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Toomer, Marshall, and the Il/Legibility of Black Pain

Black art neither sutures nor is sutured to trauma.

—Fred Moten, Black and Blur, 2017[1]

Contemporary archival (The National Memorial for Peace and Justice), medical (Janice Sabin, “How we fail black patients in pain”), and political (BLM) practices continue to depend on the legibility of Black pain, where pain’s visibility is assumed to make it politically transformative. Rather than an obviously valuable experience, however, Black pain requires political validation by an American whiteness all too often unable or unwilling to recognize or respond to that pain. Miranda Fricker’s “testimonial injustice” describes this ethical failing, which “occurs when prejudice causes a hearer to give a deflated level of credibility to a speaker's word,” producing an “epistemic dysfunction in the exchange.”[2] Because of “the ethical poison … of prejudice,” particularly racial prejudice, testimonial injustices can be “systematic” (Fricker, Epistemic Injustice, 22, 28). Fricker offers the example of the jurors and their guilty verdict against Tom Robinson in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), where their racism is “psychologically deeper,” going down to the “very powers of judgement” (25–26). While this example concerns legal, spoken testimony, the nonverbal, affective testimony of the Black body in pain has also historically been denied credibility and political value.

This enduring political failure adds a racial dimension to what Elaine Scarry sees as a “political consequence” of her exploration of pain, which succeeds when it makes pain an object and links that object to the body, such that pain’s “inexpressibility” motivates the need for artistic “expressibility.”[3] But pain, following Fricker’s “testimonial injustice,” can fail precisely because it is connected to Black bodies. Saidiya Hartman reminds us that the contemporary pretense to transform Black pain into a legible object through realism’s capture might also “reinforce the spectacular character of black suffering,” inuring us to scenes of Black bodily trauma.[4] Realism’s aesthetic modes temptingly promise full access to viewers who become “witnesses who confirm that truth,” so that liberal whiteness mistakenly assumes it can understand and speak for Black suffering (Hartman, Scenes of Subjection, 3). “[H]ow,” Hartman asks, “does one give expression to these outrages [the suffering of slavery] without exacerbating the indifference to suffering that is the consequence of the benumbing spectacle or contend with the narcissistic identification that obliterates the other” (4)?

Jean Toomer’s Cane (1923) productively opens a path through this question of pain and representation by an aesthetic practice of il/legibility that emerges not out of Anglo-European modernism but from the problem of absence and presence at the heart of Black pain itself. This literary practice moves beyond the ethical impasses of expression versus silence or suffering versus pleasure by making Black pain simultaneously present and absent in an aesthetic of representation and elision but with neither paratactic or dialectic resolution nor the closure of universal humanism. Such a practice focuses on the simultaneously legible and illegible face for a blank and Black gaze that discloses the presence of pain but also resists final mastery of the meaning of that pain by the reader. This literary il/legibility of the face manifests today in strikingly similar ways in the work of contemporary painter Kerry James Marshall and his visual rendering of the affectless Black gaze. Reading Toomer’s text with Marshall’s paintings helps resist the idea that, in order to be politically actionable, Black pain must be “present,” expressed, and open to total representation. Toomer and Marshall instead offer an ethics of limited recognition, one that sees the presence of pain yet without defining that pain for the person who experiences it. This ethics of the gaze allows for a compassionate political response to Black pain while also denying any total capture of that pain’s full meaning.

Yet rather than one who vacillates between presence and absence, Toomer has been read as an artist of positive expression and, before his disavowals of his complicated racial identity, self-expression of the beauty and complexity of Blackness. Toomer wrote to Waldo Frank of the early drafts of Cane and their “impulse to self-expression” and, in a later letter, contrasted his work to that of Sherwood Anderson, arguing that while Anderson had gone some way to expressing “a very deep and beautiful emotion by way of the Negro,” Toomer himself had “express[ed] it,” but he was also “expressing myself, expressing Life.”[5] Rather than pain, Cane has been thought to express the beauty of Blackness since Frank’s foreword to the 1923 edition, where he reads Toomer as finding in “the Georgia Negro . . . material for gorgeous painting.”[6] This aesthetic expression has been read as politically productive, particularly because it includes the marginalized bodies of women, and because Toomer’s turn to Black song is thought to afford the means of mobilizing collective memory to the ends of emancipation and new belonging.[7]

