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Monday, May 3, 2010

Who Sets You Flowing? The Question of Power Roles in Jean Toomer's "Seventh Street"

Different ethnicities and cultures remember and depict different historical events. A particular event’s effects differ to a certain ethnicity, culture group, or other collection of people because their culture’s narratives differ, thereby recollecting different memories about their defining narratives. The beginning of the 1900’s saw the separate but equal doctrine upheld in Plessy v. Ferguson spread throughout the country. Already accustomed to insults and degradation in their history, African Americans, particularly in the South, now had to accept the legality of such actions. While railroad cars, restaurants, and voting booths in the South upheld physical separation, Jean Toomer’s “Seventh Street” reveals a different method in which the separate but equal doctrine manifested: the effects of public policy. White leaders in America and African Americans viewed Prohibition and World War I differently because its effects drove contrary from the desired goals dictated by their historical narratives. Whereas Prohibitionist leaders in Washington looked to eliminate the “culture of drink” among citizens and immigrants, African Americans looked for policies to further equality, both economically and in power circles (“Why Prohibition?”). Toomer’s “Seventh Street” exposes both the African American pursuit for equality as well as the inequality in power through the imagery of Seventh Street, his specific diction, and structural contrasts between jazz poetry and more rigid poetic styles.
To prove this thesis, I will examine the piece’s critical question: “Who sets you flowing?” (Toomer 41, l. 15). The speaker’s question acknowledges a movement, which itself is natural and “unconscious”, with gravitational pull downwards towards a source, dampening all things touched in its path (l. 7). Like a river, the “swirling” and “eddying” of the inner prose flows along the Seventh Street riverbed (l. 18). Yet “swirling” connotes comparisons to violent movements of a river’s water, and “eddying,” describes a deceleration to slower, gentler movements in water flow. In a river, gravity itself does not induce violent movements of the water. Rocks, logs, steep declines, and other forces work to increase water flow to potentially violent levels.
The naturally impromptu movement of the inner prose is dictated by the structural rigidity as well as the subject matter in the opening and closing poetic stanzas; they form the inner prose’s riverbed. The stanza’s four lines fit into a rigid AABB rhyme scheme and dominating iambic meter, contrasting the jazz poetry of the Harlem Renaissance (“Jazz Poetry”). Toomer’s rhythms, however, do not flow freely. Each sentence ends with an end-stopped rhyme, as thoughts vary between the visual references of Seventh Street. Onomatopoetic “zooming” and “whizzing” attracts the author from what later is shown to be a poor Harlem Renaissance scene to the Cadillacs driving on the street, yet these sensory perceptions are muddled and broken up by the caesura in “whizzing, whizzing”, for example (Toomer 41, l. 3-4). This disturbance of rhythm marks the unnatural tinkering with the status quo of “loafer air, jazz songs and love” shown as common features of Harlem Renaissance life (l. 6-7). In this prose, there is no order, no governing structure of both grammatical and societal ties. Incomplete sentences combine with the repetition of the question, giving a sense of impulse and improvisation, a characteristic of jazz just after World War I (“Jazz Poetry”).
The subject matter of these stanzas furthers this effect. The signs of wealth found in the opening stanza take on more poetic forms, contrasted against the prose of the “flowing” (Toomer 41, l. 13). In the poetry, the bootleggers zoom to and from attention, as if they return once again to Seventh Street. The speaker acknowledges this through the first and last stanza of the poem, noting the existence of illegal “bootleggers” driving “Cadillacs, / whizzing, whizzing down the street-car tracks” (l. 2-4). Street-cars as a form of public transportation have succumbed to the individual Cadillacs and their illegal drivers. The speaker’s description of the bootleggers symbolizes the growing wealth divide among Seventh Street’s inhabitants that splits the unity in the area. The mention of Cadillacs and “silken shirts” points to uncommon sights along the street and, coupled with the illegal activity of bootlegging, dictates the content of the inner prose (l. 3).
