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The Song of a Slave

The Song of a Slave

            In the sweltering heat, a song can be heard over the fields of Georgia. It filters through the heavy stalks of cane, and sifts very carefully amid the bolls of cotton. There is hope in the notes, sometimes hidden in the somber circumstances, yet incessant and doubtless in its simplicity. Cane, by Jean Toomer, uses poetry and character sketches that help the reader join in the song. There are five poems from the book, which highlight the evolution of the slave tune. The theme throughout these poems is that of undying hope, even in the most tragic of circumstances.  Jean Toomer, although struggling to identify himself at times, does not miss the clear and eternal message of hope which resonated within the slave community. In fact, Toomer does a masterful job at identifying duality of the slave song. This dual purpose may have naturally to the man, for he was himself quite familiar with dualism. Toomer was of mixed ethnicity, and found it hard to truly identify with either race. He attended both all white and all black schools, but shied away from being classified solely by his race. Jean Toomer, with wisdom that some still struggle to share, declared that he simply wanted to be known as an American. However, the ignorance of humanity could not be escaped and he identified more closely with his black heritage. The oppression and segregation of the South made this distinction an easy choice for Toomer. Sadly, the pressures of race finally got the better of the man, and he retreated to a Quaker community.

The song of the slave begins in the poem Conversion, and immediately strikes a somber chord. The poem starts by introducing the reader to the “African Guardian of Souls” (Toomer 37). This immediately constructs a powerful image, and the capitalization and isolation of the title conjure images of divinity. However, the next lines start to dampen the imagery and cast more humanistic characteristics upon the guardian. He is “Drunk with rum, / Feasting on a strange cassava,” (37). It seems that the “African Guardian” (37) was lacking in some basic needs of food and drink. There is, however, little doubt that the guardian has taken these basic needs and made them into something gluttonous. His thirst is not simply sated, but he is “drunk” (37). He is “feasting” (37) and not merely taking what is necessary for survival. The song starts with greed; yet through the quaffs of rum and heavy mastication, the guardian is “Yielding to new words and a weak palabra” (37). Surely there were promises of wealth which the guardian could not deny. It is much easier to listen to a man who has just filled your belly, especially if that man also dulled your senses with rum. The song grows even sadder still as we realize that these words were not handed out by just any man, but by “a white-faced sardonic god” (37). The wording here is clear as to the assumed superiority of the white man over the Africans. Only with this type of biased belief could slavery ever be considered in the first place. The white god was able to buy the very souls that were to be guarded. Being bought and sold would be a continual theme throughout the song of the slave.

The next three lines in Conversion are, to me, the most interesting. They are simple yet carry with them the weight of not only a god who seemingly failed his people, but the hope that those very people will find something better than the haven he afforded them. The African Guardian of Souls at first “Grins” (37). Perhaps at first he is happy with the deal he has made with the mocking white god. The immediate benefits outweigh the ramifications of the mistake he has made, but it only takes him one word to regain his clarity. In the very next word, the guardian “cries” (37). Sometimes we do not realize the wonders before us until they are lost to us. I imagine that must be how the guardian felt as he watched the souls of his people being transported to a distant land under the jurisdiction of a new master. Although sadness may have crept upon the guardian, there can be no doubt that he did not serve his people in a way that afforded him any claim, and with that he ends his reign with a simple, “Amen” (37).  The first verse in the song of the slave, although sad, ends with a pang of hope. With no minions under his watch, the guardian “Shouts hosanna” with nothing but hopefulness in his heart. Toomer could certainly relate to the feelings abandonment, for his father left him and his mother when he was a boy.

Cotton Song begins the next stanza in the song of the slave. In this poem, Toomer shows us the drudgery that comes with working as a slave. The first lines are uplifting from the very start; one man seems to be encouraging the others with whom he is working. There seems to be a certain joy in performing the tasks as he cheers, “Come brother, come. Lets lift it / Come now, hewit! roll away!” (13). These labors are simply taken in stride, for the slave has no choice in the matter. The chore must be done, but the slaves can control the way in which they toil. The young were born with no knowledge of  life beyond that of a slave. This would lend itself to a certain acceptance of that servitude, although not without the ever-present hope that binds itself so tightly to the core of the slave. It is because of that hope that they can press on. The slaves now are certain that “Shackles fall upon Judgement Day” (13). If freedom cannot be had while they live, at least they know that it waits for them after death. Still, they do not want to “wait for it” (13).