But Cane has also been read as a text of elisions, deconstruction, and aesthetic failure.[8] Much work on Cane has addressed these opposing readings by disjunctively taking sides, so that the text is about expression or silence, emancipation or lynching, aesthetic success or failure. Karen Jackson Ford, Catherine Gunther Kodat, and Alix Beeston have productively moved past these oppositions to consider their entanglements. Beeston turns to “the photograph and its ontology of visual doubt” in the context of lynching to show how “Cane operates in a composite mode of paradox and allusiveness.”[9] Reading “Karintha,” she finds a narrative of “evasiveness,” marked by “a play of concealment and disclosure”; in “Becky,” “partial disclosures” are made by signifying bodies and “the prejudices that color them” (Beeston, In and Out of Sight, 73, 95). But, returning to Scarry, she argues that Toomer’s blazon poems—the three “Portraits in Georgia”—“summon up expressive resources to bridge the divide between self and other,” that they “confer visibility upon trauma” (99).

The simultaneity and irresolution of il/legibility offers another way beyond past oppositions by seeing how the text stages a recognition of the presence of pain but also the absence of any clear meaning of that pain. Presence-yet-incompleteness is signaled by the circle segments that were, for Toomer, suggestive of the work’s “design.”[10]

Three simple lines drawn on paper
Fig. 1. Cane’s circle segments (Parts I, II, and III).    

Following from this larger theme of presence and absence, the face functions throughout Cane as the site/sight that simultaneously suggests yet withholds access to pain. In a preliminary effacement, Karintha, the subject of the first story, is one of the few characters in Cane who does not receive a detailed description of her face—it is her “skin” that is described (compare Carma’s “mangrove-gloomed, yellow flower face”) (Toomer, Cane, 5, 14). Becky’s white face, specifically her eyes, are “harsh, vacant, staring,” where the denial “She wouldn’t tell” suggests her silence as well as her illegibility, the inability to read her, to make her “tell” (9). When looking at the face of Fern, the narrator finds that he “cannot tell you” why “you sought her eyes” (18). At the climax of “Blood-Burning Moon,” Toomer will both face and efface the lynched Tom Burwell: “Now Tom could be seen within the flames. Only his head, erect, lean, like a blackened stone” (37). Narrative access to Tom is made distant by “could be seen” (37). Such seeing is without meaning anyway since Tom’s face is illegible; his head is “like a blackened stone,” a blank, Black surface. A moment before, his face was similarly described as “set and stony” (37). His death is also one of effacement, with a focus on the destroyed face in the terrible image, “Tom’s eyes popped” (37). Though we are surrounded by the details of the pain and horror of lynching, Tom gives no actual expression or indication of pain, save “irregular breathing” (37).

The il/legible face preoccupies the three “Georgia Portraits” in Cane, originally published in Modern Review 1 (1923), which suggest ekphrastic detail by their title but are also poems of denial as well as the facial revelations of classical portraiture. Toomer’s “Face” poeticizes il/legibility through enjambment, omission, and formal arrangement of black text on the white page. The first line, “Hair—,” moves immediately from disclosure in “Hair” to the blankness of the dash, a process that repeats for “Brows—” and “Her eyes—” (12). The lyrical, pastoral images of “streams of stars” and the rippling waters of “recurved canoes” are then suddenly undone by the presence of “pain,” a word accentuated on the page by its lonely, prominent placement on the far-right margin (12). By this visual isolation, pain becomes all there is; yet, if we view the poem as a visual whole, there is also, simultaneously, the woman to whom it is attached. She is only racialized near the poem’s concluding lines, where “cluster grapes of sorrow / purple in the evening sun” aestheticize Blackness through metaphors of fruitfulness and then undo that beauty through “sorrow” and death, as suggested in “nearly ripe for worms” (12). Pain is simultaneously present with beauty, though the precise trauma is unknown.

