An Infinitely Depressing Thought

I was reading this piece on Jean Toomer, a writer I confess to have not read. I had a moment of powerful, mixed emotion when I reached the following sentence:

Toomer is known for proclaiming a new, mixed racial identity, which he called “American.”

This sentence filled me with a kind of bittersweet joy, if that makes sense, for I too identify myself as an American not just by citizenship but by culture and community, have some notion of the struggles that must have attended the ability to believe as Toomer believed, and to express such a belief out loud in his time, and I honor the thought, the commitment, that lies behind this seemingly simple statement. And at the same time I feel the twinge that comes from knowing that this should’ve ever been difficult to express at all, and a sense of relief and qualified, quiet pride that we have come as far as we have since his day.

And then after a long biographical excursion, I read

So we come back to our carefully considered judgment, based upon an analysis of genealogical evidence previously overlooked, that Jean Toomer—for all of his pioneering theorizing about what today we might call multicultural or mixed-raced ancestry—was a Negro who decided to pass for white.

“[F]or all of … was a …” Five short words. And my heart utterly sank. If yours didn’t, you need to think long and hard about why that is.


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