Jean Toomer’s poem “Georgia Dusk” is about an idealized black southern town. One can only assume that the town is in Georgia because of the name of the poem. The time of the day is near sunset, which is indicated by the first few lines “Lazily disdaining to pursue/The setting sun” (Lines 1-2). The workers in the ‘sawmill’ are getting off of work and returning to their place of residence for a “night’s barbeque” (Line 4), perhaps it is a Friday night and the workers are anticipating the weekend? The majority of this poem has a very upbeat tone and a prevailing theme is music and sound. This is a poem filled with auditory phrases. From the second stanza until the last stanza, the poem is filled with images of music and sound. Take the 6th stanza for example. Toomer uses the line “voices rise” twice in this stanza. Both times, Toomer implies a happy, lyrical voice; one where the “pine trees are guitars” (Line 21) and “the chorus of the cane” (Line 23).
Using a biographical analysis of this poem, it was never quite clear to me why this poem was so auditory. From the biographies that I looked at for Jean Toomer, I never came across an instance of music being very crucial in his life. But then I began to think about applying a historical analysis to this poem and it became much clearer to me about the reason for these particular words. Toomer is discussing a southern town, most likely in the early 1900s, which is primarily full of African American residents. If the poem is occurring in the early 1900s, these African Americans have either outlived the Civil War and slavery or they are the direct descendants of slaves or freed Africans. In the South, during the time of slavery, slaves would often sing songs in their native tongue either to communicate with each other or as an attempt to ingest some new life into their daily routines. Music was a very critical part of their lives during the period of slavery and it appears as though music was an important part of their lives in the early 1900s.
Biographically, there are many things that are similar between this poem and Jean Toomer’s life. Toomer was a person with a mixed racial background. He was part Dutch, French, German, and African American. During his childhood, he attended all white and all black schools. Toomer had the ability to pass for either skin color and until he moved to Sparta, Georgia, he did. While he lived in Sparta he took the job as principal in a public school. As principal and resident of Sparta, he became accustomed to the racism and segregation that African American people had to face. After his job as principal, he began to identify himself as African American and eventually became a writer of the Harlem Renaissance. His identification as an African American is very evident in this poem. The poem is about an African American community who is gathering to enjoy the night time festivities. At no point does Toomer ever use the word ‘black’ or ‘African American’ but it is clear he is discussing an African American town by the use of his words like ‘cane-lipped.’ The residents of this community are completely content with their existence which is evidenced by their cheerful attitudes and “folk-songs” (Line 8). Toomer began to identify himself as an African American before he wrote this poem and this poem demonstrates his embrace of the culture.