"Runnin' space": the continuing legacy of Sterling Allen Brown.
The lean months are done with, The fat to come. His hopes, winter wanderers, Hasten home.
At home, eight years after the poet's death in 1989, a new harvest of critical acclaim and tribute illumining his plantings is growing green and fat. Four years ago, the Department of English at Howard University began a successful effort to establish an endowed chair in the name of the man who, at Howard, in the early forties, brought distinction to English 144: American Prose and Poetry of Negro Life, a founding course for the study of African American literature in the academy. On 14 February of this year, the Department hosted a conference in his name that produced the essays published in this issue of African American Review. On that same day, The Federation of Friends of The D.C. Public Library System and The Howard University Libraries held a tribute to Sterling A. Brown; and at a Symposium and Gala Celebration (to be held 24-26 October 1997), Williams College, the poet's alma mater, is inaugurating the Sterling A. Brown Visiting Professorship with a celebration at Howard's Andrew Rankin Memorial Chapel. His hopes, winter wanderers,/Hasten home.
Home, for Sterling Brown is Howard, as he has said: ". . . I grew up on the Howard University campus, and my father knew that I was not going to do any studying there. I knew the Howard campus like the back of my hand. I was mascot [for the football team] at Howard when I was seven" (4-5). The young Sterling attended two public schools in Washington, D.C., made famous by graduates like him. One was Lucretia Mott Elementary School, the other, Dunbar High School: "Williams [College] would give a scholarship [annually] to Dunbar, and the top man got it" (Brown 5). As valedictorian of Dunbar's class of 1919, Sterling Brown won the scholarship, graduating from Williams College Phi Beta Kappa in 1922. The following year he earned a master's degree in English at Harvard University. Yet "at Howard University I have been returned," said the seventy-three-year-old poet in accepting an honorary degree at Williams in 1973:
I am the oldest person on the Howard campus now in active duty. I am older than any maintenance man, any gardener. I am the oldest so and so at Howard, and I am unique in that I was hired, fired - and I was, I'm not ashamed of it, I'm proud of it, I'm not going to tell you why but the cause was good - but I was hired, I was fired, I was rehired, I was retired, I was again rehired. If I tell many lies tonight and you get them taped, I may be retired. (3)
Fortunately for American literature, Sterling Allen Brown, at Howard, built a Southern Road (1932) in American poetry, drove with Arthur P. Davis and Ulysses Lee The Negro Caravan (1941) - the most comprehensive anthology for the study of Negro literature published at the time - through the modern literary landscape, and seeded the garden in which has grown contemporary scholarship with his germinal studies The Negro in American Fiction (1937) and Negro Poetry and Drama (1937). One of the essays which follows sounds, in its title, an acknowledgment central to the 1997 Sterling Brown Conference at Howard. The title of that essay, "And I Owe It All to Sterling Brown: The Theory and Practice of Black Literary Studies" (by Fahamisha Patricia Brown), echoes the debt of Howard and an entire world of scholarship to his plantings.
He snuggles his fingers In the blacker loom The lean months are done with, The fat to come.
His eyes are set On a brushwood-fire But his heart is soaring Higher and higher. . . .
"Butter beans fo' Clara Sugar corn fo' Grace An' fo' de little feller Runnin' space." ("After Winter")
Sterling A. Brown is curiously absent (but in name only) from current discussions of the history of twentieth-century literary criticism; yet to those of us familiar with his life's work, the traces of Brown's remarkable influence on contemporary thought are everywhere identifiable in the past half-century's scholarly activities in this country and abroad. He was a pioneer cultural critic, anticipating the trends in recent literary theory that have interconnected anthropology, sociology, folklore, linguistics, race politics, and religion to the study of literature. He anticipated the deconstructionist critique of logocentrism by showing the primacy of the labeling word in American literature and culture. He anticipated the field of Gender Studies by pointing out the ways discourse can structure, prejudice, illuminate, and restructure the same human experiences. Indeed, Leon Damas, Aime Cesaire, and Leopold Sedar Senghor, who defined the Negritude movement, stated that it was Sterling Brown who kindled it. Michael S. Harper in his 1980 edition of the Collected Poems, Joanne v. Gabbin in her Sterling A. Brown: Building The Black Aesthetic Tradition (1985), and Mark A. Sanders and Richard Yarborough in their A Son's Return: Selected Essays of Sterling A. Brown (1996) have recognized Brown's genius. Nevertheless, the entry for Brown in the recently published Norton Anthology of African American Literature fails to convey the profound influence and the vitality of this man's thought. The essays in this issue go a long way toward redressing the academy's general neglect of Sterling A. Brown and correcting the cultural blindness perpetuated by that neglect.
Sterling A. Brown was a pioneering cultural and intellectual leader. His pedagogical object was, as Michael R. Winston sees it, "to remake the world" and - on the way toward that - to lay "the foundations for the reconceptualization of what is American in American culture." Brown helped to set in motion much of what is positive in American culture today. "He searched," writes Winston, "for a way to confront the modern world's materialism and potent emptiness with an enduring human response that had integrity and space for real people" (27).
