If You Want to Understand Code-Switching, You Need to Read Jean Toomer’s “Cane”

Toomer’s groundbreaking 1923 work reflects the complexity of racial performance

By Lee Williams

As the Harlem Renaissance skipped to a run, the South Georgian characters of Jean Toomer’s Cane demonstrated what present day Black Americans know all too well: to survive the collisions of racial trauma or violence, one has to switch identities. Constantly.

Published in 1923, Toomer’s unusual take on the South raised eyebrows for its surreal modernism, painting its syrupy souls in genre-bending vignettes rather than traditional plots. And, much like Toomer himself—a mixed-race man who passed for White—Cane demonstrates the complicated identity crises of those who reside in the dominant society yet hide their true selves.

What Is Code-Switching?

Code-switching is when an individual shifts from one language or dialect to another, often subconsciously, when communicating in social situations with ethnic groups. It’s a linguistic phenomenon—often subtle, usually defensive—that four in ten Black and Hispanic Americans use to blend in amongst others or to maintain safety, according to Pew Research.

There’s a nonverbal component to code-switching as well, like that shown in the research of University of Maryland sociology professor Rashawn Ray, who has studied how Black males shift their body language as a defense tactic to appear less threatening in public. I’ve done this: For years I’ve always kept an ID on me during runs in my neighborhoods, wore alumni T-shirts to demonstrate some form of academic community, never shown my anger on professional jobs to avoid “angry Black man” stereotypes, and introduced myself to police or security to avoid racial harassment.

These are all signaling processes and active code-switching. And it took me more than thirty years of life to realize that I’d constructed this behavior unconsciously, like Toomer’s characters.

Reading Cane helped me to see that a pillar of my Black identity is rooted in surviving America through verbal and non-verbal exchanges.

A Metaphor of Black American Disillusionment

Cane is not exactly a novel, but a hodgepodge of short prose and poetry. The book is divided into several parts: two set in the South, and a lone Northern portion. There’s a drawing preceding each section, one fourth of a circle; these connectable but unconnected quarters signify incompletion.

What ties the overall book together are its weary, broken, and emotional reticent characters: all longing for the past while facing an uncertain future, with violence never far away.

This notion and the book’s prevailing theme of navigating American chaos reflects the complicated narrative of Black Americans who, like Toomer’s characters, exist in a racial paradox—a vacuum of agency—that often reshapes or redefines the Black experience for the White gaze.

Case in point: For every “Black Lives Matter” there is an “All Lives Matter” or “Blue Lives Matter”; for every complaint of racial inequality, there’s a “bootstraps” lecture; and whenever meaningful discussions of race happen, there is the risk that White fragility will prevent true engagement.

The form of Cane conveys the disconnection that Black Americans have with the dominant society, and the longing for completion.

Cane’s Code-Switchers Navigate Two Worlds

Like Toomer, Black Americans are expert code-switchers in that we inhabit two worlds: the public, around Whites and non-Blacks, and the private, among loved ones, friends, and our community.

Each world has its own code of conduct: In White spaces, you keep a low profile. Communication is straightforward, pleasant, frank. The goal is not just to fit in, but to survive.

In Black spaces, accents, colloquialisms and slang proliferate as well as oral histories—from tall tales to “the dozens”—all bow-tied by an irreverent respect for faith, alongside a longing for lost African traditions.

These racial expressions are akin to performance art, but Black folks in White spaces often must stay “on code” to prevent danger and to avoid confusion.

 Racial Performance and the Limits of Personal Agency

 Cane captures race as performance and the importance of code-switching rules in “Blood Burning Moon,” where Old David Georgia tells rumored tales of a relationship between Louisa, a Black woman, and Bob Stone, a White man, to a circle of friends. In this circle, there is community—safety, even. But the story serves to underline the idea that this safety is conditional, existing only because the circle is closed to outsiders.

In the story, Tom Burwell, a Black field hand and suitor to Louisa, doesn’t like that Bob, by social standards, is considered superior to him, so he leaves the safety of his community to claim Louisa as his own. Likewise, Bob struggles to think of Louisa as his equal even though he’s infatuated with her; his White pride and heritage is immensely important to his identity, and he’s angry that his family has lost power in this modern age; he longs for the “good old days” when he could approach Louisa “as a master should” and take her sexually.

Louisa is keenly aware of the limits of her agency in the Jim Crow south as a Black woman. She works for Bob’s family and navigates her relationship with Bob with great measure. Yet she acknowledges, “By the way the world reckons things, he had won her.” White men like Bob in that time often got what they wanted.

Understanding these social rules, Louisa tries to warn Tom that he shouldn’t act out in violence against Bob. That he shouldn’t behave like the White males expected him too. Likewise, Bob is propelled by an aura of White privilege that blinds him of all consequences to his actions, and he is, as we later see in the story, supported by White mob rule to keep the status quo.

And the risks are different for everyone: Bob stands to lose very little in pursuing Louisa, while Tom or Louisa could possibly lose their livelihood or worse for behaving in any way that threatens Whites.

