Sterling's Magic.The scholar and poet Sterling Brown stamped American poetry with the music of the black vernaculart
On a cold, gray fall day in Washington, D.C., my friend and I saw a tall, aged and slightly stooped man shivering at a bus stop. It was too cold for him to be in the open without gloves or a hat. His face was contorted con·tort·ed
1. Twisted or strained out of shape.
2. Botany Twisted, bent, or partially rolled upon itself; convolute.
con·tort with worry. And so we stopped our car and asked if we could give him a lift. "Yes, yes" he said. "I'd be most grateful." We were sophomores at Howard University Howard University, at Washington, D.C.; coeducational; with federal support. It was founded in 1867 by Gen. Oliver O. Howard of the Freedmen's Bureau, to provide education for newly emancipated slaves. A normal and preparatory department was opened the same year. doing a good deed on a winter's day. The man's wife had taken ill and been rushed to Emergency at Washington Hospital Center Washington Hospital Center
Washington Hospital Center is the largest private hospital in Washington, D.C.. A member of MedStar Health, the not-for-profit Hospital Center is licensed for 926 beds and, on average, operates near capacity. . He hoped it wouldn't be an imposition for us to take him there. Years later, at a tribute to Sterling Brown hosted by the writer Larry Neal Larry Neal or Lawerence Neal (September 5, 1937 – January 1981) was a scholar of African-American theatre. He is well known for his contributions to the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Biography
Neal was born in Atlanta, Georgia. (who was then Commissioner of the Arts for the District of Columbia District of Columbia, federal district (2000 pop. 572,059, a 5.7% decrease in population since the 1990 census), 69 sq mi (179 sq km), on the east bank of the Potomac River, coextensive with the city of Washington, D.C. (the capital of the United States). ), Professor Brown approached me and my wife (the other party in the car on that winter day) and said: "I will never forget you all's kindness in taking me to see my wife that day. I was in trouble and that was wonderful of you." We were dumbstruck dumb·struck
So shocked or astonished as to be rendered speechless.
temporarily speechless through shock or surprise
Adj. 1. . We had no idea what genius we had been blessed to be close to on that winter day. Moreover, we were impressed by the scope of Professor Brown's memory and the generosity of his spirit in acknowledging such a minor kindness on our part. Many years later, Sterling Brown came back into our lives when we were his hosts during his sojourn to Philadelphia to receive an honorary doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania (body, education) University of Pennsylvania - The home of ENIAC and Machiavelli.
Address: Philadelphia, PA, USA. . He had the generosity of spirit to tell our adolescent son that what made his parents special was not their "smarts" but their generosity in picking him up on a winter Washington day when he needed a lift. His granting priority to an enormously simple human act of kindness reminded me of Professor Brown's monumental folk character "Big Boy" Davis who thinks first to exclude "whuffolks" (white folks) from his imagined heavenly kingdom, only to remember, "But what is he to do/With that red brakeman brake·man
One who operates, inspects, or repairs brakes, especially a railroad employee who assists the conductor and checks on the operation of a train's brakes.
Noun 1. who once let him ride/An empty going home?"
The way of the black vernacular Noun 1. Black Vernacular - a nonstandard form of American English characteristically spoken by African Americans in the United States
AAVE, African American English, African American Vernacular English, Black English, Black English Vernacular, Black Vernacular whose forms, manners, functions, rhythms, and intonations Brown brilliantly mastered is, perhaps most cogently, the way of memory. The vernacular puts supreme value on instructively simple, often nameless, acts of winter kindness, and necessity. Brown was reared in the ways of hard, southern labor and rigorous black aspiration for a better life. His father's heritage was as immediate as southern slavery in Virginia. But the senior Brown made his way upward by attending both Fisk University and the Oberlin Theological Seminary. Hence, the son Sterling A. Brown, was heir to intellectual ambitiousness, black middle-class manners, and an inescapable long black southern memory.
The son's trajectory carried him from the Washington, D.C. of his birth to Williams College (where he was awarded Phi Beta Kappa Phi Beta Kappa: see fraternity.
