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Harlem Renaissance Essay – Reapers by Jean Toomer

Plentiful poets depicted their observations through poetic verses highlighting their reigns and dedication to specific movements. But rare among them pinpointed a unidirectional stance that revolved around a single community first but later the whole of humanity. The “Reaper” by Jean Toomer is a thoughtful octet that brilliantly serves the same purpose. Through this short poem, he depicted the hardships the black community suffered in heroic and lyrical couplets. In this short poem, the poet uses several poetic devices, including imagery, metaphor, diction and alliteration, to deliver his message. This essay highlights the Reapers’ central theme of oppression, cruelty, and inhuman attitudes of whites towards the Blacks. Further, it enhances our understating of the ‘Harlem Renaissance’ in the context of racial discrimination, the aftermaths of slavery, and the identity of the black community entitled to their fundamental rights.

‘Reapers’ conveys the idea of darkness and gloomy shadows to the reader’s mind. The poem’s beginning reveals an empty and bleak voice in a heralded manner, as in the line, “…the sound of steel on stones”(Toomer). It looks like it depicts the misery of a mob or community. They are forcefully used for some specific tasks, but in the end, they have nothing for themselves instead slavery and oppression. This sense of disparity leads to the next challenge according to the instructions of their masters. The ‘black reapers’ depict the continued slavery of a community that indulged in this inhuman aspect generation after generation. The cruelty and oppression in this sense are based on color or race, not the entity of humanity. The field and respective operations of chopping and slicing are analogous to destruction under the blanket of gloomy times. And surprisingly, such persecution and cruelty were the destiny of only blacks, and the white community was the real actor behind this oppression. The depiction of whiteness originates from the glow and sharpness of the scythe’s blade, which has a white face, but its actions breed only destruction and bloodshed.

Moreover, the words like ‘black horses’ and ‘mowing’ vividly relate to the inhuman attitude of white towards blacks in the context of labour and the workforce. In this aspect, the blacks were adorned as only the labour community, and continuous work was assigned. There was no concept of fundamental and human rights entitled to these personals. In addition, the destruction and genocide of the community are vivid from the ‘mowing’. The whites always used to consider blacks as inferior to them. In this context, the poem beautifully touches on the past, and the ‘death of the rat’ resembles the crushing of violence in the times of Jean Toomer. In this way, Toomer tried to identify the roots of the black community and the series of cruelties this race had to face. The voice of the struggle for the rights of the black community was called violence and a hurdle to maintaining peace in society. The ‘killing of rat’ relates to the tragic death of this voice who demanded black’s rights and were gifted death and torture by the whites.

Furthermore, the poem’s message makes us understand the Harlem Renaissance that raised the voice of the black community. The poem’s silence after crushing violence sends deep echoes of cruelty and the aftermath of slavery. In addition, the dreams of freedom, equality, justice and identity of the black community are huge questions marks, primarily when this poem was written. So, the poem’s tone, with the poet’s personal observation, reflects racial discrimination in society. Further, the end of the poem points out the long struggle on the part of the blacks to gain their fundamental rights.

It can be concluded that the poem is a masterpiece emphasizing a profound message concerning cruelty, oppression, racial discrimination and injustice in society. With the high magnitude of the message, it has broken the boundaries of the resemblance to Black Americans and has become the voice of every oppressed community around the globe. Lastly, it highlights the Harlem Renaissance movement to understand that greatness can only be associated with humanity, not any specific race.

Work Cited

*Toomer, Jean. The Collected Poems of Jean Toomer. UNC Press Books, 1988.



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