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Thursday, May 6, 2010

Intoxicating Blood: Jean Toomer's Seventh Street

Jean Toomer’s Harlem Renaissance writing Seventh Street describes the intoxication of African-American culture amid the whitewash of early 20th century America. Seventh Street is a wedge, or small black population, that has suffered the ill effects of War and Prohibition. In fact, a wedge refers to something that has been isolated, or removed, while still belonging to a greater whole. Now metaphorically speaking, the wedge in Seventh Street represents the black communities who were forced into isolation and felt the racial division of the times. For Toomer, these individuals not only represent a small part of the city of Washington, but more importantly, a microcosm of oppression felt by African-Americans nationwide. Mirroring the cultural divisions of the 1920’s, Toomer structurally divides and isolates certain parts of the writing to highlight the progressive nature of Seventh Street. Not only does this reinforce themes of racial segregation and division, but it allows the author to play around with opposing forms of language and syntax. In doing so, the speaker of the poem remains faceless, which provides Toomer with a certain degree of ambiguity. This uncertainty surrounding the narrator reflects the developing and energetic nature of Seventh Street and the early 20th century. Thus, through metaphorical associations of language and cultural ideologies, Seventh Street successfully demonstrates the autocratic and unlawful treatment of African-Americans in white 20th century America.

Seventh Street is a small, presumably wedged street in the expansive city of Washington DC. Resembling that of a wedge, Seventh Street is an isolated black neighborhood that belongs to a much larger society. In a sense, this is a glimpse of not only the issues felt in and around Washington, but rather, the United States as a whole. Divided and isolated all in itself, Seventh Street consists of eighteen free-verse lines, which are wedged between two identical quatrains. Here the structure of the poem allows the author to establish underlying themes of division and isolation. As these themes continue throughout, the quatrains which are comprised of two rhyming couplets, reflect images and practices of early urbanity. For instance, city blocks and streets often mirror and follow the same structural layout. These identical quatrains act in the same manner, as both aid to the themes of division and segregation, both within a community and the poem itself. The quatrains are comprised of an A/A/B/B rhyme scheme, which if looked at carefully, presents a division between two distinct sides. Yet this not only reflects the cultural disparities existing in the early 20th century, but also presents the first sign of a lively yet corrupt community.

In opening Seventh Street, the narrator begins with the quatrains in saying that “Money burns the pocket, pocket hurts/Bootleggers in silken shirts” (1). Immediately following the title, the speaker establishes the image of a very commercial and economically active environment. By saying the ‘pocket hurts’, the narrator is suggesting that money and financial resources are scarce. Yet what money individuals do have often burns a proverbial hole in their pocket. However, this also signifies some sort of corruption or illegal activity amongst Seventh Street. The reference to ‘Bootleggers in silken shirts’ suggests that only those individuals who participate in rebellious civil acts are rewarded with such luxuries. Still this idea of economic stature and worthiness contributes to the overbearing theme of division and isolation. When competing with other individuals, particularly on the economic front, jealousy and spite tend to arise. With this comes a level of frustration, or anger, which can be attributed to social and cultural divisions. In a sense, Washington is facing the corruption of greed and illegal activity along the road of economic progression. Characterizing this influence of wealth and the fast-paced life of Seventh Street, the narrator describes “Ballooned, zooming Cadillacs/Whizzing, whizzing down the street-car tracks” (3-4). Ultimately, it is the social status of both the wedged and whitewashed communities that remains stagnant and tyrannized.

After providing the image of a commercially-centered and focused neighborhood, the speaker moves towards the inequality and oppressive circumstances felt at that time. Often referred to as the roaring twenties, early 20th century America was a time for transitions, both culturally and economically. Now a “Bastard of Prohibition and the War” (1), Seventh Street is facing the social oppression and repercussions of Washington and early American societies. For this, ‘Seventh Street’ is a bastard, or illegitimate result in the sense that such oppressive circumstances where brought about without question. Line two of this free-verse describes Seventh Street as being “a wedge of nigger life breathing its loafer air, jazz songs and love”. Invoking a sense of pride, this acknowledges that Seventh Street is but a mere wedge of life that remains full of song, spirit, and love. Still, even amongst the bustling and corrupting environment of city life, the inhabitants of Seventh Street are able to maintain their spirits. This assertion is shown when the narrator describes the “thrusting unconscious rhythms, black reddish blood into the white and whitewashed wood of Washington” (3). Here the narrator explicitly describes the metaphorical wedge and the oppressive nature being felt within the black community. In keeping up with their high spirits, the wedged community is unconsciously thrusting its influence and intoxicating ways into the old wood of Washington. Therefore, the language and comparison of ‘black, reddish-blood’ to Washington’s ‘white, soggy wood’ signifies a complex division. A separation of values between old and whitewashed Washington, to Seventh Street’s now energetic and intoxicating culture.

What was previously described as being a progressive and fast-paced commercial environment is now being compared to the evolving and rotting image of nature. Continuing on with this dichotomy, the narrator says, “Stale soggy wood of Washington. Wedges rust in soggy wood…” (5). Much like prohibition and all prior Wars, the ‘stale soggy wood of Washington’ represents the old, white, southern roots of America. With this, the ‘wedges rust in soggy wood’ is a metaphor used to describe a small black population that continues to be oppressed by these same orthodox notions. The natural image of soggy wood represents the restraint that confines and makes black communities idle. Despite the adoption of the 13th Amendment in 1865, African-Americans continued to fight and be enslaved by white communities nationwide. Seventh Street is no different, and much like the rest of the country in the 1920’s, it is a direct result of cultural, political, and social indifferences.

The themes of segregation and inequality continue to emerge through the speaker’s own acknowledgment of cultural discrepancies. As the “wedges rust in soggy wood…” in line five, the narrator ends with an ellipsis. Here the speaker comes to a realization that black ‘wedges’ or communities go to spoil in white dominated societies. Continuing on with “Split it! In two! Again! Shred it!...the sun” (6), the narrator again makes use of an ellipsis. Paired with the bright and warm image of the sun, the narrator comes to the discovery that wedges must be split, allowing them to dry and blow away. The imagery here instills another division between the soggy, dark wood of nature and the happiness brought about by the sun. This infers that black communities must isolate themselves and rise above the ‘sogginess’ of whitewashed America. In doing so, blacks are the wedges of wood that must break from the collective and allow “ribbons of wet wood dry and blow away” (7). The picture of ribbons blowing away represents a token of oppression, which has dried, leaving a free an isolated individual. Yet, upon this recognition, the speaker begins to have a transition in tone and overall language. This tone helps reflect upon the commanding shift that plays into whitewashed notions of division and inequality.

While the first half of Seventh Street embodies a more energetic and smooth flow, the narrator becomes severe when saying “pouring for crude-boned soft-skinned life” (8). In comparing this line to its counterpart in line two the narrator fails to place a comma between the words boned and soft. This allows for the pairing of words and reappearing themes of inequality to be compared throughout all of Seventh Street. With this, the language again speaks metaphorically by associating words with social and economical divides. For “blood suckers of the War would spin in a frenzy of dizziness if they drank your blood” (9), says the speaker. Again this directly reflects the cultural imbalance of early 20th century America, as the War and prohibition are mentioned with frequent regularity. However, blood-suckers of the war would be those individuals who not only stood for World War 1, but also advocated for racial segregation. The metaphorical relationship between blacks and alcohol remains intact through the narrator’s use of wording like spin, dizzy, and drank. Closely associated with alcohol, this comparison states that anyone who becomes involved with or affected by this ‘wedge’ will become sick, or intoxicated. In turn, the speaker becomes irritated, believing that “Prohibition would put a stop to it” (10). Seemingly fed up with the intoxication of black blood and culture on whitewashed communities, the narrator turns from a more authoritative to bitter tone.

