Portrait in Georgia
by Jean Toomer
There's no denying that we've got a body in "Portrait in Georgia," but just whose body is it? Is it the body of a white woman, being described in terms of a black lynching victim? Is it the body of a black lynching victim, being described in a blazon that might normally apply to a white woman? Is the body of that lynching victim male or female? We've got so many questions, Shmoopers, we're gonna have to do some detailed sleuthing.
- Line 1: The hair is braided, but don't assume this means the victim is a female. And chestnut isn't exactly the most telling detail either. Right off the bat, Toomer's blurring racial and gender lines.
- Line 2: Now he's really getting the blazon cooking. Having fiery, passionate eyes is probably a good thing in a woman, but the image is an alarming one. Somehow, this figure's eyes are being metaphorically compared to death-by-fire, or the burning of a body during a lynching.
- Line 3: The lips are compared to scars and blisters. The clash here of the stereotypically beautiful image of a woman's lips with the frankly gross image of blisters and scars is confusing to say the least. Are we dealing with a beautiful woman here, or a dead body? At this point, we're starting to wonder if we're even supposed to know.
- Line 4: Breath, along with all its symbolic baggage (breath is life, breath is the soul etc.) is connected to slavery here, in the phrase "sweet scent of cane." Cane plantations were common in the Deep South, where African Americans were enslaved and forced to work the fields in poor conditions. There are a couple of ways to read this line. If this woman is indeed a white woman, maybe her breath is sweetened by the slave labor of black Americans—a cruel reminder of enslavement. Or it could imply that this image isn't of a white woman at all—but of a black figure, whose last breath was sweet, just before he or she was lynched.
- Line 5: The body of the white woman and the burnt body of the black victim are squished into one image here, via a simile. And—boom—we're forced to reread the whole poem in light of this new information. Okay, so we haven't exactly solved the mystery of whose body we're talking about, but by the time we reach the end of the poem, we can't help but wonder if that isn't the point. In leaving the owners and races of these bodies (or is it just one body?) ambiguous, Toomer opens the door for us to reconsider where we draw our racial and gender lines.