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Authenticity and elevation: Sterling Brown's theory of the blues.

Every poet must confront a serious problem: how to reconcile one's private preoccupations with the need to make poetry that is both accessible and useful to others. A failure in this area does not, of course, prevent the production of poems. Indeed, some poems - like many of T. S. Eliot's - may be records of this struggle, while others have the disturbingly eloquent beauty of Church testifying or 12-step program witness. One manner of reconciliation is an embrace of what may be called tradition, but even this is problematic.

The idea of tradition made Eliot uneasy; at best he saw it as a living artist's colloquy and competition with the dead (48-50). In his essay "Tradition and the Individual Talent" (1920), Eliot points out that acquiring the "consciousness of the past" is both necessary and perilous for a poet; and eventually, in his description of it, tradition begins to assume the proportions of a face that "sticks that way" (52-53).

As a poet somewhat younger than Eliot, Sterling A. Brown delighted in experimentation yet also valued his role as a contributor to a tradition. In the poems he composed in the 1920s, Brown "sought to combine the musical forms of the blues, work songs, ballads, and spirituals with poetic expression in such a way as to preserve the originality of the former and achieve the complexity of the latter" (Gabbin 42). Brown's relationship to tradition was, in other words, something like a mirror-image of Eliot's. Where Eliot cringed before a weighty past, Brown - focusing on the African American vernacular tradition - perceived an originality and creativity to be mastered and then practiced in an even more original manner. In fact, Brown's poetics document an attitude toward tradition that is not very different than the one held by the blues singers themselves.(1) It is worth noting, also, that Brown did not necessarily see his valorization of African American folk tradition as inconsistent with his practice of contemporary poetic experiment. Just as Hart Crane and others fled the stultifying worldview of their parents, Brown could warn against "an arising snobbishness; a delayed Victorianism" among educated African Americans ("Our Literary Audience" 42). And when he analyzed the blues, Brown discerned a poetic approach that paralleled the Imagists and other Modernists "in substituting the thing seen for the bookish dressing up and sentimentalizing" that characterized nineteenth-century literary verse ("The Blues as Folk Poetry" 378).

In addition to addressing the dilemma of privacy and access, of the proper value of tradition, Sterling Brown's work also shows how one writer negotiated the relationship of the creative arts - both "highbrow" and "folk" - to the political agenda of the African American struggle for self determination as it developed in the period between the two world wars. In choosing to study the blues, Brown found himself engaged with a genre of poetry that offers its own clever solution to these problems. The blues, Brown discovered, "has a bitter honesty. This is the way the blues singers and their poets have found life to be. And their audiences agree" ("The Blues" 288). Indeed, it is this agreement between poet and audience that is the reality and the purpose of the blues.

Houston A. Baker, Jr., has rightly noted the unusual circumstance of the awesomely intellectual young Sterling Brown embracing a form devised by the unlettered (92-95), and perhaps an important clue is found in Brown's poem "Ma Rainey." Rainey's art and its powerful effect on her audience, her ability to" 'jes catch hold of us, somekindaway' "(Poems 63) through song, is precisely the ambition of every poet, and may explain one source of Brown's attraction to the blues. There are some other possibilities as well. Whether or not one sees Brown's poetry as part of the Modernist direction - or of the Regionalism that seemed to make a number of largely regional "splashes" during the 1930s - Brown's poems also clearly embody and represent two decidedly pre-Modern projects. One of these is the "corrective" gesture of African American scholarship, and the other is the desire of both poets and critics to create a "national literature" for black Americans.

In 1930, Brown declared "a deep concern with the development of a literature worthy of our past, and of our destiny; without which literature we can never come to much." He added, "I have deep concern with the development of an audience worthy of such literature" ("Our Literary Audience" 42). In a sense this aim balances Brown's Modernist tendencies and leads him toward the compilation of "antiquities" found in the folk tradition. As Charles H. Rowell has noted, Brown belonged to a group of writers who "realized that to express the souls of black folk, the artist has to divest himself of preconceived and false notions about black people, and create an art whose foundation is the ethos from which spring black life, history, culture, and traditions" (131). This effort is also consistent with the "Correctionist" mission first assumed by David Walker in his 1829 rebuttal of Thomas Jefferson's racial slurs in Notes on the State o Virginia (1785) and continued by Carter G. Woodson, J. A. Rogers, Lerone Bennett, Jr., Ivan van Sertima, and others.

