Jean Toomer (1894-1967)
Jean Toomer (1894-1967) wrote two books of poetry and three prose books. He was born in Washington, DC, then raised in an African American community in Georgia. He did not feel that he completely belonged as he was mixed race and could pass for white. After attending the University of Wisconsin and the College of the City of New York, he wrote prose and poetry that was published in several journals and was otherwise active in literary circles. He moved back to Georgia to teach for four months; his book of prose and poetry, Cane, was inspired by his experience of going back to the south during that time and became one of the earliest published masterpieces of what would later become known as the Harlem Renaissance. Toomer became intrigued by the spirituality of Unitism, which taught unity of all faiths and backgrounds and self-exploration through meditation such as yoga. He began to see himself as immune to racial distinctions and identified with this branch of spirituality, deeply desiring unity between the races as he dealt with living in a world with very defined racial boundaries. Some of his poetry reflected these attitudes. He not only practiced these teachings but began preaching them in Harlem and eventually in Chicago. His other poetry book was titled The Collected Poems of Jean Toomer, published posthumously in 1988.
Written by Word Works intern Monica Root, December 2013.