Ramble: Discovering Jean Toomer

Excerpted from From http://english307formsofmodernshortstory.web.unc.edu/files/2014/03/Karintha-and-Becky-from-Jean-Toomers-CANE.pdf

A bit about Jean Toomer:
Jean Toomer was born on December 26, 1894, in Washington, D.C. Toomer studied at
the University of Wisconsin at Madison in 1914 and at the College of the City of New
York from 1917 to 1918. He also went to the Gurdjieff Institute in France.
After graduating, Toomer spent the next four years writing poetry and prose and was
actively involved in literary circles. In 1920, he taught school in Georgia, which ended up
becoming the foundation of his later book, Cane, along with bringing him back to his
Southern roots. Cane centers on the landscape and Southern people he saw in Georgia.
After Cane was published, Toomer was considered a leading figure in the Harlem
Renaissance. Cane brought Toomer great acclaim, and he was ranked in the same
category with Ralph Ellison and Richard Wright, famous African American writers.
Jean Toomer died in 1967 in Doylestown, Pennsylvania.

Select Works from Toomer:

Her skin is like dusk on the eastern horizon,
O cant you see it, O cant you see it
Her skin is like dusk on the eastern horizon
. . . When the sun goes down.
Men had always wanted her, this Karintha, even as a child, Karintha carrying beauty,
perfect as dusk when the sun goes down. Old men rode her hobby-horse upon their
knees. Young men danced with her at frolics when they should have been dancing with
their grown-up girls. God grant us youth, secretly prayed the old men. The young fellows
counted the time to pass before she would be old enough to mate with them. This
interest of the male, who wishes to ripen a growing thing too soon, could mean no good
to her.
Karintha, at twelve, was a wild flash that told the other folks just what it was to live. At
sunset, when there was no wind, and the pine-smoke from over by the sawmill hugged
the earth, and you couldn’t see more than a few feet in front, her sudden darting past
you was a bit of vivid color, like a black bird that flashes in light. With the other children
one could hear, some distance off, their feet flopping in the two-inch dust. Karintha’s
running was a whir. It had the sound of the red dust that sometimes makes a spiral in
the road, At dusk, during the hush just after the sawmill had closed down, and before
any of the women had started their supper-getting-ready songs, her voice, high-pitched,
shrill, would put one’s ears to itching. But no one ever thought to make her stop because
of it. She stoned the cows, and beat her dog, and fought the other children…. Even the
preacher, who caught her at her mischief, told himself that she was as innocently lovely
as a November cotton flower. Already, rumors were out about her. Homes in Georgia are
most often built on the two room plan. In one, you cook and eat, in the other you sleep,
and there love goes on. Karintha had seen or heard, perhaps she had felt her parents
loving. One could but imitate one’s parents, for to follow them was the way of God. She
played “home” with a small boy who was not afraid to do her bidding. That started the
whole thing. Old men could no longer ride her hobby-horse upon their knees. But young
men counted faster.
Her skin is like dusk,
O cant you see it,
Her skin is like dusk,
When the sun goes down.
Karintha is a woman. She who carries beauty, perfect as dusk when the sun goes down.
She has been married many times. Old men remind her that a few years back they rode
her hobby-horse upon their knees. Karintha smiled, and indulges them when she is in
the mood for it. She has contempt for them. Karintha is a woman. Young men run stills
to make her money. Young men go the big cities and run on the road. Young men go
away to college. They all want to bring her money. These are the young men who
thought that all they had to ho was to count time. But Karintha is a woman, and she has
had a child. A child fell out of her womb onto a bed of pine-needles in the forest. Pinneedles
are smooth and sweet. They are elastic to the feet of rabbits… A sawmill was
nearby. Its pyramidal sawdust pile smoldered. It is a year before one completely burns.
Meanwhile, the smoke curls up and hangs in odd wraiths about the trees, curls up, and
spreads itself out over the valley…Weeks after Karintha returned home the smoke was
so heavy you tasted it in water. Some one made a song:
Smoke is on the hills, Rise up
Smoke is on the hills, O rise
And take my soul to Jesus
Karintha is a woman. Men do not know that the soul of her was a growing thing ripened
too soon. They will bring their money; they will die not having found it out… Karintha at
twenty, carrying beauty, perfect as dusk when the sun goes down. Karintha…

Her skin is like dusk on the eastern horizon,
O cant you see it, O cant you see it,
Her skin is like dusk on the eastern horizon
…When the sun goes down.
Goes down….

