Jean Toomer’s “Seventh Street” is a snapshot of African-American life during the early stages of the Harlem Renaissance as it struggles to find its place in society. The image he creates is purposely complex, highlighting differences as they existed not only between whites and blacks, but also differing social classes of blacks themselves. Toomer masterfully combines imagery, tone, and form to reveal the struggles of this world within a world as it searches for recognition as a legitimate cultural force. The nature, placement, and purpose of this new culture inside the traditional and segregated society of Washington, D.C., are all thoughtfully explored in Toomer’s “Seventh Street.”
One might wonder why this location, Seventh Street in Washington, D.C., was chosen as the subject of this poem. If Toomer’s purpose was to detail the birth and growth of the Harlem Renaissance, why could he not have chosen Chicago, Boston, or of course New York? The answer, I believe, is the centrality of “Seventh Street,” both symbolically and geographically. This centrality is important because the Harlem Renaissance itself was the growth of African-American culture into the mainstream of America. The inevitable clashes and conflicts that arose as a result can be best described by focusing on a city that was itself conflicted.
The nation’s capitol stands as a half-way point between the rural South and the cities of the North. This geographical location is mirrored in the poem’s placement within Toomer’s larger work Cain. Prior to “Seventh Street,” the focus of Cain had been on the landscape of the South, specifically Georgia. The middle of the book is spent in the North, after which a full circle is made and we return to the South in the final story, “Kabnis.” Taking this theme to an even deeper level, the central position of “Seventh Street” can be seen in its own overall structure, as a short four-line poem marks both the beginning and the end of the middle body of text. These poems are identical and are marked by an “aabb” rhyme scheme, while the main bulk of “Seventh Street” lacks this element. Perhaps this is symbolic of the different cultures of the North and South, with the latter more open to poetry and romanticism, while the North loses that openness with its focus on pragmatism and industrialization.
Turning to these rhymed lines in greater detail, the awkward placement of African-Americans living in this mix of cultures becomes immediately apparent. “Seventh Street” appears to have a very conflicted economy, where those with money spend it quickly and excessively (1). The image of the criminal bootlegger wearing a “silken shirt” (2) is certainly odd, as are the large, heavy Cadillacs which zoom by on a road designed for street-cars (3,4). Both of these images are self-conflicting, representative of black culture as a whole as it develops in this new world. Development requires social change and movement, and both the image of the speeding car and the bootlegger (who by definition is transporting alcohol) imply physical movement, possibly symbolizing this change. The uncomfortable nature of this phenomenon is reflected in the structure of these lines, as they lack any consistency in meter. The frequent caesuras only increase this sense of imbalance and unease.
It is also worth noting that the descriptions found here are primarily visual. They serve as the kind of introduction any random observer would be able to see for his or her self. This is but the surface of “Seventh Street.” The main bulk of the poem is far more personal, one in which the narrator frequently asks questions and inserts opinions and exclamations. In order for the reader to fully understand “Seventh Street,” he or she must quite literally read “between” these (rhyming) lines and look at this place for what it is, a living and changing entity which by itself follows no set formulaic principles. This central paragraph more closely resembles a stream of consciousness short story than a poem, but for the sake of simplicity I will refer to the entire text as a “poem” for the remainder of this essay. One might argue that my and other critics’ struggles to identify the correct genre for this text mimics, in a way, the struggle of Seventh Street to find its unique identity.
Another way to interpret the form of this poem is to liken it to jazz music. The rhymed sections at the beginning and end sound like a traditional song, perhaps like a kind of chorus, and this makes the unorganized stream of consciousness flow in the middle reminiscent of “stop-time.” This technique is a common feature of jazz, as it often violates the traditional, more formalistic rules of music. This element often manifests itself in improvisations, one of which can be found in the narrator’s exclamation, “…Split it! In Two! Again! Shred it!...” (10). The author’s ellipses purposefully set this statement apart, as if to mark it as an unplanned burst of feeling which broke through the text as it would have otherwise been. Jazz music is especially significant here, as it was one of the most important methods by which black culture in the Harlem Renaissance began to spread outside its traditional confines. Its origins in the clash between traditional African and European styles reflect the broader tensions of African and Western traditions in African-American culture as a whole. The importance of jazz is made quite clear when Toomer puts these “jazz songs and love” in the same category as the “air” and the “blood” of Seventh Street (8).
Besides the formal elements of this poem which hint at jazz, inside the text there are also connections. The oft-repeated question, “who set you flowing?”, which appears at four different places inside the poem, pulls the poem together and gives it a sense of rhythm. The question is referring to the spread of “black reddish blood” as it “Flow[s] down the smooth asphalt of Seventh Street” (16-17). This has a dual significance, the first being a literal reference to bloodshed as a result of violent conflict. This could either come from the “War” (1), where black soldiers fought and died in segregated units, or possibly to racial conflict in Washington itself (the race riots of 1919, for example).
More broadly, the flowing blood refers to the spread of the Harlem Renaissance culture. As noted above, Toomer purposefully links jazz to the blood of Seventh Street. As appreciation of African-American music, art, and literature began to grow in the Harlem Renaissance, there necessarily grew a wider understanding, if not acceptance, of black cultural values. This has been an ongoing process that continues even today, with “black” music like hip-hop and R&B becoming mainstream and providing African-Americans with a powerful medium to express themselves. By listening to this music and appreciating African-American culture in general, Toomer says we are drinking the blood of Seventh Street (14). This growth of understanding and appreciation of African-American culture is what “Prohibition would put a stop to” (14).
