Sunday, January 02, 2011

Passing or not? Does it matter?

This article in the NYTimes about a new edition of Jean Toomer's Cane, caught my eye. Dr. Henry Louis Gates and Dr. Rudolph Byrd (shoutout to Emory!) write that Toomer was passing during his life according to what they found while researching the new edition.

I've long been interested in the idea of passing - not as an ideal, but as an intriguing condition. What was it like to be able to shift across the very clear dividing line of race?

In the 90s, during a brief stay in France, I sat in on an American literature class and Cane was one of the texts. The class was for undergraduate students and while I had no status at the university, I asked the professor if I could visit the class just to listen. (I also sat in on a class about Edgar Allen Poe).

One of the moments that I remember from the class is hearing a French student, who looked to me to have some African lineage somewhere in her history, ask "what is miscegenation?"

It was very interesting to hear the professor explain it and remark on how interesting is that Americans have a name for that kind of mixing. Hmmmm.

I wonder if there is some professor who will teach it this spring or fall and whether the idea of Toomer passing will affect the discussion in a university classroom over there.

It's the kind of discussion and questioning that I miss from the world of academia. Finding new ways to look at things as well as support for your theories and having an impact on the way we understand history and culture.

And, of course, passing narratives make for engaging stories.

Unfortunately I don't have a good recall of Cane. Maybe I'll re-read it someday. I'd like to see if it reads differently now that Gates and Byrd say Toomer was passing. Of course that knowledge changes the way I read it - Toomer was always himself and we'll never know what was happening inside his mind and heart.

Does the work change because our understanding of the author's life changes?

What other books have you read that are so affected by what you know about the author?

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