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Wednesday, May 5, 2010

“Seventh Street”: A Close Look at Race Relations

The early 1920’s was a generally positive time for the United States. The nation had just emerged victorious from World War I and was enjoying economic prosperity in the stock market. To the world, the United States appeared to be united, strong, and powerful, but on the home front, tensions were on the rise between the black and white citizens. The nation was decades away from the Civil Rights Movement and blacks were far from achieving political, social, and economic equality. Jean Toomer, an African American author of the Harlem Renaissance, describes the race relations between blacks and whites of Washington D.C. in his poem “Seventh Street”, also the name of the dominantly black neighborhood in the city. The race relations between blacks and whites of the early 1920’s were indeed tense, and Toomer portrays this in his poem by using metaphor to show the influx of blacks into a previously all-white area, repetition to illustrate the presence of bootlegging and crime brought to the area by the blacks, personification of Seventh Street as a bastard to show that it is unwanted, and a choppy writing style throughout to portray the rough nature of Seventh Street.

Through use of metaphor, Toomer likens Seventh Street to a wedge in order to convey the influx of blacks to Washington D.C. and Seventh Street, which contributed to strained black and white race relations. He also dictates the purpose of this “wedge” in writing “Stale soggy wood of Washington. Wedges rust in soggy wood…Split it! In two! Again! Shred it!” (9-10). In order to fully understand the significance of this phrase and how it is relevant to the topic, one must first consider Toomer’s use of metaphor in describing Seventh Street as a wedge. Also, one must consider what a wedge is and what it does. A wedge is a sharp piece of metal that is used to split logs by being driven into the log with a sledge hammer, and depending on the size of the log, it could be used to split it again and again to get the pieces down to the desired size so it can be more easily used and burned as firewood, for example. So when Toomer writes Seventh Street as a wedge and tells it to do things like “split” and “shred”, it is much easier to see the phrase’s relevance. After the wedge has done its work, the log is no longer as strong or complete. So by realizing the use of metaphor, you can replace the wedge with Seventh Street and the black community that lives there. Also, you can replace the log with Washington D.C. and the white people who live there. Once this is done, it is easy to see the racial tension at work in the poem. The whites do not appreciate being “split in two” by this all-black community called Seventh Street. They would also not appreciate being split multiple times by the formation of new black neighborhoods, so racial tensions are abundantly clear and present in this poem.

For continued understanding of the influx of blacks to the area and how it contributed to tense race relations, one must consider the phrases “white and whitewashed wood” and “black reddish blood.” These two phrases coexist in the text and in the neighborhood. “…black reddish blood into the white and whitewashed wood of Washington” (Toomer 41) and “White and whitewash disappear in blood” (Toomer 41) are examples of their use. This “white and whitewashed wood” signifies the color of the nation’s major government buildings in the city, but more importantly it signifies the white people living in Washington D.C. in the early 1920’s, and the “black reddish blood” is the influx of the African-American population into the area who form their own community at Seventh Street. Also, Toomer shows that the white people feel somewhat threatened by this changing demographic in the use of these phrases. With “White and whitewash disappear in blood”, Toomer explains that whites, and also blacks who have assimilated as expressed by “whitewash”, have been vacating neighborhoods that have seen a rising number of black residents as “white and whitewash” are covered up by the “blood” of the new race moving in. Seventh Street is no exception. And to further emphasize the threatening nature of their presence, Toomer includes phrases like “Blood suckers of the war would spin in a frenzy of dizziness if they drank your blood” (Toomer 41) and “God would not dare suck black red blood” (Toomer 41). Even veterans of World War I, who saw so much death and suffering, and God, the all-powerful creator of all things, are not comfortable in confronting them. The fact that blacks continue to move into the D.C. area and the whites are being driven from their homes because they see the newly arrived blacks as a threat contributes to the strained race relations of the early 1920’s.

