The poem “Reaper” by Jean Toomer presents a theme that is quite dark, for the mood of the poem deals with the effects faced by African American slave labor during that time period. In his poem, Toomer portrays African American laborers as black reapers working like black horses mowing the field. They are able to sharpen their tools and carry their sharpening stone in their back pocket working independently in the field but are equal to machines like mowers being pulled by black horses in the field making the poem’s tone serious and dramatic. Rather than black being used only as reference for a person’s skin, it’s used more as the object of what the whole poem signifies. Toomer is trying to emphasize the strong hold African Americans faced during the 19th century that when most blacks were viewed as objects or possessions and not free thinkers. For this reason, Toomer’s description misleads anyone who reads it for the first time because it is unclear what his message is. After I broke down each point that he was trying to make however, I began to appreciate the message behind this poem. It is a clear reminder of America’s darker times, when man had no civil rights due to the fact of his color. As well as discrimination in which African Americans were not considered as people but more as an asset like an animal or machine that were bought and sold.
For instance, the poet begins by stating in his first stanza, “Black reapers with the sound of steel on stones are sharpening scythes. I see them place the hones in their hip pockets as a thing that’s done.” This clearly shows that the reapers understand procedure and their condition. They do not deviate from what they have learned and accept the fact that survival depends on the work they perform. The poet saw significance in the act of sharpening the tool and carrying the hone in the hip pocket while the laborers did not. The difference could be while both are black men on the inside he is whiter on the outside and feels he is an outsider to his race and who he identifies with. The laborers are working in solidarity while he remains an observer. Also, I can see the poet passing the field and seeing the large muscled black workers swinging their tools back and forth mowing the field and he associates them to strong black horses. The black reaper is the reality of the workers color and the work they do. Toomer begins by stating “black reaper with the sound of steel and stones” From my understanding the word “black” is symbolic in this poem in several different ways.
Firstly, one of the primary reasons why I think the poet uses this word is to make it clear that his poem is regarding African American individuals. Moreover, this word also gives his poem a darker meaning. In the same stanza, Toomer mentions the word “reapers”. I interpret this word a few different ways, for according to the dictionary, a reaper has several meanings like One that reaps, especially a machine for harvesting grain or pulse crops, or the grim reaper who is the personification of death as a cloaked man or skeleton carrying a scythe. I pictured Reapers of death present along with the African Americans as a reminder of the death and misery they have already witnessed. For instance, one of its definitions is that it is an individual or machine that cuts the harvest in the fields. At the same time, I feel as if the author’s use of this word is also used to describe the characteristic of a grim reaper, which once again makes me feel at unease to know that this is a poem that is no longer just discussing the idea of racism but also cruelty, because it is comparing African American individuals to a machine or an animal.
Another aspect of this stanza that is significant to understand is the poet’s use of the words “steel and stones.” To me, the word “steel” is a clear indicator of the strength and effort that these men put in to work all day in the fields. This gives a masculine theme to the poem simply by painting a picture to the audience of these men hard at work. The second stanza, “Are sharpening scythes, I see them place the hones” is also reflective of his motive for writing the poem. After reading this stanza, I think that brings up another important theme the poet is trying to address, which is of violence. A scythe is an agricultural tool that is used by farmers to plow the fields. In order to use it properly, it is first sharpened. I think by emphasizing the use of this simple tool, the poet is only trying to reiterate the intense, depressing tone of his poem. Moreover, by mentioning the word “hones” the poet is giving his reader an idea of the quality of work that is being done by these black men. They may do the same work on an everyday basis, but the sweat that they waste in doing so reflects upon their hard work and personality. This implies that their performance is for survival.
In the sixth stanza of this poem, “And there, a field rat, startled, squealing bleeds” the field rat is symbolic. The fact that it has been mortally wounded by the blade but the reaper gives it little regard because he cannot stop working and his feelings have been suppressed to the fact that he is a farm machine or animal. I thought it was interesting to apply this theory to the scenario that the poet has presented to us. During the 19th century, the time period of this poem when written, African Americans were always placed a level below whites. Instead of being considered humans, African Americans were looked down upon, as if they are animals. Therefore, in accordance with human nature, the labors would treat weaker creatures that fall under them similarly. As a result, after reading this stanza, I concluded that the squealing of the field rats and the pain that is upon them is similar to black laborers who mow the weeds it is emphasizing the cruelty and remorse that African Americans had to go through while living in America during this time period. Another interpretation of this stanza is that it is metaphorical for the ignorance in the white society at the time.
Likewise, the white Americans of the time were ignorant of the troubles that African Americans go through. These interpretations add to the violent and intense tone that the poet is trying to set. In addition to this, the words the poet uses in this stanza, such as “squealing” and “bleeds” also intensify the mood of the poem. The vivid images the words conjure I believe were needed to add how deeply removed the laborer is from what is happening with the rat. I found that the interpretation of these last two stanzas, “His belly close to ground. I see the blade. Blood-stained, continue cutting weeds and shade” to be another important part of the poet’s message. The workers, the poet makes it seem as if the horses are one machine that is working in the field. The reason why they seem like a machine is because there isn’t life to them. They only know what they have been shown and are driven by man. The laborers that are working on the plantations are substituting for machines and these living beings are hardened to the sights and sounds of brutality in their lives. The black horse, reaper, is not any less an animal than the rat and holds his dying in less regard. The graphic detail in this short stanza I couldn’t help but sense the mood move towards death in the way that it has no sympathy towards it.
The worker may see that the dying rat is escaping the cruel life. The belly of the rat close to the ground means that they are lowered in dirt. This makes me feel maybe the author is trying to sympathize with these workers. In the two stanzas before this passage, everything comes off calm but when the horses come in, there is violence, death, no remorse. The simple tone from something smooth and relaxing as a reader, you feel somewhat exhausted. For the very end, the climax is so dramatic that from what you have finished reading you can’t help but sympathize to reaper and the rat, for they represent the African Americans struggle during that time. This essay has a whole another meaning than what the title conveys to the reader. The poet expresses what he has seen or imagined of a field worker’s day and brought to the reader the significance of each stanza with description of color and sound. Maybe he knew someone in this field and the hardship they faced or maybe because he was educated and had a different acceptance in life being lighter skinned meant more to see the black reapers display the blood and sweat of their history and the life they were born into.
After reading this poem several times I believe it could have different interpretations. Even though this is a short poem, the words used to describe the scenario are profound and give the reader symbols to interpret. The poet wanted to focus on the black man’s labor in the fields and how that kind of work had affected him. Overall, I really enjoyed reading this poem by Jean Toomer not only did this poem take me back in time to early America, but showed me the hardship that African Americans faced during their daily life when working out on the fields. This poem also showed the hard work that these men put into farming even if the conditions where bad and exhausting, for these workers came off like machines rather than men.