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,
And start their silent swinging, one by one.
Black horses drive a mower through the weeds,
And there, a field rat, startled, squealing bleeds,
His belly close to ground. I see the blade,
Blood-stained, continue cutting weeds and shade.

Analysis, meaning and summary of Jean Toomer's poem Reapers


  1. Jay R says:

    When I initially read the poem I had thought that the word black in the phrase, “black reapers with the sound… are sharpening scythes.” (Pg. 62) was a descriptive word for the color physical characteristics of an item, rather than black being used as a term for African Americans. Once this realization that this was what the word meant, the poem became increasingly clearer. The author uses the word black two times in his poem, once when describing the reapers and again when describing the horse. The inference that I received from the usage of the word black in both instances is that the author is saying that the black reapers were viewed as objects or possessions, just like one would view a horse as property. That their sole purpose was not to be happy or live their life but they were put on this earth to fulfill a goal of plowing the fields. In the eyes of a farm owner, they were no better than a horse and were dehumanized as such.
    The poem is describing the life of a black reaper and the disconnection from it’s job due to its monotony. It talks about the repetitious and unceremonial task of sharpening the scythe blade and plowing the field. When reading the poem I felt as though this was just how the situation is; the bleakness of the black reapers life and the inability to escape or change it, the inescapable quality of it all. Due to the inability to escape the role that the black reaper plays, the role dehumanizes him. For example, “And there, a field rat, startled, squealing bleeds, his belly close to the ground. I see the blade, blood-stained, continue cutting weeds and shade.” (pg. 62) The reaper knows and has seen what his blade has done but he continues as if nothing happened because he has become disconnected from it all and therefore has lost the ability to care about those less fortunate. They are no longer seen as casualties of the act, rather their passing and their subsequent existence is not even acknowledged.
    One can draw from the poem that the field rat may be being used as an analogy to the treatment of African Americans. That society will step all over them without ever acknowledging that they are alive, they can bleed, and they can feel pain. Therefore, since human beings are creatures who learn and are creatures of habit, in general, they will tend to engage in actions similar to what has been done to them. Since the African Americans have been trod on for so long, they have learned that this is how one acts to those whom are inferior. Hence, the lack of empathy for the plight of the field mouse on the part of the black reaper.
    In the poem, the author who witnesses this act is merely an observer. He doesn’t exhibit any remorse for the death of the field rat or for the loss of the reaper’s humanity. He merely reports what he sees and leaves it up to the reader to interpret the situation as they see fit.
    Another important theme in the poem is the stark inevitability of life. Toomer writes his poem with a matter-of-fact quality that doesn’t give room for discussion. He states the fact that there will always be victims whose squealing goes unheard. One can relate this to the feelings held by slaves. One can infer that due to the feelings that slave owners held, with regards to the value of a slave’s life, slaves saw no point in crying out for mercy, their pleads went unheard just as the rat’s cry fell on deaf ears.
    Another key aspect of the poem, for me, was the word choice in the poem. When writing the poem “Reapers”, Jean Toomer chose to call the animal in the field a “field rat” instead of a “field mouse”. This decision may be attributed to the language at the time, however, I don’t believe that that is the reason. My belief is that when one hears the word “rat”, there is a negative stigma attached to it. However, if one hears the word mouse, one denotes a more compassionate emotion. For example, if I am told that there is a rat in the house, my mind conjures the image of a large body, long teeth, sharp claws and a whip-like tail. Due to this image, my instant emotional reaction is one of fear and disgust. How is one to handle a rat in the house with those images engrained in their mind? My gut reaction is to kill it. However, if one says that there is a mouse in the house; my mind conjures images of a small-bodied, cute, and innocent creature. My emotional reaction is “awwwwww, poor thing” and my actions would parallel my reaction. It is my belief that Jean Toomer, intentionally used the word “rat” to convey society’s feelings regarding slaves. They were not seen as helpless creatures, which merit compassion and sympathy, but rather as a creature whose mere existence is to disgust and therefore are condemned to a life of injustice and misunderstanding from birth.
    In conclusion, the poem “Reapers” is one of my favorites because there is a surprising amount of depth to the poem that one can read as simply straightforward. It does not use colorful words or elaborate phrases to elicit the reader’s response, instead it presents the reader with an instance and asks the reader to interpret it as he will. The poem does not preach about the treatment of others rather it asks the reader to derive meaning themselves. I really like that a lot.

  2. Joelle says:

    the poem doesn’t really mean a actual reaper, its symbolic the reaper is supposed to be the African Americans in the fields that have to slave away all day to cut whatever it is the old fashion way. the tools they used looked like a scythe… the dying mouse is a friend or not even just a person you are boarded with that is killed in the field but no one looks because its as common as a field mouse. they reference the “black” horses. they are silent because its a forced life.. its a poem from the Harlem Renaissance era and is about breaking away from the mold of segregation. he lives on one day at a time….

    at least that was the interpretation that was taught in my class, and what i got out of it.

  3. Natalie says:

    In the poem the emphasis is on the blood and the sqealing rat showing that it has to be symbolism then when the reaper just moves on it is really ironic because when you put so much emphasis on the dead rat and the blood and give such graphic detail i would assume that there is a sense of sadness or regret, but the reaper just continues staring at the blood stains without so much of a thought. I think that the Reaper symbolizes ourselves in the darkest form, the mouse is a friend or maybe a close neighbor, and the mower is a hardship or failure. The hardship hits our friends and we stand by and watch, but even though we care about them we never really hurt or feel what they feel.

  4. kathy o says:

    i think that this poem is a symbol of life. The reapers being an obvious reference to the grim reaper, goes plowing through a field, cutting weeds. Weeds can be viewed as something unneccesary, even unworthy of existence. As the weeds are being cut out, a mouse is accidently killed. The reaper sees the accident, but moves on. This poem exemplifies how life is inevitable but must move along.

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