This bitter and stale tone is again reflected throughout the speaker’s use of syntax and language. For example, as the initial half of the poem serves as recognition for those being subjugated, the latter half seems to associate guilt and responsibility to social restraints. Once again speaking metaphorically, the narrator continues to maintain profound references to alcohol and prohibition. Phrases like “flowing down the smooth asphalt” and “eddying on the corners” (14), are quite sinful insofar as they are closely labeled with alcohol. Such words depict a type of movement on Seventh Street that relates back to the themes of city life and progression. However, this movement is brought to a halt as the narrator repeatedly asks, “Who set you flowing?”(11). Here, the narrator’s tone suggests that the movement of black blood throughout Washington is not an accident. Looking to place this responsibility elsewhere, the narrator takes a rather ‘soggy’ or Puritan approach by rendering Seventh Street to the likes of religion. “God would not dare to suck black red blood. A Nigger God!”(15), the narrator states in associating God with ‘whitewashed’ values. By saying ‘God would not’, the tone indicates that the narrator has a personable relationship with God, and if involved with intoxicating black blood, it must call “for the Judgment Day”(17). Finally, the speaker draws the verse to an end by asking the familiar question of “who set you flowing?” (18). Ending the poem in this fashion, the narrator is showing that the influence and intoxicating ways of black ‘wedges’ are still moving and being felt. Concluded by the second quatrain, the language and imagery suggest that these wedges are not only flowing, but rather progressing at a high pace like those of ‘whizzing of street cars’.

Thought to have had negative effects on individuals and communities, African-Americans in the early 20th century were often segregated and harassed. Harlem Renaissance writer Jean Toomer encapsulates this daunting notion in the free-verse writing of Seventh Street. Influenced by the dooming threat of War and prohibition, Seventh Street is a byproduct of the troubling economic and militaristic times of the 1920’s. A wedge of the socially repressed, this intoxicating community is nothing more than a glimpse into the racially divided culture in American societies. The theme of division between black and white cultures is described metaphorically through the narrator’s use of language and syntax. By associating individuals to real-world situations, this provides for a deeper meaning and resolution in the writing. However, through its ambiguity, Seventh Street remains as a timeless piece of Harlem Renaissance writing. It provides a source of sentiment, that for those who have been pinched by white ideologies, remain capable of isolating and progressing past the gloomy view of Seventh Street.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

"Who set you flowing?": Artistic Expression and Revival in Jean Toomer's "Seventh Street"