As a poet, Sterling Brown advanced a fertile direction, as did Langston Hughes, in American literary modernism. If, as Wallace Stevens saw it, modern poetry was to be understood as the mind of the poet finding from his past "what will suffice" ("Of Modern Poetry"), the mind of Sterling Brown found that sufficiency by recovering black vernacular traditions from maudlin uses and revealing in them the Southern way of a land of the folk. Our critical intelligence tells us that the idea of the Maker creating a world is freighted with multiple meanings. Immediately it signifies a quality of narrative, the verisimilitude and continuity informing successful storytelling. At the same time, though, milieu is conveyed through choices of craft reflecting the ways a writer believes reality can best be known. Self-awareness leaves its textual traces, sufficient to observe that the project of modernism may easily be called epistemological.
Everyone has a favorite Brown poem, but take "Ma Rainey" as the illustration. It aptly includes a blues sung by Ma Raihey that generates an experience of communion between the singer and her listeners, who recognize that the blues statements of personal loss are signifying their mutual condition. Ma Rainey's blues song, however, is framed among other voices - that of the poet persona and a raconteur testifying that Ma" 'jes catch hold of us, somekindaway.' "The assembly of voices renders a dramatic scene through which Brown communicates a presiding consciousness actively creating and controlling the reality of Ma Rainey's glorious performance so as to offer an exemplum: how to know the world. Brown's epistemological negotiation and poetic strategies are the consideration of essays by Joanne V. Gabbin, Lorenzo Thomas, and John Edgar Tidwell in this issue.
As a scholar and a critic, Professor Brown spotlighted the African American literary tradition in such pathfinding studies as those already mentioned and a field of germinal critical essays - among them, his 1931 essay "Negro Characters as Seen by White Authors." His contributions to the Federal Writers' Project and the Carnegie-Myrdal Study, to courses designed and taught at Howard University and the New School for Social Research in New York City - all establish, as Eleanor Traylor has pointed out, that "Sterling Brown was one of these singular thinkers who revealed to us that we are a classic people, with spiritual and intellectual aspects of our total cultural tradition that stand on their own, born of our historic determination that circumstances would not dictate the limits of our integrity or dignity" (qtd. in Winston 28).
Following out Brown's train of thought through the works of his legion students (Traylor and Winston included), it is today possible - as many in the academy are doing - to imagine African American literature at the very heart of American literature, to conceptualize a healthy cultural open-heartedness (call it "multiculturalism," "pluralism," or what you will), and to understand in a concrete way the constructedness of the world of discourse. For Brown, the primacy of language - oral as well as written - needed to be recognized before social changes could be slowly wrought. He analyzed American discursive patterns (and quipped on them) well before the French theorized the possibility of an archaeology of epistemes. He opened up the canon of American literature to include popular ballads previously unrecorded and, with Arthur P. Davis, anthologized polemical texts and periodical essays - long before the academy recognized these forms of textuality as relevant to the study of literary history, indeed long before it recognized such texts themselves as literature. Hortense Simmons provides insight into the inimitable tone with which Sterling Brown accomplished these aims in his "Literary Chronicles."
Professor Brown's students saw him as more than a role model. At the Howard conference, Michael Thelwell, Ronald Palmer, Michael Harper, Robert O'Meally, ntozake shange, Haki Madhubuti, Fahamisha Brown, Joyce Camper, Lorenzo Thomas, John Edgar Tidwell, and Beverly Skinner all agreed that Sterling Brown was more like a Force. In fact, the interdisciplinary approaches of the humanities and our National Conversations today owe much to the work of Professor's generations of students and admirers, to the waves of teachers, common readers, and public intellectuals whose lives and souls he touched or whose fields of scholarly study have included African American literature and culture. Brown was dedicated to the spirited appreciation of humane human values, an attribute of his that we wish to recognize here in a formal if preliminary way. As Jeanne-Marie Miller has put it, Sterling A. Brown was "in the vanguard of progressive thinkers on race relations in the United States and in the forefront of experimentalists in American poetry" (1) - in truth, a man who created runnin' space.
Brown, Sterling A. "A Son's Return: 'Oh Didn't He Ramble.'" Chant of Saints. Ed. Michael S. Harper and Robert B. Stepto. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1979. 3-22.
Miller, Jeanne-Marie A. "Sterling Allen Brown (1901-)." Profiles (Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, Howard U) 3 (Mar. 1983): 1-20. [Includes a bibliography of Brown's publications.]
Winston, Michael A "Sterling Brown: A Tribute." New Directions: The Howard University Magazine 16 (Apr. 1989): 26-29.
Eleanor W. Traylor, R. Victoria Arana, and John M. Reilly are faculty in the Department of English at Howard University, which hosted a Sterling A. Brown Conference this past spring with support from the Humanities Council of Washington, D.C. The nine essays which follow this introduction were presented as papers at the Howard conference on February 14, 1997.
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|Author:||Reilly, John M.|
|Publication:||African American Review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 1997|
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