Searching for the Black Mother in Cane

Evan Yi

Evan Yi is a sophomore from Little Rock Arkansas. He is in the process of creating an Asian-American Studies major through the Center for Interdisciplinary Studies. On campus, he is the Vice President of FreeWord, Service Chair of the Asian Cultural Awareness Association, co-founder of Ethics Bowl, and involved with Chorale, After Hours, and the Student Initiative for Academic Diversity. Evan’s passions include social justice, writing page and spoken word poetry, singing choral and jazz music, playing soccer, and trying to find a good Chinese restaurant within 15 minutes of Davidson. He also plans to publish a co-written chapbook of poetry next year. Evan wrote his essay for Professor Lamar Wilson’s Writing 101 course, Quare Harmonies.

From the end of World War I to the middle of the 1930s, the United States witnessed a rebirth of black culture in what has come to be known as the Harlem Renaissance. Jazz was the musical herald of this new cultural identity: unbound, vibrant, fragmented, and provocative. Jazz was a hybrid, born from ragtime, blues, and spiritual traditions. Jean Toomer emerged at the height of this cultural and musical revolution and in his novel, Cane, we see the considerable influence of jazz on the new era in black literature of the United States. Cane is at once an embodiment of the American literary modernist and New Negro movements, influenced on the one hand by white modernist thinkers such as Sherwood Anderson and Waldo Frank, and on the other hand by the trailblazers of the New Negro movement: Claude McKay, W.E.B. DuBois, and Zora Neale Hurston. Thus, both in its characters and its narrative, Cane is an amalgam of racial and sexual configurations, painting images of queerness and quareness in enigmatic colors. Just as jazz is a mosaic of rhythms and preexisting musical traditions, Cane is not bound to one song as the black writers before it tended to be; it sings the harmonies of numerous shifting sexual and racial identities, pulsing together to reveal the quareness of the New Negro. This ployphonic quality, rooted in jazz, is most evident in Toomer’s rendering of black motherhood. In her essay, “Cane and the Erotics of Mourning,” Jennifer Williams analyzes the use of song as Toomer’s way of connecting his racial past to his present, and loss to sexuality. Through assessing her analysis and examining the narrative, structure, music, and characters in “Kabnis,” a section of the novel, I will elucidate how the quare spirit of jazz flows in Cane through the voice of the black mother, and will demonstrate how its male characters (like Toomer himself) are driven by the quest to find this voice.

“Kabnis” begins by setting us behind the eyes and ears of a male voice in Ralph Kabnis, and then with the song of the night winds, which functions as a refrain throughout the section: “White-man’s land./Niggers, sing./Burn, bear black children/till poor rivers bring/Rest, and sweet glory/In Camp Ground”1 This initial placement of perspective in Ralph Kabnis is significant, as he serves as the toomer-karlovich-223x300 Searching for the Black Mother in Canefilter through which the events of the narrative unfold and the songs are heard; because of this, the music of “Kabnis” as well as the beginning song, is at once the backdrop against which the narrative unfolds and the form that dominates Kabnis’s senses, driving him to hysterics. Originally, “the lips of the night winds use for whispering”2. that disturb Kabnis carry no gender, and Toomer describes “the winds, like soft-voiced vagrant poets sing”.3 However, in the third and final iteration, Toomer attributes the song to “Night, soft belly of a pregnant Negress. . .Cane and cott0n-fields, pine forests, cypress swamps, sawmills, and factories are fecund to her touch”.4 In this context, the female voice is the source of Kabnis’s discomfort and disconnection with reality. Specifically, it is the voice of the black mother, as indiated by the phrase “the soft belly of a pregnant Negress”5

Furthermore, the musical elements of the refrain play a critical role in understanding Kabnis’s feverishness and the nature of queerness and quareness in Cane. The refrain is structured as a call-and-response, like many jazz songs and spirituals. The second, fourth, and sixth lines serve as responses for the congregation or accompanying musician. Here, Kabnis is a solitary figure being called to his black, Southern roots. The phrase “Camp Ground” is a reference to a black spiritual made famous by Paul Robeson, calling slaves to run away into “Camp Ground.” The harmony of the black mother is wrenching to Kabnis, a “queer bird”6 of the North who proudly declares that his “ancestors were Southern blue-bloods”7 Just as the jazz in the refrain reflects Cane‘s circular design (in the circular journey “from the South up into the North, and back into the South,” so too is Kabnis a traveler on a circular path: his roots are in the slave-holding South, and although the North has complicated his racial identity, he is inevitably bound to return “home.”8 Additionally, just as jazz evokes a sensual, physical response in its audience, the call of the black mother drives Kabnis into a frenzy because it evokes what Williams describes as “the violence of racial history.”9 She finds that the song serves as a “repository of cultural memory” of a traumatic past that Kabnis and Toomer have both repressed as motherless children.10