Rivers of blood flow through the streets of Washington D.C., filling potholes and coagulating in gutters. Devilish blood-suckers seek to gorge themselves on the flow, while in Heaven God sits with his head in his hands and calls for the end of the world. Such brutal imagery permeates Jean Toomer's Cane, but nowhere is it more pervasive than in "Seventh Street," a lyrical poem-prose hybrid which marks the beginning of the urbanized second section of the book. "Seventh Street" describes the life of African Americans in Washington, D.C. during the era of Prohibition. Confined to this "wedge" of urban life, African Americans struggle to rise above the violent oppression placed upon them by the predominantly white population. They fight to make their place in a city in which the rich rule and the marginalized can scarcely scrape together an existence. While the poem proves this to be an odious endeavor, subtle variations in content and form hint at a means of extrication for this group of marginalized others. For Toomer, this liberating agent proves to be music and literature, through which African Americans can voice their grievances. Utilizing a combination of vivid imagery and distinct form, Jean Toomer establishes a vision of Seventh Street which elucidates the binary between race and class in Washington, D.C.; in doing so, he reminds the Black population of their obligation to preserve and defend their cultural identity by finding voice in artistic expression.
It is difficult to place "Seventh Street" in any certain category in regards to form, but for the purpose of documentation in this paper, I shall consider the entirety of "Seventh Street" a poem. The main body of the text is pressed between two separate, yet identical four-line stanzas. This main portion of text concerns the lives and conditions of African Americans on Seventh Street. The poems, however, refer to the elite and wealthy bootleggers who grow rich and powerful through illegal dealings. Garbed in "silken shirts" and driving around in "zooming Cadillacs," the vision of these wealthy criminals starkly contrasts the depictions of the inhabitants of Seventh Street (lines 2,3). It is fitting that these descriptions of wealth and pomp should surround the text which describes the reality of Seventh Street. In this regard, it is interesting that one of the most symbolic terms used to describe Seventh Street is "wedge" (6) This term shall be discussed in detail later, but for now it is important to consider the formal application of this imagery within the text itself. The main text of Seventh Street, that which describes the brutal reality of African American life in Washington D.C., is literally trapped between equal representations of elitist life.
These repeated poems follow a simple aa/bb rhyme scheme; however, the rhyme scheme seems to be the only part of these poems that exhibits any sort of order. The four lines lack regular meter and each line has its own rhythmic structure. It is exceptionally difficult to assign any line of the poem a specific number of feet. For example, the first line includes nine syllables, which prevents cogent categorization in regards to feet and meter: "Money/ burns the/ pocket,/ pocket/ hurts" (1) The trochaic meter of the first four feet constitutes an eager and progressive feel for the reader. This compliments the rough-cut nature of the poetic form. When considered alongside the subject matter of the poems, this disjointed rhythm makes perfect sense. The criminality of the depicted elitists is mirrored within the form of the poems. While they possess material items which give them the facade of merit and worth, the criminal elite are merely "ballooned," a term which suggests artificiality in regards to outward appearance (3). Just as the pleasantly rhymed couplets mask an otherwise disjointed and irregular rhythm, the superficial markers of wealth are attempts to conceal the foul deeds which the elitists are forced to do in order to attain them. These short poems, both in content and form, establish a fierce binary between the poor Black population of Seventh Street and the purported high class.
Being that the second section of Cane describes the lives and conditions of African Americans in the city, Toomer uses "Seventh Street" as a means of establishing a setting for the stories and poems that follow. The body of the poem is rife with descriptions not only of Seventh Street but also of the city of which it is a small part. Needless to say, the description of Seventh Street is all but flattering. Toomer describes the aforementioned wedge as being "crude-boned" and "soft-skinned" (6). These anthropomorphizing adjectives characterize the area as being one of poor structure. The "bones" of Seventh Street refer to its foundation. Bones in a human body give a person shape as well as provide support for the functions of organs and bodily processes. They are what allow a living organism to function. When Seventh Street is characterized as having crude bones, it is a reflection on the weakness of the social structure and its inability to function as a part of the larger society. It seems that Toomer is trying to express a lack of cohesive form in the cultural identity of the Seventh Street community. Without a strong and unified cultural basis, the society is doomed to fall into disorder and ruin.
The image of skin further explains a fault in the social structure of Seventh Street, albeit a more aesthetic one. Skin is the part of a body that is seen; it acts as a cover for the internal processes of the body. In the context of "Seventh Street," skin seems to be a more aesthetic, rather than functional, concern. The skin of Seventh Street would be the outer visage. A strong skin could potentially conceal the realities of the weakened structure. However, Toomer describes the skin as "soft"-- that which is prone to tearing or transparency. The poor structure of Seventh Street is therefore plain to see. The society is unable to hide the reality of its degradation. This poor outer visage also engenders a reaction from outsiders, primarily the white population. What the white population sees is an unadulterated view of the result of their alienation of the African American minority, which ultimately leads to further distancing between the opposing races and classes.
The inhabitants of Seventh Street find themselves isolated from the greater white population. The description of their dwelling as a "wedge" indicates forced placement. Washington D.C. finds itself torn asunder as the Seventh Street dwellers are shoved into their own section of the city. It is here that they establish their society so that they may thrive and grow in agency and influence. However, left alone, this wedge of existence cannot persist with any sort of longevity. Toomer likens this wedge to an axe that has been swung into a piece of soggy wood: "Stale soggy wood of Washington" (9). An axe in such a place has little hope of being truly effective. Lodged in the moist wood, the wedge is doomed to rust and become ineffective. So long as Seventh Street remains trapped in the wretched mire of Washington, its African American population has little hope of establishing a community that can rise above its squalid conditions.
The nature of this "soggy wood of Washington" is important to the overall understanding of the prominent imagery of the wedge. One might wonder why exactly Washington is characterized as being soggy or saturated. Toomer refers multiple times to "black reddish blood" which flows through the streets of Washington and stains the whiteness of the population (7). The image of the blood permeates "Seventh Street" and carries with it much symbolic significance. The blood itself is curiously described as being both black and red. Toomer is playing with these descriptive adjectives, and one possible interpretation is that he is referring to the "black" skin of those who are bleeding. The blood flows with such force and in such quantity that it saturates the "white and whitewashed wood of Washington." The blood of Seventh Street seems to be the source of the "sogginess" of the city. It brings the wood to a wet state and the wedge sits and weakens in the evidence of its own brutalization. As more blood flows from the open wound of Seventh Street, the wedge continues to rust. With no hope of extrication or change, the inhabitants of Seventh Street would be doomed to rot away in their own waste. Their only concern would be vengeance on those who made them bleed.
It seems justified to attribute the flow of black blood to be the sole responsibility of the white population of Washington. Racial prejudice was an issue of paramount importance during the early 20th century. Segregation of whites and blacks, enforced by Jim Crow laws, created a distinct barrier between races. This barrier was perpetuated by mob violence against the black population and a general desire to maintain white supremacy. The description of the "whiteness" of Washington D.C. suggests that this text is a reaction to the violence and segregation of the time. The descriptions of the criminal elite justify this distinct dichotomy between the rich white man and the denizens of Seventh Street. However, it seems as if Toomer is not placing the blame solely on the actions of the white population.
It is possible that Toomer is also pointing an accusatory finger at the class system of Seventh Street itself. In the aftermath of World War I and in the wake of Prohibition, crime was on the rise in destitute areas such as Seventh Street. Isolated by their white oppressors, African Americans sought any means of extricating themselves from their depravity, including crime. By initially describing Seventh Street as "a bastard of Prohibition and the War," Toomer insists that the increase in crime at the time was the result of these tumultuous events in the early 20th century (5). The poems at the beginning and end of the text describe an elitist class born of the underhanded art of bootlegging, though they neglect to signify a specific race as the culprit. Toomer could be intentionally ambiguous in this regard. While it is safe to say that the concentration of the text is on the dichotomy of African Americans and whites, the first line of the four-line poem suggests a tension within the black community itself. When Toomer says "Money burns the pocket, pocket hurts," he is describing two opposing conditions of wealth (1). To say that one has money that is burning a hole in one's pocket is to suggest that he or she is in possession of excess money which begs to be spent. To have money sit in one's pocket and not be spent is preposterous. This sentiment would be indicative of a person in possession of money, yet one who places little value on it albeit as a means of acquiring material goods. The second portion of the line suggests the opposite. To be "hurting" for something is a common colloquialism which suggests that a person is in want of the signified object. The pocket, therefore, is in want of money. This binary, established in the first line of the text, may not refer solely to the dichotomy between whites and blacks. The possibility of internal class struggles within the community of Seventh Street would be detrimental to the prospect of a society based on unified culture and experience. Cast in this light, Toomer may not solely be pushing for action against external white pressure; he may wish to encourage bootlegging African Americans not to sacrifice their roots for monetary gain. According to Toomer, strength through union will help bring the society of Seventh Street out of its destitution and move it towards a brighter and more prosperous future.
Toomer uses vivid imagery not only as a means of criminalizing the violence and oppression against African Americans but also to express the potential for retribution and revival. Shortly after speaking of Seventh Street as a rusted wedge in the soggy wood of greater Washington D.C., Toomer halts the flow of the poem with ellipses. The next portion of text reads: "Split it! In two! Again! Shred it!...the sun. Wedges are brilliant in the sun; ribbons of wet wood dry and blow away" (10,11). There is a distinct change of tone in this section. The wedge of Seventh Street is no longer lodged and decaying in the putrescence of Washington. Instead, Toomer crafts an image of a honed axe chopping away at the remnants of the white hierarchy. The caesura at the beginning of this passage create a powerful sense of strength and resolve, as each exclamation can be imagined to be chanted to the rhythm of a swinging axe. It is here that Toomer marks the beginning of his "call-to-arms." His tone purposefully contrasts that of the earlier portion of the poem, which concentrates on the depravity of Seventh Street. With renewed vigor, Toomer urges the African American population to rise and take hold of their situation by establishing a cultural foundation.
Immediately following the charged series of exclamations comes another set of ellipses which halt the flow of the poem. However, these ellipses seem to function as precursors to an epiphany. The symbol of the sun is presented as a sort of saving grace for the wielder of the axe. The heat of the sun's rays dries up the previously saturated wood until the axe's blows shred the husk into drifting bark. The lush imagery, primarily the image of the sun, can be examined in a multitude of ways. The sun itself is a force of retribution, acting upon the wood of Washington so as to free Seventh Street from its rotted core. As such, it can be construed as representing some means of escape and cultural revival for the African American population of Seventh Street.
The "sun" in this poem could refer to any number of liberating agents, including artistic expression. Both musical and literary expression are referenced in this poem, albeit in different ways. Jazz music is mentioned explicitly towards the beginning of the poem when Toomer uses "jazz songs and love" as a cultural marker of Seventh Street (7). In the early 20th century, jazz music grew tremendously popular among urban African American communities. Offering a possibility for self-expression as well as social performance, jazz gave to the African American population a means of joining together in common interest. However, Toomer offers criticism on the nature of jazz at the time, asserting that the musicians are merely "thrusting unconscious rhythms" (7). What Toomer is pushing for is a conscious understanding of the significance of this particular genre. Jazz does not need to be limited to trite subjects such as idealized love. It must also not fall into an unconscious rhythm, which would deprive the musician of thought and agency in composition. Instead, it should become an exercise in liberation. Speaking through music is a valuable way for the conditions and fears of the African American population to be voiced and heard. Toomer supports this assertion structurally by creating a poetic form that mimics music. The two separated poems could be considered the choruses of "Seventh Street" and the prosaic body of the poem the verse. It is possible that Toomer is providing a formal example of the power of music through this poem. If oppression can be elucidated through "Seventh Street," it is certainly in the power of jazz music to do the same.
An even more powerful means of artistic representation is writing. By returning to the image of "black reddish blood," which permeates the streets and paints the walls of Washington D.C., one can see how Toomer is comparing writing to bloodletting. The adjective "black" could refer not only to skin color but also to the color of ink. While a strict reading of the poem in this light would change a great deal of its meaning, it is interesting to note how the flow of blood is not used solely as a negative connotation. A distinction of language expresses this altered perspective as Toomer says the blood is "pouring for crude-boned soft-skinned life" (12). The key word in this passage is "for." The use of this word instead of "from" indicates purpose in the blood flow rather than simply a source. This small nuance in language leads one to believe that the blood flow is not solely indicative of violence against African Americans. The blood is also a metaphor for the voice that writing grants an individual. With pens, the dwellers of Seventh Street can spread influence and awareness throughout the oppressive white districts of Washington, D.C. With the spread of African American literary influence, "white and whitewash disappear in blood" (15). Literature becomes a liberating agent, which allows African Americans to speak against their oppression by developing their own voices.
The purpose of artistic expression for the African Americans of Seventh Street is to create awareness within the realm of white people. Therefore, when Toomer repeats the phrase "who set you flowing," he is asking African Americans to turn a weary eye towards the white population and their actions (12). In making them aware of the true nature of their oppression of the black population, the African American population could cause the whites to reconsider the foundations of their actions. For most Christians, God provides an example of how one should act and think. Therefore, when Toomer says "God would not dare to suck black red blood," he is directly challenging the white contention that God could justify such atrocities against other human beings. Those "bloodsuckers of the War" are no longer able to deem their actions as sanctioned by God, for the reality of Christian theology has been made clear (13). Toomer goes so far to say that such oppression under the watch of a "Nigger God" would result in an apocalyptic end of the human race (20). The flow of blood represents not only the direct consequence of white violence against blacks, it is also a visible representation of the horrid actions which constitute racial prejudice. In this way, the oppressive white population is reminded of the real consequences of racial violence. Toomer hopes that, through writing, African Americans cannot only gain a more lucid sense of self but also voice the realities of their oppression.
Toomer is relentless in his portrayal of the depravity that African Americans face on Seventh Street. The poem establishes a clear binary between both race and class that is exacerbated by the failure of African Americans to find voice and spread awareness of the oppressive acts of the white population. While it seems impossible when confined to only a small portion of destitute land within the sprawling whiteness of Washington, D.C., Toomer urges African Americans to find methods of exposing the atrocities they face. He uses complex imagery and symbolism, as well as nuanced form, to identify the problem of violence and oppression and then offer a solution in the form of artistic expression. While music and writing cannot fully extricate the African American population from their squalor, it is a step toward establishing a clear and influential cultural identity. What they must do in order to expand their social influence is unite and find voice together. The subjugation at the hands of the white population will continue only until its atrocities are brought to light. Jean Toomer's Cane provides a stark example of how the voiceless can find expression and expose the brutal reality.

Toomer, Jean. Cane. New York: Norton & Company, Inc., 1988. 41. Print.