Phi Beta Kappa
Leading academic honour society in the U.S., which draws its membership from college and university students. The oldest Greek-letter society in the U.S. honors) then to Harvard University for an MA. His first job was at Virginia Seminary in Lynchburg, where he taught for three years. That job proved equivalent to a magical, spirited, on-the-ground initiation into the ways of vernacular southern blackness. Absorbing the speech patterns, lore, legends, myths, and manners of the country folk who lived around the seminary, Brown discovered nearly the entire stock of his poetical po·et·i·cal
2. Fancifully depicted or embellished; idealized.
po·eti·cal·ly adv. repertoire.
In countless essays and interviews he speaks of the people he met during his first teaching job, characters such as Calvin "Big Boy" Davis (hero of "Odyssey of Big Boy") and Mrs. Bibby (model for the heroine of A Sister Lou"). Brown had been persuaded by his higher education that the new American realism in poetry represented by Robert Frost, Edwin Arlington Robinson, and Carl Sandburg was the way of the artistic future.
In Virginia, he discovered and embraced the black southern vernacular as his enduring field of influence, themes, values, forms, and reference. The black vernacular became his muse, his real America, as it were. The black vernacular of folklore, spirituals, ballads, field chants and hollers had been lauded as a source of artistic inspiration by black writers of the New Negro Movement of the 1920s. And the virtual father of that movement, Alain Locke, was tireless in his endorsement of folk forms and subjects for black art. However, it remained for Brown to bring the vernacular to a precise voice, tone and form to draw readers and listeners sensuously into a world of men and women who keep on "inching along" despite hardship, who relish their affinity with larger-than-life legends like John Henry and Old Jazzbo, who refuse to be brought permanently low by floods, hurricanes, starvation wages, or rampant white American violence against the black body and soul.
Brown's black men and women of the southern vernacular can look the devil in the eye in scorching scorch
v. scorched, scorch·ing, scorch·es
1. To burn superficially so as to discolor or damage the texture of. See Synonyms at burn1.
2. fields of labor and almost casually rebuke despair, "No need in frettin'/Case good times go,/Things as dey dey
1. Used formerly as the title of the governor of Algiers before the French conquest in 1830.
2. Used formerly as the title for rulers of the states of Tunis and Tripoli. hapen'/ Jes is so;/Nothin' las' always/Farz I know ..."
The timbre timbre
Quality of sound that distinguishes one instrument, voice, or other sound source from another. Timbre largely results from a characteristic combination of overtones produced by different instruments. of black folk speech is, thus, perfectly rendered by Brown. He has perfect pitch for the vernacular. And his was a rare narrative and dramatic talent for capturing scenes of black folk's stoicism Stoicism (stō`ĭsĭzəm), school of philosophy founded by Zeno of Citium (in Cyprus) c.300 B.C. The first Stoics were so called because they met in the Stoa Poecile [Gr. in ways as immediate as a sharecropper's steamy breath on a winter's day.
However, all is not bleak and stoical sto·ic
1. One who is seemingly indifferent to or unaffected by joy, grief, pleasure, or pain.
2. Stoic A member of an originally Greek school of philosophy, founded by Zeno about 308 in the vernacular, as Brown's character Slim Greer demonstrates. With stunning deadpan, Slim, who is as dark-complexioned as midnight, swears he passed for white in Arkansas until he began to tinkle tin·kle
v. tin·kled, tin·kling, tin·kles
1. To make light metallic sounds, as those of a small bell.
2. Informal To urinate.
1. out soulful blues on a parlor piano. A white belle, "heard Slim's music--/An' then, hot damn!/Shouted sharp--'Nigger'/An' Slim said, "Ma'am?" It is Slim, as well, who insists there is an ordinance in Atlanta, Georgia that forbids black people from laughing outside. Atlanta, Slim declares, maintains a single telephone booth where all blacks that wish to laugh must go in order to avoid breaking Georgia's anti-laugh law.