In the next stanza of Cotton Song, the slaves seem to have made the transition from the “African Guardian of Souls” (37) to “God” (13). They believe that this “God’s body’s got a soul” (13) which may have been a jab at their former protector. The slaves understand that “Bodies like to roll the soul” (13), but refuse to let the soul rollers keep them down. Surely, the slave owners did everything in their power to bend the will of the slaves. They were whipped, beaten, raped, and even killed. Yet throughout all of that, the slaves agree that they “Can’t blame God if we don’t roll” (13). God is not the one wielding the whip, and if the slaves do the assigned task, they will not be beaten. God will take care of them if they take care of the chores.

Interestingly, Toomer ensures that the reader understands that the slaves have indeed been converted to the “white-faced sardonic god” (37). In Conversion, the “god” is not capitalized; however, in Cotton Song, “God” becomes the supernatural spiritual leader which the slaves so desperately need. The “African Guardian of Souls” (37) gave up his power and has been replaced in the heart of his former worshippers by the new white “God” (13).

The slave song reaches a crescendo in the middle of Cotton Song. The slaves decide “We aint agwine t wait until th Judgement Day!” (13). The manner in which Toomer writes this line is interesting; he uses dialect to actually quote the slave song. The exclamation point also makes it clear that the slaves have no intention of waiting for their freedom. Their song continues, “Nassur; Nassur, / Hump. / Eoho, eoho, roll away!” (13). The slaves seem content to work themselves to death, if that death means freedom. Toomer goes on to repeat the second stanza. The first time it was written, I took it as one slave and his attempt to rally his friends; however, the second time it is written, I feel that it was a group of slaves attempted to rally a nation.

If the slaves of Cotton Song were willing to themselves to freedom by way of death, then the slaves in Song of the Son actually seemed to accomplish that very feat. It seems that one of the slaves has died, and the remaining slaves “pour that parting soul in song” and “let the valley carry it along” (17). The soul of the dead slave finds himself in the presence of his Heavenly Father. Finally, the hope which has been so prominent throughout the poems is realized. The slave’s soul cries to God, “Thy son, I have in time returned to thee” (17). One slave has found his freedom, but for “A song-lit race of slaves” the day is not over just yet.

The poem Song of the Son goes on to describe the physical description of the weary slaves, “dark purple ripened plums / Squeezed, and bursting”. This is a stark contrast to the ethereal way in which the “parting soul” (17) was described earlier in the poem. However, a new hope springs forth in the next lines, “One plum was saved for me” (17). This new hope is the son of one of the slaves. This “one seed” (17) will become “An everlasting song” for the slaves (18). I imagine one of the true joys that a slave must have had was to watch his child grow into a man. Unfortunately, this was a luxury that some slaves never got. Slave children were often sold to neighboring plantations. However, I believe that a parent always clutches tightly to the hope that their child will have the opportunity to live a greater existence. It seems to me that this particular child found his freedom while still able to enjoy it. This sets up a nice parallel between the slave who found freedom in death, and the child who attained his freedom in life. The song of the slave is not forgotten by the son; he can be heard “Caroling softly souls of slavery” (18).

Jean Toomer was, himself, the son of a former slave. Once again, we find that he would be especially equipped to understand the plight of the slaves in his poetry. By writing Cane, Toomer’s work became “An everlasting song, a singing tree” (18). His character sketches, who all seemed to struggle with the same duality issues as Toomer, serve as songs of their own. Toomer longs to have his reader understand “What they were, and what they are” (18).

The song of the slave begins to come to a close, in much the same manner as the slave’s work day. Georgia Dusk opens up a new realm for the reader. For the entirety of the song, thus far, the reader has only been able to see the slaves as they work in the fields. They have been lifting, hewing and rolling cane and cotton. The slave did not even have the luxury of shoes as they went about their daily tasks with “bare feet” (13).

In Georgia Dusk, Toomer shows us what starts to happen when the sun sets on the plantation. Finally, we are afforded a glimpse into the lives of the men and women and not only the working slaves. The sky “Passively darkens” (19) and the work day ends; “The sawmill blows it whistle, buzz-saws stop” (19). The night brings with it “A feast of moon and men and barking hounds” (19). Even the dogs of “some genius of the South” (19) are invited, but not the slaves. Instead, they “Go singing though the footpaths of the swamp” (19). The slaves always seem to be singing, and always it is a song of hope. The line “Their voices rise” (20) is repeated. This is to ensure that the reader understands that these people are not at all ashamed of their song. These slaves continue “making folk-songs from soul sounds” (19).

I am certain that the “African Guardian of Souls” (37) would be pleased by the singing of his former believers. These people have found something new to worship and despite their dire station, they have not lost hope. “Their voices rise” hoping to “Bring dreams of Christ to dusky cane-lipped throngs” (20). It is no coincidence that Toomer used the same description of “cane-lipped” to define the “genius of the South” (19). For the most part, plantation owners were supposed to be of Christian faith. However, how can any man who owns another man call himself a Christian? The very teachings of Christ were very clearly that of loving one another, and of treating others in a fashion comparable with how one would like to be treated. Slavery flies in the face of such teaching. As such, the slaves are much aptly identified as Christian. While the slave owner is lost in the haze of “An orgy” (19), the slave “Is caroling a vesper to the stars” (20). Even with the precious little free time permitted the slaves, their song can still be heard “Above the sacred whisper of the pines” (20).