“Seventh Street”: A Close Look at Race Relations

The early 1920’s was a generally positive time for the United States. The nation had just emerged victorious from World War I and was enjoying economic prosperity in the stock market. To the world, the United States appeared to be united, strong, and powerful, but on the home front, tensions were on the rise between the black and white citizens. The nation was decades away from the Civil Rights Movement and blacks were far from achieving political, social, and economic equality. Jean Toomer, an African American author of the Harlem Renaissance, describes the race relations between blacks and whites of Washington D.C. in his poem “Seventh Street”, also the name of the dominantly black neighborhood in the city. The race relations between blacks and whites of the early 1920’s were indeed tense, and Toomer portrays this in his poem by using metaphor to show the influx of blacks into a previously all-white area, repetition to illustrate the presence of bootlegging and crime brought to the area by the blacks, personification of Seventh Street as a bastard to show that it is unwanted, and a choppy writing style throughout to portray the rough nature of Seventh Street.

Through use of metaphor, Toomer likens Seventh Street to a wedge in order to convey the influx of blacks to Washington D.C. and Seventh Street, which contributed to strained black and white race relations. He also dictates the purpose of this “wedge” in writing “Stale soggy wood of Washington. Wedges rust in soggy wood…Split it! In two! Again! Shred it!” (9-10). In order to fully understand the significance of this phrase and how it is relevant to the topic, one must first consider Toomer’s use of metaphor in describing Seventh Street as a wedge. Also, one must consider what a wedge is and what it does. A wedge is a sharp piece of metal that is used to split logs by being driven into the log with a sledge hammer, and depending on the size of the log, it could be used to split it again and again to get the pieces down to the desired size so it can be more easily used and burned as firewood, for example. So when Toomer writes Seventh Street as a wedge and tells it to do things like “split” and “shred”, it is much easier to see the phrase’s relevance. After the wedge has done its work, the log is no longer as strong or complete. So by realizing the use of metaphor, you can replace the wedge with Seventh Street and the black community that lives there. Also, you can replace the log with Washington D.C. and the white people who live there. Once this is done, it is easy to see the racial tension at work in the poem. The whites do not appreciate being “split in two” by this all-black community called Seventh Street. They would also not appreciate being split multiple times by the formation of new black neighborhoods, so racial tensions are abundantly clear and present in this poem.

For continued understanding of the influx of blacks to the area and how it contributed to tense race relations, one must consider the phrases “white and whitewashed wood” and “black reddish blood.” These two phrases coexist in the text and in the neighborhood. “…black reddish blood into the white and whitewashed wood of Washington” (Toomer 41) and “White and whitewash disappear in blood” (Toomer 41) are examples of their use. This “white and whitewashed wood” signifies the color of the nation’s major government buildings in the city, but more importantly it signifies the white people living in Washington D.C. in the early 1920’s, and the “black reddish blood” is the influx of the African-American population into the area who form their own community at Seventh Street. Also, Toomer shows that the white people feel somewhat threatened by this changing demographic in the use of these phrases. With “White and whitewash disappear in blood”, Toomer explains that whites, and also blacks who have assimilated as expressed by “whitewash”, have been vacating neighborhoods that have seen a rising number of black residents as “white and whitewash” are covered up by the “blood” of the new race moving in. Seventh Street is no exception. And to further emphasize the threatening nature of their presence, Toomer includes phrases like “Blood suckers of the war would spin in a frenzy of dizziness if they drank your blood” (Toomer 41) and “God would not dare suck black red blood” (Toomer 41). Even veterans of World War I, who saw so much death and suffering, and God, the all-powerful creator of all things, are not comfortable in confronting them. The fact that blacks continue to move into the D.C. area and the whites are being driven from their homes because they see the newly arrived blacks as a threat contributes to the strained race relations of the early 1920’s.

Repetition of certain phrases and words calls to mind the importance of bootlegging and crime as it contributes to strained race relations between the blacks and whites in Washington D.C. The most noticeable repetition is the four-line stanza that can be found at the beginning and again at the end of the poem. It reads, “Money burns the pocket, pocket hurts, / Bootleggers in silken shirts, / Ballooned, zooming Cadillacs, / Whizzing, whizzing down the street-car tracks. /” (1-4). This stanza brings to the reader’s attention the practice of bootlegging and its importance to this particular neighborhood and time period. The early 1920’s was during Prohibition, a Constitutional Amendment that outlawed the production, sale, and consumption of alcoholic beverages. This new amendment gave rise to a new profession called bootlegging, a practice where people would make alcohol in secret and serve as the dealers to the public instead of the established alcohol companies. And being an illegal operation, many residents of Seventh Street who were involved in bootlegging residents were subject to unfriendly encounters with the law. The Cadillacs “Whizzing, whizzing down the street car tracks” imply that the bootleggers are driving fast and running from somebody, and that somebody is most likely the law enforcement. Via repetition of this stanza and its placement at the beginning and end of the piece, Toomer emphasizes bootlegging and its contribution to the difficulties of black and white race relations of the early 1920’s.

Looking more closely at these repeated stanzas, the reader can infer more about the blacks’ involvement in bootlegging and criminal activity and how it caused stressed relations with the whites. Bootlegging was illegal and obviously and that fact contributed to it being a cause for a tense relationship, but there were other reasons why the crime was grounds for animosity of the whites towards the blacks. The line “Money burns the pocket, pocket hurts,” (1) tells the reader that there is a great deal of money to be made in this criminal offense. The bootlegger’s pocket is so full of money it is about to burst. Also, “Bootleggers in silken shirts, Ballooned, zooming Cadillacs,” (2-3) is another testament to the amount of money to be made. The criminals can afford fine clothes and fast cars, which further angers the whites because they are not only breaking the law; they are making a lot of money doing it. And in providing a vivid description of the bootleggers’ wardrobe of silk shirts and vehicle choice of Cadillacs, they are easily recognizable in the Seventh Street and Washington D.C. scene leading to a noticeable presence of crime that did not use to be there. The repetition of the stanzas on bootlegging adds to the pains of race relations in that the blacks are profiting off of a crime and as criminals are becoming a visible force in Washington D.C.

To further demonstrate the collective animosity between blacks and whites, Toomer personifies the neighborhood of Seventh Street as a bastard. He wastes no time employing this technique as he uses it immediately following the opening stanza with the sentence “Seventh Street is a bastard of Prohibition and the War” (5). The street is given human characteristics to explain to the reader how it came into existence. Seventh Street is by no means an actual illegitimate child like the term “bastard” suggests, but rather the interpretation of the personification says that the Seventh Street of the early 1920’s was shaped by two major events: Prohibition and World War I. The combination of these two major events of U.S. history leading into and during the early 1920’s caused an influx of African-Americans into the neighborhood of Seventh Street in Washington D.C. bringing their lifestyle and cultural identity with them. Calling Seventh Street a bastard signifies the whites’ attitude towards the neighborhood of blacks as something that is unwanted. Like a bastard child, Seventh Street should not have happened and both “parents” wish it had not happened.
And in further personification of the street, Toomer writes “…wedge of nigger life breathing its loafer air, jazz songs and love, thrusting unconscious rhythms, black reddish blood into the white and whitewashed wood of Washington” (Toomer 41). The “wedge of nigger life” refers to the street, and though it is not literally “breathing” and “thrusting”, it is indeed alive with the culture and lifestyle that the blacks have brought with them and are very much a part of the Seventh Street neighborhood. Being described as “nigger life”, the cultural practices and lifestyles of the blacks are something unfamiliar to the whites and not shared by them. Also, this black culture and lifestyle is also something of a bastard as it is unwanted by the whites as well. Since blacks in general were treated poorly during this era, so was their culture. Not only was the presence of blacks in Washington D.C. a cause of tense race relations but also the presence of their culture. Their living and breathing culture that was not shared by the whites was more reason for breeding social unrest.

The most notable characteristic of Toomer’s writing is his choppy style as it relates to the rough relationship between the blacks and whites of that time. As the reading of the poem is far from smooth and easy-going with the lines filled with commas, periods, exclamation points, and question marks, so was the interaction between blacks and whites. Toomer utilizes caesura in the stanzas and as well as a heavy use of punctuation in the body description to hinder a smooth flow in reading the poem. In the opening and closing stanzas, “Money burns the pocket, pocket hurts, Bootleggers in silken shirts, Ballooned, zooming Cadillacs, Whizzing, whizzing down the street-car tracks.” (1-4), commas are used in the middle of the first, third, and fourth lines as well as at the end of all four lines. The reader can only take in a few words and images before he must pause and then continue only to be confronted with another break in the poem’s flow. The context found amongst the rough writing style suggests more reasons as to why race relations were tense. The passage cited above concerns bootlegging done by the blacks on Seventh Street. This illegal activity coupled with an abrasive writing style in the poem mimics the black and white relationship Toomer observed from that era in U.S. history. It is no coincidence that Toomer writes this poem in this particular way. It is not easy to read a poem about race relations in the early 1920’s of U.S. History with so many punctuations, breaks, and pauses because the relationship was, in fact, not easy. Just like the poem’s choppy reading, the relationship between blacks and whites collectively was also choppy.