The “pain” of “Face” emerges as legible through some details but is also illegible through dense metaphor and lack of specificity, for an il/legibility that discloses pain’s presence but denies us access to any deeper meaning. While there might be formal debts here to modernist metonymy, Toomer moves metonymic poetics beyond Eliotic lament at purported cultural disintegration and into a politically productive equilibrium between presence and absence.[11] As Michael North notes, “it was difficult for modern poetry to satisfy Toomer’s desire for ethical and political engagement.”[12] Rather than see the characteristically Euro-modernist “crisis of representation” as an aesthetic threat, something to be overcome through new forms of cultural coherence in parataxis, Toomer’s poetics of il/legibility shows how the crisis itself is politically enabling when it allows for a responsible representation of pain that can express “pain” without determining by that very expression the meaning of pain. Pain is simultaneously present and absent, Black but blank, politically available but resistant to mastery.

In his understanding of the face and ethics, Emmanuel Levinas proposes that an encounter with the alterity of the Other, whose face “cannot be comprehended, that is, encompassed,” produces an ethical relation of responsibility to and for the Other, most fundamentally in the commandment not to kill.[13] While, for Levinas, “the face” as a concept is not reducible to its physical features or mere materiality, he suggests in conversation with Philippe Nemo that we try to “mask” the “essential poverty” of the physical face “by putting on poses, by taking on a countenance.” (Levinas, Ethics and Infinity, 86). By removing the expression or “pose” or “countenance” from the face, Toomer—and Marshall after him—return the face to what Levinas would see as its most naked and defenseless physical condition, what Levinas calls “the total nudity” of the Other’s “defenceless eyes” or the “upright exposure, without defense” of the face without “pose” or “countenance” (Totality and Infinity, 199; Ethics and Infinity, 86). That, in the case of Toomer, the white mobs do not feel any Levinasian ethical obligation even at the sight of the naked defenseless face and eyes of Tom Burwell—and that it is his defenseless eyes that are destroyed and that mark as well the extinction of his I—corroborates Fricker’s sense of white racism as “psychologically deeper” (Epistemic Injustice, 25); for Toomer, white racism corrodes the ethical sense down to the very heart’s core, destroying what should be a compassionate response to the defenseless face of the Other. By consistently confronting us with that most naked countenance of the Other, by confronting us with the il/legible face, Toomer imagines, nearly forty years before Levinas in Totalité et Infini: essai sur l'extériorité (1961), an ethics of encounter that sees in the denial of total capture of the Other the possibility of a relation of response and responsibility to the naked, defenseless face, even as Toomer relentlessly stages white unwillingness to acknowledge or live by such responsibility to the Black Other. Like Toomer’s practice of the simultaneously legible and illegible face, the affectless gaze in contemporary painter Kerry James Marshall’s work elicits reading and yet, through the very blankness of that gaze, remains simultaneously illegible. Like Toomer, Marshall’s motivating drive is thought to be one of representation and expression, what Greg Tate sees as his “addressing the whole question of presence in the face of absence, of erasure.”[14] Marshall has made explicit his goal of getting Black art into Western institutional settings such as museums, for “a certain kind of an indispensable presence . . . a presence in the narrative that’s not negotiable, that’s undeniable. [15]

A literary encounter with Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952) formed this vision, where, Marshall says, “the condition of invisibility literally changed everything for me. What I was reading there, the notion of being and not-being, the simultaneity of presence and absence, was exactly what I had been trying to get at in my artwork.”[16] Although Dieter Roelstraete and Ian Alteveer read the influence of Invisible Man to signal a turn in Marshall to greater representation and presence and away from postmodern abstraction, Marshall understands greater realism not as full revelation but through the “simultaneity of presence and absence” (Alteever, A Different Light, 25).[17] The faces that result make Blackness strikingly present yet without any particular facial emotion, in a visual art markedly similar to Toomer’s simultaneous blank and Black gaze.

