Scholars: Renowned Writer 'Passed for White'

Professors Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Rudolph Byrd say that their research brings a new insight to Cane author Jean Toomer's choice of racial identity. 

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Jean Toomer

Long before post-racialism became a buzzword, author Jean Toomer sought to transcend the racial labels that define American life. He wrote the Harlem Renaissance classic Cane (1923), which tells stories of rural and urban black life in a series of vignettes. However, when it came to his own identity, the racially ambiguous-looking Toomer insisted that his mixed heritage transcended contemporary labels. Now, in the introduction to a new edition of Cane, Harvard professor Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr. (editor-in-chief of The Root) and Emory professor Dr. Rudolph Byrd say that Toomer's story wasn't about transcending race as much as it was about "passing."

Henry Louis Gates Jr., the Harvard scholar, and Rudolph P. Byrd, a professor at Emory University, say their research for a new edition of "Cane" documents that Toomer was "a Negro who decided to pass for white."

They lob this intellectual grenade in their introduction to the book, which W.W. Norton & Company is to publish next month. Their judgment is based on "an analysis of archival evidence previously overlooked by other scholars," Mr. Byrd and Mr. Gates write, including Toomer's draft registrations and his and his family's census records, which they consider alongside his writings and public statements.

This assertion contradicts the orthodox view that Toomer, a grandson of Louisiana's first black lieutenant governor, P.B.S. Pinchback (under Reconstruction), only wanted to be post-racial.

This new edition of "Cane" documents that over the course of his life Toomer variously denied ever living as a black person; called himself racially mixed; and said he was a new kind of American, transcending old racial terms. Toomer did not want to be featured as a Negro in the marketing of "Cane" and later did not want his work included in black anthologies.

Archival research reveals a clearer picture, said Mr. Gates, the director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard: "Everyone on his family tree was black and didn't claim to be anything else. Only Jean tried to cross over."

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