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Thursday, May 6, 2010

Intoxicating Blood: Jean Toomer's Seventh Street

Jean Toomer’s Harlem Renaissance writing Seventh Street describes the intoxication of African-American culture amid the whitewash of early 20th century America. Seventh Street is a wedge, or small black population, that has suffered the ill effects of War and Prohibition. In fact, a wedge refers to something that has been isolated, or removed, while still belonging to a greater whole. Now metaphorically speaking, the wedge in Seventh Street represents the black communities who were forced into isolation and felt the racial division of the times. For Toomer, these individuals not only represent a small part of the city of Washington, but more importantly, a microcosm of oppression felt by African-Americans nationwide. Mirroring the cultural divisions of the 1920’s, Toomer structurally divides and isolates certain parts of the writing to highlight the progressive nature of Seventh Street. Not only does this reinforce themes of racial segregation and division, but it allows the author to play around with opposing forms of language and syntax. In doing so, the speaker of the poem remains faceless, which provides Toomer with a certain degree of ambiguity. This uncertainty surrounding the narrator reflects the developing and energetic nature of Seventh Street and the early 20th century. Thus, through metaphorical associations of language and cultural ideologies, Seventh Street successfully demonstrates the autocratic and unlawful treatment of African-Americans in white 20th century America.

Seventh Street is a small, presumably wedged street in the expansive city of Washington DC. Resembling that of a wedge, Seventh Street is an isolated black neighborhood that belongs to a much larger society. In a sense, this is a glimpse of not only the issues felt in and around Washington, but rather, the United States as a whole. Divided and isolated all in itself, Seventh Street consists of eighteen free-verse lines, which are wedged between two identical quatrains. Here the structure of the poem allows the author to establish underlying themes of division and isolation. As these themes continue throughout, the quatrains which are comprised of two rhyming couplets, reflect images and practices of early urbanity. For instance, city blocks and streets often mirror and follow the same structural layout. These identical quatrains act in the same manner, as both aid to the themes of division and segregation, both within a community and the poem itself. The quatrains are comprised of an A/A/B/B rhyme scheme, which if looked at carefully, presents a division between two distinct sides. Yet this not only reflects the cultural disparities existing in the early 20th century, but also presents the first sign of a lively yet corrupt community.

In opening Seventh Street, the narrator begins with the quatrains in saying that “Money burns the pocket, pocket hurts/Bootleggers in silken shirts” (1). Immediately following the title, the speaker establishes the image of a very commercial and economically active environment. By saying the ‘pocket hurts’, the narrator is suggesting that money and financial resources are scarce. Yet what money individuals do have often burns a proverbial hole in their pocket. However, this also signifies some sort of corruption or illegal activity amongst Seventh Street. The reference to ‘Bootleggers in silken shirts’ suggests that only those individuals who participate in rebellious civil acts are rewarded with such luxuries. Still this idea of economic stature and worthiness contributes to the overbearing theme of division and isolation. When competing with other individuals, particularly on the economic front, jealousy and spite tend to arise. With this comes a level of frustration, or anger, which can be attributed to social and cultural divisions. In a sense, Washington is facing the corruption of greed and illegal activity along the road of economic progression. Characterizing this influence of wealth and the fast-paced life of Seventh Street, the narrator describes “Ballooned, zooming Cadillacs/Whizzing, whizzing down the street-car tracks” (3-4). Ultimately, it is the social status of both the wedged and whitewashed communities that remains stagnant and tyrannized.

After providing the image of a commercially-centered and focused neighborhood, the speaker moves towards the inequality and oppressive circumstances felt at that time. Often referred to as the roaring twenties, early 20th century America was a time for transitions, both culturally and economically. Now a “Bastard of Prohibition and the War” (1), Seventh Street is facing the social oppression and repercussions of Washington and early American societies. For this, ‘Seventh Street’ is a bastard, or illegitimate result in the sense that such oppressive circumstances where brought about without question. Line two of this free-verse describes Seventh Street as being “a wedge of nigger life breathing its loafer air, jazz songs and love”. Invoking a sense of pride, this acknowledges that Seventh Street is but a mere wedge of life that remains full of song, spirit, and love. Still, even amongst the bustling and corrupting environment of city life, the inhabitants of Seventh Street are able to maintain their spirits. This assertion is shown when the narrator describes the “thrusting unconscious rhythms, black reddish blood into the white and whitewashed wood of Washington” (3). Here the narrator explicitly describes the metaphorical wedge and the oppressive nature being felt within the black community. In keeping up with their high spirits, the wedged community is unconsciously thrusting its influence and intoxicating ways into the old wood of Washington. Therefore, the language and comparison of ‘black, reddish-blood’ to Washington’s ‘white, soggy wood’ signifies a complex division. A separation of values between old and whitewashed Washington, to Seventh Street’s now energetic and intoxicating culture.

