Jean Toomer

By Miranda Jessop


Jean Toomer was born in Washington, D.C. in 1894 of both African-American and white heritage. He attended both all-white and all-black schools and resisted racial classification from an early point in his life. Instead, Jean preferred to simply call himself an American ("Jean Toomer"). Toomer graduated from the distinguished all-black Dunbar High School before attending five colleges in less than four years. After investigating various areas of study, Jean became more and more interested in literature. He learned to love the art of literature through studying Shakespeare, William Blake, Leo Tolstoy, Victor Hugo, and more great writers. Jean worked with many great writers, artists, and reformers of the time in Harlem, including Alaine Locke, W.E.B. duBois, Zora Neale Hurston, Wallace Thurman, Nella Larsen, Harold Jackman, Rudolph Fisher, Dorothy West, Dorothy Peterson, and Aaron Douglass ("Toomer in Harlem").

Toomer not only influenced the cultural revolution through his poetry, he also preached Unitism, a set of doctrine founded by George Ivanovich Gurdjieff. The religion taught unity, transcendence, and mastery of self through yoga ("Toomer"). This especially appealed to Jean because of his previous efforts to not let the rigid racial restrictions of society hold him back. Some of Toomer’s most well-known works include Cane, a book of poetry depicting the Georgian country and people, and Blue Meridian, a lyrical poem that expressed his hopes for racial equality and unity. Jean eventually left Unitism and embraced the Quaker religion. He lived as a recluse and stopped writing poetry in 1950 ("Toomer in Harlem"). He died in 1967, but his literary works will always be remembered.

To those fixed on white,
White is white,
To those fixed on black,
It is the same,
And red is red,
Yellow, yellow-
Surely there are such sights
In the many colored world,
Or in the mind.
The strange thing is that
These people never see themselves
Or you, or me.

Are they not in their minds?
Are we not in the world?
This is a curious blindness
For those that are color blind.
What queer beliefs
That men who believe in sights
Disbelieve in seers.

O people, if you but used
Your other eyes
You would see beings.

Toomer’s poem People examines the tendency to focus on appearance. He even says that to those who are "fixed on white" (2), "white is white"(3), just as "red is red" (5) and "yellow, yellow" (6). Toomer goes on to say that those who see the world this way "never see themselves"(11), "or you, or me"(12). This statement bluntly describes the social attitude towards differences in race. At the time, many saw only the differences between people, or just the outside person. Writers and reformers such as Jean Toomer dared to speak out and question such prejudices and mind-sets.

Enjambment and the structure of stanzas in this poem helps emphasize the question being implied. The eye is drawn to the last few lines that are set apart and read, "O people, if you but used your other eyes, you would see beings" (20-22). Toomer’s innocent, but questioning voice includes the metaphor of being blind and using "your other eyes" (21) hints at the fact that a change in perspective is needed in order for people to learn to see others for who they are rather than who they appear to be. Toomer's message also indicates that misunderstood African-Americans are not just other people, but are strong, unique beings and ought to be seen and treated as such. While Toomer’s words were influential during the Harlem Renaissance, they can also apply to modern times. It is crucial that people today also ponder Toomer’s plea to use their "other eyes" and really see others for who they are.

Works Cited:
Keats, John. "Poetry Foundation." Poetry Foundation. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 Apr. 2011.

Weaver, Afaa M.. "Jean Toomer- - Poetry, Poems, Bios & More." - Poetry, Poems, Bios & More. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 Apr. 2011. <>.

"Jean Toomer Biography." Mathematics Department. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 Apr. 2011.