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Wednesday, May 5, 2010

"Who set you flowing?": Artistic Expression and Revival in Jean Toomer's "Seventh Street"

Rivers of blood flow through the streets of Washington D.C., filling potholes and coagulating in gutters. Devilish blood-suckers seek to gorge themselves on the flow, while in Heaven God sits with his head in his hands and calls for the end of the world. Such brutal imagery permeates Jean Toomer's Cane, but nowhere is it more pervasive than in "Seventh Street," a lyrical poem-prose hybrid which marks the beginning of the urbanized second section of the book. "Seventh Street" describes the life of African Americans in Washington, D.C. during the era of Prohibition. Confined to this "wedge" of urban life, African Americans struggle to rise above the violent oppression placed upon them by the predominantly white population. They fight to make their place in a city in which the rich rule and the marginalized can scarcely scrape together an existence. While the poem proves this to be an odious endeavor, subtle variations in content and form hint at a means of extrication for this group of marginalized others. For Toomer, this liberating agent proves to be music and literature, through which African Americans can voice their grievances. Utilizing a combination of vivid imagery and distinct form, Jean Toomer establishes a vision of Seventh Street which elucidates the binary between race and class in Washington, D.C.; in doing so, he reminds the Black population of their obligation to preserve and defend their cultural identity by finding voice in artistic expression.
It is difficult to place "Seventh Street" in any certain category in regards to form, but for the purpose of documentation in this paper, I shall consider the entirety of "Seventh Street" a poem. The main body of the text is pressed between two separate, yet identical four-line stanzas. This main portion of text concerns the lives and conditions of African Americans on Seventh Street. The poems, however, refer to the elite and wealthy bootleggers who grow rich and powerful through illegal dealings. Garbed in "silken shirts" and driving around in "zooming Cadillacs," the vision of these wealthy criminals starkly contrasts the depictions of the inhabitants of Seventh Street (lines 2,3). It is fitting that these descriptions of wealth and pomp should surround the text which describes the reality of Seventh Street. In this regard, it is interesting that one of the most symbolic terms used to describe Seventh Street is "wedge" (6) This term shall be discussed in detail later, but for now it is important to consider the formal application of this imagery within the text itself. The main text of Seventh Street, that which describes the brutal reality of African American life in Washington D.C., is literally trapped between equal representations of elitist life.
These repeated poems follow a simple aa/bb rhyme scheme; however, the rhyme scheme seems to be the only part of these poems that exhibits any sort of order. The four lines lack regular meter and each line has its own rhythmic structure. It is exceptionally difficult to assign any line of the poem a specific number of feet. For example, the first line includes nine syllables, which prevents cogent categorization in regards to feet and meter: "Money/ burns the/ pocket,/ pocket/ hurts" (1) The trochaic meter of the first four feet constitutes an eager and progressive feel for the reader. This compliments the rough-cut nature of the poetic form. When considered alongside the subject matter of the poems, this disjointed rhythm makes perfect sense. The criminality of the depicted elitists is mirrored within the form of the poems. While they possess material items which give them the facade of merit and worth, the criminal elite are merely "ballooned," a term which suggests artificiality in regards to outward appearance (3). Just as the pleasantly rhymed couplets mask an otherwise disjointed and irregular rhythm, the superficial markers of wealth are attempts to conceal the foul deeds which the elitists are forced to do in order to attain them. These short poems, both in content and form, establish a fierce binary between the poor Black population of Seventh Street and the purported high class.
Being that the second section of Cane describes the lives and conditions of African Americans in the city, Toomer uses "Seventh Street" as a means of establishing a setting for the stories and poems that follow. The body of the poem is rife with descriptions not only of Seventh Street but also of the city of which it is a small part. Needless to say, the description of Seventh Street is all but flattering. Toomer describes the aforementioned wedge as being "crude-boned" and "soft-skinned" (6). These anthropomorphizing adjectives characterize the area as being one of poor structure. The "bones" of Seventh Street refer to its foundation. Bones in a human body give a person shape as well as provide support for the functions of organs and bodily processes. They are what allow a living organism to function. When Seventh Street is characterized as having crude bones, it is a reflection on the weakness of the social structure and its inability to function as a part of the larger society. It seems that Toomer is trying to express a lack of cohesive form in the cultural identity of the Seventh Street community. Without a strong and unified cultural basis, the society is doomed to fall into disorder and ruin.
The image of skin further explains a fault in the social structure of Seventh Street, albeit a more aesthetic one. Skin is the part of a body that is seen; it acts as a cover for the internal processes of the body. In the context of "Seventh Street," skin seems to be a more aesthetic, rather than functional, concern. The skin of Seventh Street would be the outer visage. A strong skin could potentially conceal the realities of the weakened structure. However, Toomer describes the skin as "soft"-- that which is prone to tearing or transparency. The poor structure of Seventh Street is therefore plain to see. The society is unable to hide the reality of its degradation. This poor outer visage also engenders a reaction from outsiders, primarily the white population. What the white population sees is an unadulterated view of the result of their alienation of the African American minority, which ultimately leads to further distancing between the opposing races and classes.
