Born 1894 in Washington D.C.

Jean Toomer was born into a middle class family of African Americans who were also of mixed racial descent. Many times during his life he passed for a White American although he attended predominately Black schools and lived in a largely Black community.

In the late 1910s, Toomer wrote and published poetry in journals such as Broom, The Liberator, and The Little Review . In 1921 he started teaching and moved to the deep South. The experience led him to write his only book, Cane, a collection of prose poetry describing Georgia and it's people. The book was a critical success but Toomer resented that he was "lumped in" with other Harlem Renaissance writers and artists of the period.

Toomer was very fair skinned with nearly straight hair. As far as his musings on race and identity go, he either well ahead of his time or mired in self-hatred. Toomer longed for a society where race did not matter and refused to be soley identified as a Black man. He abhorred the rigid social distinctions of race.

As a young man, he became involved with a religious philosophy known as Unitism which taught tracendence of self through yoga and meditation, among other things. When he returned to New York he briefly taught Unitism in Harlem but then abruptly moved to a white community in New York and then to Chicago. He married twice (both times to white women), and ignored criticism from other Blacks who accused him of abandoning his roots. He saw himself as human being living above racial boundaries. He died in 1967.

"People"
from The Collected Poems of Jean Toomer

To those fixed on white,
White is white,
To those fixed on black,
It is the same,
And red is red,
Yellow, yellow-
Surely there are such sights
In the many colored world,
Or in the mind.
The strange thing is that
These people never see themselves
Or you, or me.

Are they not in their minds?
Are we not in the world?
This is a curious blindness
For those that are color blind.
What queer beliefs
That men who believe in sights
Disbelieve in seers.

O people, if you but used
Your other eyes
You would see beings.

Source: Poets.org

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