I have recently begun reading the Library of America two-volume collection entitled Harlem Renaissance. The first volume consists of five novels of the 1920's, and the first of those novels is Cane by Jean Toomer. It is built around short stories, character sketches, and poetry from his experience as an educator transplanted from Washington, DC into rural Georgia just after World War I. Toomer was the son of a former slave and the grandson of a governor of Louisiana. He was an astute observer of the poverty and class struggle that was prevalent in America during the years that he was writing.
This piece, as with most of the material in Cane, is very descriptive of rural Georgia in the 1920's as seen through the eyes of a black man.
by Jean Toomer
The sky, lazily disdaining to pursue
The setting sun, to indolent to hold
A lengthened tournament for flashing gold,
Passively darkens for night's barbecue,
A feast of moon and men and barking hounds,
An orgy for some genius of the South
With blood-hot eyes and cane-lipped scented mouth,
Surprised in making folk-songs from soul sounds.
The sawmill blows its whistle, buzz-saws stop,
And silence breaks the bud of knoll and hill,
Soft settling pollen where plowed lands fulfill
Their early promise of a bumper crop.
Smoke from the pyramidal sawdust pile
Curls up, blue ghosts of trees, tarrying low
Where only chips and stumps are left to show
The solid proof of former domicile.
Meanwhile, the men, with vestiges of pomp,
Race memories of king and caravan,
High-priests, an ostrich, and a juju-man,
Go singing through the footpaths of the swamp
Their voices rise...the pine trees are guitars,
Strumming, pine-needles fall like sheets of rain...
Their voices rise...the chorus of the cane
Is caroling a vesper to the stars.
O singers, resinous and soft your songs
Above the sacred whisper of the pines
Give virgin lips to cornfield concubines,
Bring dreams of Christ to dusky cane-lipped throngs.