The inhabitants of Seventh Street find themselves isolated from the greater white population. The description of their dwelling as a "wedge" indicates forced placement. Washington D.C. finds itself torn asunder as the Seventh Street dwellers are shoved into their own section of the city. It is here that they establish their society so that they may thrive and grow in agency and influence. However, left alone, this wedge of existence cannot persist with any sort of longevity. Toomer likens this wedge to an axe that has been swung into a piece of soggy wood: "Stale soggy wood of Washington" (9). An axe in such a place has little hope of being truly effective. Lodged in the moist wood, the wedge is doomed to rust and become ineffective. So long as Seventh Street remains trapped in the wretched mire of Washington, its African American population has little hope of establishing a community that can rise above its squalid conditions.
The nature of this "soggy wood of Washington" is important to the overall understanding of the prominent imagery of the wedge. One might wonder why exactly Washington is characterized as being soggy or saturated. Toomer refers multiple times to "black reddish blood" which flows through the streets of Washington and stains the whiteness of the population (7). The image of the blood permeates "Seventh Street" and carries with it much symbolic significance. The blood itself is curiously described as being both black and red. Toomer is playing with these descriptive adjectives, and one possible interpretation is that he is referring to the "black" skin of those who are bleeding. The blood flows with such force and in such quantity that it saturates the "white and whitewashed wood of Washington." The blood of Seventh Street seems to be the source of the "sogginess" of the city. It brings the wood to a wet state and the wedge sits and weakens in the evidence of its own brutalization. As more blood flows from the open wound of Seventh Street, the wedge continues to rust. With no hope of extrication or change, the inhabitants of Seventh Street would be doomed to rot away in their own waste. Their only concern would be vengeance on those who made them bleed.
It seems justified to attribute the flow of black blood to be the sole responsibility of the white population of Washington. Racial prejudice was an issue of paramount importance during the early 20th century. Segregation of whites and blacks, enforced by Jim Crow laws, created a distinct barrier between races. This barrier was perpetuated by mob violence against the black population and a general desire to maintain white supremacy. The description of the "whiteness" of Washington D.C. suggests that this text is a reaction to the violence and segregation of the time. The descriptions of the criminal elite justify this distinct dichotomy between the rich white man and the denizens of Seventh Street. However, it seems as if Toomer is not placing the blame solely on the actions of the white population.
It is possible that Toomer is also pointing an accusatory finger at the class system of Seventh Street itself. In the aftermath of World War I and in the wake of Prohibition, crime was on the rise in destitute areas such as Seventh Street. Isolated by their white oppressors, African Americans sought any means of extricating themselves from their depravity, including crime. By initially describing Seventh Street as "a bastard of Prohibition and the War," Toomer insists that the increase in crime at the time was the result of these tumultuous events in the early 20th century (5). The poems at the beginning and end of the text describe an elitist class born of the underhanded art of bootlegging, though they neglect to signify a specific race as the culprit. Toomer could be intentionally ambiguous in this regard. While it is safe to say that the concentration of the text is on the dichotomy of African Americans and whites, the first line of the four-line poem suggests a tension within the black community itself. When Toomer says "Money burns the pocket, pocket hurts," he is describing two opposing conditions of wealth (1). To say that one has money that is burning a hole in one's pocket is to suggest that he or she is in possession of excess money which begs to be spent. To have money sit in one's pocket and not be spent is preposterous. This sentiment would be indicative of a person in possession of money, yet one who places little value on it albeit as a means of acquiring material goods. The second portion of the line suggests the opposite. To be "hurting" for something is a common colloquialism which suggests that a person is in want of the signified object. The pocket, therefore, is in want of money. This binary, established in the first line of the text, may not refer solely to the dichotomy between whites and blacks. The possibility of internal class struggles within the community of Seventh Street would be detrimental to the prospect of a society based on unified culture and experience. Cast in this light, Toomer may not solely be pushing for action against external white pressure; he may wish to encourage bootlegging African Americans not to sacrifice their roots for monetary gain. According to Toomer, strength through union will help bring the society of Seventh Street out of its destitution and move it towards a brighter and more prosperous future.
Toomer uses vivid imagery not only as a means of criminalizing the violence and oppression against African Americans but also to express the potential for retribution and revival. Shortly after speaking of Seventh Street as a rusted wedge in the soggy wood of greater Washington D.C., Toomer halts the flow of the poem with ellipses. The next portion of text reads: "Split it! In two! Again! Shred it!...the sun. Wedges are brilliant in the sun; ribbons of wet wood dry and blow away" (10,11). There is a distinct change of tone in this section. The wedge of Seventh Street is no longer lodged and decaying in the putrescence of Washington. Instead, Toomer crafts an image of a honed axe chopping away at the remnants of the white hierarchy. The caesura at the beginning of this passage create a powerful sense of strength and resolve, as each exclamation can be imagined to be chanted to the rhythm of a swinging axe. It is here that Toomer marks the beginning of his "call-to-arms." His tone purposefully contrasts that of the earlier portion of the poem, which concentrates on the depravity of Seventh Street. With renewed vigor, Toomer urges the African American population to rise and take hold of their situation by establishing a cultural foundation.