A prominent visual in “Seventh Street” is the vehicle, an object that produces a forward motion towards a destination. A vehicle may or may not know the destination, and the instigators of that vehicle may not be able to control the exact destination. “Seventh Street” shows vehicles do not have to be physical objects. A vehicle “extends to mean the method by which an author accomplishes her purpose”, which differs from the connotation hinting at a means of transport (“Dr. Wheeler’s”). Cleverly, Toomer uses a physical vehicle of transport—a luxury automobile—as a physical manifestation of the wealth divide. The Cadillac used to begin and end the piece notes a certain luxury in the bootleggers’ forward motion while also replacing Seventh Street’s street-car vehicle; however, the Cadillac as a luxury car does not cause the death of African-Americans in the poem. How did the Cadillacs make their way onto Seventh Street?
The illegal activity in the opening and closing stanzas of “Seventh Street” governs the view in which the speaker looks at the street scene throughout the piece. He sees wealth divides, hears sounds produced by luxury cars, and contrasts each against sensory perceptions evident in their absence. The bootleggers come, go, and come back, and in their luxurious presence the speaker notices little else. Once the cars leave, the speaker sees the reality of Seventh Street. For this, the Cadillacs go unmentioned in the middle prose of “Seventh Street”. The “wedge of nigger life” stands out to the speaker, representing both the visual and the auditory (l. 6). “Shanties, brick office buildings, theaters, drug stores, restaurants, and cabarets” show an initial image of active urban African-Americans similar to those of their neighbors, moved by economic freedom befitting their newfound home in the North (l. 17-18). African-Americans on Seventh Street play their jazz and wear their loafers, and the street-car tracks on “smooth asphalt” connect their world into the white man’s world of Washington, D.C (l. 16). Befitting, the “white and whitewashed wood” visualizes the growing economic equality between whites and African-Americans (l. 8). These signs show that African-Americans in the North have begun to experience a few of the luxuries previously reserved for their white counterparts in the South.
Yet “Seventh Street” speaks of a slow dying of African-American life along the street. The jazz and loafers the speaker sees to define African American life on Seventh Street hide a great divide between members of the city. “White and whitewash disappear in blood” (l. 15). Color and the image of wood serve as strong symbols to depict the diluting of African-American life. A woodworker, whether for a decorative addition to a building or piece of furniture, stains the wood to give it a strong color. To protect that color from weather and other outside causes, the woodworker adds a finish. A good woodworker knows finishes fade away over time, and without reapplying this proper protective coating, outside forces can dull the color. Whitewash works as an ineffective finish of the wood wedges. Toomer’s use of this word incorporates the word’s definition as “anything, as deceptive words or actions, used to cover up or gloss over faults, errors, or wrongdoings” (Soukhanov). In “Seventh Street”, whitewash acts as a substandard finish easily destroyed by outside forces. The speaker takes note at the original stain: the white color of the wood, an image symbolizing the cleanliness of the city as well as the ability of its residents to maintain its cleanliness. Once he sees Seventh Street without the Cadillacs, he notes the presence of a “wedge of nigger life…thrusting unconscious rhythms, black reddish blood, into the white…” (Toomer 41, l .5-7). The African-American “wedges” begin to rust, becoming tainted in red. The speaker notes this dilution as a representation of the economic, moral, and political divide between Seventh Street and Washington as a shared quality between all humans: blood (l. 9). The blood flows forth through Seventh Street, “eddying on the corners” as it makes its way towards its source (l. 18).
Here it is important to note of Toomer’s recollecting of African American memories throughout the beginning of Cane. Setting proves important to Toomer, for African Americans worked enslaved for centuries within the Deep South. The main character of “Fern” works to discover what exactly “flowed into (the girl’s) eyes” as she gazed upon the natural world of Georgia (Toomer 17). Other works include specific words and thoughts associated with their history. Toomer’s poem “Cotton Song” resembles the African American Spiritual in its yearning to be free from enslavement and the “Shackles (that) fall upon the Judgment Day” (11). In this poem, Toomer uses the setting of the cotton field to provide a tangible visual for African Americans to identify, for large amounts of slaves worked cotton plantations throughout the South. Toomer’s poem “Reapers” echoes a similar sentiment. As in a contrast to the reflective nature of “Georgia Dusk”, the short, choppy nature and subject matter of the poem portrays a belief that knowledge is power, which can help one break free from the bonds of oppression (5).
