a Black/white interracial couple, nor allow his daughter to attend community schools. An East Indian, however, was permissible.  

Was adopting an East Indian (rather than a Negro or multi-racial) identity an example of Toomer “passing” and fleeing his Black heritage to gain privilege? Or was he a daring visionary for his commitment to a multi-racial identity?  

Having lived as a Black New Mexican since 2010, I believe these perspectives can have simultaneous merit, like a puzzle that adds up to a life lived in between visionary ideals and inherited realities.  

I can find his ideas both inspiring and naïve. My feelings are related to why I deem Cane by far his most significant literary work, because its complexity combines poetry, pathos, and idealism with an unblinking study of racism. There was a time when, in Cane, Toomer acknowledged the impact of generational oppression, but an absence of social protest against systems of oppression weakens his post-Cane material when he extols a degree of racial fluidity which was not available to most Black people in a segregated city.

Similarly, although mestizaje identities make New Mexico less racially binary, this land and its people purchased mixed-race identities at the cost of a long history of colonialism, barbarism, cruelty, and rape. Toomer’s New Mexico writing understates these scars. This is why passages of his journals and A Drama of the Southwest risk perpetuating the worst aspects of the tri-cultural myth which elides New Mexico’s violent history to attract tourists to an imaginary Elysium.

I critique one man named Jean Toomer. I admire the same man named Toomer because he was ahead of his time. He foresaw the modern world, in which he would have the right to label himself how he chose, proudly declare his multi-racial heritage, or not pick a racial category at all on a job application. He displayed courage, challenging society in the face of a mindset of conformity. It was a necessary challenge. Even, or perhaps especially, today.

Darryl Lorenzo Wellington was the 6th Poet Laureate of Santa Fe, New Mexico. His most recent collection is Legible Walls: Poems for Santa Fe Murals. Darryl enjoys working for the Alto Arts Integration program where he teaches poetry in the Santa Fe public schools.