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Relative Obsurity: Conseqences of Subverting the Representative Man Fallacy

Mark Whalan, in his essay, Jean Toomer and the Avant-Garde discusses the ways in
which Toomer engages with the White Avant-Garde movement of the time. Before analyzing
that merging, he mentions criticism of Jean Toomers Cane, which questions to what degree
Toomer was a representative man (Whalan 377). The idea that there needs to be a
representative man is a notion that is discussed in conversations about African American
literature from a dominant group, and it is a fallacy. The conversation about the representative
man omits the possibility of multiple points of view, hinges on hegemony, and in regards to
African American literature, a racist point of view.
The creators of literature anthologies are rooted in the dominant culture, and in order for
them to include works from African American men, search for a writer that serves as a
representative. One work or writer who captures the sentiments of the culture they seek to
represent in the anthology. For a work to capture the sentiments of a larger group, they must be
void of stunning formal complexity and range (378), which, Whalen states, Cane is not. The
anthology will likely tout the writers minority status as a way to highlight the ways in which
they are represented, as if it is a favor to the culture or group. Toomer began by identifying
himself by his Negro blood (384) and moved away from that when he realized that his blood,
the color of his skin, his minority status were the things that stood out. He resented those who
sought to pin him to a Negro identity (384) because it omits the other parts of his identity.
Reducing Toomer to a representative in anthologies of Negro writing (384) dismisses his merit
as a writer. It separates talent into Writers, and Negro Writers, implicitly placing one over the
other. By refusing to allow his work to appear in some anthologies, Toomer took a stand against
this representative man and was able to continue his work, though in relative obscurity.


Zora Neale Hurstons Spunk and the Absence of Women
The New Negro refers to a new breed of African American men during the Harlem
Renaissance. The term New Negro invokes a revolution, a discarding of the old ways, and a
transformation into a new breed of men. But what about the women? Women are
underrepresented in literature throughout history, but their absence seems especially poignant in
the social uprising and Cultural Revolution that is the Harlem Renaissance. Zora Neale Hurston,
in her work Spunk, discusses the role of women in the Harlem Renaissance, and posits that their
marginalized role encourages violence and death.
Throughout the work, Lena is discussed at length by her community, and yet she has very
few speaking lines. She is a prize to be fought for, between Joe and Spunk. Lena is a plot device,
a character that moves the plot along while having no direct influence. She is passed around
without consideration for what she wants:taint cause Joes timid at all, its cause Spunk wants
Lena (107). The controversy between Lena and the two men revolves around her, but it only
exists because of what Spunk wants. Spunk is the primary protagonist, and he is an aggressive
man who takes what he wants, in a cowboy fashion. Spunks behavior towards Lena, and
presumably other women in the town is represented in his interaction with Joe, regarding Lena.
He tells Joe to Call her and see if shell come. A woman knows her boss an she answers when
he calls(107). Spunk is a man who behaves without regard for anyone else. This interaction
between characters sheds light on the lack of respect Spunk holds for women, relationships, and
other men. Lena is nearby, and though she looked at him real disgusted (107), she dont
answer and she dont move from her tracks (107). Lena does not take action despite her
feelings, effectively rendering her invisible and superfluous. The consequences of her not taking
a stand for or against one of the men is death. Spunk kills Joe, and though Lenas lamentations
were deep and loud (111), she never made a decision. The community continues to discuss her
marital prospects.
There are several issues being discussed in this short work, but it is Lenas indecision that
leads to Joes death. Although Spunk made the decision to pull the trigger, and it seems unfair to
blame Lena for the death of Joe, the assertion is that if Lena, who represents womankind, was
given an opportunity, or had taken an opportunity to participate in the discourse, more options
could have been available, the ramifications different, and perhaps less.



The Chef: A Problematic Moral Ideal
Food as an image or a subject in literature tends to cultivate a tone or setting of
nourishment, of home and hearth, of healing, but when stereotypes are involved, food can be
constricting, and a source of psychological turmoil. In Home to Harlem, The Chef, who worked
on the dining car Jake traveled on, was a great black bundle of consciously suppressed desires
(McKay 160), and subverts literary tradition by changing the meaning of food in the novel. Food
is a representation of the racism running rampant, and the chef is the one who stands up to the
racism, by refusing to participate in the stereotypes regarding food.
This chef is described as ornery and haughty, yet he always had his food ready on time,
feeding the heaviest rush of customers as rapidly as the lightest (160-161). Describing his work
ethic and philosophy adds depth to the character of the Chef, and also develops the notion that
the Chef is a character, not a caricature. He is not simply an angry man in a kitchen, but a hard
working man who takes pride in his work, and dislikes stereotyping. He had a violent distaste
for all the stock things that coons are supposed to like...he would not eat watermelon...and the
idea of eating chicken gave him a spasm (161-162). Watermelon and chicken, along with pork
chops and corn pone (162) carry stereotypes with them that the chef subverts by cooking the
food and not eating it. The Chef is the arbiter of nourishment, and he cooks foods expected to be
enjoyed mostly by the black passengers and crew, but, he observes a different trend: the way
them white passengers clean up on mah fried chicken I wouldnt trust one o them anywheres
near mah hen coop (162). The Chef, is the only one who seems to notice the disparity between
the stereotype and the truth: everyone loves fried chicken. From this observation, it is possible to
extrapolate that all stereotypes can be subverted by simply observing.
The chef serves as a moral ideal in this novel, observing and commenting on what truly
happens, while refusing to be reduced through racist generalizations to one facet of his
personality. The chef suppresses his own desires - everyone loves fried chicken - to vehemently
oppose any reduction of himself, preventing any further stereotyping. This assertion, however, is
problematic: it posits that if you truly fit a stereotype, prove them wrong by pretending to be
someone else. Holding the chef up as a moral ideal asserts that to be a positive character, instead
of a character, while also being black, you must violently oppose the things that group you with
your race.

