And I owe it all to Sterling Brown: the theory and practice of Black literary studies.
"The last time I saw him was at Sterling Brown's funeral."
"It's hard to imagine a world without Sterling Brown in it," mused a colleague from Cameroon by way of Paris. As he spoke these words, the waiter began to pour whiskey into my glass and spilled a few drops. "So sorry," he whispered.
"It's a libation," said the Nigerian poet, "a libation for Sterling Brown."
"Ashe," we responded. When we call out the names of our revered and honored ancestors, they are with us.
Sterling Allen Brown, the poet-teacher-scholar-critic-anthologist-bon vivant and raconteur, is an untapped resource and an undercredited father of Black literary and cultural studies. Situating his analyses of African American cultural production squarely within his discussions of American cultural production, Brown anticipated many of today's most "fashionable" critical approaches. Brown was "reading" American culture through the lens of race before it was fashionable. Just as he argued for folk and vernacular expression as art, not anthropology, Brown also argued for standards of excellence and truth in both academic and popular cultural criticism. Finally, in devoting his life to classroom teaching, he enriched the lives of countless students and mentored several generations of scholars.
Brown unknowingly mentored me in my early graduate school days at Loyola University in Chicago and remains a model for me. He stands as my ancestor in this profession of ours, the very model of an engaged and committed teacher and scholar. His earliest work, the 1931 Outline for the Study of the Poetry of American Negroes, inspired me to produce an "Outline for the Study of Poetry of the African World" in 1971, when I taught my first course in Black Poetry. Similarly, when I designed a survey course in African American literature in 1970, I turned to the Negro Caravan for guidance in structuring my course. The generic categories of Negro Caravan provided me with organizational tools for my work. From the beginning, I included folklore and oratory as essential categories or genres in any discussion in Black literary studies. Sterling Brown subsequently would provide me with the building blocks for other courses, Introduction to Black Theater and The Black Presence in American Literature.
Even earlier, while I was still a graduate student, it was Sterling Brown who provided me with the vocabulary for critical analysis of the novels I was reading in a course on the Modern American Novel: The South. The year was 1969. Atheneum had reissued Brown's 1937 studies Negro Poetry and Drama and The Negro in American Fiction. Brown had also recently published an essay entitled "A Century of Negro Portraiture in American Literature" (1966). His discussions of racial stereotypes, the plantation tradition, and abolitionist and social realist writings enabled me to write an A seminar paper on enduring stereotypes. He also caused me to rethink the ways in which American literature had been and was being presented in the academy. At the time, my declared area of academic concentration was modem American poetry. That spring I also took my master's degree qualifying examinations, dropped out of graduate school, and began to teach at the City Colleges of Chicago, Malcolm X Branch - but that's another story. More recently, upon my return to graduate school to complete my long-delayed Ph.D., Brown's ideas again provided a way of organizing my ideas for a course paper on reading race in the modern American novel. And when seeking out poems to illustrate points in my dissertation on Black Poetry and Black Vernacular Culture - uses of the mother tongue, voice, song/talk, preachment, boast, and toast - I kept turning for examples to Sterling A. Brown's collected poems.
Robert Bone, a man I never expected to see myself citing authoritatively, in his 1969 introduction to the Atheneum reprints of Sterling Brown's studies of poetry, drama, and fiction, describes these 1937 texts as "comprehensive surveys in the field of iconography, tracing through American fiction, poetry and drama the changing image of the Negro" (ii). Bone sings the praises of Sterling Brown as a "poet, anthologist and co-editor, critic, teacher . . . a man [with a] not inconsiderable gift as anecdotist and raconteur, humorist and mime, jazz buff, and blues collector . . . a living witness" (iii). Further, he cites Brown as a scholar who "kept the faith when blackness was unfashionable, on [whose] pioneering efforts all future scholarship in the field of Afro-American studies will be compelled to build" (iv; emphasis mine).