Painting of black family picnicking at lake
Fig. 2. Kerry James Marshall, Past Times, 1997, Acrylic and Collage on Canvas, 108 ¼ by 157 inches, © Kerry James Marshall. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

While, as Karsten Lund observes, Marshall’s blank faces link back to the expressionless faces of classical works such as Hans Holbein’s The Ambassadors (1533), they also transform that gaze through the contexts of American Blackness.[18] Particularly in his large-scale canvases of the Garden Series in the 90s and the Artist paintings of the 2000s, Marshall cultivates viewer uncertainty via the Black, blank gaze, undoing clear narratives about his works, especially those (mis)perceived by white viewers. When NPR correspondent Susan Stamberg talks to Marshall about his Garden Series, she admits “Marshall's purposeful display of the spirit and strength of black life can be confusing to white eyes—mine, anyway.” Study the image below (fig. 3) and think about what you see in the man’s gaze:

Painting of black man sitting on lawn in style of postage stamp
Fig. 3. Kerry James Marshall, Untitled (Altgeld Gardens), 1995, Acrylic and Collage on Canvas, 78 x 103 inches, © Kerry James Marshall. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York. 

Describing what is most likely this painting, Untitled (Altgeld Gardens), Stamberg sees “housing” that “looks like prison. I see deterioration and desperation—get me out of here—in his dead eyes.” Marshall, who “lived there,” instead sees “contentment,” finding that in “the gaze out at the spectator, there’s a certain uncertainty about the way he sees himself being perceived by the spectator,” in a more self-conscious form of Doyle’s reading of Toomer’s “gazed-on” Karintha (Doyle, Bordering on the Body, 83). Marshall’s felicitous construction “certain uncertainty” evokes the double quality of that figure’s gaze and our gaze back at him, so that Marshall’s “simultaneity of presence and absence” rhymes with Toomer’s blank and Black. In this case, the face’s il/legibility exposes white assumptions that reduce Black life to trauma. These divergent responses to the same aesthetic object suggest legibility’s varying modalities, how legibility shifts and inflects with the viewer’s identity and situation: Stamberg’s white, outsider gaze maps one set of stereotypes onto the blank, Black figure while Marshall’s Black, insider, artist viewpoint sees another scene altogether. In this way, Marshall’s paintings of the blank, Black gaze go beyond Toomer’s literary characters because they immediately return the gaze of the viewer. Marshall’s figures look back in such a blank way that the viewer can see how their own situatedness shapes their reading of others.  

Marshall deploys this same blank gaze in scenes more suggestive of pain through their link to the traumatic histories of the Middle Passage, chattel slavery, and white American suburban conformity, particularly in Great America (1994) and Bang (1994). 

Painting of black children with American flag
Fig. 4. Kerry James Marshall, Bang, 1994, Acrylic and Collage on Canvas, 104 x 120 inches, © Kerry James Marshall. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

In Bang, as elsewhere in his large-scale works, the sheer number of legible objects accumulated by collage technique is in tension with often illegible and obscured meaning. Suggestive links between these objects and the histories of American racialized violence make them hum with menace to the Black bodies in the painting. Is the whitewashed sign on the bottom right of Bang a bird house, a slave cabin, the master’s house, or the arrangement of Black bodies onto levels of a slaving ship? The layer of whitewash makes for what is literally an il/legible sign, one where history has been (not completely) effaced. Trees and the rope-like hose evoke lynching, as does the smoking barbeque, for two often combined lynching methods: hanging and burning. The background suburban street runs red with blood, aligning white flight to the suburbs with Black blood—an image that resonates with the Black blood coursing through Washington, D.C. in Toomer’s “Seventh Street.” An American flag obscures the boys’ faces, while “Bang” conflates fireworks with America’s foundational revolutionary violence and its enduring tolerance for enormous gun death. Yet faced with these signs of historical trauma, the three faces show no reaction: the girl’s is obscured, those of the boys are affectless. The faces of the two boys are divided by the flag, so that the most potent symbol of America’s nationalist pieties prevents them from seeing even each other. Each pictured face is blank but Black, following Toomer’s “stony” description, simultaneously present yet strangely absent in Marshall’s. Is this the impassive gaze of the traumatized victim or the gaze of stoic endurance in the face of traumatic history or something else entirely? It is not for the viewer, particularly white viewers, to decide, so that the paintings speak to this history through legible details but, because of the illegible face, without speaking for it.

