Included in the UGC-CARE list (Group B Sr. No 172)
Revisiting Issues of Race through New Literary Techniques: A Study of Jean Toomer’s Cane and Danez Smith’s Don’t Call Us Dead


African American literature is known to be one of the most powerful sources that has addressed racism from its origin. It has seen various changes that has gone through experimentation with its style and created some of the best and most unique works. The paper inspects the work of Jean Toomer and Danez Smith to bring out some of the unconventional ways of poetry. While many of the African American works have been canonized, the selected work, Cane by Jean Toomer and Don’t Call Us Dead by Danez Smith have made remarkable changes in the new era’s poetry but have been hardly discussed. The paper explores the unique style of writing in these texts which puts the issue of race in a new light. Modern literary techniques and intermixing of genres which made Cane by Jean Toomer famous long after its publication will be inspected in the paper. The paper aims to represent the issue of race through breaking patterns of poetry. The powerful poetry of Danez Smith will also be analyzed. The modernist style of writing is used as a weapon to address the issue of race and aftermath of slavery. Therefore the paper aims to explore, how well the new techniques enhance to paint the picture of racism which exists in the creases of society.

KEYWORDS: African American, race, literary techniques, New Poetry

Literature, which is a representation of life, is woven into the time and era and various social, political and economic issues. History has carved literature to be highly political in its form and content. Both dominated by the white men and their race, the structure of the poetry evolved but from a narrow perspective. Looking back at the form of dominant type of writing, drama which ruled centuries, focused on the representing man as its best or worse. Industrial revolution led to the movement of romanticism which made poetry a common man’s adventure. The form of writing has always followed a parameter set by the dominant race of the history. In this connection, Peter Berry noted that “Aristotle was also the first critic to develop a ‘reader-centered’ approach to literature, since his consideration of drama tried to describe how it affected the audience. Tragedy, he said, should stimulate the emotions of pity and fear, these being, roughly, sympathy for and empathy.” (Berry 23) Further, later Philip Sidney formulated that poetry is to teach by delighting. The role of a poet was later addressed by William Wordsworth, P. B. Shelly and other romantic poets, as according to them a poet needs to do something good to the society and guide the readers. When poetry experienced its golden time in the romantic age led by “The Big Six”, it formulated a new structure of poetry. However, predominantly about the white cultural growth, discussion about the black aesthetics was untouched in its form and content. Through the art movements of imagism and realism, writers and poets like William Carlos William, Ezra Pound, and James Joyce experimented with the structure and became key masters to modern literary techniques. The innovation of writing style brought fresh forms for the readers who were stuck with the sonnets, odes and full length novels. For example, James Joyce’s Ulysses became his one of the best works because of his ability to rediscover the classical mythology through stream of consciousness.

Novelty in writing has been dominated by the white scholars of the history. If we look back to the addressing of the issue of slavery and race in canonized literature, Heart of Darkness is probably one of very few novels that talks about it. The image of savagery was one of the stereotypes which was always there. Though Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko was one of the earliest novels to address slavery, its form of writing made ripples in literature long after its publication. It was when novels were not an established form of writing, this work was clearly one of the experimental writing of the time which broke forms to address issues of race. This form of writing did not gain popularity until 18th century.

