While white womanhood gets held up as a representation of the “idyllic” and “virginal” South, African American womanhood becomes something tainted and only seen as a product rather than as a human being. This image appears throughout literature fro Harriett Jacobs’s account of her life in Incidents of the Life of a Slave Girl to the way that Jimmy Caya tells Tee Bob he should take Mary Agnes and do with her as he wishes in Ernest Gaines’s The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1971). Today, I want to write briefly about the image of white womanhood and African American womanhood in Jean Toomer’s Cane (1923), a text that presents images of both.
“Becky” tells the story of a white woman who has a relationship with an African American male, and as a result, she has two sons. The white community and the black community ostracize her, relegating her to the “[g]round islandized between the road and the railroad track” (5). The term “islandized” creates a sense of isolation and seclusion away from the community as a whole. Even though the respective groups disown Becky and her children, they assist her by dropping food and notes out of the passing train cars. Eventually, her sons shoot two men in town, fleeing. As they leave, they shout, “Godam the white folks; godam the niggers” (6). Like Raoul Carmier in Gaines’s Catherine Carmier (1964), the brothers do not want anything to do with either community. Unlike Raoul, though, Becky’s sons do not have a community or extended family to fall back on. This lack of support leads Becky and her sons to experience loneliness and seclusion.
Because of her actions, Becky no longer exists as she once did. She exists only as a defiled woman who does not have a place within the white or black community. After she has her second son, the town claims her as dead: “for the part of man that says things to the like of that had told itself that if there was a Becky, that Becky was now dead” (6). In this way, one can think of the discussions from Karla Holloway’s Legal Fictions
that I discuss in a previous post. Becky and her sons live, yet they don’t exist like Pauline and Bonbon’s sons. The voluntary tainting of white womanhood leads to and end, but the involuntary tainting, as presumably happens in Faulkner’s “Dry September
,” leads to the death of the “perpetrator” and the sensationalism of the victim. Look at the way Minnie’s friends ask her for details in Faulkner’s story.
Eventually, Becky dies in a fire that engulfs her house, and the lines that open the vignette close it as well: “Becky was the white woman who had two Negro sons. She’s dead; they’ve gone away. The pines whisper to Jesus. The Bible flaps its leaves with an aimless rustle on her mound” (7). If Becky let the community know who got her pregnant, they would not have shunned her, but her decision to remain true to the boys’ father(s) and to ultimately protect him leads her to a life of isolation. Not even Jesus can save her, as is referenced in the whispers to Jesus and the Bible flapping in the wind.
Unlike Becky, Louisa in “Blood-Burning Moon” exists only for the pleasure of the white man Bob Stone. Louisa works for Bob’s family, and he loves her. According to the narrator, “By the world reckons things, he had won her” (28). Louisa does have a “warm glow” when she thinks of him; Tom Burwell, an African American worker at the mill, loves Louise as well. This is where the conflict arises, because even though Tom has feelings for Louisa, he cannot have her because Bob has “won her,” in essence owning her.
On a certain level, Bob mirrors Ernest Gaines’s Tee Bob and Bonbon at the same time. He appears to truly love Louisa, but the “rules” of Southern society will not allow him to express these feelings. Instead, he must act as Jimmy Caya tells Tee Bob to do with Mary Agnes. Walking around the house one morning, Bob begins to think about Louisa and his family’s dwindling fortunes. The narrator says that during this contemplative moment “his mind became consciously a white man’s,” and he dreams about his ability to take Louise anywhere without anyone commenting, “as a master should” (31). However, the current circumstances would not allow such actions, and he starts to ponder what his family and Northern friends would think of him. Like Bonbon, Bob cannot bring himself to truly express his love for Louisa. Instead, he struggles with the residual effects of the past that still call on him to treat her as his property because, as he ponders, “his family still owned the niggers, practically” (31).
The past will not allow Bob to truly love Louisa, but the past will allow him to confront Tom for attempting to start a relationship with her. The warped history causes Louisa and Tom to become nothing more than property that Bob can act upon based on his feelings and desires. Eventually, Tom wounds Bob, and in doing so, a mob arises to kill the perpetrator of such a heinous act. “Blood Burning Moon” highlights the lack of agency for African American women and men in the South during the early part of the twentieth century. Whether or not Louisa has feelings for Tom and vice versa, it does not matter. The law of the land will never allow them to become anything more than a public secret.
Next post, I will explore how the concluding story in the Northern section of Cane, “Bona and Paul,” mirrors “Blood-Burning Moon” in a way. Until then, what are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below.
Toomer, Jean. Cane. New York: Liveright, 1975.