Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 548

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.

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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...

(The entire section contains 548 words.)

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