What They Learned: Federico Perelmuter ’21

The English major’s thesis reexamined Jean Toomer’s “Cane.”

Many popular narratives portray the present moment as better and more free than any time in the past. However, many Black studies scholars have pushed back on this narrative of progress to emphasize the persistence of racialized violence towards Black people. Federico Perelemuter, an English major and philosophy minor, used his thesis to argue that the book Cane, by Jean Toomer, also disputes a narrative of progress.

“In my view, Cane is radically challenging the construction of the historical present in the 1920’s—a time of both extreme conservatism with the Palmer raids, and of invention with the New Negro movement centered around New York City—and visions of the North as emancipated or inherently progressive and rid of racialized oppression,” he said. “I suggest that Cane uses material textures and objects—at different points: blood, bees, honey, houses, water, streets—to highlight how the experience of the present for Black folks was not radically seperate from the brutal past, but instead followed directly from it, from enslavement and debt bondage and lynching.”

Perelmuter began exploring these themes of scientific modernization and urbanization in early-20th-century literature as a research assistant for English Professor Kim Benston. 

“Jean Toomer’s Cane, which came out in 1923, was a really natural fit for all of these interests,” said Perelmuter. “The book has been shockingly underread critically, and most often is used to make strange psychological analyses of its author’s racial status. I was convinced the text was doing far more interesting work than that for which it was being given credit, which was a starting point for me.”

Perelmuter hopes to pursue a Ph.D. in Latin American literature with a focus on Black studies. Specifically he is interested in studying diasporas in Brazil and Southern Cone countries, like Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, and Paraguay.

What did you learn from working on your thesis?
Well, at a scholarly level I think my writing has really improved and I’ve learned to position myself in relation to other scholars more proficiently, to articulate my own claims clearly and in a way that distinguishes them from those of others. More broadly, writing something for this long–around 8 months!–is a stamina game, and as a writer I’ve learned a lot about the importance of drafting and editing.

Content-wise, I think I understand better the ways in which art can function to challenge [or] undermine historical narratives offered to explain the present, which are based in white supremacy and function to hide and justify the genocidal, anti-Black functions of U.S. institutions. Put differently, Cane showed me how subtly and beautifully art can address the present, and subvert widespread ideas and ideologies about how we arrived here.

What are the implications for your thesis research?
Hopefully, my thesis will compel scholars to look at Cane in a more positive light, escaping their tendency for psychologizing Toomer or for treating Cane as a text that is concerned with affirming a Black version of modernity that has left behind the shackles of the Southern, rural past. My revision, thus, returns Cane to its rightful place as a crowning achievement of Black literature, as a beautiful text with remarkable political and historical sophistication.

“What They Learned” is a blog series exploring the thesis work of recent graduates.