History of black literature is a symbol of resilience. African American writers have always been direct with their attack on slavery and racism even in the contemporary times. There are works of black writers which become canonized for various curriculums but also many black writers experimented with the forms to bring out the black aesthetic and realism. Jane Toomer’s Cane (1923) is one such earliest experimental novel that had a discourse about the experiences of African American. It is an unpopular masterpiece which is called a novel but is a mixture of episodic short stories and poems. What makes Jean Toomer’s Cane a work of art is its embodiment of black culture through Harlem Renaissance and modernism in its literary style. The three part book, where each part deals with culturally rich places like Georgia and Washington showcase what it means to be an American and a Negro. The first poem ‘Reapers’ speaks about industrialization and manual work. The two sections of the poem start with ‘Black’, black reapers and black horses representing both the sides of manual and industrial work. The first four lines depict the daily life of workers. The last four lines depict the machines and its insensitivity - “I see the blade, / Blood-stained, continue cutting weeds and shade.” (Toomer 13) The element of violence is shown in the line “a field rat, startled, squealing bleeds, / His belly close to ground”. (Toomer 13) Even though the poem works on duality, it is not divided to tie the issue as one. The poem ‘November Cotton Flower’ which works as a Shakespearean sonnet uses modernist technique of imagism where cotton becomes a symbol of the black race. The third and fourth line “And cotton, scarce as any southern snow, / Was vanishing; the branch, so pinched and slow,” (Toomer 15) paints a picture of the dying cotton field. Gerry Carlin states that the poem ‘November Cotton Flower’ “…appear to interrupt the flow of the narrative and feel rather stilted and conventional; this sense of discontinuity and contrast will, of course, become part of Cane’s modus operandi, but the sudden change in genre and mood is initially a surprise for the reader.” (45) The title of the poem is continued from the short story ‘Karintha’ but is not connected to the previous poem. Disconnect between the narration is to break the stereotypical way of narrative that was followed during the time. Not only the element of surprise is aimed but also possibilities of writing are explored through this style. Communal unity and the wait for freedom is a part of black aesthetics. The song ‘Cotton Song’ is one such example of his work where he beautifully puts out a cultural symphony and traditional lyric sung by the workers on the field. Freedom, echoes in the song, as he refers to ‘Judgment day’ as the day they all look forward, but the urgency of freedom is depicted as he says “We ain’t gonna wait until the Judgment Day!” (Toomer 22) The dark tone and mood initiated in the poem reflects on the life they led. The structure of this work is unique for the fact that presence of a lyric amidst interrelated poems, short stories, and drama makes a rich cultural stand. ‘Cotton Song’ becomes an anthem, sets examples for many other powerful poems for the coming generation. The next song ‘Song of the Son’ works on the similar lines which addresses the uniqueness of the black culture. Even though the song is symmetrical and properly divided, the theme of slavery connecting it to nature is approached in a unique way. Unlike cotton song, this lyric has high intensity of imagism such as in the following lines which parallelizes the social and literary politics. Song, music and rhythm are one of the most important elements of black culture and the following lines bring out the uncertainties of the life of slaves with the use of repetition and rhythm.

One plum was saved for me, one seed becomes
An everlasting song, a singing tree,
Caroling softly souls of slavery,
What they were, and what they are to me,
Caroling softly souls of slavery. (Toomer 27)

Antony Reed highlights the urgency of innovative writing to bring out race in his book Freedom Time and writes “black experimental writing urges an analysis of literary politics that looks beyond familiar terms of critique or protest that treat form as another kind of content in an effort to trace in its aesthetic demands the outlines of new forms of community and thought.” (2) ‘Conversion’, one of the shortest poems in the book, with short lines and abrupt breakage shows modernist approach. Duality is present in the poem as he mentions ‘African Guardian of Soul’ (Toomer 49) and ‘White-face sardonic god’ (Toomer 49) which bring out the process of baptizing and the trauma of black being stuck in cultural chaos. The drunk and feasting state of African Gods represents the state of ignorance when they bowed down to Christianity crying Amen, remarking the complete submission.

African Guardian of Souls,
Drunk with rum,
Feasting on a strange cassava,
Yielding to new words and a weak palabra
Of a white-faced sardonic god—
Grins, cries
Shouts hosanna (Toomer 49)

‘The Seventh Street’ marks the shift from the urban setting of Georgia to Washington and we also see a shift in writing style. This episode goes with prose poetry narration which talks about the busy street life. Politically this place plays as a center of power. The black culture influence in Washington is showcased in the lines “…. 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 55) The place is shady and full of crime, where bootleggers roamed around. The stereotyping of a dappled area, with the black culture is brought out. Because of the migration from the south many of the urban cities were populated and hence the crowd. The prose poem gives a rhythm, to highlight the influence of jazz and music woven into the imagist technique. This piece of experimental writing focuses creating an experience for the reader. Not constraining with the form and structure, Toomer mixes the prose and poetry to create an experience where one can feel the place and music rich with negritude. ‘Rhobert’ too is one of those stories which symbolize urban life of a Negro. The second part is focused on black life of an urban setting but there is a lot of suffering in black neighborhoods. As Toomer says in this prose poem “He is way down. He is sinking. His house is a dead thing that weights him down. He is sinking as a diver would sink in mud should the water be drawn off. Life is a murky, wiggling, microscopic water that compresses him.” (Toomer 57) Even though the setting is urban but he is still sinking in the material life. Further in the lines “Brother, life is water that is being drawn off. / Brother, life is water that is being drawn off” (Toomer 57), Toomer focuses on the hardship of the black community. ‘Rhobert’, written in episodic style, does not follow a plot or structure, but rather elevates the status of a literary piece that could show essence of life. Rhobert seems to have had Rickets as a child, which is a symbol of poverty and suffering. Through a poetic flow, this experimental piece uses water as an imagery to his life.