Further evidence of the author’s choppy writing style in the poem that also points to strained race relations can be found in the prose section of the poem, where every line has multiple instances of punctuation. The breaks in the poem’s flow are similar to the jazz music so popular to the blacks on Seventh Street. The rhythm of jazz was something entirely different to mainstream music culture of that era. Also these commas, periods, exclamation points, and question marks, like the caesura of the stanzas, also serve to create a difficult and choppy reading for the reader which parallels the difficult relationship between the races of the time period. One such example occurs at the beginning of the body paragraph and reads, “A crude-boned, soft-skinned wedge of nigger life breathing its loafer air, jazz songs and love, thrusting unconscious rhythms, black reddish blood into the white and whitewashed wood of Washington” (5-9). This phrase is filled with pauses thanks to the many commas Toomer uses. The “loafers” and “jazz” were two aspects of black culture not shared by the whites of that time. The fact that blacks enjoyed different styles of clothes and music is another cause of racial tension as it is brought out by Toomer’s choppy writing style.

Another phrase rich in pausing via punctuation that illustrates the choppy writing style of Toomer and subsequently the tense race relations occurs near the end of the paragraph and reads, “Flowing down the smooth asphalt of Seventh Street, in shanties, brick office buildings, theaters, drug stores, restaurants, and cabarets?” (16-18). The sentence lists several buildings as it describes the architecture of Seventh Street. With commas after each building and a question mark at the end, it helps provide the poem with a bumpy and uneven read. As for the context of this rough phrase as it relates to the tense race relations, it suggests that the physical appearance of the dominantly black neighborhood was a cause for the animosity. Among the listed buildings are shanties, which are rundown old buildings. This suggests that Seventh Street and possibly other black neighborhoods were not well maintained and would have been seen as an eyesore by the white community giving further cause for racial tension brought out in this poem by Toomer’s punctuation and rough writing style.

After a close reading of Jean Toomer’s “Seventh Street”, it is without a doubt that Toomer’s central theme of the poem is the strained race relations of the early 1920’s in the United States. The use of metaphor likening the dominantly black neighborhood as a wedge describes the influx of unwanted black residents and culture. The repetition of the stanzas describing bootlegging couples the blacks with the illegal production and sale of alcohol in the D.C. area which increased the city’s criminal presence. The personification of Seventh Street as a bastard further conveys the fact that the blacks are not wanted. And finally, the recurring choppy writing style Toomer utilizes provides for a rough reading and parallels the rough race relations at work at that time. The inequity of the two races on the United States of the early 1920’s was a big problem, especially to an author like Jean Toomer, and he makes the reader see it in his “Seventh Street” poem.

The Bootlegging of Seventh Street's Meter and Form

Mentioning that the bootleggers of Seventh Street are wearing silken shirts shows that the money that they make is going towards material goods only. We also see the image of a nice car (a Cadillac) zooming down the street-car tracks. Once again, we see that money is going towards luxuries as opposed to goods that will grow overtime. Despite the expensive cars and clothes mentioned, we see by the lavish spending that money means nothing, giving the reader the impression that poverty is still an issue to the people of Seventh Street. If the money was not mentioned in the context of alcohol, luxuries, and irrelevant goods, it would give the impression that poverty could only be inferred as opposed to proven; since money is mentioned in relation to luxuries only, it can be inferred that poverty is still prevalent on Seventh Street.

The issue of poverty is one of the central focuses of the poem because it is reflected within the poem’s form. The lines that imply lavish spending and poverty intertwined appear as both the first four lines and the last four lines. They are also indented within the poem and offset. This form makes these particular lines the reader’s first and last thoughts as they read. These particular lines also have a specific ending rhyme scheme: aabb. Here, “hurts” rhymes with “shirts,” and “Cadillacs” rhymes with “tracks.” The rhyme, however, is interrupted because of the meter of these four lines. The first and fourth line both contain 9 syllables, while the lines they rhyme with both contain 7 syllables. Such an inconsistency of meter could help the reader’s perspective of the issue the speaker is referring to: an inconsistent use of money.

The majority of the poem, specifically everything except the first and last four lines, is written as prose. Lines 5-22 contain a structure that is not regular, in relation to the first and last sections. There are no ending rhymes or regular meter contained with these lines, unlike the first and last four lines of the poem. The separation of poem and prose within this story forces the reader to question the purpose of these opposing writing styles. Once again, the repeated four-line passage may be for emphasis, explaining why it contains both rhyme and meter. The prose section contains full sentences that defy the regular form, which implies that this section is used as evidence for the repeated passage. With this, our repeated passage then must be the main idea or theme of Seventh Street.