I maintain that our lives as literary scholars who specialize in work by African Americans as well as by writers of Africa and other parts of the diaspora would find our work more difficult if we did not have the work of Sterling Brown on which to build. As an intellectual ancestor of contemporary Black Literary Studies, Brown has given us a vocabulary and a methodology. Contemporary discussions of issues of representations of Black characters in novels, plays, films, television programs, and music videos all return to Brown's categories of mammies, contented slaves, buffoonish clowns or coons, brutish or rebellious bucks, and tragically conflicted or tragically noble mulattoes. The sweep of Brown's surveys, from the beginnings of American cultural production to the time of his writings, is astonishing. Sterling Brown simply read everything. He has given us a host of texts to which we might profitably return and re-examine, grouped by such categories as genre, region, race, and gender. One of Brown's gifts is that he read texts by Blacks apart from, yet as a part of, American literature and culture. (Not so incidentally, Brown provides strong evidence in refutation of the assertion "All the Blacks are men, all the women are white." At a 1974 Black History Month reading at the Boston Public Library, Brown enthusiastically read several poems which introduced an audience to the work of one of my favorite writers, Anne Spencer.) Brown examines Black- and white-authored texts by both male and female writers. His study encompasses the literary canon and writers of popular mass market fiction, such as the historical novel and the detective story. He paid attention to the then-new world of film as well. Sterling Brown's critical writings remain essential reading for American studies, cultural studies, African American studies, and genre studies scholars.
Brown's insistence on contextualizing literature in its historical, social, and political contexts is prescient:
. . . one of our purposes is to show how attitudes toward Negro life have developed in American thinking. . . . we hope to pass in review an important segment of the Negro's literary life and of the influence of Negro life in American literature. (Poetry and Drama 2-3)
As a student, scholar, and performer of Black poetry, I have found in the work of Sterling A. Brown a subject of study, a critical resource, and a body of texts which translate to the stage to the delight of varied audiences. Although Brown's poetry is not the subject of this discussion, I would be remiss if I did not point out how well Brown's poems exemplify his theory. His portraits of Black folk, his tall tales and ballads, his music, and his talk, with its irony, exaggeration, hyperbole, wit, and sophistication, exemplify the suggestions he made for a Negro American literary expression.
Brown's insistence that folk poetry is a living tradition that coexists with the written tradition, not as a collection of obsolete forms, is a thesis which informs my own discussions of vernacular and Black poetry. Elsewhere, Brown asserts a tradition of romantic tendencies in Black poetry which deserves further exploration. Again, Brown's descriptions of the characteristics of New Negro Poetry provide a useful framework in which to compare that body of work with the New Black Poetry of the late sixties and early seventies:
(1) a discovery of Africa as a source for race pride,
(2) a use of Negro heroes and heroic episodes from American history,
(3) propaganda or protest,
(4) a treatment of the Negro masses (frequently of the folk, less often of the workers with more understanding and less apology), and
(5) franker and deeper self-revelation.
(Negro Poetry and Drama 61)
These themes are still a useful starting point in an exploration of the poetry of the New Negro and the New Black Arts Movement. His assessment of the poetry of the time (1914-1936), which must have included his own, summarized the state of the art:
The contemporary poets, even when writing subjective lyrics, are more frankly personal, less restrained, and as a general rule, less conventional . . . but one of the cardinal lessons of modern poetry is that the poet should express his own view of life in his own way . . . more irony in it than buffoonery . . . the tragic as well as the pitiful . . . much closer to the true folk product than to the minstrel song.
The reading world seems to be ready for a true interpretation of Negro life from within. . . . What it means to be a Negro in the modern world is a revelation much needed in poetry. (79-80)
Brown's concluding examination of "White Poets of Negro Life" possibly provided the impetus for the inclusion of a section of "Tributary Poems by Non-Negroes" when Langston Hughes and Arna Bontemps compiled their 1946 anthology The Poetry of the Negro. "A great deal of this portraiture is valuable socially and some is poetically outstanding," Brown wrote of such work. "Abolitionary humanitarianism, idealization of the 'Noble Savage,' minstrel buffoonery, proslavery argument, local-color, realism, social protest, and racial propaganda" were some characteristic elements Brown noted in these poems (102). By including discussions of such work, Brown paved the way both for future anthologists such as Hughes and Bontemps and, more recently, Komunyakaa and Feinstein, in their jazz poetry anthologies. Additionally, Brown anticipates such studies as Toni Morrison's Playing in the Dark. In short, Sterling Brown was exploring the Black presence in American literature long before it was fashionable.
