The Harlem Renaissance marked the start of a period of rebirth, change, and activism that began in New York City and extended through the United States. When we think of the Harlem Renaissance, writers like Langston Hughes and Claude McKay come to mind. But what about Harlem Renaissance writers who didn’t align themselves with the movement? Have you heard of Jean Toomer?
Jean Toomer was a poet who defied the notion of form for his time. His work incorporates prose and poetic verse in a hybrid style that was interpreted as unconventional. However, Toomer enjoyed his own rebellious nature. He spent his college years in New York City, where he published work in The Liberator and The Little Review, among other journals.
As a biracial man, Toomer’s relationship to his race was complex. Toomer was said to be “white passing” and posed as white sometimes for his own safety. His marriage certificate from his first marriage with Margery Latimer, a white woman, indicated he was caucasian. Toomer likely passed as white in this scenario because interracial marriage was illegal.
Despite the fact that Toomer did not publicly advocate for the renaissance the same way Hughes did, his work speaks about racial identity. Consider excerpt from Toomer’s poem, “Harvest Song,” about an enslaved oat farmer:
“I am a reaper whose muscles set at sundown. All my oats are
But I am too chilled, and too fatigued to bind them. And I
(Read “Harvest Song” here)
From this excerpt alone the reader can notice the complex subject matter Toomer tackles in four short lines. While spending the day collecting grain, the speaker is ironically hungry. Hunger’s duality exists as Toomer’s central message throughout the poem: a biological need, and a need for internal fulfillment. This hunger, or a wanting, speaks to the desire for freedom, from both the literal imprisonment of slavery and the mental enslavement of racism.
Activism advocates for a political cause or a side. Like “Harvest Song,” much of Toomer’s work speaks to literature’s ability to inspire this change.
In a 2018 article discussing the origins of Black Lives Matter, Associate Professor of Philosophy at Johns Hopkins University Chris Lebron said renaissance poets borrowed and re-purposed the same driving ideas behind the Black Lives Matter Movement. Lebron states:
“Thinkers like Hughes and Hurston were involved in the Harlem Renaissance project of presenting a vision of black cultural vitality and worth that would rework the image of black Americans that whites typically relied upon. That stream of thought runs directly into the heart of Black Lives Matter.”
Yet if you were to ask Toomer his thoughts on the renaissance, he wouldn’t call himself an activist. More likely, Toomer would deny fighting for a cause. He would say he is a poet, simply recounting the truth he sees.