Nathan Pinchback Toomer (by school age he was known as Eugene Pinchback Toomer) was born in Washington, D.C., on December 26, 1894, the son of Nina Pinchback and Nathan Toomer. Until he was almost eleven, he lived with his maternal grandparents, his father having left the family in 1895. Racially mixed and able to pass as white, the Pinchbacks lived in an affluent white neighborhood, though Toomer’s grandfather was well known as a black and briefly had been the governor of Louisiana during Reconstruction.
When Nina Toomer was remarried (to Archibald Combes, a white man), she and her son moved to New York, where they lived until she died in 1909. Returning to the Pinchbacks, who had experienced financial reversals, the teenage Toomer lived with them and an uncle in a modest black area, attended a black high school, and was faced with confronting the issue of his racial identity. He later wrote that he was “Scotch, Welsh, German, English, French, Dutch, Spanish, with some dark blood.” Having lived in both the black and white worlds, for a while he determined to consider himself simply an American, hoping to eschew any racial label.
Between 1914 and 1921, he attended five colleges in three states for brief periods and lived in Chicago, Milwaukee, New York, and Washington, D.C. He also changed his name to Jean Toomer, began writing, and in New York came to know such promising young writers as Van Wyck Brooks, Witter Bynner, Waldo Frank, and Edwin Arlington Robinson. While in Washington in 1921, caring for his ailing grandparents and writing full time, he was asked to become temporary principal of the Sparta Agricultural and Industrial Institute, a rural Georgia school for black students. Whereas his experience in Chicago and Washington served as background for parts of Cane (1923), the two months in Sparta introduced Toomer to black life in the South. Its spirituality, music, economic deprivation, and segregation provided him with the subjects and themes of his major...
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