Danez Smith’s Don’t Call Us Dead is a collection of unique and contemporary poems which arrays the dark issues present in the creases of perfect America, the land of the free. The motif of the poems revolves around the recent times in America, when police killed a black boy “within two seconds” of their arrival because they “believed” him to have a gun. In recent years black people are shot at a gay nightclub and Smith brings out this urgency and writes about growing violence against blacks and LGBT groups. The feeling of otherness is well embellished in the opening long poem ‘Summer, somewhere’, where he creates an alternate world for the murdered black men as rebirth. Here, they chose to be called ‘alive’ but not in America. It is a utopian world where they are not judged by their past or color - “does it matter how he got here if we’re all here to dance?” (Smith 5) He has named it ‘summer’ as a symbolism to a society that earth could not provide them. How he felt death better than being alive on the land is reflection of the past of slavery and present of racism. The time has not changed much from slaves diving out of ships to escape their rotten fate to getting murdered on the streets without justice. He writes
“here, there is no language
for officer or law, no color to call white.
if snow fell, it’d fall black. please, don’t call
us dead, call us alive someplace better.” (Smith 3)

As an innovated work of art, this poem, which opens the book, is an exploration of an ‘what if’ possibilities. The real America is not the land which gives them equality and hence the cry for an alternate world is observed. This technique of weaving politics and poetry is one of the key features of innovative poetics and breaks free from concrete poetry which makes the approach far more powerful. In the next popular poem ‘Dear White America’, he denies his identity to America as the result of its political and social situation. He is instead in search of another planet - “i’ve left Earth in search of darker planets, a solar system revolving too near a black hole.” (Smith 25) It is a powerful response to unfair death of little boys who left even without a goodbye. The poet wants to abandon America for its racism that scares their race. The poem is the voice of every black man whose life had been and is still being gambled. He says “i bid you war, i bid you our lives to gamble with no more.” (Smith 25) The poet is sick of being a victim, even though he has tried accepting America but in return he never got freedom from their bias. In this poem he wants to re-inscribe the universe and undo the history. This poem is written in prose form but does not follow the rules of prose too. It does not start with capital letters and uses the small letter ‘i’ instead of the capital ‘I’. These conscious use of irregular grammar makes us think about the theme even more which is related to his ‘self’’ that is not given emphasis. There is discontent is his voice and this is to say that he is not happy with whatever the society has given him. Thus breaking the structure of the poetry is to focus on disconnect with the world. Certain thoughts are out in brackets which show the confinement and coming out of it. The paradoxes of their self-identity and the given identity are at conflict. The poem ‘Everyday is a funeral & miracle’ succinctly articulates how it feels to be black, queer and HIV positive in the present world. He explains the vulnerability which leads up to the acceptance of death. The reader goes through an emotional rollercoaster as the lines gets into our bones. And we know it is coming from somewhere very personal - “i got this problem: i was born black & faggoty”. (Smith 65) He draws parallels of AIDS which kills us organ by organ to RACISM which is killing their race person by person. In both ways death is the only escape - “some of us are killed in pieces, some of us all at once”. (Smith 65) As much as Smith obsesses over death, he magnifies rebirth. He metaphorically portrays dead black men regrown as saplings in the alternate world. He hopes to “plant a garden on top”. (Smith 6) This streak of rebirth is seen from the first poem ‘Summer Somewhere’ to the last poem ‘Dream where every black person is standing by the ocean’ where there is a conversation between the black people denoted as ‘we’ and America denoted as ‘she’. They ask her about the race she ‘swallowed’. And then a black lady goes into the water to reach the alternate world. These poems are elegies with a ray of hope for the future of their race, that they will not back out and they will rise again. He is not simply giving out hope, but a hope that probably would take a long struggle and could be hard hitting -
& we say to her
     what have you done with our kin you swallowed?
& she says
     that was ages ago, you’ve drunk them by now (Smith 82)

