Jean Toomer’s “Reapers,” despite its terse length, shadows the reader under an ominous atmosphere by utilizing careful diction, sinister-sounding alliteration, and an universally foreboding theme. As part of a the novel CANE, it is interesting to consider where Toomer places “Reapers.” Immediately following “Karintha,” an examination of one woman’s beauty, the contrast of the thematic material between radiant “Karintha” and the oppressing “Reapers” is stark. Starting with the title, Toomer deftly utilizes the interplay between the connotation and denotation of the word “reaper” to create a sense of tension and fear in the reader’s mind. While the dictionary definition innocuously refers to a reaper as “one who harvests a crop,” the connotation in American culture is related to that of Death incarnate. By utilizing words and themes that connote death (“black reapers,” “black horses,” “shade), Toomer seems to be exploring the uneasiness commonly associated with darkness and possibly how that fear informs the unfair treatment of people with darker skin. The poem, therefore, can be read with either the denotation or connotation of “black reapers” in mind—or both. Either way, it is a mesmerizing examination of life and death.
“Reapers” could be about the everyday labor involved in thrashing out weeds, but the way in which the poem is presented supports the interpretation of the unceasing approach of an indifferent Death. The alliteration, the persistent use of the “s” sound, informs the poet’s intent. The consonants use in phrases such as “sound of steel on stone,” the “sharpening scythes,” and “silent swinging” seems to audibly echo the sounds of metal on stone and of a scythe swinging through weeds and tall grass, supplementing the already-intimidating description of the “black reapers.” Toomer paints the shadowy, black figures as indifferent--even mechanical: “a field rat…squealing bleeds” as “the blade continue[s] cutting weeds and shade.” The black reapers, using their black horses, do not seem to notice or do not care. Toomer’s word choice lends the poem a menacing air (“scythes,” “reapers,” and “blades”). Particularly of note is the curious use of “shade” as the last word. How can one cut “shade”? It seems that “shade” is another reference to darkness, possibly alluding to the Hades of Greek mythology, also referred to as “the Shades.” Adding to the intimidating nature of the figures, the poem does not signify that they will ever stop. The blood-stained blade “continue[s] cutting weeds and shade.” Toomer has here crafted a fascinating exploration of humankind’s apprehension towards Death, and, like death itself, we do not know much about these black reapers other than they are mysterious, indifferent, and unceasing.