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Sunday, March 21, 2010

Language and Ambiguity as Expressions of Race and Ethnicity in Jean Toomer's "Fern"

In examining "Fern" through a race/ethnicity perspective, I noticed several textual nuances in Toomer's writing which, under closer examination, seem to strengthen subtle themes of race and ethnicity.
First, let me address the deliberate ambiguity which Toomer uses to describe potential experiences revolving around the attraction of Fern's eyes. Consider the following quote:

"Anyone, of course, could see her, could see her eyes. If you walked up Dixie Pike most any time of day...or maybe they gazed at the gray cabin on the knoll...perhaps they followed a cow...If it were dusk, then they'd wait for the search-light of the evening train...Like her face, the whole countryside seemed to flow into her eyes."

At first glance, I was struck by the unusual and ambiguous way in which the author choses to describe the effect Fern's eyes seem to have on her surrounding environment and furthermore found myself almost amused by the various "excuses" men could have for justifying their gradual attraction to Fern. However, a race/ethnicity reading of these peculiarities may shed some light. One of racism's greatest stereotypes is the idea that some ethnicities, particular African Americans, are, as a result of their inferior state, lacking in culture and civilization that Whites enjoy. This lack of culture was purported to imply that African Americans were to be more readily associated with the barbaric and the natural than with human society. Therefore, my point is that the portrayal of Fern as a mere aspect of nature is ultimately the greatest form of discrimination, completely separating her from humanity and displaying her as purely a function of natural forms. The amusing ambiguity in which Fern is handled by all (except perhaps the narrator after he becomes involved in the plot) seems to be a demonstration of the degree of separation Fern suffers from the influences of the interests of men and concerns of ethnicity.

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