Joyce's Counterparts

Farrington’s Failure
“I chose Dublin for the scene because that city seemed to me the centre of paralysis” (Letters II 134). Beja compares the protagonist of Joyce’s Counterparts Farrington to Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener claiming that Bartleby’s response to the menial occupation of copyist for a law office is self-destructive passivity while Farrington’s manifests itself as a kind of impotent rage. The issue then becomes to determine the cause of Farrington’s misery and name a culprit. Popular readings of Counterparts posit that it is the British presence that serves as the main oppressive force for Farrington. Joyce’s many allusions to British colonization have had critics reading the British as the culpable ones, who are indifferent to and yet the seeming source of Farrington’s misery.
Contrasting with these readings, I believe Joyce is not only exposing the detrimental effects of British colonization but also characterizing a particular mentality of colonized Ireland through Farrington who uses Britain as yet another scapegoat to rationalize his failures and discontent. Our protagonist can scarcely see his own culpability in regard to his shortcomings and how quick he is to blame anyone but himself for them. I will go on to argue that it is Farrington’s inept adaptation to the cultural shift that the British have produced and his inability to feel any pride or dignity in his daily life because of these cultural changes that is in large part the source of Farrington’s frustrations.
I believe Joyce’s depiction finds both Farrington and the British equally blameworthy in creating all the “indignities of life which enrage [Farrington]” (Dubliners 80). Farrington is
the inevitable product of the material conditions under which [he] lives, and of the accumulated burden of centuries of colonialism. The "socialistic" ethic of Dubliners does not rest in Joyce's sympathy for this urban under-class but in his painstaking efforts to show… how the fates of his characters are socially determined down to the smallest details of idiom or gesture; how each character both contributes to, and is held prisoner by, the general paralysis of the city.
While many people have been quick to criticize the British (which I too am inclined to do) few have thoroughly argued as to how the British characters present in Counterparts are more at fault in making life more difficult for Farrington than Farrington himself. One cannot fail to see how neglectful Farrington is at his work and how quickly he finds blame anywhere but with himself. I believe popular critics have become much like Farrington himself, looking for anyone with which to place blame besides the one most responsible for shaping his destiny: himself.
I suppose the reason that I am resistant to a reading which directs its blame heavily upon the British is because of how little Joyce’s references to the British seem to actually be ‘oppressive’ forces. Both his arm-wrestling opponent that beats him and the woman in one of the bars who will not reciprocate his gaze are sources of his feelings of inadequacy. Both these characters could be construed as ‘incidentally’ British. I say this because they could’ve easily been Irish and stimulated a similar response out of Farrington. Surely Farrington was doubly bothered by the fact that they were British, but I feel that Farrington uses the fact that they are British to transfer the blame about his own feelings of failure from himself to this cultural shift in Ireland instigated by the British. For Farrington their British-ness justifies his anger, because he associates it with the cultural invasion, but the nature of the incidents themselves which enrage him so, have nothing to do with their being British. An Irish woman could’ve rejected him, and a man with an Irish name could’ve beat him in arm-wrestling, but had they been so, these incidents wouldn’t have afforded him the opportunity to shift the blame of his humiliation.
Of course I do recognize that the British characters do bear some cultural weight and are potentially a factor in Farrington’s escalating ruin of self-esteem. When Farrington notices the woman in the bar, what he finds “striking in her appearance” is her “scarf of peacockblue muslin [which was] wound round her hat and knotted in a great bow under her chin,” her “yellow gloves reaching to the elbow,” and her “plump arm which she moved very often and with much grace” (Dubliners 79). What Farrington notices about this woman is her grace and decadence, much of which seems to be her apparent access to money. The class difference between them might surely explain why she does not return his look, as Farrington seems acutely aware of. Immediately following this rejection Farrington, “cursed his want of money” recognizing that were he not so “generous” in buying drinks, and were he more financially well off and decadently dressed himself, the woman might have given him a second glance.
Similarly with Weathers, Farrington “cursed all the round he had stood, particularly all the whiskies and Apollinaris which he had stood to [him]” (Dubliners 79). While Farrington cannot even enjoy his own generosity toward his mates, he is particularly annoyed with the British Weathers who he calls a “sponge” despite the fact that Weathers had “protest[ed] that the hospitality was too Irish” (Dubliners 78-79). While Farrington spends a considerable amount on his Irish friends, he makes a point of begrudging Weathers for his own hospitality. This is a prime example of how Joyce subverts the indication that the bulk of Farrington’s problems are the fault of the British. It is Farrington that piddles away his money in the name of compunctious generosity. His social stasis (i.e. his want of money) and emotional paralysis are nobody’s fault but his own, in this case for he is willing to sacrifice his own capital, an act which produces the conditions of life with which he is so disgusted. He insisted on providing the good time, and even went the lengths of pawning what was likely one of few valuable possessions in the hopes that intoxication would allow him to forget his discontent.
The clearest metaphor in the story which illustrates the hopelessness of Farrington’s escaping his dismal predicament is when Farrington is returning home when “his great body [is in] the shadow of the wall of the [British Infantry] barracks” (Dubliners 81). The irony about the presence of the barracks is that Farrington doesn’t acknowledge how their presence renders him politically impotent. He merely passes in its shadow, not seeing how it robs him of his volition. He notices when he is rejected or beaten at arm-wrestling, but his blindness to this reflects the paralytic nature of this class of Irishmen. He cannot see past what directly infuriates him. The barracks represent a kind of indirect oppression, mentioned only in passing. They do not affect him directly but remain a symbol of the source of his plight.
There are many seemingly fixed aspects of Farrington’s life which he is in part responsible for, but his neglect for both family and work are both the cause and effect of his misery. Waltzl writes that “[Farrington] is already trapped by life, having made constraining choices earlier” (227). While he is perhaps a victim of circumstance concerning the effects of colonization, his choice to procreate so often no doubt put him in a type of bondage, in that he has no choice but to work at any place that work was to be had. His work is alienating and unfulfilling, so as a consequence he shirks his duties. Of course, this too is a conscious choice which contributes to the life that he suffers through. He is trapped by his need to work, but is free to do well, to make it as bearable as possible, but chooses not to. Perhaps out of a lack of perspicacity or just the realization that the prospects of this job hold no more hope for him than providing for his family.
The immobility of Farrington’s occupation is certainly something he is aware of. “Farrington lives and works in a system in which he cannot succeed” (Dubliners 324). He sees no incentive for his efforts and shirks as much as he thinks is possible without getting fired. His non-productivity stems from his lack of freedom in making vital decisions about his job. He is paralyzed doing menial work (which provides him little self respect) that he can neither escape nor bring himself to do.
A factor that I believe has such a burly ruffian doing the work of a copyist is due to the effects of industrialization in Britain which reappropriated the Irish working-class from labor to mostly service industry jobs. The percentage of employment composition in the industrial sector reported about Ireland in comparison to Britain in 1907 was 4.2% (Bielengerg 822). What this tells us is that Britain, though assuming control over Ireland through colonial rule kept the bulk of its industrial interests in Britain. Not to claim that industry cannot also be alienating (as a copyist is), I believe that Farrington would’ve been more fulfilled at a job which encouraged him to exert himself physically. Conditions as they were in Ireland, Farrington was coerced into taking a civil servant’s job when it clearly doesn’t suit him. While in his office, desperate to leave to the publichouse Farrington’s “body ached to do something, to rush out and revel in violence. It seems clear that Farrington typifies a conventional Irish man, complacent in a world where brute strength is valued. He and his lads try to outdrink and outmuscle each other, capable of demonstrating their prowess only through their physical feats. It is their manhood, which is associated with their physicality that gives their identity any value. It is the measuring stick among them and the only way in which they know to impress. Farrington felt he had “lost his reputation as a strong man” among the group and consequently the only mode of social retribution among his peers and those others in the community that might identify him as such (Dubliners 79). He is emasculated by a job which does not demand his manliness, by being at the mercy of a runt of a boss, by a woman he is unable to attract, and by being “defeated twice by a mere boy” in arm-wrestling. Even in the home he commands little respect (Dubliners 81). “His wife was a little sharp faced woman who bullied [him] when he was sober” (Dubliners 81). The only examples in the story where he asserts himself are greatly destructive, both to himself and his family. The first being, his gibe to his boss, “the cost of [which] is an abject apology and the need to remain completely servile in the future if he hopes to keep his job” (Delaney 260). Familial abuse (which seems to be a frequent occurrence) is the only other place Farrington is able to successfully exert himself in a physical manner. His wife is “bullied by him when he [is] drunk,” and his son Tom receives a thrashing for letting the fire go out (Dubliners 81). Farrington asserts his dominance to his son in much the same way that Mr. Alleyne, Farrington’s boss patronizes him in a mocking voice. When Farrington offers explanation as to why his work has yet to be done, “but Mr. Shelley said, sir,…” Mr. Alleyne mimics him in derision (Dubliners 71). Similarly, when Tom tells his father where his mother is, Farrington does the same “At the chapel. At the chapel, if you please” (Dubliners 81). Because Farrington is powerless at his work, he exerts his dominance over the one person that is too powerless to defend against his attacks: his son. Just as society has slain Farrington’s opportunities [someone who is socially innocent] he beats a child which embodies his entrapment in his social predicament who is innocent in every sense of the word. The child offers to serve as his father’s mode of spiritual contrition telling him that he’ll, “say a Hail Mary for [him] if he doesn’t beat him” (Dubliners 82). It is this internalized oppression that make Dublin the paralytic city that Joyce saw.
The activities which he engages in which are intended to counterbalance the his thwarted attempts to dominate certain situations throughout the day. All that begins as a success for him turns sour, usually due to the shortsightedness of his actions. He is giddy as he conceives of the idea to sell his watching for nearly a crown not thinking of losing the watch but having a night of drinks. He does not worry about the consequences of zinging his boss but how good it felt to do so, and how proud he will feel when he recounts the story to his friends. Before arriving home the real summation of the day dawns on him, “He cursed everything. He had done for himself in the office, pawned his watch, spent all his money, and he had not even gotten drunk” (Dubliners 80). Even the principal goal of getting drunk (which he had sacrificed both his watch and a more harmonious existence at work) he could not succeed in doing.
Farrington, incapable of swallowing his pride, could not help but to be indignant toward his work and his boss. In this way, he sets himself up to fail at every turn. His rebellion is futile because he is bereft of any other occupational choices. His condescension toward his boss illustrates his inability to adapt to the changing social climate. While Britain was certainly an oppressive force, Farrington’s unwillingness to cope with the struggles British occupation presented made the effects all the more unbearable. Farrington ineptly works himself within the constrained conditions to which he is subject.
Farrington is paralyzed, trapped by the conditions of the economic state of Ireland. He is unsatisfied in his work, uninvolved in his home life and cannot enjoy his time with his friends (unless he can maintain his dominant physical status). However, he is not completely without choice. He chooses to slack off at work and make snarky comments at the expense of his happiness and potentially his job. It is his choice to not cultivate a healthy home life. It is his choice blow his money on alcohol, and it is his choice to consider the measure of a man only by his biceps. We all are faced with social constraints and seek to work against such injustices, but Farrington’s make-the-worst-of-it mentality is what keeps him in his violent depressions. The line of internal oppression could stop with him, but instead he perpetuates his own unhappiness by hurting his family.

Works Cited
Bienlenberg, A. “What happened to Irish Industry after after the British industrial revolution. Some evidence from the first UK Census of Production in 1907.” Economic History Review 61, 4. 2008.
Delaney, Paul. “Joyce's Political Development and the Aesthetic of Dubliners.”
College English, Vol. 34, No. 2. Nov. 1972

Joyce, James. Dubliners. Ed. Margot Norris. New York: Norton, 2006.
Walzl, Florence L. “Pattern of Paralysis in Joyce's Dubliners: A Study of the Original Framework. College English, Vol. 22, No. 4 (Jan., 1961), pp. 221-228

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Analysis of Jean Toomer's "Seventh Street"

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).

