A-ha! Here's something totally clear about "Portrait in Georgia": it takes place in Georgia. Glad we got that covered.
But what, if anything, does that tell us? To figure that out, we might have to think about the literal setting of the poem—as in, the book it calls home. "Portrait in Georgia" appears in Toomer's powerful but wacky novel Cane. We call it wacky because it mixes vignettes, poetry, and other stuff, so even though it's a novel, it sure doesn't look like one.
In fact, it feels a lot more like a bunch of fragments, strung together. "Portrait in Georgia" is one of those fragments, and it feels right at home amongst the stories and poems of black Americans in the South.
Which brings us back to the whole geography thing. This poem is set in Georgia. And, given that the poem was published in 1923, that means that Georgia for Toomer looked a lot different than it did today. Rampant racism, segregation, lynchings—all these things were commonplace, and Toomer hones in on that in this brief poem.
Gender Politics and Lynching
With the institutionalized racism of segregation in place, interactions between white and black Americans were tense at best. While a man might find himself lynched for any number of reasons, one common occurrence was for a black man to be lynched after being accused of assaulting, threatening, or even raping a white woman. Back then, this was seen as an especially heinous crime, and many of these African American males were hanged without so much as a trial, or even a charge laid against him.
Could that be what Toomer is honing in on here? Maybe he's merging the imagery of a beautiful white woman and a lynched black man to play upon the historically typical scenario of a black man being lynched for interacting with or allegedly assaulting a white woman. If that's the case, it certainly makes for a fascinating reading of the poem.
Think about it. If we read it this way, then this woman is being described in the terms of her supposed attacker. And he has gotten into this sorry state because of this woman's accusation. Their current states of being rely on each other—he would not be lynched if it were not for her, and she could not be described in such a way if he hadn't been lynched.
But of course, that's just one way to read the poem. And no matter which way you read it, it's clear that there are some fascinating, stirring, and very very difficult matters of racial, sexual, and most of all American politics at work here.