Repetition of certain phrases and words calls to mind the importance of bootlegging and crime as it contributes to strained race relations between the blacks and whites in Washington D.C. The most noticeable repetition is the four-line stanza that can be found at the beginning and again at the end of the poem. It reads, “Money burns the pocket, pocket hurts, / Bootleggers in silken shirts, / Ballooned, zooming Cadillacs, / Whizzing, whizzing down the street-car tracks. /” (1-4). This stanza brings to the reader’s attention the practice of bootlegging and its importance to this particular neighborhood and time period. The early 1920’s was during Prohibition, a Constitutional Amendment that outlawed the production, sale, and consumption of alcoholic beverages. This new amendment gave rise to a new profession called bootlegging, a practice where people would make alcohol in secret and serve as the dealers to the public instead of the established alcohol companies. And being an illegal operation, many residents of Seventh Street who were involved in bootlegging residents were subject to unfriendly encounters with the law. The Cadillacs “Whizzing, whizzing down the street car tracks” imply that the bootleggers are driving fast and running from somebody, and that somebody is most likely the law enforcement. Via repetition of this stanza and its placement at the beginning and end of the piece, Toomer emphasizes bootlegging and its contribution to the difficulties of black and white race relations of the early 1920’s.

Looking more closely at these repeated stanzas, the reader can infer more about the blacks’ involvement in bootlegging and criminal activity and how it caused stressed relations with the whites. Bootlegging was illegal and obviously and that fact contributed to it being a cause for a tense relationship, but there were other reasons why the crime was grounds for animosity of the whites towards the blacks. The line “Money burns the pocket, pocket hurts,” (1) tells the reader that there is a great deal of money to be made in this criminal offense. The bootlegger’s pocket is so full of money it is about to burst. Also, “Bootleggers in silken shirts, Ballooned, zooming Cadillacs,” (2-3) is another testament to the amount of money to be made. The criminals can afford fine clothes and fast cars, which further angers the whites because they are not only breaking the law; they are making a lot of money doing it. And in providing a vivid description of the bootleggers’ wardrobe of silk shirts and vehicle choice of Cadillacs, they are easily recognizable in the Seventh Street and Washington D.C. scene leading to a noticeable presence of crime that did not use to be there. The repetition of the stanzas on bootlegging adds to the pains of race relations in that the blacks are profiting off of a crime and as criminals are becoming a visible force in Washington D.C.

To further demonstrate the collective animosity between blacks and whites, Toomer personifies the neighborhood of Seventh Street as a bastard. He wastes no time employing this technique as he uses it immediately following the opening stanza with the sentence “Seventh Street is a bastard of Prohibition and the War” (5). The street is given human characteristics to explain to the reader how it came into existence. Seventh Street is by no means an actual illegitimate child like the term “bastard” suggests, but rather the interpretation of the personification says that the Seventh Street of the early 1920’s was shaped by two major events: Prohibition and World War I. The combination of these two major events of U.S. history leading into and during the early 1920’s caused an influx of African-Americans into the neighborhood of Seventh Street in Washington D.C. bringing their lifestyle and cultural identity with them. Calling Seventh Street a bastard signifies the whites’ attitude towards the neighborhood of blacks as something that is unwanted. Like a bastard child, Seventh Street should not have happened and both “parents” wish it had not happened.
And in further personification of the street, Toomer writes “…wedge of nigger life breathing its loafer air, jazz songs and love, thrusting unconscious rhythms, black reddish blood into the white and whitewashed wood of Washington” (Toomer 41). The “wedge of nigger life” refers to the street, and though it is not literally “breathing” and “thrusting”, it is indeed alive with the culture and lifestyle that the blacks have brought with them and are very much a part of the Seventh Street neighborhood. Being described as “nigger life”, the cultural practices and lifestyles of the blacks are something unfamiliar to the whites and not shared by them. Also, this black culture and lifestyle is also something of a bastard as it is unwanted by the whites as well. Since blacks in general were treated poorly during this era, so was their culture. Not only was the presence of blacks in Washington D.C. a cause of tense race relations but also the presence of their culture. Their living and breathing culture that was not shared by the whites was more reason for breeding social unrest.