Jazz, Meaning, and Structure in Seventh Street

The structure of Seventh Street is unique. The first and third stanzas are exactly the same. The rhyme scheme in these stanzas is AABB. The rhyme scheme allows the first two and the second two lines to be tied together. The first two lines detail bootleggers themselves, while the second two lines detail their mode of transportation: Cadillacs. The first and the last line of each four line stanza has nine syllables, while the middle two lines only have seven. This variation in line length slightly alters the rhythm of the poem, drawing attention to the physical attributes of the bootleggers themselves. The odd number of syllables, as opposed to the common even number of syllables, creates a syncopated rhythm. Jazz is a fairly new art form during the Harlem Renaissance yet it has a heavy influence on this poem. The genre is popularized and perfected by the African American population so it makes sense that this style of music would appeal to someone like Toomer. Syncopated rhythm is essential in a jazz tune, so Toomer adopts that influence into Seventh Street.
Repeating the first stanza at the end of the poem gives that stanza an entirely new meaning. The two stanzas contain the exact same words in the exact same structure, yet contain two completely different meanings. The money is burning in pockets because the bootleggers might not live to spend it tomorrow. Cadillacs are big cars necessary for carrying any quantity of illicit alcohol. The cars speeding everywhere hint at the fear the drivers have of being killed by a rival gang. A sense of urgency is now present that was not necessarily there in the first stanza. The first stanza gives off a sense of adventure, a sense of fun. The final stanza gives off a sense of fear and necessity. It details the dangers of living along Seventh Street. This repetition also hints at a cycle. Despite the dangers, the bootleggers are unable to gain employment elsewhere, so the cycle must persist.

Monday, May 3, 2010

The Bloody Wedge of Shame: Toomer’s look at Urbanization

During Urbanization, blacks were being forced north into the cities due to open jobs and discrimination, but seeing as how the wedge was already present when the poem began, the poem can be said to represent what happens after the blacks arrived. The actions performed upon the wedge are important, especially the result of these actions. The wedge is beaten and driven into the soft rotting wood of Washington, and as it is, the wedge begins to bleed. The harder the wedge is being beaten, the more it bleeds. The more blacks that are forced north the further their reach stretches in the city itself. As the wedge bleeds, “white and whitewash disappear in blood. (Toomer line 15)” Slowly the city is being engulfed in blood, which after the initial beating of the wedge, as far into the “soggy wood of Washington” as it will drive, now symbolizes the black expansion in the city (Toomer line 9). The wedge’s first few strikes are the initial movement north into the city, and the blood is the expansion within the city.

Most of the paragraph is representative of where the blood flows, and how the blood flow affects those areas. The blood begins to flow to the white areas of town by “flowing down the smooth asphalt of Seventh Street in… brick office buildings, theaters, drugstores, restaurants, and cabarets. (Toomer line 16)” The blood is flowing through the city, and intoxicating the citizens. The residents are being taken by prohibition and the bootleggers are taking advantage of the inhabitants of Seventh Street. They have escaped the South only to arrive in a similar situation in the North. The bootleggers are drinking the blood, taking advantage of the effects of black expansion in the city. The blacks need work, and they are willing, in Toomer’s opinion, to lower themselves to the same turmoil that they escaped in the south. Toomer’s display of God is particularly pertinent in this reading because God being a “Nigger God” would be disappointed in the blacks for settling into such a meaningless lifestyle. “He would duck his head in shame and call for the Judgment Day (Toomer line 20-21)” at the sight of such sadness.

Toomer asks the question, “Who set you flowing?” several times throughout the middle paragraph. The inquiry is nearly removed from the other subject matter of the poem which helps point to who the inquirer is. The entity asking the question is the “Nigger God” that will call for “Judgment Day”. The scorn as well as the tone of the poem gives hint to this conclusion. The questions itself, “Who set you flowing?” is a demand, and based upon the repetition of the question, a very serious demand. The question is answered with, “Blood suckers of the War. (Toomer line 13)”, the bootleggers drunk on the power of the black’s expansion. However the expansion, for the blacks, is not a good thing, as God in heaven and Toomer see it.

Who Sets You Flowing? The Question of Power Roles in Jean Toomer's "Seventh Street"

