Study Guide

Portrait in Georgia Violence

By Jean Toomer


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

The elements of the victim's body are connected to the tools used to inflict violence. The victim and the offender are blended together in this way—through the means of their violence.

Eyes—fagots, (3)

"Fagots" are bundles of sticks, perhaps referring to the sticks to light the body on fire. Why would the victim's eyes be compared to a bundle of sticks? This line is the shortest in the poem with only two words. What is the effect of this brevity?

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

Notice how the lips are associated with wounds. Is there some sort of symbolism going on here? Has this victim been silenced by violence before, and can't speak because his or her lips are scarred and blistered?

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

In this line, death and life meet. The sweet smell of the sugarcane from the fields nearby seems wildly out of place as the victim is tortured to death. This smell also reminds us of America's troubled history with slavery and how the farming of crops like sugarcane and tobacco fueled slavery and the slave trade.

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

Violence has rendered the black male victim's body into a feminine and white body. Or at least, that's one way to read it. You could also read it the other way around—that this white woman can't help but be described in violent terms because her status in society depends on violence toward black people.