Jean Toomer was a lot of things.
Black, white. French, Dutch, Welsh, German, Jewish, Indian. Southerner, northerner. Poet. He went to all white schools and all black schools. He grew up in a predominantly black neighborhood of Washington D.C., but went to college among white people. If this isn't a recipe for an identity crisis, then we don't know what is.
Sure, as an early 20th-century poet with a mixed ethnic background, he faced some serious challenges. Should he write from the African American perspective? The white perspective? Could he somehow combine both perspectives?
But Jean Toomer was just a boss enough poet that he managed to shirk the identity crisis and write from a totally new perspective—his own. In his words, "I have lived equally amid the two race groups. Now white, now colored. From my own point of view I am naturally and inevitably an American" (source). And as an American, he sought to mingle his two racial identities in his poetry and prose. He wanted to prove they could coexist successfully.
"Portrait in Georgia" does just that. This brief poem—which is really just a series of images—mingles the imagery of a beautiful white woman with that of a lynched black man. And if that sounds controversial and evocative to you, well then you get a gold star. The poem appeared as a part of Toomer's masterpiece, the modernist novel Cane, which didn't exactly fly off the bookshelves. Some might argue that's because, as a shocking mix of poems, vignettes, and short stories, its form was just too difficult to wrap a brain around. But according to Toomer's fellow literary giant Langston Hughes, it's actually because Toomer simply refused to fit into whatever pigeonholes folks tried to shove him into. In 1923, Cane just wasn't the novel everyone wanted it to be. It was a masterpiece on its own terms.
Which is kind of the point. Toomer defied stereotypes, busted through racial barriers, and made a name for himself doing it. "Portrait in Georgia" is just one example of this man's rare combination of poetry prowess and keen insight. And it's one of the many reasons you'll still find Cane on bookshelves today.
Because it will shock you. Because it will confuse you. Because it will make you uneasy.
Toomer's tiny poem packs a big punch, and we wouldn't blame you if you'd rather avoid a shiner on your pretty little eye. But here's the thing: sometimes a punch is good for us, especially if it comes in the form of poetry. "Portrait in Georgia" will unsettle you in all the good ways. It will make you question everything you ever thought about race in America, and then some.
The poem describes, image by image, a white woman's looks. And yet, somehow, all those descriptions are described to us in terms that should describe the corpse of a lynched African American man. Toomer somehow manages to blur the distinction between these two figures in a way that makes us wonder why we bother distinguishing them in the first place.
It's heavy stuff—not for the faint of heart—but it's important stuff, too. Sure, we've come along way since Toomer's days, but race and gender are still at the forefront of our nation's conversation. The images in this poem can help you think about this conversation in a new way.