Thinking about the idea of white womanhood in Toomer’s “Becky” and African American womanhood in “Blood Burning-Moon,” I commented that the concluding vignette of the Northern section, “Bona and Paul,” contains some similarities to the two Southern vignettes. “Bona and Paul” focuses on two Southerners, Paul, a phenotypically white male who tentatively starts a relationship with a white co-ed Bona. Looking at “Bona and Paul,” I cannot help but think about novels such as James Baldwin’s Another Country, Frank Yerby’s Speak Now, and John A. Williams’s The Angry Ones. Each of these novels deals with interracial relationships between African American men and white women either in the urban North or overseas.
For Toomer’s vignette, though, I want to explore the psychological conflicts that arise within both Bona and Paul as they try to navigate their possible relationship in the North, specifically Chicago here. While their relationship could not exist in public in the South, they can maneuver publicly, to a certain extent, in the North. However, this movement comes into question, especially at the end when “a large Negro in crimson uniform who guards the door” to the Crimson Gardens questions Paul on whether or not he can actually sustain a relationship with a white woman (74).
From the very beginning of the narrative, Bona tries to justify her feelings for Paul, but she cannot fully love him due to his race. As she watches him drill during gym class, she thinks, “He is a harvest moon. He is an autumn leaf. He is a nigger. Bona! But don’t all the dorm girls say so? And dont you, when you are sane, say so? Thats why I love– Oh, nonsense. You have never loved a man who didnt love you first. Besides–“(70). Here, Bona argues with herself, first on how to describe Paul then on whether or not she can actually love him. She maneuvers from images of nature to the derogatory term rather quickly, then she stops herself. However, she maintains that Paul is a “nigger,” partly because the other girls say so, and, when she is “sane,” she defines him the same way. Bona, at this point, has the conflicting nature of her peers, society, and herself all struggling to make sense of her feelings for a man that society says she cannot love because of his race.
Throughout, Paul struggles with his own identity and his past, trying to figure out how to navigate a society that would shun him because of his African American ancestry. When he goes to the Crimson Gardens with Bona and another couple, people start to look at him and question his ethnicity. This, along with other incidents, makes Paul feel separated from Bona and his friends: “Suddenly he knew that he was apart from the people around him. Apart from the pain which they had unconsciously caused. Suddenly he knew that people saw, not attractiveness in his dark skin, but difference” (75). Paul’s realization of his difference creates within a struggle that manifests itself in his thoughts as he dines, drinks, and dances with Bona in the quasi-pastoral Gardens, a site of rebirth and realization.
As the couple leaves the club, the doorman “leers” and “smiles” at them, causing Paul to snap and approach the man. The doorman, perceiving that nothing can happen between Bona and Paul that will exist beyond some fleeting moment, listens to Paul attentively. Paul tells the man that he’s wrong and “[t]hat something beautiful is going to happen” between him an Bona, that the night of dancing gave him the opportunity to know her (78). Paul sees “that white faces are petals of roses” and “dark faces are petals of dusk”; because of this, Paul leaves to “gather petals,” putting them together (78). For all of his confidence, when Paul leaves the doorman, he discovers that Bona has gone and left him alone.
Both Bona and Paul struggle with not only their own identity but also with the strictures of society. Both question these rules; however, they cannot ultimately overcome them, even in a cosmopolitan, northern environment like Chicago. While Paul does not get lynched like Tom does in “Blood-Burning Moon” because of his outward affection for Bona, he does experience loss because she cannot, as a white woman, bring herself to love Paul. Both Bona and Paul want something more, something more substantial that does not center on distinctions of race, but that ultimately cannot happen in a society where Paul must willingly hide and deny a part of himself.
He struggles to rectify his African American lineage, continually questioning who he really is and who Bona truly is. Perhaps the most telling lines come when Paul moves closer to Bona to dance He thinks, “From the South. What does that mean, precisely, except that you’ll love or hate a nigger? Thats a lot. What does it mean except that in Chicago you’ll have the courage to neither love or hate. A priori” (76). Here, Paul questions the rules that would restrict their relationship in the South, and in this way, he appears similar to Marcus in Ernest J. Gaines’s Of Love and Dust (1967). In the South, Bona would not be able to love Paul outwardly, and even in the North, she cannot do it, even though it seems like she has at this point.
Ultimately, the two cannot be together, and we are left, at the end of the vignette, with Paul standing alone. He sees the potential in their relationship just as Marcus does with Louise, but that potential can never come to fruition. The flower of their relationship will not produce new petals; instead, it will wither and die because it cannot grow and flourish. Thinking about “Bona and Paul,” or other texts, what are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below.
Toomer, Jean. “Bona and Paul.” Cane. New York: Liveright, 1975. 70-78.