 Conformity and Compliance Is Demanded 

Code-switching often flies under the radar, which is of course the point. But as videos of White violence and attempted violence proliferate online, we increasingly see the risk of not switching into a “non-threatening” vernacular for the benefit of Whites. The rationale for code-switching is evident in incidents where White pedestrians call the police on minorities simply to remove their presence.

This behavior communicates: My privilege, needs, and desires are more important than you, and I can employ force against you if I see fit.

It’s why code-switching often happens: to minimize conflict to self and to navigate hostile spaces.

A prominent portion of Jean Toomer’s work in Cane focuses on the collisions of race in society and the performances that result from those meetings. The idea of race as performance was a theme that Toomer saturated into his work mainly because, as a high-society, mixed-race man, he’d freely moved between racial and socioeconomic groups his entire life.

In contrast, Black Americans who cannot freely move between those worlds with such ease may be criticized for leaving the confines of the racial behaviors considered native to their position in society. Those who do venture out—whether in dating interracially, having alternative tastes, or expressing differing political opinions—may be perceived as opting out of the safety of Black culture in favor of White culture—“acting White,” so to speak, or forgetting where you came from and instead pursuing the intrinsic rewards of Whiteness.

The racial performance of those within “the code” must be consistent, even among one’s own group, otherwise you risk being ostracized.

Our society and its preference for Whiteness as the ultimate goal is manifested in how we view beauty standards, professional representation, what is taught in American schools, and even which literature is considered “classic.”

This White-dominated reality impacted Toomer as well, who saw racial pride as something Black Americans had to quell in order to fit in with the dominant society. Louisa embodies this ideal by trying to keep her two worlds separate, not wanting to create friction with Bob or his family, yet also caring for Tom’s well-being by warning him of the dangers of going against a systemic force in a jealous, unfocused rage. Unlike Tom, who takes performing race to the extreme, Louisa is neutral-minded and wants to survive in a hostile environment.

Additionally, because Bob struggles with not wanting to perform his whiteness enough, he feels inadequate in his identity and longs for a time where he, as a white man, had more superiority.

His actions to take Louisa over Tom are then guided by damaged pride; Bob is competing with his ideal self for lost valor. In our modern day, the Amy Coopers or “Karens” of the world resort to these same tactics when they feel their Whiteness isn’t appreciated, or respected enough.

From a code-switching perspective, both of these men are cautionary tales of life in America where conformity is demanded, especially at the request of privileged whites, and defying those requests could lead to the loss of agency, as it does for Louisa, or in the case of Tom, put your very life at risk. Toomer’s depiction of privileged White men like Bob communicates that these individuals also exist under the same restrictions of White supremacy on self-expression; they are expected to play their own roles in the subversion of others and are systemically supported in those actions, as we see in the references of Bob’s family influence and the White mob avenging Bob at the end of the story.

 Say It Loud: I’m Black and I’m… Proud?

In Cane, many characters struggle with understanding their racial identity. The weight of slavery and its effect still weigh heavy, and life as second-class citizens in the Jim Crow South has shaped their view of reality. For those who do not acknowledge their Blackness, even when the greater society does, code-switching offers no respite; it’s useless or lost in translation.

This is seen in “Kabnis” where the titular character—a dignified, Northern Black teacher visiting Georgia—struggles to connect with the culture and community of his Southern brethren.

After a near brush with racial violence in town, Kabnis meets Lewis, a confident man strong in his personal identity and connection to the South. Lewis and Kabnis briefly bond, but there’s an unconscious distance between them, a “savage, cynical twist-about” revulsion, in which Kabnis laughs Lewis off, rejecting his help.

Kabnis wants to belong, but he’s disconnected: from his culture, his Blackness, and “home,” as Toomer deems the South. Kabnis is frustrated by the code of his peers. And in a place of community, he longs for the cold, alien familiarity of Northern cities. His desire to enter the dominant society has cost him his identity.

Toomer’s cautionary tale posits that assimilation in American society is possible, but you must surrender your Blackness at the door. This conformity also means that your issues become less important and, if you complain, the dominant society will deny your grievance to maintain the status quo. Examples of this exist in the defense of the Confederate flag, the “All Lives Matter” argument, or the inevitable character assassinations of police brutality victims—all pushbacks against Black pain.

Or, as a character explains to Kabnis: “N****r’s a n****r down this way, Professor. And only two dividends: good and bad. An’ even they ain’t permanent categories. They sometimes mixes um up when it comes to lynchin’.”

 Code-Switching: Communication. Survival. Rebellion.

 Cane is an exploratory work that questions the concept of race, while its characters—like their Black American descendants—regularly switch modes of communication to detail their pain, joy, and pursuit of identity to avoid judgment or danger. Therefore, code-switching is an unconscious response to a society that has historically suppressed Black bodies and voices; a rebellious double-entendre of life, like slave spirituals with hidden meanings. And yet, there is a frustrating necessity to regain one’s agency, even if for a brief respite.

But as discussions of racial equality and systemic racism reach critical mass in the United States, many of those private conversations are now out in the open. In a rare moment, the majority is listening.

So let us speak freely.

This essay was originally published with Electric Literature.

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