Study Guide

Portrait in Georgia Gender

By Jean Toomer


Hair—braided chestnut,
coiled like a lyncher's rope (1-2)

Long hair is usually considered a feminine feature, and this quote turns it into a form of bondage and oppression. This description of the victim's hair connects it to the lynching itself.

Lips—old scars, or the first red blisters, (4)

One way to read this is that the "or" of this line conveys the idea that the corpse is so badly mutilated that certain features are indecipherable, unable to be identified. The speaker has to guess at what these features are. The "old" of the scars suggests that this victim has seen violence before.

Breath—the last sweet scent of cane, (5)

Here our sense of smell is engaged, but the sweet smell seems wildly out of place and horrible in the context of such violence. But it does remind us of Billie Holiday's famous song, "Strange Fruit," about lynching in America. What is the effect of comparing the body of a lynching victim to fruit? Or to cane?

And her slim body, white as the ash
of black flesh after flame. (6-7)

This is the first time we get any sense of the victim's gender. Why is it significant that we learn this gender only at the very end of the poem? Do you think that this comment definitely means that the victim is a woman? Can we still believe the victim is a man? Or both at the same time?