Different ethnicities and cultures remember and depict different historical events. A particular event’s effects differ to a certain ethnicity, culture group, or other collection of people because their culture’s narratives differ, thereby recollecting different memories about their defining narratives. The beginning of the 1900’s saw the separate but equal doctrine upheld in Plessy v. Ferguson spread throughout the country. Already accustomed to insults and degradation in their history, African Americans, particularly in the South, now had to accept the legality of such actions. While railroad cars, restaurants, and voting booths in the South upheld physical separation, Jean Toomer’s “Seventh Street” reveals a different method in which the separate but equal doctrine manifested: the effects of public policy. White leaders in America and African Americans viewed Prohibition and World War I differently because its effects drove contrary from the desired goals dictated by their historical narratives. Whereas Prohibitionist leaders in Washington looked to eliminate the “culture of drink” among citizens and immigrants, African Americans looked for policies to further equality, both economically and in power circles (“Why Prohibition?”). Toomer’s “Seventh Street” exposes both the African American pursuit for equality as well as the inequality in power through the imagery of Seventh Street, his specific diction, and structural contrasts between jazz poetry and more rigid poetic styles.
To prove this thesis, I will examine the piece’s critical question: “Who sets you flowing?” (Toomer 41, l. 15). The speaker’s question acknowledges a movement, which itself is natural and “unconscious”, with gravitational pull downwards towards a source, dampening all things touched in its path (l. 7). Like a river, the “swirling” and “eddying” of the inner prose flows along the Seventh Street riverbed (l. 18). Yet “swirling” connotes comparisons to violent movements of a river’s water, and “eddying,” describes a deceleration to slower, gentler movements in water flow. In a river, gravity itself does not induce violent movements of the water. Rocks, logs, steep declines, and other forces work to increase water flow to potentially violent levels.
The naturally impromptu movement of the inner prose is dictated by the structural rigidity as well as the subject matter in the opening and closing poetic stanzas; they form the inner prose’s riverbed. The stanza’s four lines fit into a rigid AABB rhyme scheme and dominating iambic meter, contrasting the jazz poetry of the Harlem Renaissance (“Jazz Poetry”). Toomer’s rhythms, however, do not flow freely. Each sentence ends with an end-stopped rhyme, as thoughts vary between the visual references of Seventh Street. Onomatopoetic “zooming” and “whizzing” attracts the author from what later is shown to be a poor Harlem Renaissance scene to the Cadillacs driving on the street, yet these sensory perceptions are muddled and broken up by the caesura in “whizzing, whizzing”, for example (Toomer 41, l. 3-4). This disturbance of rhythm marks the unnatural tinkering with the status quo of “loafer air, jazz songs and love” shown as common features of Harlem Renaissance life (l. 6-7). In this prose, there is no order, no governing structure of both grammatical and societal ties. Incomplete sentences combine with the repetition of the question, giving a sense of impulse and improvisation, a characteristic of jazz just after World War I (“Jazz Poetry”).
The subject matter of these stanzas furthers this effect. The signs of wealth found in the opening stanza take on more poetic forms, contrasted against the prose of the “flowing” (Toomer 41, l. 13). In the poetry, the bootleggers zoom to and from attention, as if they return once again to Seventh Street. The speaker acknowledges this through the first and last stanza of the poem, noting the existence of illegal “bootleggers” driving “Cadillacs, / whizzing, whizzing down the street-car tracks” (l. 2-4). Street-cars as a form of public transportation have succumbed to the individual Cadillacs and their illegal drivers. The speaker’s description of the bootleggers symbolizes the growing wealth divide among Seventh Street’s inhabitants that splits the unity in the area. The mention of Cadillacs and “silken shirts” points to uncommon sights along the street and, coupled with the illegal activity of bootlegging, dictates the content of the inner prose (l. 3).
A prominent visual in “Seventh Street” is the vehicle, an object that produces a forward motion towards a destination. A vehicle may or may not know the destination, and the instigators of that vehicle may not be able to control the exact destination. “Seventh Street” shows vehicles do not have to be physical objects. A vehicle “extends to mean the method by which an author accomplishes her purpose”, which differs from the connotation hinting at a means of transport (“Dr. Wheeler’s”). Cleverly, Toomer uses a physical vehicle of transport—a luxury automobile—as a physical manifestation of the wealth divide. The Cadillac used to begin and end the piece notes a certain luxury in the bootleggers’ forward motion while also replacing Seventh Street’s street-car vehicle; however, the Cadillac as a luxury car does not cause the death of African-Americans in the poem. How did the Cadillacs make their way onto Seventh Street?
The illegal activity in the opening and closing stanzas of “Seventh Street” governs the view in which the speaker looks at the street scene throughout the piece. He sees wealth divides, hears sounds produced by luxury cars, and contrasts each against sensory perceptions evident in their absence. The bootleggers come, go, and come back, and in their luxurious presence the speaker notices little else. Once the cars leave, the speaker sees the reality of Seventh Street. For this, the Cadillacs go unmentioned in the middle prose of “Seventh Street”. The “wedge of nigger life” stands out to the speaker, representing both the visual and the auditory (l. 6). “Shanties, brick office buildings, theaters, drug stores, restaurants, and cabarets” show an initial image of active urban African-Americans similar to those of their neighbors, moved by economic freedom befitting their newfound home in the North (l. 17-18). African-Americans on Seventh Street play their jazz and wear their loafers, and the street-car tracks on “smooth asphalt” connect their world into the white man’s world of Washington, D.C (l. 16). Befitting, the “white and whitewashed wood” visualizes the growing economic equality between whites and African-Americans (l. 8). These signs show that African-Americans in the North have begun to experience a few of the luxuries previously reserved for their white counterparts in the South.
Yet “Seventh Street” speaks of a slow dying of African-American life along the street. The jazz and loafers the speaker sees to define African American life on Seventh Street hide a great divide between members of the city. “White and whitewash disappear in blood” (l. 15). Color and the image of wood serve as strong symbols to depict the diluting of African-American life. A woodworker, whether for a decorative addition to a building or piece of furniture, stains the wood to give it a strong color. To protect that color from weather and other outside causes, the woodworker adds a finish. A good woodworker knows finishes fade away over time, and without reapplying this proper protective coating, outside forces can dull the color. Whitewash works as an ineffective finish of the wood wedges. Toomer’s use of this word incorporates the word’s definition as “anything, as deceptive words or actions, used to cover up or gloss over faults, errors, or wrongdoings” (Soukhanov). In “Seventh Street”, whitewash acts as a substandard finish easily destroyed by outside forces. The speaker takes note at the original stain: the white color of the wood, an image symbolizing the cleanliness of the city as well as the ability of its residents to maintain its cleanliness. Once he sees Seventh Street without the Cadillacs, he notes the presence of a “wedge of nigger life…thrusting unconscious rhythms, black reddish blood, into the white…” (Toomer 41, l .5-7). The African-American “wedges” begin to rust, becoming tainted in red. The speaker notes this dilution as a representation of the economic, moral, and political divide between Seventh Street and Washington as a shared quality between all humans: blood (l. 9). The blood flows forth through Seventh Street, “eddying on the corners” as it makes its way towards its source (l. 18).
Here it is important to note of Toomer’s recollecting of African American memories throughout the beginning of Cane. Setting proves important to Toomer, for African Americans worked enslaved for centuries within the Deep South. The main character of “Fern” works to discover what exactly “flowed into (the girl’s) eyes” as she gazed upon the natural world of Georgia (Toomer 17). Other works include specific words and thoughts associated with their history. Toomer’s poem “Cotton Song” resembles the African American Spiritual in its yearning to be free from enslavement and the “Shackles (that) fall upon the Judgment Day” (11). In this poem, Toomer uses the setting of the cotton field to provide a tangible visual for African Americans to identify, for large amounts of slaves worked cotton plantations throughout the South. Toomer’s poem “Reapers” echoes a similar sentiment. As in a contrast to the reflective nature of “Georgia Dusk”, the short, choppy nature and subject matter of the poem portrays a belief that knowledge is power, which can help one break free from the bonds of oppression (5).
Part of the cause of African American movement towards the north related to their escape from the Jim Crow standards upheld by Plessy v. Ferguson. Living among “brick office buildings, theaters, (and) drug stores…” differs vastly from life as a rural farm worker (Toomer 41, l. 17). In “Seventh Street”, Toomer acknowledges the value of self-determination and its existence along the street. An African American could trade in callused hands and feet for a “soft-skinned life” wearing loafers on paved asphalt roads (l. 6). The presence of “shanties” did not necessarily correlate with their collective economic or social status as a race; the shacks lived as a part of normal urban life (l. 17). However, they live not entirely isolated; their neighborhood still suffers effects of separation. Each use of the word nigger references to the insults African Americans faced previously. In Cane, Toomer never describes African Americans as “niggers”. Fellow African Americans in “Fern” he calls “Negro” or “black folks”; his use of “nigger” in his story “Carma” entails a white person’s description (Toomer 12, 16). The white man’s description follows in the precedent of prejudice and desire towards inferiority, which Toomer wouldn’t use as an accepted description. Thus, a derogatory term used by Toomer denoting suffering and inferiority, nigger reappears in “Seventh Street”. The word’s use signifies oppression, recalling the speaker’s defining cultural narrative. Suffering and wealth gaps display themselves as the repeated inability to control their race’s fate, ironically in a location thought desirable to do so.
This realization prompts the speaker to examine the causes of the situation. His preliminary observation—the cars—becomes the driving force towards his conclusion. As previously mentioned, the repeated opening and closing stanzas drive the subject matter of the piece. The contrasting cultures of bootlegging and “loafer air, jazz songs, and love” spark the portrayal of Seventh Street as a “bastard of Prohibition and the War” (Toomer 41, l. 5-7). The nationwide policies of Prohibition and World War I created detriments to their goal of equality and participation in their own decision-making. The gain of wealth as a result of World War I helped to further widen the wealth gap between African-Americans and their fellow Caucasian citizens. Morality values driving the passage of Prohibition in the Eighteenth Amendment as well as placing the value of a foreign war over the domestic problems caused by Prohibition separated the government from the speaker, bootleggers, and African Americans on Seventh Street. Toomer’s use of bastard declares to the reader the “lesser value” of the street in comparison to Prohibition and the War (Soukhanov). There is direct reason as to why “Seventh Street” is set in Washington, D.C. Coupled with the Prohibition of alcohol during the war, African-Americans looked not to traditional types of work in “brick office buildings, theaters, drug stores, restaurants, and cabarets”, but to the underground smuggling of alcohol. Toomer represents Washington as the seat of government whereby these decisions were made. Ironically, the supposed benefits of these two decisions have instead hurt the lawmaking city. In the “white and whitewash” of the neighborhood Washington hoped to construct across the country, the blood of Seventh Street begins to rust the wedges of Negro life.
To the speaker, the flow doesn’t end on Seventh Street. The poisoning of African American culture goes beyond their African American neighborhood but into other areas of Washington, D.C. The speaker sees all the “white and whitewashed wood of Washington” as subject to Prohibition and the War’s negative consequences (Toomer 41, l .8). The government in Washington ignored the detrimental effects of their policies, leaving their seemingly clean white wood “stale and soggy”, thereby easily able to lose its finish and color (l. 9). In a sense, the physical structure of the poem works to move the negative effects of Prohibition and the War. By dictating the subject matter, the opening stanzas direct the focus of the speaker to the problems facing Seventh Street, visually appearing in the wealth divides between the bootleggers and the rest of Seventh Street. The structurally free prose pushes the river’s flow beyond the neighborhood, ironically emptying into its source: national government.
Jean Toomer’s “Seventh Street” speaks to the social criticism reflective of the Harlem Renaissance time period. Using the unique combination of formal poetry and prose, Toomer works to expose the expansion of inequality legalized by Plessy v. Ferguson already permeating through Southern culture. In his diction that draws from both dictionary definitions as well as African American experiences, along with color contrasts, Toomer explains how the “separate but equal” doctrine worked to create a sentiment in national government as well as in individual states. Through the vehicle of the street scene, the effects of Prohibition and World War I—an increasing wealth gap, underground transporting of illegal alcohol, and disregard for the history of a large segment of the population—can come upon anywhere subject to these policies. Finally, Toomer steps beyond the narrative of African Americans to show how an overflow of negative consequences can spill into lives unintended to feel such effects.