What was previously described as being a progressive and fast-paced commercial environment is now being compared to the evolving and rotting image of nature. Continuing on with this dichotomy, the narrator says, “Stale soggy wood of Washington. Wedges rust in soggy wood…” (5). Much like prohibition and all prior Wars, the ‘stale soggy wood of Washington’ represents the old, white, southern roots of America. With this, the ‘wedges rust in soggy wood’ is a metaphor used to describe a small black population that continues to be oppressed by these same orthodox notions. The natural image of soggy wood represents the restraint that confines and makes black communities idle. Despite the adoption of the 13th Amendment in 1865, African-Americans continued to fight and be enslaved by white communities nationwide. Seventh Street is no different, and much like the rest of the country in the 1920’s, it is a direct result of cultural, political, and social indifferences.

The themes of segregation and inequality continue to emerge through the speaker’s own acknowledgment of cultural discrepancies. As the “wedges rust in soggy wood…” in line five, the narrator ends with an ellipsis. Here the speaker comes to a realization that black ‘wedges’ or communities go to spoil in white dominated societies. Continuing on with “Split it! In two! Again! Shred it!...the sun” (6), the narrator again makes use of an ellipsis. Paired with the bright and warm image of the sun, the narrator comes to the discovery that wedges must be split, allowing them to dry and blow away. The imagery here instills another division between the soggy, dark wood of nature and the happiness brought about by the sun. This infers that black communities must isolate themselves and rise above the ‘sogginess’ of whitewashed America. In doing so, blacks are the wedges of wood that must break from the collective and allow “ribbons of wet wood dry and blow away” (7). The picture of ribbons blowing away represents a token of oppression, which has dried, leaving a free an isolated individual. Yet, upon this recognition, the speaker begins to have a transition in tone and overall language. This tone helps reflect upon the commanding shift that plays into whitewashed notions of division and inequality.

While the first half of Seventh Street embodies a more energetic and smooth flow, the narrator becomes severe when saying “pouring for crude-boned soft-skinned life” (8). In comparing this line to its counterpart in line two the narrator fails to place a comma between the words boned and soft. This allows for the pairing of words and reappearing themes of inequality to be compared throughout all of Seventh Street. With this, the language again speaks metaphorically by associating words with social and economical divides. For “blood suckers of the War would spin in a frenzy of dizziness if they drank your blood” (9), says the speaker. Again this directly reflects the cultural imbalance of early 20th century America, as the War and prohibition are mentioned with frequent regularity. However, blood-suckers of the war would be those individuals who not only stood for World War 1, but also advocated for racial segregation. The metaphorical relationship between blacks and alcohol remains intact through the narrator’s use of wording like spin, dizzy, and drank. Closely associated with alcohol, this comparison states that anyone who becomes involved with or affected by this ‘wedge’ will become sick, or intoxicated. In turn, the speaker becomes irritated, believing that “Prohibition would put a stop to it” (10). Seemingly fed up with the intoxication of black blood and culture on whitewashed communities, the narrator turns from a more authoritative to bitter tone.

This bitter and stale tone is again reflected throughout the speaker’s use of syntax and language. For example, as the initial half of the poem serves as recognition for those being subjugated, the latter half seems to associate guilt and responsibility to social restraints. Once again speaking metaphorically, the narrator continues to maintain profound references to alcohol and prohibition. Phrases like “flowing down the smooth asphalt” and “eddying on the corners” (14), are quite sinful insofar as they are closely labeled with alcohol. Such words depict a type of movement on Seventh Street that relates back to the themes of city life and progression. However, this movement is brought to a halt as the narrator repeatedly asks, “Who set you flowing?”(11). Here, the narrator’s tone suggests that the movement of black blood throughout Washington is not an accident. Looking to place this responsibility elsewhere, the narrator takes a rather ‘soggy’ or Puritan approach by rendering Seventh Street to the likes of religion. “God would not dare to suck black red blood. A Nigger God!”(15), the narrator states in associating God with ‘whitewashed’ values. By saying ‘God would not’, the tone indicates that the narrator has a personable relationship with God, and if involved with intoxicating black blood, it must call “for the Judgment Day”(17). Finally, the speaker draws the verse to an end by asking the familiar question of “who set you flowing?” (18). Ending the poem in this fashion, the narrator is showing that the influence and intoxicating ways of black ‘wedges’ are still moving and being felt. Concluded by the second quatrain, the language and imagery suggest that these wedges are not only flowing, but rather progressing at a high pace like those of ‘whizzing of street cars’.

Thought to have had negative effects on individuals and communities, African-Americans in the early 20th century were often segregated and harassed. Harlem Renaissance writer Jean Toomer encapsulates this daunting notion in the free-verse writing of Seventh Street. Influenced by the dooming threat of War and prohibition, Seventh Street is a byproduct of the troubling economic and militaristic times of the 1920’s. A wedge of the socially repressed, this intoxicating community is nothing more than a glimpse into the racially divided culture in American societies. The theme of division between black and white cultures is described metaphorically through the narrator’s use of language and syntax. By associating individuals to real-world situations, this provides for a deeper meaning and resolution in the writing. However, through its ambiguity, Seventh Street remains as a timeless piece of Harlem Renaissance writing. It provides a source of sentiment, that for those who have been pinched by white ideologies, remain capable of isolating and progressing past the gloomy view of Seventh Street.

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