Blue Meridian Critical Context - Essay

Jean Toomer

Critical Context

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Like Whitman, Toomer saw America as a symbol of human potential. America, as a symbol of freedom from conventional Western restraint and limitations, offers the hope of salvation for the human race. The poem reflects the quest or yearning toward the ideals Toomer espouses of unity, oneness, and deemphasis on the barriers between people. Throughout, Toomer emphasizes imprisonment, confinement, and enslavement and tries to call readers to action to loose the shackles of conventional society and tradition.

One of the most important sections of the poem is placed just past the halfway point. Having established the numerous barriers that prevent growth of spirit and humanity, Toomer states:

Unlock the races,Open this pod by outgrowing it,Free men from this prison and this shrinkage,Not from the reality itselfBut from our prejudices and preferencesAnd the enslaving behavior caused by them,Eliminate theseI am, we are, simply of the human race.

Several stanzas later, Toomer’s point becomes clearer:

Uncase, unpod whatever blocks, until,Having realized pure consciousness of being,Knowing that we are beingsCo-existing with others in an inhabited universe,We will be free to use rightly with reasonOur own and other human functions—Free men, whole men, men connectedWith one another and with Deity.

These lines summarize the poem’s major thesis: The false barriers of conventional society have done nothing more than imprison and enslave the human family; moreover, these barriers, whether they be of race, nation, region, sex, class, or creed, have brought about a gradual deterioration of human spirit and potential that, in turn, prevent connection with and consciousness of the spiritual dimensions of life. As Jean Wagner, one of the best critics of Toomer’s poem, has written, “The fundamental thesis of ’Blue Meridian’ is the need for a regenerated America, to be achieved through the regeneration of each individual and each community composing it, of an America once more united around the spiritual dream of its founders.”