The structure of the poem is consciously deconstructed. The starting of the lines with the & instead of ‘and’ is unique. Though the reason is unknown, it can be assumed that the poet wants to experiment with a word which means a connection and unity that is lacking between the black and the whites. Addressing the importance of form in writing, Smith in an interview says, “Studying forms gives tools to break form and breaking forms is not bad poetry”. His poems constantly break forms to create new way of writing and make it powerful. Smith triumphs over the depiction of black in popular culture in his poem ‘Dinosaurs in the hood’. He dreams of a scene introducing a little black boy playing with a toy dinosaur and not with a gun, gambling with his life. He does not want black nannies or black ladies with voodoo dolls. He just wants a little black boy with T-Rex. He attacks the lie that stigmatizes millions of people against the blacks. The poet books name of famous director Tarantino known for his classic movies like pulp fiction, as in his movies gun metaphorises the black boy. No, he does not want that, he wants movie on ‘neighbourhood of royal folks’. The urge to see a black man just like any other white man spurts out in each word of the poem. In the poem ‘Not an elegy’ the poet with simple lines, breaking mid-way, creates an image through which readers tend to remember the theme -
“how long
      does it take
a story
      to become a legend?” (Smith 67)

The collection is bold and brilliant for its contemporary writing. Reading of the poem not only pleases the mind but also our eyes. The poet has experimented with the form of poetry, where he has scattered and repeated the words like ‘blood’ giving it a feeling of blurriness as if the black bodies are blurring out in blood. The poet is breaking free of standardized form of writing poetry. The poet is in all the avatars of protest, be it racism or literary style. He has used similar writing in his successful book [insert] Boy in 2014 and Don’t call us dead got him National Book Award for its distinctive style. Don’t call us dead is a profound, soul-stirring outcry. The poems are insightfully serialized and words are tactfully interwoven where no word is a misfit. In every poem we feel the boom of compassion and hope. He proposes contemplation of the universe, time and space in an appealing way. He produces an unrequited dream of the black race.

Evidently, through ages we have seen the subjugation of a race, and even examined the same in this paper. Texts like Cane by Jean Toomer, bring out the lifestyle of the blacks in 1920s, when there was many visible changes in the black culture. The brilliance of the work lies in the risk taken with the experimentation of style and form, when a concrete form dominated. Cane is one of the many rare pieces of work which broke the tradition pattern of writing to bring resistance and novelty in writing. Toomer’s ability to interweave the cultural coherence with poetry is the unusual trait that makes its entry to modernist poetry. The experiment with genres is another element that makes the work a pioneer in the new age poetry. On the other hand, Danez Smith’s Don’t Call Us Dead is a bold outcry and linguistic genius in its art of poetry. His poetry deals with contemporary issues of race which is present in modern world. With sensitive scenes of mass shooting of coloured people, his ability to explore the possibilities of writing poetry parallelizes the possibilities of a better life for black boys, after death. Death being one of the themes of his poems, he brings out new ways of writing style to portray that black lives are still in danger. The power filled lines make the poetry performative on stage. The works analyzed here are rare works of African American literature which presents the issue of race through an experimental style of poetry.


  1. Berry, Peter. Beginning Theory. 4th ed., Manchester United Press, 1985.
  2. Carlin, Gerry. Reading Jean Toomer’s Cane. Kindle ed., Project Gutenberg, 2014.
  3. Reed, Anthony. Freedom Time: The Poetics and Politics of Black Experimental Writing. John Hopkins University Press, 2014.
  4. Smith, Danez. Don’t Call Us Dead. Kindle ed., Project Gutenberg, 2017.
  5. Toomer, Jane. Cane. Liveright Publishing Corporation, 1923.
Dr. Payel Dutta Chowdhury, Professor and Director, School of Arts & Humanities, REVA University, Bangalore, India. Email ID: Mobile: 73497 97242


Sreeshma Madhusoodhan, Postgraduate Student (English), School of Arts & Humanities, REVA University, Bangalore, India