Immediately following the charged series of exclamations comes another set of ellipses which halt the flow of the poem. However, these ellipses seem to function as precursors to an epiphany. The symbol of the sun is presented as a sort of saving grace for the wielder of the axe. The heat of the sun's rays dries up the previously saturated wood until the axe's blows shred the husk into drifting bark. The lush imagery, primarily the image of the sun, can be examined in a multitude of ways. The sun itself is a force of retribution, acting upon the wood of Washington so as to free Seventh Street from its rotted core. As such, it can be construed as representing some means of escape and cultural revival for the African American population of Seventh Street.
The "sun" in this poem could refer to any number of liberating agents, including artistic expression. Both musical and literary expression are referenced in this poem, albeit in different ways. Jazz music is mentioned explicitly towards the beginning of the poem when Toomer uses "jazz songs and love" as a cultural marker of Seventh Street (7). In the early 20th century, jazz music grew tremendously popular among urban African American communities. Offering a possibility for self-expression as well as social performance, jazz gave to the African American population a means of joining together in common interest. However, Toomer offers criticism on the nature of jazz at the time, asserting that the musicians are merely "thrusting unconscious rhythms" (7). What Toomer is pushing for is a conscious understanding of the significance of this particular genre. Jazz does not need to be limited to trite subjects such as idealized love. It must also not fall into an unconscious rhythm, which would deprive the musician of thought and agency in composition. Instead, it should become an exercise in liberation. Speaking through music is a valuable way for the conditions and fears of the African American population to be voiced and heard. Toomer supports this assertion structurally by creating a poetic form that mimics music. The two separated poems could be considered the choruses of "Seventh Street" and the prosaic body of the poem the verse. It is possible that Toomer is providing a formal example of the power of music through this poem. If oppression can be elucidated through "Seventh Street," it is certainly in the power of jazz music to do the same.
An even more powerful means of artistic representation is writing. By returning to the image of "black reddish blood," which permeates the streets and paints the walls of Washington D.C., one can see how Toomer is comparing writing to bloodletting. The adjective "black" could refer not only to skin color but also to the color of ink. While a strict reading of the poem in this light would change a great deal of its meaning, it is interesting to note how the flow of blood is not used solely as a negative connotation. A distinction of language expresses this altered perspective as Toomer says the blood is "pouring for crude-boned soft-skinned life" (12). The key word in this passage is "for." The use of this word instead of "from" indicates purpose in the blood flow rather than simply a source. This small nuance in language leads one to believe that the blood flow is not solely indicative of violence against African Americans. The blood is also a metaphor for the voice that writing grants an individual. With pens, the dwellers of Seventh Street can spread influence and awareness throughout the oppressive white districts of Washington, D.C. With the spread of African American literary influence, "white and whitewash disappear in blood" (15). Literature becomes a liberating agent, which allows African Americans to speak against their oppression by developing their own voices.
The purpose of artistic expression for the African Americans of Seventh Street is to create awareness within the realm of white people. Therefore, when Toomer repeats the phrase "who set you flowing," he is asking African Americans to turn a weary eye towards the white population and their actions (12). In making them aware of the true nature of their oppression of the black population, the African American population could cause the whites to reconsider the foundations of their actions. For most Christians, God provides an example of how one should act and think. Therefore, when Toomer says "God would not dare to suck black red blood," he is directly challenging the white contention that God could justify such atrocities against other human beings. Those "bloodsuckers of the War" are no longer able to deem their actions as sanctioned by God, for the reality of Christian theology has been made clear (13). Toomer goes so far to say that such oppression under the watch of a "Nigger God" would result in an apocalyptic end of the human race (20). The flow of blood represents not only the direct consequence of white violence against blacks, it is also a visible representation of the horrid actions which constitute racial prejudice. In this way, the oppressive white population is reminded of the real consequences of racial violence. Toomer hopes that, through writing, African Americans cannot only gain a more lucid sense of self but also voice the realities of their oppression.
Toomer is relentless in his portrayal of the depravity that African Americans face on Seventh Street. The poem establishes a clear binary between both race and class that is exacerbated by the failure of African Americans to find voice and spread awareness of the oppressive acts of the white population. While it seems impossible when confined to only a small portion of destitute land within the sprawling whiteness of Washington, D.C., Toomer urges African Americans to find methods of exposing the atrocities they face. He uses complex imagery and symbolism, as well as nuanced form, to identify the problem of violence and oppression and then offer a solution in the form of artistic expression. While music and writing cannot fully extricate the African American population from their squalor, it is a step toward establishing a clear and influential cultural identity. What they must do in order to expand their social influence is unite and find voice together. The subjugation at the hands of the white population will continue only until its atrocities are brought to light. Jean Toomer's Cane provides a stark example of how the voiceless can find expression and expose the brutal reality.

Toomer, Jean. Cane. New York: Norton & Company, Inc., 1988. 41. Print.

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