Kabnis’s fervent response to the black mother’s call is not only rooted in its beckoning to his inextricable Southern queerness, but also in the absence of a mother in his life. It is his absence that leads Kabnis to hear the singing voice of a woman when others hear instead a man’s voice: “Thats a man. Hear me Kabnis? A man–“.11 The black mother’s voice is a harmony of queerness, summoning Kabnis to black selfhood. The break at the end, after Halsey says “A man–” represents Kabnis’s

Furthermore, the musical elements of the refrain play a critical role in understanding Kabnis’s feverishness and the nature of queerness and quareness in Cane.

dissociation with the present and his obsession to search for his mother. The  association of blackness with woman, mother, and song is ever-present in Kabnis’s psyche. Toomer deliberately weaves this union at critical moments in the narrative, such as the moment “the sister cries frantically: ‘Jesus, Jesus, I’ve found Jesus. O Lord, glory t God, one mo sinner is acomin home.'”12 At this moment, “a stone, wrapped round with paper, crashed through the window. . .reads ‘You northern nigger, its time fer y t leave”.13 Here, the anaphora of the song in the repeated words “Jesus,” “Lord,” and “God” serves as the jazz, which utilizes repeated cadences of the mother’s call for the sinner to return home. However, at the climax of the woman’s song, Kabnis receives a violent reminder from someone who presumably is also black, of both is blackness and queerness. Although harmony is “perfectly attunede to the nervous key of Kabnis,” the black mother of the South is not his mother.14

Thus, “Kabnis” is ultimately about Kabnis’s search for the black mother in the jazz and spiritual harmonies of her song. Furthermore, it is the absence of the black mother that queers the men in “Kabnis.” However, just as the queerness drives the men in “Kabnis” towards the black mother, it also pushes them away from her: “Th nigger hates th sight of a black woman worse than death”15 Nonetheless, as is seen with Kabnis, the compulsion to search for the black mother is undeniable. Halsey relates this compulsion when he says of Stella, “I used t love that girl. Yassur. An sometimes when th moon is thick an I hear dogs up th valley barkin an some old woman fetches out her song, an th winds seems like th Lord make them fer t fetch an carry th smell o pine an cane. . .I sometimes get t thinkin that I still do” (Ibid., 108.)) Here, we see that Halsey is most able to connect with Stella as black mother when memories of the slave-holding South arise: a blood-burning moon, an old woman crooning a spiritual, and “th winds” that “fetch and carry th smell” of the old South. This compulsion is only further demonstrated when Halsey attempts to find the black mother in Stella’s sexuality: “Halsey pins her arms and kisses her. She settles, spurting like a pine-knot afire”16 As Williams points out, “women’s bodies function metaphorically as a song as well, establishing a female-gendered connection with the past, with the site of origin.”17 Thus, the sexuality of both Stella and Cora is simultaneously and embodiment of spirit of the “sorrow songs” that DuBois describes through the musical expression of “wounded kinship,” and also the spirit of jazz by virtue of their unbridled sexual nonchalance and their representation of the site of migration for Kabnis’s northern body. They are the only connection to his slave past just as jazz is the musical remnant of slave spirituals.

Even Lewis, who, judging from other characters’ descriptions, is white, is searching for the black mother. Lewis constantly attempts to associate himself with the black characters in “Kabnis,” which effectively makes him “queer as hell.”18 Various moments reveal this. In the previous quote, where Halsey describes the repulsion of the black man at his own quest, he follows by saying, “Sorry t mix y up this way, Lewis. But y see how tis.”19 Additionally, like Halsey, Lewis turns to Stella: “His gaze shifts to Stella. Stella’s face draws back, her breasts come towards him.”20 Here, Stella’s breasts represent her maternal qualities; Lewis seeks blackness and quareness in her breast milk.