Slim's highjinks and stories notwithstanding, there are certainly grim economies of death and dying in the black-South world of Brown's poetry, "nachal men" who buck dance on midnight air at the end of the lynch rope; children and family killed by disease, starvation, floods; murder victims of jealous lovers gone berserk ber·serk
1. Destructively or frenetically violent: a berserk worker who started smashing all the windows.
2. . What pervades Southern Road (1932), Brown's most accomplished volume of work, is a spirit of black life lived materially close to the bone. This nearly existential materiality is complemented, though, by resonant sounds of black talk, songs, and stories that endure. Brown's speaker in the poem "Revelations" enjoins: "If man's life goes/Beyond the bone/Man must go lonely/And alone,/Unhelped, unhindered/On his own."
On one's own, to be sure, but not without the memory and actual sound of the black longs and stories that teach us how to live. In poems like "Kentucky Blues," "A Strong Men" "Southern Road," "Ma Rainey," and "Memphis Blues," the black vernacular repeatedly refuses mourning, regret, or surrender. Nor do the black folks who create and sustain that vernacular ever concede the permanent triumph of material force over the human spirit. Existing reality may betray, injure, demolish whole worlds, yet the spirit lasts: "All dese cities/Ashes, rust.... /De win' sing sperrichals/Through deir dus'."
"Spirituals through the dust" ... the sound and astute sounding of storied, vernacular blackness unheard by American poetry until Brown performed his own special word magic; this is the achievement of Sterling Brown's Southern Road. He was a man of memory who taught us how to pass on a kindness, how to remember beyond the material exigencies of life in the fast lane. His criticism in such books as The Negro in American Fiction and Negro Poetry and Drama is as keen as his insights in poetry. A man of critical acumen, poetic genius, determined energy, and visionary intelligence, Professor Brown influenced such successors in black art, intellectualism in·tel·lec·tu·al·ism
1. Exercise or application of the intellect.
2. Devotion to exercise or development of the intellect.
in , and activism as Ulysses Lee, Amiri Baraka, Eugenia Collier, Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Toure), Michael Winston, Joanne Gabbin and others. His Collected Poems, edited by the poet Michael Harper, include "The Last Ride of Wild Bill" and "No Hiding Place No Hiding Place is a British television series produced by Associated-Rediffusion for the ITV network between 16th September 1959 and 22nd June 1967.
The series followed the cases of Detective Chief Superintendent Tom Lockhart (Raymond Francis) at Scotland Yard. ." But his signal volume remains Southern Road. As an editor, his colossal achievement was the groundbreaking anthology The Negro Caravan, finished in collaboration with Ulysses Lee and Arthur P. Davis. I am personally grateful to Professor Brown for his consummate example as poet, critic, scholar, and soul that spiritually instructs me to remember that a winter kindness must always be remembered and acknowledged, if we are to live a gracious black life "beyond the bone."
Houston A. Baker, Jr. is the Susan Fox and George D. Beischer Professor of English at Duke University. He has also recently been named Editor of American Literature the oldest and most prestigious journal in American Literary Studies. A native of Louisville, Kentucky, he earned his B.A. (magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa) from Howard University and his M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from UCLA UCLA University of California at Los Angeles
UCLA University Center for Learning Assistance (Illinois State University)
UCLA University of Carrollton, TX and Lower Addison, TX . He has published or edited more then twenty books. His most recent books include Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance and Black Studies, Rap and the Academy. He also has a forthcoming poetry volume, Passing Over. President of the Modern Language Association of America in 1992, Baker has also held Guggenheim, John Hay Whitney John Hay Whitney (August 27, 1904 in Ellsworth, Maine - February 8, 1982), colloquially known as "Jock" Whitney, was U.S. Ambassador to the United Kingdom, publisher of the New York Herald Tribune, and a member of the Whitney family. , and Rockefeller Fellowships. Join Mr. Baker on a journey into the heart and soul of poet Sterling Borwn in our Tribute section on page 32.