Becky was the white woman who had two Negro sons. She’s dead; they’re gone away.
The pines whisper to Jesus. The Bible flaps its leaves with an aimless rustle on her
Becky had one Negro son. Who gave it to her? Damn buck nigger, said the white folks’
mouths. She would’nt tell. Common, God-forsaken, insane white shameless wench, said
the white folks’ mouths. Her eyes were sunken, her neck stringy, her breasts fallen, till
then. Taking their words, they filled her, like a bubble rising – then she broke. Mouth
setting in a twist that held her eyes, harsh, vacant, staring. . . Who gave it to her? Lowdown
nigger with no self-respect, said the black folks’ muths. White folks and black folks
buyilt her cabin, fed her and her growing baby, prayed secretly to God who’d put His
cross upon her amd cast her out.
When the first was born, the white folks said they’d have no more to do with her. And
black folks, they too joined hands to cast her out. . . The pines whispered to Jesus. . The
railroad boss said not to say he said it, but she could live, if she wanted to, on the narrow
strip of land between the railroad and the road. John Stone, who owned the lumber and
the bricks, would have shot the man who told he gave the stuff to Lonnie Deacon, who
stole out there at the night and built the cabin. A single room held down to earth. . . O fly
away to Jesus . . . by a leaning chimney. . .
Six trains each day rumbled past and shook the ground under her cabin. Fords, and
horse- and mule-drawn buggies went back and forth along the road. No one ever saw
her. Trainmen, and passengers who’d heard about her, threw out papers and food.
Threw out little crumpled slips of papers scribbled with prayers, as they passed her eyeshaped
piece of sandy ground. Ground islandized between the road and the railroad
track. Pushed up where a blue-sheen God with listless eyes could look at it. Folks from
the town took turns, unknown, of course, to each other, in bringing corn and meat and
sweet potatoes. Even sometimes snuff. . . P thank y Jesus. . Old David Georgia, grinding
cane and boiling syrup, never went her way without some sugar sap. No one ever saw
her. The boy grew up and ran around. When he was five years old as folks reckoned it,
Hugh Jourdon saw him carrying a baby. “Becky has another son,” was what the whole
town knew. But nothing was said, for the part of man that says things to the likes of that
had told itself that if there was a Becky, that Becky now was dead.
The two boys grew. Sullen and cunning. . . O pines, whisper to Jesus; tell Him to come
and press sweet Jesus-lips against their lips and eyes. . . It seemed as though with those
two big fellows there, there could be no room for Becky. The part that prayed wondered
if perhaps she’d really died, and they has buried her. No one dared ask. They’d beat and
cut a man who meant nothing at all in mentioning that they lived along the road. White
or colored? No one knew, and least of all themselves. They drifted around from job to
job. We, who had cast out their mother because of them, could we take them in? They
answered black and white folks by shooting up two men and leaving town. “Goddam the
white folks; goddam the niggers,” they’d shouted as they left town. Becky? Smoke curled
up from her chimney. Nobody noticed it. A creepy feeling came over all who saw that
thin wraith of smoke and felt the trembling of the ground. Folks began to take her food
again. They quit it soon because they had a fear. Becky if dead might be a haint, and if
alive – it took some nerve even to mention it. . . O pines, whisper to Jesus. . .
It was Sunday. Our congregation had been visiting at Pulverton, and were coming home.
There was no wind. The autumn sun, the bell from Ebenezer Church, listless and heavy.
Even the pines were stale, slicky, like the smell of food that makes you sick. Before we
turned the bend of the road that would show us the Becky cabin, the horses stopped
stock-still, pushed back their ears, and nervously whinnied. We urged, then whipped
them on. Quarter of a mile away thin smoke curled up from the leaning chimney. . . O
pines, whisper to Jesus. . . Goose-flesh came on my skin though there was neither chill
nor wind. Eyes left their sockets for the cabin. Ears burned and throbbed. Uncanny
eclipse! fear closed my mind. We were just about to pass. . . Pines shout to Jesus! . . the
ground trembled as a ghost train rumbled by. The chimney fell into the cabin. Its thud
was a hollow report, ages having having passed since it went off. Barlo and I were pulled
out of our seats. Dragged to the door that had swung open. Through the dust we saw the
bricks in a mound opon the floor. Becky, if she was there lay under them. I thought I
heard a groan. Barlo, mumbling something, threw his Bible on the pile. (No one has ever
touched it.) Somehow we got away. My buggy wa still on the road. The last thing I
remember was whipping old Dan like fury; I remember nothing after that – that is, until
I reached town and folks crowded round to get the true word of it.
Becky was the white woman who had two Negro sons. She’s dead; they’re gone away.
The pines whisper to Jesus. The Bible flaps its leaves with an aimless rustle on her

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