While mediating between writer and artist across a span of nearly seventy years carries risks of abstracting them from distinct contexts, reading the legacies of Toomer’s aesthetic practice of il/legibility with Marshall’s visual aesthetic of “the simultaneity of presence and absence” complicates our understanding of the enduring political value of modernist form. While Toomer’s modernist il/legibility affords political resources to Marshall’s work, its contemporary presence should give us pause, as it also demonstrates the significant lack of political progress in recognizing and structurally ameliorating Black pain. At the aesthetic level, the shared il/legible face complicates today’s prevailing popular modes of memorializing Black pain, through the ostensible capture provided by realism and any illusory politics predicated on efficacious expression of pain alone. An unresolved and simultaneous il/legibility affords instead a politics of responsible recognition of pain while also setting the limits of that response, denying the white liberal fantasy of full access to the particular meaning of Black pain. While a nationalist rhetoric of e pluribus unum still seeks to master the multiplicity of the American body politic through the governing myth of an overriding identity, the il/legible Black gaze looks on.


[1] Fred Moten, Black and Blur (Durham: Duke University Press, 2017), ix.

[2] Miranda Fricker, Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 1, 17.

[3] Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), 19.

[4] Saidiya Hartman, Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 3.

[5] Toomer to Frank, March 24, 1922, in Jean Toomer, Cane, eds. Rudolph P. Byrd and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (New York: Norton, 2011), 145; Toomer to Frank, Early to mid-January 1923, Cane, 165–66.

[6] Waldo Frank, Foreword to the 1923 Edition of Cane, Cane, 117. 

[7] Laura Doyle and Susan Edmunds offer qualified affirmative readings of Cane as expressive emancipation. Doyle finally critiques the “residual gender opposition” in the way Cane constructs its social problems (Laura Doyle, Bordering on the Body: The Racial Matrix of Modern Fiction and Culture [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994], 88). See also Susan Edmunds, Grotesque Relations: Modernist Domestic Fiction and the U.S. Welfare State (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008).      

[8] Henry Louis Gates, Jr’s “The Same Difference: Reading Jean Toomer, 1923–1982” is one example. See Chapter Seven of Figures in Black: Words, Signs, and the “Racial Self” (New York: Oxford, 1987), 196­–224.

[9] Alix Beeston, In and Out of Sight: Modernist Writing and the Photographic Unseen (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), 102, 74. See also Catherine Gunther Kodat, “To ‘Flash White Light from Ebony’: The Problem of Modernism in Jean Toomer's Cane,” Twentieth Century Literature 46, no. 1 (Spring 2000): 1-19; Karen Jackson Ford, Split-Gut Song: Jean Toomer and the Poetics of Modernity (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2005).

[10] Toomer to Frank, December 12, 1922, Cane, 162.  

[11] See Michael North on Eliot’s metonymy in Chapter 2, “T. S. Eliot: Conservatism,” in The Political Aesthetic of Yeats, Eliot, and Pound (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), for instance, 121­–22.

[12] Michael North, The Dialect of Modernism: Race, Language, and Twentieth-Century Literature. Race and American Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 176. Accessed 7 Feb. 2023.

[13] Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority, trans. Alphonso Lingis (Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne University Press, 2001), 194; Emmanuel Levinas, Ethics and Infinity: Conversations with Philippe Nemo, trans. Richard A. Cohen (Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne University Press, 1985), 86.

[14] Greg Tate, “Conversation: Thema Golden, Arthur Jafa & Greg Tate,” in Kerry James Marshall: A Creative Convening, ed. Sandra Jackson-Dumont (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2018), 207.

[15] Susan Stamberg, “Kerry James Marshall: A Black Presence in the Art World Is ‘Not Negotiable,’” Morning Edition, NPR, 28 March 2017, retrieved from

[16] Quoted in Ian Alteveer, “A Different Light: Kerry James Marshall’s Western Exposure,” in Mastry, ed. Helen Molesworth (New York: Rizzoli, 2016), 25.

[17] Dieter Roelstraete, “Visible Man: Kerry James Marshall, Realist,” in Mastry, 47–48.

[18] Karsten Lund, “De Style,” in Mastry, 116.