Jean Toomer, a poet, playwright and novelist was an important figure in African-American literature during the Harlem Renaissance Movement.
Toomer was born in 1894 in Washington, DC, the grandson of the first governor of African-American descent in the United States. As a child, Toomer attended both all-white and all-black segregated schools, and from early on in his life he resisted being classified by race, preferring to call himself simply American.
After graduating from the highly regarded all-black Dunbar High School, Toomer began to travel extensively, attending colleges over the next few years in Wisconsin, Massachusetts, Chicago, and finally, New York, where he wrote and published many short stories, plays, and poems.
Toomer’s most famous work, Cane, was published in 1923 and was hailed by critics for its literary experimentation and portrayal of African-American characters and culture. Cane is structured in of three parts. The first third of the book is devoted to the black experience in the Southern farmland. The second part of Cane is more urban and concerned with Northern life, and the final third part is a prose piece entitled “Kabnis.”
Toomer wrote throughout his life, however his literary visibility effectively ended in 1936, with the last publication in his lifetime, the long poem “Blue Meridian,” which extolled the potential of an “American” race, a “blue” hybrid that would incorporate and extend the spirits of the black, white, and red races.