‘Becky’ by Jean Toomer

Toomer, Jean 1923

Becky by Jean Toomer, 1923

The magic trick:

Making the narrator speak for the town but not necessarily with the town

Here we have a ghost story that didn’t need to be a ghost story. “Becky” tells the tale of a white woman who is ostracized from her town after she gives birth to a black baby. The town then begins to regard her as a ghost. They don’t interact with her. They don’t see her for years. Is her cabin haunted? Is she even still alive? They frighten themselves with these questions, when their own hateful social values are responsible for the need for such stupid questions in the first place.

What makes it all work is Toomer’s ability to use a first-person narrator. It’s a dicey proposition, because, as you can guess from the above summation of the premise, we’re talking about some pretty ugly stuff. The narrator always uses “we” referring to the town and the society, so there’s no ducking from responsibility; no playing the blame game. But the narrator also offers no personal spite. Any talk of racist language, etc. is only attributed to other people in the town. This is crucial because it allows us to get a surface-level perspective on the situation from a narrator we can trust but also not despise. And that’s quite a trick on Toomer’s part.

The selection:

When the first was born, the white folks said they’d have no more to do with her. And black folks, they too joined hands to cast her out… The pines whispered to Jesus. . The railroad boss said not to say he said it, but she could live, if she wanted to, on the narrow strip of land between the railroad and the road.

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