Part of the cause of African American movement towards the north related to their escape from the Jim Crow standards upheld by Plessy v. Ferguson. Living among “brick office buildings, theaters, (and) drug stores…” differs vastly from life as a rural farm worker (Toomer 41, l. 17). In “Seventh Street”, Toomer acknowledges the value of self-determination and its existence along the street. An African American could trade in callused hands and feet for a “soft-skinned life” wearing loafers on paved asphalt roads (l. 6). The presence of “shanties” did not necessarily correlate with their collective economic or social status as a race; the shacks lived as a part of normal urban life (l. 17). However, they live not entirely isolated; their neighborhood still suffers effects of separation. Each use of the word nigger references to the insults African Americans faced previously. In Cane, Toomer never describes African Americans as “niggers”. Fellow African Americans in “Fern” he calls “Negro” or “black folks”; his use of “nigger” in his story “Carma” entails a white person’s description (Toomer 12, 16). The white man’s description follows in the precedent of prejudice and desire towards inferiority, which Toomer wouldn’t use as an accepted description. Thus, a derogatory term used by Toomer denoting suffering and inferiority, nigger reappears in “Seventh Street”. The word’s use signifies oppression, recalling the speaker’s defining cultural narrative. Suffering and wealth gaps display themselves as the repeated inability to control their race’s fate, ironically in a location thought desirable to do so.
This realization prompts the speaker to examine the causes of the situation. His preliminary observation—the cars—becomes the driving force towards his conclusion. As previously mentioned, the repeated opening and closing stanzas drive the subject matter of the piece. The contrasting cultures of bootlegging and “loafer air, jazz songs, and love” spark the portrayal of Seventh Street as a “bastard of Prohibition and the War” (Toomer 41, l. 5-7). The nationwide policies of Prohibition and World War I created detriments to their goal of equality and participation in their own decision-making. The gain of wealth as a result of World War I helped to further widen the wealth gap between African-Americans and their fellow Caucasian citizens. Morality values driving the passage of Prohibition in the Eighteenth Amendment as well as placing the value of a foreign war over the domestic problems caused by Prohibition separated the government from the speaker, bootleggers, and African Americans on Seventh Street. Toomer’s use of bastard declares to the reader the “lesser value” of the street in comparison to Prohibition and the War (Soukhanov). There is direct reason as to why “Seventh Street” is set in Washington, D.C. Coupled with the Prohibition of alcohol during the war, African-Americans looked not to traditional types of work in “brick office buildings, theaters, drug stores, restaurants, and cabarets”, but to the underground smuggling of alcohol. Toomer represents Washington as the seat of government whereby these decisions were made. Ironically, the supposed benefits of these two decisions have instead hurt the lawmaking city. In the “white and whitewash” of the neighborhood Washington hoped to construct across the country, the blood of Seventh Street begins to rust the wedges of Negro life.
To the speaker, the flow doesn’t end on Seventh Street. The poisoning of African American culture goes beyond their African American neighborhood but into other areas of Washington, D.C. The speaker sees all the “white and whitewashed wood of Washington” as subject to Prohibition and the War’s negative consequences (Toomer 41, l .8). The government in Washington ignored the detrimental effects of their policies, leaving their seemingly clean white wood “stale and soggy”, thereby easily able to lose its finish and color (l. 9). In a sense, the physical structure of the poem works to move the negative effects of Prohibition and the War. By dictating the subject matter, the opening stanzas direct the focus of the speaker to the problems facing Seventh Street, visually appearing in the wealth divides between the bootleggers and the rest of Seventh Street. The structurally free prose pushes the river’s flow beyond the neighborhood, ironically emptying into its source: national government.
Jean Toomer’s “Seventh Street” speaks to the social criticism reflective of the Harlem Renaissance time period. Using the unique combination of formal poetry and prose, Toomer works to expose the expansion of inequality legalized by Plessy v. Ferguson already permeating through Southern culture. In his diction that draws from both dictionary definitions as well as African American experiences, along with color contrasts, Toomer explains how the “separate but equal” doctrine worked to create a sentiment in national government as well as in individual states. Through the vehicle of the street scene, the effects of Prohibition and World War I—an increasing wealth gap, underground transporting of illegal alcohol, and disregard for the history of a large segment of the population—can come upon anywhere subject to these policies. Finally, Toomer steps beyond the narrative of African Americans to show how an overflow of negative consequences can spill into lives unintended to feel such effects.

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