Over the last couple of posts, I have written about Jeff Nichols’ Loving and the legal constructions of race. Today, I want to conclude that discussion by looking some at Jean Toomer’s Cane (1923) and Ernest J. Gaines’ The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1971). In each of these texts, published close to fifty years apart, Toomer and Gaines highlight the ways that words and ultimately the law construct race and maintain power.
Upon teaching Cane this semester, I became drawn, more than other times I have read the text, to “Kabnis,” the final section of the book. Within “Kabnis,” Toomer addresses the use of language to construct meaning, something modernists repeatedly did as I have shown recently in my posts on William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway.
The interrogation of how language makes meaning in “Kabnis” comes into play from the very outset when we see Kabnis reading in the cabin. As well, we encounter it when Kabnis thinks about his own identity. He ponders, “Ralph Kabnis is a dream.” He is not a reality but a spectre hovering over the section. At the beginning of section 3, Kabnis enters as “[a] scarecrow replica,” and the narrator refers to this Kabnis not as a person but as “it.” The use of “it” separates Kabnis from himself, turning him into a non-human object.
These moments set up the end of the section where Kabnis becomes both the victim of America’s sin and America’s sin itself. We get hints of this moment with the above examples, but we also get hints of it when the narrator describes Halsey’s house and ancestry. Hanging on the wall, Halsey has portraits of his ancestors. A bearded man with black, curly hair rests about the mantle. It is a painting “of an English gentleman who has retained much of his culture, in that money has enabled him to escape being drawn through a land-grubbing pioneer life.” The man’s wealth and image allow him to become prosperous without having to endure hard work, thus he becomes an image of whiteness.
On one side of the English gentleman “is a smaller portrait of the great-grandmother. That here there is a Negro strain, no one would doubt. But it is difficult to say in precisely what feature it lies.” Here, we see the interracial relationships, whether forced or consensual, in Halsey’s ancestral past. However, he is oppressed and subjugated because of the “Negro strain” that courses through his veins. These portraits show the intermixing that occurred in America’s past.
Near the end of “Kabnis,” Father John speaks, and he speaks of “sin.” Father John’s words come as a shock, especially for Carrie. Kabnis tells her,
It was only a preacher’s sin they knew in those old days, an that wasnt sin at all. Mind me, th only sin is whats done against th soul. Th whole world is a conspiracy t sin, especially in America, an against me. I’m th victim of their sin. I’m what sin is. Does he look like me? Have you ever heard him say th things youve heard me say? He couldnt if he had th Holy Ghost t help him. Dont look shocked, little sweetheart, you hurt me.
What stuck out to me here was Kabnis’ proclamation, “Th whole world is a conspiracy t sin, especially in America, an against me. I’m th victim of their sin. I’m what sin is.” What, exactly, is the “sin” that Father John is referencing? Father John tells Kabnis it’s the “sin” of fixed on white folks for telling lies about the Bible. To this, Kabnis simply responds by pushing the statement aside, claiming he’s already known that.
For Kabnis, he is the victim of America’s sin and “what sin is.” What exactly do these two contradictory elements mean? How can he be the victim of sin and also sin itself? Jean Toomer, writing to Waldo Frank in 1922, perhaps provides some answer to this question. He told Frank, “Kabnis is me.” Kabnis is mixed-race, meaning his identity, like Toomer’s, does not fit into America’s black/white binary. Toomer, as Rudolph Byrd and Henry Louis Gates note, was conflicted about his racial identity. This conflict, I would argue, stems partly from the ways that culture and the legal system constructed race.
As such, Kabnis becomes the victim of this construction because due to his Black ancestry America labels him as Black, thus denying him equal rights and privileges in the body politic. On the other hand, he is a physical representation of America’s racial sins, specifically it’s laws against interracial intimacy that tacitly turned a blind eye to sexual assault and rape of Black bodies because those acts led to increased profits. In this manner, Kabnis becomes both the victim of the sin and the sin itself.
These same issues appear in Gaines’ novel, specifically in the section that chronicles Tee Bob’s life and his suicide. Tee Bob’s suicide highlights the ways that the law and, as Gaines calls them, the “rules,” construct meaning and oppress individuals. Tee Bob, once he realizes that the Creole schoolteacher Mary Agnes will not reciprocate his affection for her (because she knows what such a reciprocation would mean), knocks Mary Agnes down, and feeling guilty about his act locks himself in the family library and commits suicide.
Tee Bob’s suicide works, in a way, to symbolically confront America’s sin; however, it does not cleanse that sin from the record. Tee Bob could be a progressive move forward, but he cannot confront the system that provides him privilege and keeps him and Mary Agnes from even attempting a relationship, so he kills himself.
Tee Bob kills himself with a letter opener, “[t]he one Paul Samson had used at the capital there in Baton Rouge.” By using the letter opener, one that his relative used in the construction of laws at the state capital, Tee Bob becomes the victim of the sin that does not allow even a sliver of a chance for a relationship between him and Mary Agnes because of her Black ancestry.
Likewise, the library serves as a symbolic sepulcher of knowledge and the constructions of meaning that will not allow for a relationship. As Miss Jane says, “But nothing in that library was go’n let him forget. Too many books on slavery in that room; too many books on history in there. The sound of his grandfather talking to his daddy and his uncle come out of every wall; the sound of all of them talking to him come from everywhere at once.” The history and constructed knowledge in the books and the family will not allow Tee Bob to break with the created society around him. These books on slavery, history, and family discussions told him that Mary Agnes was inferior to him, and if he wanted her, he could just take her, anytime and anywhere. Tee Bob, though, rejects this notion and falls in love with her. That, the library says, “Is not allowed.”
When Tee Bob locks himself in the room, his father works to break down the door. In so doing, he ruptures the past sins and Tee Bob’s death serves as a gesture towards dismantling white supremacy. Miss Jane describes Robert breaking the doors of the library down by saying, “The sound of the axe against the door went like thunder through that old house. Pictures of the old people shook on every wall. A looking-glass fell and scattered all over the floor.” Robert’s blows shake the house, causing it to convulse and thrash about. This becomes a confrontation with the sins of America.
After Tee Bob’s suicide, Jules Raynard, his parrain, drives Miss Jane home. He tells her, “We killed him. We tried to make him follow a set of rules our people gived us long ago.” Miss Jane questions Jules about the “we” in his statement, to which he responds,
Somewhere in the past, Jane. . . . Way, way back, men like Robert could love women like Mary Agnes. But somewhere along the way somebody wrote a new set of rules condemning all that. I had to live by them, Robert at that house now had to live by them, and Clarence Caya had to live by them. Clarence Caya told Jimmy to live by them, and Jimmy obeyed. But Tee Bob couldn’t obey. That’s why we got rid of him. All us. Me, you, the girl–all us.
Like Kabnis, Tee Bob becomes the victim of America’s sin and America’s sin itself. The key here is that no matter who we are, the history of this nation makes us both the victims and the sin itself. It’s a no-win situation until we actively confront our racist past and how that past continues to influence our language, culture, and laws. Until then, we will forever remain the victim of America’s sin and America’s sin itself.
What are your thoughts? Please let me know in the comments below. Make sure to follow me on Twitter @silaslapham.
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