Jean Toomer, like Langston Hughes, was a poet of the Harlem Renaissance, a time when African American poets, artists, and actors were seeing incredible success among the people of Harlem, and becoming renown amongst African Americans across the nation, and yet were still denied equal rights, and were still separated by vicinity and acknowledgement from their caucasian counterparts. Toomer lived through a time and in a place where he was able to see the terrible effects that slavery still had on the American people, especially in the south. The title, ‘Georgia Dusk’, provides that setting, revealing that he is talking about society at large, but there is also a specific focus on the south. You can read the poem in full here.
Georgia Dusk Analysis
The first stanza of Georgia Dusk begins with the description of a sky. The words “lazily” and “disdaining” suggest gives the poem a slow, low key yet dark tone. The speaker describes the “setting sun” but not as something beautiful and peaceful, but rather as “indolent”. He states that the day “passively darkens for night’s barbecue”. One of the most horrific truths of America’s past is the occurrence of what some heartless people called “barbecues”. Although during the time of the Harlem Renaissance, slavery had long been abolished, equal treatment was still far away. While African American people were said to have their freedom, many people in the South made it almost impossible for the African American people to live free lives. One of the many atrocities they committed included lynching. They took African American people who were accused of even the slightest crime and hung them. These crimes against humanity were sometimes done under the law, and sometimes done outside of the law. An African American person rarely received a fair trial, and sometimes were even murdered without a trial because of any accusation that might arise. Many in the South accused, attacked, hung, and burned African American people for any reason they could come up with, and they called these events, “barbecues”. In this stanza, Toomer writes in a melancholy and passive tone. This perhaps reflects on the way the society was reacting to these atrocities. The use of words such as “passive” “lazy” and “indolent” give the poem an extremely passive tone which contrasts with the audacious content. The speaker continues with stanza two on the next page.
The passive, melancholy tone continues, and he reveals that the sounds of “barking hounds” are heard in the background of the noise of the “barbecue”. This reveals her feelings that the African American people, though no longer slaves, often heard the “barking hounds” in the backgrounds of their lives. In the days of slavery, hounds were set loose to track down slaves who had escaped. The sound of their barking in the background indicates that even in their freedom from slavery, they are still bound, in many ways, by their pasts and the mindset of society.
This section to Georgia Dusk continues to imply that the history of slavery continued to have effect on lives because of the mindset of the people and the memories of working to “plow lands” and harvest “bumper crops” and work a “saw-mill”.
The speaker continues to describe that the “smoke” from the work of former slaves at the saw-mill could still be seen as it “curls up”. Heexplains that stumps left from trees cut down by slaves were there to offer “solid proof or former domicile”. The speaker can clearly see that the effects of the years of slavery were still a major factor in society. The abolition of slave was only the first step. He realized that much more work needed to be done. He also felt that society was apathetic. Although everyone saw the terrible effects of slavery, which the smoke and tree stumps symbolize, they are indolent, lazy, and passive about the atrocities that continued to happen to the African American people.
This stanza is in stark contrast with the former stanza’s. The speaker reveals that while the African American people have a past that is filled with horror, the other people in society have memories of “pomp” and “king[s]” and “high priests”. He implies that people that come from wealth are pompous and sometimes even ignorant of the long-term effects their evil reign of slavery had over the African American people. This is why he says that they “go singing through the footpaths of the swamp”. They are apparently unaware of the “smoke” and the “stumps” in society that still served as the evidence of former crimes against humanity. They also seem either oblivious or even accepting of the current crimes against the African American people.
In this stanza, Georgia Dusk begins to shift in tone. Rather than the lazy, melancholy tone, we begin to hear some strength, dignity, and the cry for what is right. He says, “their voices rise” which gives the readers hope that finally there will be a voice to cry out against injustice. The speaker suggests that this will be done in some ways with music. This is why he suggests that “the pine trees are guitars” and that the rain strums the guitars and cries out in song against the injustices done against the African American people.
In the final stanza of Georgia Dusk, the speaker calls out to the singers, those few whose voices rose up among the apathy of society. He compares the land of the south to a concubine, or one who is given to someone in a position of power specifically for the pleasure of the one in power. He views the South this way, as the concubine of the white. The “virgin” lips are those lips of the African American people, lips that have not tasted freedom in the land of the South. He calls out to the African American people of the South to give their virgin lips in song, to the land that they should claim as equally as the white people of the South. This is a cry to equality and justice.
He uses Christian imagery, in which he implies that just like Jesus Christ rose from the dead, the African American people would rise up again. Death was not able to keep Jesus in the grave, and the speaker suggests that in the same way, society will not be able to keep the African American people oppressed.