Nonetheless, all three men are unsuccessful in their quest that night in the basement. Lewis fails because of the unique nature of his white quareness. He is spurned by both Stella and Cora, and “finds himself completely cut out. The glowing within him subsides. It is followed by a dead chill. . . he bolts from the table. Leaps up the stairs.”21 Halsey and Kabnis fail because of the nature of Stella and Cora. Although Stella’s and Cora’s sexualities are imbued with the spirit of jazzz in their easy, toomer-karlovich-223x300 Searching for the Black Mother in Caneunbound agency, and they exhibit maternal instincts in various moments, they are ultimately incapable of fulfilling the roles of mother. Their nature as failed mothers manifests  itself throughout the basement scene. For instance, when Lewis looks to Stella, she replies “I aint got nothin f y, mister. Taint no use t look at me.”22 Stella herself suffers from the absence of the black mother: “A white man took m mother. . .an there I didnt care what become of me, an I dont now. I dont care now. Dont get it in y head I’m some sentimental Susie akin for you sop.”23

Cora follows Stella’s example. When she engages Kabnis, “she meets his weak approaches after the manner she thinks Stella would use.”24. Like Stella, she is a tragic figure because of her failure to fulfill the role of black mother and her past, revealed by “the twisted line of her moth when she smiles or laughs. . .[is a] suggestion of the life she’s been through.”25 The line not only describes Cora’s personal history of trauma, but more generally, the traumatic sexual, racial history that Williams describes as “the unspeakable” in Cane.26 Because of her black womanhood, Cora carries the sexual trauma of the slave-holding South, and because she is a childless mother as much as Kabnis and Toomer are motherless children, she is an extension of Mame Lamkins: morbid proof that “the violence of racial history cannot be contained by words unless those words can materialize into flesh, becoming ‘misshapen, split-gut, tortured, twisted words’.”27 Like Mame Lamkins, Cora’s and Stella’s bodies are deformed and, by extension, corrupted, unable to express itself and the history of women’s sexual and racial trauma.

Hence, although the jazz of Stella’s and Cora’s sexualities makes them unequivocally womantheir traumatic sexual history and separation from song and spirit queers them as black women; without quareness, they cannot assume the role of black mother. This separation from song and spirit is implied by the conspicuous absence of song from the moment that the characters enter the basement. Additionally, because of their queerness, they have actively attempted to suppress their blackness, albeit not successfully: “The girls, before the mirror, are doing up their hair. It is bushy hair that has gone through some straightening process. Character, however, has not all been ironed out. . .they are two princesses in Africa”28. Thus, like Lewis and Halsey, Stella and Cora are tragic figures in “Kabnis” because of their failure to fulfill their role in the quest for quareness and their separation from song and spirit.

Until the final scene, it appears that Kabnis, too, will be a tragic, queer character because of his inability to find the black mother. However, the object of his quest emerges in the form of Carrie K. Toomer points to Carrie’s K’s quareness when he describes her “coming down the stairs. . .she is lovely in her fresh energy of morning, in the calm untested confidence and nascent maternity which rise from the purpose of her present mission”29. In the context of Stella’s and Cora’s failures, this mission is all too obvious. Toomer introduces Carrie as a maternal figure; thus, it is Carrie K. who is able to redeem Kabnis. Carrie’s arrival reads as the response to the call of Kabnis’s monologue; in the absence of the refrain, he bears it upon himself to sing a lament in order to satisfy his quest, which he describes as “hell. . .it’s a feelin an its ragin in my soul in a way that’ll pop out of me an run you through, an scorch y, an burn an rip your soul”30. When she touches him, “Kabnis is violently shocked. . .He springs back. . . ‘Carrie! What. . .how. . .Baby, you shouldnt be down here. Ralph says things. Doesnt mean to. But Carrie, he doesnt know what he’s talkin about. Couldnt know. . .I’m th victim of their sin. I’m what sin is” (Ibid., 114.)). When Kabnis says this, he finally acknowledges the burning desire within him to find the black mother and the tragedy of himself. Here, he is finally vulnerable in his queerness and his search for quareness. Additionally, his reference to himself in the third person is significant because the last time Kabnis refers to himself as “Ralph” is at the beginning, when he says “Ralph Kabnis is a dream.”31. Thus, in his admission of vulnerability and the emergence of the black mother, we finally see the”real” Kabnis.

