A Close Reading of “Georgia Dusk” by Jean Toomer

“Georgia Dusk”, after first read, appears to paint a colorful, optimistic picture of hard-working life in Georgia. However, when analyzed with a more skeptical eye, one comes to realize that the poem is drawing attention to the destructive nature of the slave south on the African American community. The light and dark imagery used throughout the piece indicates that darkness, although it brings rest from a long day’s work, also brings danger and chaos. The destructive imagery parallels the common experience shared by these workers. All of these interactions come full circle in their relation to time. Let us examine each of these areas in order to discover how these images play into the overall theme of this poem, the idea that external beauty masks reality.

The title, “Georgia Dusk,” provides us with a setting and context for the poem. Dusk is the fusion of light and dark, a time when the sun has just set but the moon has yet to take charge of the sky. Dusk represents vagueness and ambiguity, a time when the line between a beginning and an end turns hazy. The smoky imagery, as evidenced by use of the term “dusk,” implies the joining of the light and dark, day and night, black and white. Here is our first hint at mixed race. Dusk implies Toomer’s ongoing struggle with self-identification. He feels that he is constantly stuck in a dusk-like period; he identifies with both African American and white societies. “The sky, lazily disdaining to pursue” and “The setting sun, too indolent to hold,” indicate that the sun is no longer clinging to the sky to prolong day, while the sky is too tired to pull back the sun. Light and dark imagery plague this first stanza; the “flashing gold” gives way to “night’s barbecue,” both of which illustrate colors of a sunset. There is an ongoing tug of war between these two periods.

As dusk settles, another day of work ceases and “moon, men, and barking hounds” come together in celebration of the survival of another day. This feast becomes more indulgent as Toomer chooses the word “orgy” as a descriptor. This word implies passion, song, dance, and drink. The “genius of the South” he describes in that same line is anyone who is able to take such a dismal situation and turn it on its axis to create a scapegoat for optimism and positivity. The musical imagery follows, indicated by the line, “Surprised in making folk-songs from soul sounds.” This line serves as a lamentation for whoever created and fostered the discovery of the soul music that keeps these slaves going even when all hope seems lost. In the end, the camaraderie and joy that song brings to these people cannot be rivaled, and it licks their wounds and provides an escape from their gloomy lives. In addition, the rhythm in this quatrain is important. The first and fourth lines (“hounds” and “sounds”), as well as the second and third (“South” and “mouth”) are coupled together in a rhyme scheme. The hounds, men, and moon that gather for the feast are the ones surprised at the power of song from the soul illustrated in the fourth line. The second and third lines indicate the focus of one “genius” to turn negative energy into positive energy by transforming the slaves’ experiences through song. These two lines are in the middle of the stanza, indicating that the genius serves as the bridge and glue between the songs from the soul and the hounds, moon, and men.

These memories of “king and caravan, high-priests, an ostrich, and a juju-man” trudging along a swamp singing skips back over slavery to imagine an elevated past for these people, a past where they thrived as kings and priests. The “chorus of cane,” however, rises above the high-priests and king’s songs. Although beauty was previously present here, it has given way to ongoing destruction. This stanza is an indication of the people grappling with the past, as they continue to have their voices drowned out by the elite white class. The musical imagery in this stanza, terms such as “strumming” and “chorus” indicate the importance of song to a lost people in rediscovering their place in society. The only way they can feel at peace is through voices coming together in song. Toomer calls these people together to rise “above the sacred whisper of the pine, give virgin lips to cornfield concubines.” Their efforts are soon thwarted, however, as the “dreams of Christ” fade and pass quickly, leaving behind a shadow of despair.

All the imagery I’ve described so far is connected to an underlying theme: time. The dusk is a metaphor for the current period of history. Slavery has just ended and people are unsure with which culture to identify. It is complicated to remember and claim as one’s own these cultural practices that grew out of oppression and bondage characteristic of the slave south. In the fourth stanza, “former domicile” illustrates the problems for former slaves of re-envisioning the south as their home. Toomer’s saying that if a former slave remains in the south at this time, rather than move to the north, they need to rethink the past and culture to make it tolerable, as well as their own. It is difficult to envision their history as their own because it was written and controlled by white power. There has been some effort to destroy the past, as evidenced by the ghosts of trees imagery, but it continues to linger in the African American culture. Toomer builds on this unclear history when he discusses the “vestiges of pomp” in the next stanza. The past is a vestige and no one knows how to deal with it. It’s hard for former slaves residing in the south to resolve that circumstance with the idea of a comfortable home. Toomer believed that there was real culture among the slaves, but by basing that culture off of slave society with a white handprint, you’re reconstructing a culture that’s not entirely your own. In other words, you get caught up in those small ambivalences. For example, slave spirituals, although they are beautiful songs, are tainted by slavery and white influence. How can you claim those cultural practices as your own when they grew out of oppression? Further evidence for this situation is illustrated in the final stanza when Toomer uses Christian imagery. These dreams of Christ parallel the former slaves’ dreams of the past. Just as Christ rose again, so will the African American race. It’s a sign of purification and enlightenment.

The imagery throughout this poem provides key contextual clues to the reader. The light and dark imagery, as well as the destructive imagery, help to illustrate the tension and fear the workers face. Song provides an escape from the dark depths of hard labor, but unfortunately, as illustrated by the final line, that escape is solely temporary; it’s a mirage that hides the darkness. The external beauty masks the reality, oppression, and injustice of slavery. Time is one of the most important metaphors illustrated in this poem. The African American community is facing a dusky period in history; they are unsure which culture to claim as their own and how to move forward. Up to this point, much of their cultural history had been controlled by the white race. Toomer claims that they need to create their own culture in order to cleanse themselves of white control.

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