The most notable characteristic of Toomer’s writing is his choppy style as it relates to the rough relationship between the blacks and whites of that time. As the reading of the poem is far from smooth and easy-going with the lines filled with commas, periods, exclamation points, and question marks, so was the interaction between blacks and whites. Toomer utilizes caesura in the stanzas and as well as a heavy use of punctuation in the body description to hinder a smooth flow in reading the poem. In the opening and closing stanzas, “Money burns the pocket, pocket hurts, Bootleggers in silken shirts, Ballooned, zooming Cadillacs, Whizzing, whizzing down the street-car tracks.” (1-4), commas are used in the middle of the first, third, and fourth lines as well as at the end of all four lines. The reader can only take in a few words and images before he must pause and then continue only to be confronted with another break in the poem’s flow. The context found amongst the rough writing style suggests more reasons as to why race relations were tense. The passage cited above concerns bootlegging done by the blacks on Seventh Street. This illegal activity coupled with an abrasive writing style in the poem mimics the black and white relationship Toomer observed from that era in U.S. history. It is no coincidence that Toomer writes this poem in this particular way. It is not easy to read a poem about race relations in the early 1920’s of U.S. History with so many punctuations, breaks, and pauses because the relationship was, in fact, not easy. Just like the poem’s choppy reading, the relationship between blacks and whites collectively was also choppy.

Further evidence of the author’s choppy writing style in the poem that also points to strained race relations can be found in the prose section of the poem, where every line has multiple instances of punctuation. The breaks in the poem’s flow are similar to the jazz music so popular to the blacks on Seventh Street. The rhythm of jazz was something entirely different to mainstream music culture of that era. Also these commas, periods, exclamation points, and question marks, like the caesura of the stanzas, also serve to create a difficult and choppy reading for the reader which parallels the difficult relationship between the races of the time period. One such example occurs at the beginning of the body paragraph and reads, “A crude-boned, soft-skinned wedge of nigger life breathing its loafer air, jazz songs and love, thrusting unconscious rhythms, black reddish blood into the white and whitewashed wood of Washington” (5-9). This phrase is filled with pauses thanks to the many commas Toomer uses. The “loafers” and “jazz” were two aspects of black culture not shared by the whites of that time. The fact that blacks enjoyed different styles of clothes and music is another cause of racial tension as it is brought out by Toomer’s choppy writing style.

Another phrase rich in pausing via punctuation that illustrates the choppy writing style of Toomer and subsequently the tense race relations occurs near the end of the paragraph and reads, “Flowing down the smooth asphalt of Seventh Street, in shanties, brick office buildings, theaters, drug stores, restaurants, and cabarets?” (16-18). The sentence lists several buildings as it describes the architecture of Seventh Street. With commas after each building and a question mark at the end, it helps provide the poem with a bumpy and uneven read. As for the context of this rough phrase as it relates to the tense race relations, it suggests that the physical appearance of the dominantly black neighborhood was a cause for the animosity. Among the listed buildings are shanties, which are rundown old buildings. This suggests that Seventh Street and possibly other black neighborhoods were not well maintained and would have been seen as an eyesore by the white community giving further cause for racial tension brought out in this poem by Toomer’s punctuation and rough writing style.

After a close reading of Jean Toomer’s “Seventh Street”, it is without a doubt that Toomer’s central theme of the poem is the strained race relations of the early 1920’s in the United States. The use of metaphor likening the dominantly black neighborhood as a wedge describes the influx of unwanted black residents and culture. The repetition of the stanzas describing bootlegging couples the blacks with the illegal production and sale of alcohol in the D.C. area which increased the city’s criminal presence. The personification of Seventh Street as a bastard further conveys the fact that the blacks are not wanted. And finally, the recurring choppy writing style Toomer utilizes provides for a rough reading and parallels the rough race relations at work at that time. The inequity of the two races on the United States of the early 1920’s was a big problem, especially to an author like Jean Toomer, and he makes the reader see it in his “Seventh Street” poem.

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