However, Carrie K. does not fulfill Kabnis’s quest just through her emergence; instead, she works through Father John to bring Kabnis’s southern quareness face to face with him. Until this moment, Father John represents muted queerness; he is queer blackness embodied, a physical artifact of the spirituals, and as such, is unable to communicate with Halsey, Lewis, or Kabnis because of their failure to find blackness through the song of the mother. However, in the presence of the fulfilled black

Toomer’s weaving of jazz into the search for black motherhood in “Kabnis” is fundamentally about beginning the cultural process of mourning and celebration, as well as declaring the song of the New Negro henceforth.

mother, he is able to speak to Kabnis. Father John is also quarred through call-and-response: Carrie K. is the call and his response represents the emergent quareness that concludes “Kabnis”: “O th sin white folks ‘mitted when they made th Bible lie”32. This is a condemnation of whiteness and consequently, a celebration of blackness; it is a call to turn away from blackness. Kabnis responds sarcastically, but Carrie K.’s subsequent reply and embrace drives home Father John’s message of quareness: “‘Bother Ralph, is that your best Amen?’ She turns to him and takes his hot cheeks in her firm cool hands. Her palms draw the fever out. With its passing, Kabnis crumples.”33. Kabnis’s’ redemption in this scene is particularly apparent when placed in the context of Stella’s earlier description of the fever that Carrie K. here extracts from Kabnis: “Boars when their fever’s up. When their fever’s up they come t me.”34. However, whereas Stella and Cora cannot exorcize this fever, Carrie K.–as quare mother–does so, and Kabnis’s physical response resembles that of someone successfully exorcized. Carrie K.’s success most clearly manifests at two points in the closing moment: First, as “her lips murmur, ‘Jesus, com,’ and second, in the final line, as song is returned to the world when “the sun arises. Gold-glowing child, it steps into the sky and sends a birth-song slanting down gray dust streets and sleepy windows of the southern town.”35.

Thus, when we view “Kabnis” as the search for black motherhood and song, we see it in what Jennifer Williams describes as “black musical traditions as sites of memory where collective traumas can be addressed and possible repaired”36. Through Williams’ analysis for “‘working through’ profound losses” Toomer utilizes the black musical traditions of jazz and folk to resolve the trauma of losing his mother at a young age, and hence his own blackness.”37. In “Kabnis,” Toomer attempts to craft an “everlasting song” in which he can link the trauma of the slave South to his identity as a New Negro, so as to begin the process of grieveing and mourning. In his attempt to heal the cultural trauma of blackness through song, Toomer expresses the fundamental idea of quareness: the New Negro should not hide from his or her violent past, but should recover and repair its trauma through song. Here, understanding jazz is key to understanding the quest of the New Negro; jazz both invokes DuBois’s “sorrow songs” in its incorporation of slave spirituals with a celebration of new-found blackness in its entrancing rhythms. In doing as jazz does, the New Negro, like Kabnis, can unearth the black mother in the pain of his or her racist-sponsored trauma. Thus, Toomer’s weaving of jazz into the search for black motherhood in “Kabnis” is fundamentally about beginning the cultural process of mourning and celebration, as well as declaring the song of the New Negro henceforth.


Toomer, Jean. Cane. Eds. Rudolph P. Byrd and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. New York: W. W. Norton, 2011.

Williams, Jennifer D. “Cane and the Erotics of Mourning.” in Cane: Norton Critical Edition. Eds. Rudolph P. Byrd and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. New York: W.W. Norton, 2011.

  1. Jean Toomer, Cane, Eds. Rudolph P. Byrd and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. New York: W. W. Norton, 2011, 81. []
  2. Ibid. []
  3. Ibid., 85. []
  4. Ibid., 103. []
  5. Ibid. []
  6. Ibid., 108 []
  7. Ibid., 106. []
  8. Ibid., 285. []
  9. Jennifer D. Williams, “Cane and the Erotics of Mourning,” in Cane, 2nd Ed., Eds. Rudolph P. Byrd and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. New York: W. W. Norton, 2011: 416. []
  10. Ibid. []
  11. Toomer, 96. []
  12. Toomer, 90. []
  13. Ibid. []
  14. Ibid. []
  15. Ibid., 106. []
  16. Ibid., 110. []
  17. Williams, 409. []
  18. Toomer, 107. []
  19. Ibid., 106. []
  20. Ibid., 107. []
  21. Ibid., 110. []
  22. Ibid., 107. []
  23. Ibid. []
  24. Ibid., 105 []
  25. Ibid. []
  26. Williams, 414. []
  27. Ibid., 416. []
  28. Ibid., 111 []
  29. Ibid., 113. []
  30. Ibid., 112. []
  31. Ibid., 81. []
  32. Ibid., 114. []
  33. Ibid., 114. []
  34. Ibid., 107. []
  35. Ibid., 115. []
  36. Williams, 408. []
  37. Ibid. []