Themes and Meanings

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On the simplest level, “Georgia Dusk” is a lyrical celebration of the beauty of African Americans singing in a southern landscape. As was previously mentioned, Toomer uses various formal devices to draw attention to the harmony of song and setting. The second word in the title, “Dusk,” not only establishes the time of day, but also, combined with several details in the poem, takes on a deeper symbolic meaning. As a symbol, “dusk” comes to stand for a complex of associated meanings. Uppermost among these is the implication that something is passing away. For this poem, the primary example is the great African cultures brought to America by the slaves. Toomer feels that he is witnessing the “setting sun” of the last remnants of African culture in the lives of the African Americans.

Several aspects of the poem reinforce this theme. In stanza 1, the sky will not or cannot stop the sun’s setting. The “tournament” it will not hold recalls the martial glory of medieval African kingdoms. Toomer describes the smoke rising from the mound of sawdust as “blue ghosts of trees.” This metaphor reflects the vanishing quality of African civilization in America. Like the countryside surrounding the sawmill, the traces of African culture are “only chips and stumpsleft to show” the fact of “former domicile” across the Atlantic Ocean.

Stanza 5 states the theme of the surviving “vestiges” of African greatness. Several details carry African connotations: desert “caravan,” “juju-man” (a word of African origin for a holy object or fetish), and “ostrich,” a flightless bird found in Africa.

The change in characteristics of the ostrich seems to be paralleled by Toomer’s thoughts about the history of African Americans. In the last stanza, Toomer speaks directly to the people, asking the singers to give a new content to the songs and thoughts of these people. The poet’s first request is to “Give virgin lips to cornfield concubines.” This statement calls for a complete transformation, for a concubine is a woman kept by a man for sexual purposes. The phrase “virgin lips” represents the opposite pole from that of “concubines” and implies other meanings. One is an association with Mary, the mother of Jesus. Another is that the changed content of these people’s songs will be totally new, virginal material. Toomer has already indicated that much of the little African culture remaining is of a non-Christian religious nature. The “orgy” anticipated in stanza 2 meant originally a form of pagan secret rite, and the phrases “High-priests” and “juju-man” carry pagan connotations.

The last line of the poem is crucial. Its heavy alliteration draws attention to it. (The two accented sounds in the phrase, “dreams of Christ,” are repeated in the same order in the next phrase, “dusky cane-lipped.”) The content is vital to the meaning of the poem as a whole. As part of a possibly inevitable evolution, Toomer calls on the singers to alter the content of traditional songs, to lead the people to dream of Christ. Song is one of the strongest means of affecting people, with its direct, highly emotional effects on listeners. This song at dusk may be, therefore, a “vesper” in a double sense, a form of worship associated with Christianity and a farewell to the last traces of an old religion.

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