Similarly Brown anticipated the August Wilson-Robert Brustein debates in his discussion of American drama. When one of my first-year English students (white and male) asked me why there isn't a movie or a video based on the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, he was echoing Sterling Brown's 1937 assertion that "vast areas of Negro experience and character remain unexplored" (138). "The life of middle class Negroes," Brown wrote in Negro Poetry and Drama,
with its comedy and tragedy, its quieter heroism as well as its frantic striving, remains scarcely touched. . . . the dramatic possibilities of the South have [hardly] been fully realized. A deeper revelation of the folk . . . is likewise waiting. Drama of the struggles of the working class is just starting to be written. The exploits of Negro history furnish a mine for the dramatist [or film maker, we might add]. (139-40)
Further, he wrote, "Broadway . . . is still entranced with the stereotypes of the exotic primitives, the comic stooge and the tragic mulatto" (139). (Brown's exploration of stereotypes here and elsewhere is seminal to contemporary discussions of representations of Blacks and Blackness in American culture.)
Brown's call for a "Negro Theater" predates the 1960s' proponents of a New Black Theater: ". . . without a theatre for apprenticeship in their craft, Negro playwrights are sorely handicapped. Without their own audience, they are doubly handicapped." (August Wilson would surely agree with Sterling Brown on this point.) Further, Brown asserts, "There is a Negro theatrical tradition, that of the song and dance show, with blackface skits interspersed" (140). Henry Louis Gates's discussion of the beauty parlor and gospel play circuit might fit comfortably within Brown's paradigm.
Finally, Brown's discussion of the Federal Theater Project notes the importance of government support of the arts as a vehicle for both the support of the work of Black playwrights and the development of a Black audience (141-42). This is the stuff of the nightly news, academic and artistic conferences, and think tanks.
In The Negro in American Fiction and "A Century of Negro Portraiture," Brown provides us with names and texts by American women writers whom the Feminist Press has not yet discovered. He introduces us, as I indicated earlier, to popular writers, including writers of historical novels, detective fiction, and sentimental romances. He raises issues of violence, urbanization, exoticization, standards of beauty, representations of the body - all the "hot stuff" of contemporary criticism. His discussions of anti-slavery fiction, the urban scene, and Southern realism are useful to a critic confronted with contemporary films set during the Civil Rights era. I was reminded of Sterling Brown's explorations of the Plantation Tradition in American literature and culture when I watched a recent Miss USA pageant of television as the contestants, including at least six Black women, dressed in their finery, wandered the grounds of a Louisiana plantation.
I would argue that Brown's classroom practice, as well as his habit of inviting his students to his home for "field study," was at the basis of this early cultural criticism. The immediacy of Brown's scholarship appears rooted in his self-identification as "Prof." As a poet, he was a teacher. As a critic, he was a teacher. As an anthologist, he was a teacher. His twin goals of understanding and appreciation of his subject matter on the part of his students/ readers or audience provides us with a model of an engaged scholar. The half ain't been told. However, this less-than-comprehensive survey provides some indication of the ways in which the oeuvre of Sterling Brown informs contemporary Black Literary Studies. It is also my way of pouring a libation for Sterling Allen Brown, whom I used to claim as "cousin" when he walked the streets of Washington, D.C. - all us Browns are related somehow, don't you know - but whom I will forever claim as a revered ancestor in my chosen profession.
Bone, Robert A. "Introduction." Brown, Negro Poetry i-iv.
Brown, Sterling A. "A Century of Negro Portraiture." 1966. Black Voices. Ed. Abraham Chapman. New York: Mentor, 1968. 564-89.
-----, Arthur P. Davis, and Ulysses Lee, eds. The Negro Caravan. 1941. New York: Arno 1969.
-----, Negro Poetry and Drama and The Negro in American Fiction. New York: Atheneum: 1969.
Fahamisha Patricia Brown teaches in the Department of English at Fordham University.
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|Author:||Brown, Fahamisha Patricia|
|Publication:||African American Review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 1997|
|Previous Article:||Sterling A. Brown's "Literary Chronicles."|