Strictly speaking, Prohibition was the movement to illegalize the sale of alcohol, but as it is used here its purpose is to stop the flow of blood (analogous to black culture) into the rest of society. Symbolically, then, Prohibition is linked with segregation laws and other acts of harsh and arbitrary standards. It was imposed as a means of bettering society—but only in the eyes of a narrow-minded group of religious people who wanted to whitewash the sinful and unclean lifestyles of those they disapproved of. Of course it never achieved its intended effects, as drinking simply continued illegally. In one very crude sense, it actually united certain whites and blacks against the moralists in Washington. If you were a drinker, regardless of your race or social class, you were a criminal and excluded in the eyes of the law. The line “bootleggers in silken shirts” implies that Prohibition could in some cases provide blacks with the financial opportunity to improve their social class, mimicking on some level the lavishness of white upper-class drinkers like those found in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (2).
Prohibition is more than just a reaction to the spread of black culture, however. It is also a cause of it. In other words, Prohibition (and the broader social oppression it is symbolically connected to) is what originally forced this “crude-boned soft-skinned wedge of nigger life” into existence (6). Certainly, had there been no segregation or other kinds of racial persecution in this nation’s history, then much of what makes African-American culture unique would have been lost. Thus Toomer calls Seventh Street a “bastard of Prohibition and the War” (5). The other parental contribution in this union is World War I. The spilling “black reddish blood” in Washington could be a reference to the segregated black units which fought in Europe for a country that deprived them of equality at home (8-9). Thus Seventh Street is the conflicted product of two different kinds of racial discrimination. It is no wonder then that this “bastard” struggles to find its proper place in society. A bastard is by definition an illegitimate child; a fully functioning, normal human being that is “inferior” due to an arbitrary social convention. Seventh Street is likewise essentially equal to any other American culture on any other American street, but it is still ostracized because of the arbitrary social convention of racial discrimination.
The irony of this is that the upstanding and “pure” culture of Washington, D.C., which stood in the way of integration, is the same one which sanctioned going to war. Toomer notes that “Bloodsuckers of the War would spin in a frenzy of dizziness if they drank your blood” (14-15). Those same politicians that could stomach the deaths of thousands cannot even seem to tolerate the presence of African-Americans across the street. Such a government cannot possibly be pure, hence the “white and whitewashed wood of Washington” (9). The alliteration here draws attention to its staleness and superficial nature. It rolls off the tongue easily enough, but beyond that the “whiteness” has no deeper meaning whatsoever. The wood might be white in some parts, but the rest is just made to appear so. Likewise, the white culture of Washington might have some good to it, but its uniformity and ‘purity’ are quite literally skin-deep.
The overall image which Toomer is creating is that of a large white fence, one which symbolizes both Washington’s supposed moral purity (through acts like Prohibition) and its actual racial makeup (due to discrimination laws like Jim Crow). Inside this fence there is a single malformed plank, an awkward piece of wood that juts out from this otherwise perfectly white fence. This is Seventh Street. It is bleeding, wounded like an animal but not dead yet, and its blood is getting all over the place (7-8). The “White and whitewash” of the fence “disappear in blood”, indicating the spread of Seventh Street’s essence throughout the white culture (15). The purpose of this poem is to examine what the meaning of this one misshapen plank is in the larger scheme of the culture of Washington, D.C. Toomer decides that this plank is not just an eyesore, but rather an important and unique piece of the whole.
The role of this wedge inside the larger sphere of Washington, D.C., is very complex. On one level, Toomer portrays it as damaged and bleeding like a wounded animal. The blood flows from this “wedge” all over the formerly clean streets of Washington (6). The image of the “buzzards” which circle over the river of blood intensifies this death-like tone (19). On the other hand, Seventh Street is “breathing its loafer air” and “thrusting unconscious rhythms,” all of which are signs of life (6-7). The end result of this combination is a “crude-boned soft-skinned life” (12). These words indicate starvation, as a person’s skin begins to stretch over the hard bones after enough time has passed without nourishment. “Seventh Street” is by analogy alive, but it is also very ill as it struggles with harsh economic competition and oppressive legislation by the federal government.
There are two conclusions to this dire situation for Seventh Street, as Toomer sees it. This important dichotomy is seen in the juxtaposition between the “soggy wood” of the white Washington fence and the dried wood that blows away in the sun (9-10). The soggy wood causes the Seventh Street wedge to rust, which implies that the oppressive white Washington culture is slowly eating away at its vitality (9). Immediately after this the spontaneous exclamation occurs, which implies violence in its cries of “Split it!” and “Shred it!” (10). If Seventh Street is not able to overcome the social oppression which gave birth to it, those same forces will eventually end its existence.
The other, more positive conclusion is achieved when the sun is shining. The wooden ribbons turn from soggy to “brilliant” before they “dry and blow away” (10-11). By taking flight, these brilliant ribbons of wood soar over oppression and spread everywhere. They cannot do this without the sun, without the light of recognition and appreciation by the world. If that can one day be achieved, if the rest of society learns to accept black culture and values, then that culture will continue to live on—just not as an isolated plank.
It is important to note that in both cases, whether through rust in the soggy fence or flight in the sun, the wedge is decaying. Toomer does not give a long-term option to the survival of Seventh Street. No matter what, it will eventually cease to exist. The only question remaining is how—will it be through the oppression of white culture as symbolized through rust, or will it be because of some more positive force, symbolized by the sun? This force may very well be the Harlem Renaissance, for when exposed to the light of recognition black culture became for many Americans a “brilliant” (i.e., respectable) thing. Going back now to the centrality theme discussed above of “Seventh Street”, I do not believe that Toomer intended this to be a positive thing. No wedge of life can last long on the outside or caught in the middle, it soon begins to rust, bleed, and eventually die. The only hope is acceptance and integration, to move out of the middle and find a place within society. If this ultimatum is not met, Toomer warns, then there will be no choice but to face “Judgment Day” (21).