Children: Unwelcome in the Bachelor Culture Depicted in Home to Harlem
Madame Lauras son is the first child to appear in Home to Harlem. There are
several mentions of the men behaving like children, but despite the promiscuity, there are no
children in the novel until the boy of dull-gold complexion materialized by the side of Madame
Laura(192). Ray, previously feeling comfortable in this house where everybody was cheerful
(190), suddenly feels differently. The appearance of the child disgusts him, because children are
usurpers of masculinity, a trait revered in the text. The boy forces Ray to acknowledge
consequences of sex, and abruptly takes him out of the moment and back to reality.
Ray feels an aversion to the child he is incapable or unwilling to analyze, for him, it is an
instinctive, intolerant feeling that the boy did not belong to that environment and should not be
there(193). On one level, Rays feelings are justifiable. In the room, there were four other
couples making love (193), but Ray does not seem to be interested in the well-being of the
child. His aversion is based on his fear of, and Jakes refusal to see consequences. The life he
and Jake have been living has been relatively care free; they are able to travel along the East
coast on very little money, and have sexual encounters with numerous women. They have no
roots and have no one to answer to for very long. Seeing the boy reminds Ray that he has a girl
in New York(188), and that there could be unintended consequences for his infidelity. His
feelings about the boy are a projection: he feels out of place, alone and a little sorry for himself.
Now that he was there, he would like to be touched by the spirit of that atmosphere, and, like
Jake, fall naturally into its rhythm(194). He envies Jake for his carefree behavior. Ray fears the
end of this adventure and the return to domesticity.
Domestic life in this text is regarded negatively, and children are a large part of
traditional domestic life. Rays girl in New York represents a possible domestic life that he both
desires and fears. Jake represents a possible life for Ray: one full of fun and free of negative
repercussions. The boy appearing suddenly at the party is a merging of Rays possible lives, and
a realization that both are not possible simultaneously; Ray can be a bachelor or a husband.
These black and white options invoke fear in Ray because he is currently living with one foot in
each life, undecided.

Sara Andrews: A Fully Developed Female Character
Sara Andrews seems to be a stoic, unfeeling, cold political machine. She works with the
Honorable Sammy Scott in his political office and orchestrates his affairs to match her political
ambitions. She helps Sammy conspire to get Matthew out of jail and into their office. The
relationship between Matthew and Sara is pragmatic; they fill each others political needs, and
they get married to fulfill Saras ambitions for herself and Matthew. Their marriage is a contract
built out of strategy rather than love. This alone is enough to see Sara as only cold and
calculating, but Matthew sees the same. His perspective implies proof of her psyche; he tries
desperately to give and evoke the love. But behind Saras calm, cold hardness, he found nothing
to evoke (153). It is problematic to define Sara at this point, because this observation is through
Matthews point of view, without any true insight into Saras character and personality. The
reader, and Matthew both do not know whether or not Sara is truly unfeeling, or void of
evocative emotion, or simply a great political strategist.
Saras character is finally developed further when she comes back from her trip to New
York, after her and Matthew separate. She feels the tragic failure of her long laid plans, and
was desperately lonesome (250). While it is still unclear whether or not her emotions stem
from the emotional dissolution of her marriage, or her political plans failing to come to fruition,
she has emotion. It is clear that while Matthew couldnt find anything to evoke (153)Sara was
likely experiencing emotions he simply was not privy to. Sara thus becomes a more interesting
character, a woman who is politically intelligent, resourceful, and strategic in relationships who
is not unfeeling. Sara is a character with depth and choice. She utilizes her intelligence to get
ahead, utilizing institutions that traditionally keep women in the home, to get herself ahead in a
system unwelcoming to women.
Sara is a character that subverts traditional norms. At first glance, she seems to sustain
traditional norms, by being a woman in politics, but unfeeling and losing her femininity and
emotion. Her subversion and power comes from accepting her failures, her emotions, and
simultaneously, her power in intelligence.