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date: 11 November 2019

Toomer, Jeanlocked

(26 December 1894–30 March 1967)
  • Robert B. Jones

Extract

Toomer, Jean (26 December 1894–30 March 1967), writer and philosopher, was born Nathan Pinchback Toomer in Washington, D.C., the son of Nathan Toomer, a planter, and Nina Pinchback, the daughter of Pinckney Benton Stewart Pinchback, governor of Louisiana during Reconstruction and the first U.S. governor of African-American descent. Like his parents, Toomer could easily pass for white, his heritage comprising several European and African bloodlines. Indeed, throughout his formative years until age eighteen, he lived alternately as white and as African American. In 1895 Nathan Toomer abandoned his family, forcing Nina and her son to live with her somewhat tyrannical father in Washington. P. B. S. Pinchback agreed to support them only under the condition that the boy’s name be changed. Though his name was not legally altered, his grandparents thereafter called him Eugene Pinchback; in school he was known as Eugene Pinchback Toomer. (Later, when he began writing, he shortened his name to Jean Toomer.) According to Toomer’s biographers Cynthia Kerman and Richard Eldridge, “For Jean to grow up in a house with a grandfather who had been the only black governor of any state in the Union … could not help shaping the perceptions and attitudes of the fatherless boy” (p. 16). In Washington Toomer lived in a white neighborhood but attended the all-black Garnet Elementary School. When his mother remarried in 1906, the family moved to New Rochelle, New York, where they lived in a white neighborhood and he attended an all-white school. Toomer returned to Washington in 1909, following the death of his mother, and attended the all-black Dunbar High School. After graduation in 1914, he renounced racial classifications and sought to live not as a member of any racial group but as an American....

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