After a tough day of slaving away in the fields and singing oneself into a frenzy, the slave song is now ready for its ending. The night has fallen, and the dawn will bring another day of labor; the only thing left for the slave to do is sleep. It is, of course, impossible for me to understand the harsh and demanding life of a slave; yet, I continually find myself attempting to find some understanding. Jean Toomer does a masterful job of opening up a door to this unknown sphere, and allowing someone like me the opportunity to glance for a moment into the life of a slave. In Evening Song, there is finally a sense of peace and relaxation for the slave.

In this particular poem, we are introduced to a female character named Cloine. Cloine represents the ever present feeling of love and adoration felt by the slaves. She seems to pervade every facet of the slave’s mind as they lay coiled together under the “Full moon” (28). Toomer uses two comparisons to describe the lady Cloine. The first manner in which she is described is “like the sleepy waters” (28). Water is all-enveloping; it wraps itself around us and completely engulfs us. In much the same fashion, Toomer uses light to help the reader understand how absolutely Cloine washes over the slave. She is “Radiant” and “resplendently she gleams” (28). Light brings with it warmth and a sense of hope, which we know is the theme of the slave song. The usage of water and light shows a certain completeness of Cloine.

Cloine is the first distinct female we read about. In Evening Song, the language becomes softer and the words are more delicate.  Let us not be confused into thinking that the life of a female slave was soft or delicate. They toiled in much the same manner as the men, but had to endure hardships that the men would never know. Many of the slave owners used the female slaves to fulfill their sexual desires and frustrations. Once again, the so-called Christian slave owners fail miserably in their attempt to emulate their heavenly father. While at the same time, the slaves continue to serve in much the same manner that Jesus served his disciples as he washed their feet.

The third line in each of the three stanzas appear to outline the life of Cloine, and represents the life of every slave. During the harsh work day, “Cloine tires” (28) and her body readies itself for a well-deserved sleep. There are images here of “Lakes and moon and fires” (28). The man holding his precious Cloine notices that his love is “Holding her lips apart” (28). This seems to me a way in which Toomer can once again show how tired these slaves must have been after such a toilsome day. Breathing through the mouth, instead of the nose, is a sign of being out of breath and worn down. Given the previous poems, we can completely understand why Cloine may be holding her lips apart.

In the next stanza, “Cloine sleeps” (28). She succumbs to the “Promises of slumber” (28). The slave man watches her as she slumbers, and fancies her a “Miracle” (28). Throughout the poem, the two characters both seem to be symbolized by the moon. In the second stanza, Cloine appears to be “leaving shore to charm the moon” (28). Here, the slave man holding her seems to take on the aspect of the moon. However, in the first stanza, Cloine is the “Full moon rising on the waters of my (his) heart” (28). I believe that this connection is symbolic of marriage, in which the two lovers become cleft together as one. As the man watches Cloine sleep, he remarks, “And I’ll be sleeping soon” (28). The man wanted nothing more, in the few moments before sleep was to embrace him, than to stare at the beauty of his beloved. This illustrates the tenderness and love that the slaves were capable of: a love that the slave owners would never have the joy of experiencing from the slave.

In the last stanza, there is finally peace for the slave. “Cloine dreams” (28). This is not a fitful sleep, but a complete relaxation within the arms of her beloved. I am sure that Cloine dreams of hope and freedom. She is “curled like the sleepy waters where the moon-waves start” (28). Her sleep and her beauty have now completely washed over the slave man, and he cannot help but join her in her dream state. The final line uses language as the slave man cradles Cloine while her “Lips pressed against my (his) heart” (28).

Jean Toomer may not have wanted to be racially classified, but there is no doubt that the influences slavery had upon his family influenced his writing. Being on both sides of the slave debate, for Toomer’s grandmothers were both given plantations and his father was born a slave, he was able to capture a unique outlook on the life of a slave.

The slave song would not truly reach its conclusion until much later, and in some ways it continues to ring out even today. Toomer himself never escaped from the turmoil associated with racial stereotyping. He lived his life without a clear understanding of exactly who he was or who he was meant to be, but always his song of hope rang out in his writings. I pray that the slave song, and all of the hope that it inspires will never completely be muted. It is my hope that we learn from the mistakes that were made by those before us. Perhaps we can create a new slave song and let it ring, “But lets not wait for it” (13).


Posted by on December 5, 2013 in From the Desk of the Author


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