Sterling Brown's contribution to this effort was to identify and analyze the stereotypes - derogatory in varying degrees but never "just clean fun" - that proliferate in literature and the media. This he did in both scholarly and popular arenas - as both critic and poet. The urgency of Brown's efforts derive from his understanding, as stated in The Negro Caravan (1941), that "white authors dealing with the American Negro have interpreted him in a way to justify his exploitation. Creative literature has often been a handmaiden to social policy" (3). As critic Brown exposed these vicious and persistent stereotypes; as a creative artist, he sought to counter them with a social realist portraiture based on forms indigenous to the African American community.

The need for this type of work should not be underestimated. Although minstrelsy began in the 1830s, it was - incredibly - still going strong a century later. In 1922, for example, George Gershwin and Buddy DeSylva wrote Blue Monday Blues, a one-act "jazz opera," for a Broadway musical production. As a run-up to Gershwin's classic Porgy and Bess (1935) this was more like a stumble. The review in the New York World called it "the most dismal, stupid and incredible blackface sketch that has probably ever been perpetrated. In it a dusky soprano finally killed her gambling man. She should have shot all her associates the moment they appeared and then turned the pistol on herself" (qtd. in Goldberg 122). As late as 1932, George White's Scandals filled seats on Broadway with songs such as "That's Why Darkies Were Born." Writing in Opportunity, Brown acknowledged the popular and degradingly inaccurate depictions of the Negro from Stephen Foster to AI Jolson as an "epidemic" which spread its contagion anywhere money was to be made: "Tin Pan Alley, most of whose dwellers had been no further south than Perth Amboy, frantically sought rhymes for the southern states, cheered over the startling rediscovery of Alabammy and Miami for their key word Mammy . . . "("Weep" 87). It is against this tide of doggerel that Brown built a levee of authentic African American folksong.

As poet also, notes Stephen E. Henderson, Brown's subtle and insightful understanding of the folk forms "extends the literary range of the blues without losing their authenticity." In fact, Brown approaches the African American folk forms of spiritual, shout, work song, and blues exactly as he had used "the formal measures of the English poets" in his earliest attempts at writing poetry (Henderson 32). It is clear that, for Brown, these stanzas had achieved an equal dignity and utility as literary models.

Among the formal qualities of the blues, Brown's study also focused on language and dialect. Brown's important essay "The Blues as Folk Poetry" (1930) is not so theoretically elaborate or ambitious as the archetype of "Ebonics" offered in Zora Neale Hurston's "Characteristics of Negro Expression" (1934). While the dialect recorded in folklore is integral for Brown, it is not of mystical import:

There is nothing "degraded" about dialect. Dialectical peculiarities are universal. There is something about Negro dialect, in the idiom, the turn of phrase, the music of the vowels and consonants that is worth treasuring. ("Our Literary Audience" 45)

In "The Blues as Folk Poetry," Brown finds that the images presented in this dialect form are "highly compressed, concrete, imaginative, original" (383). He cites beautifully conceived lines such as

My gal's got teeth lak a lighthouse on de sea. Every time she smiles she throws a light on me.

But Brown was not primarily interested in collecting poetic, or the more numerous quaint, expressions. As he noted in 1946, his interest in folk materials "was first attracted by certain qualities that I thought the speech of the people had, and I wanted to get for my own writing a flavor, a color, a pungency of speech. Then later I came to something more important - I wanted to get an understanding of people, to acquire an accuracy in the portrayal of their lives" ("Approach" 506).

Brown's work also participates in the creation of an African American "national literature" by endorsing and contributing to a project carefully outlined by Alain Locke in the 1920s. This is not a Modernist program but a modernized replication of the model first articulated in Europe by those who saw a national literature as the refinement of indigenous folk expression. Locke and James Weldon Johnson applied this nineteenth-century model quite specifically to music, seeing in the spirituals the material that - in the hands of gifted black composers - would escape "the lapsing conditions and fragile vehicle of folk art and come firmly into the context of formal music" (Locke, "Negro" 199). The Fisk Jubilee Singers, performing concert settings composed by R. Nathaniel Dett and others, represent the first movement of Locke's envisioned symphony.

Folklorist Arthur Huff Fauset applied the same principle to literature. Writing in Locke's The New Negro (1925), Fauset decried the derogatory misrepresentations of authentic African folklore in its American survivals, called for a more professional ethnographic study of it, and predicted that "Negro writers themselves will shortly, no doubt[,] be developing [the folktales and oral traditions of the South] as arduously as [Joel] Chandler Harris, and we hope as successfully, or even more so" (243-44).

While Locke foresaw a great classical music born of the folk forms shaped by slavery, James Weldon Johnson surveyed Broadway's stages and declared a victory for Negro genius, citing the rhythmic impulse of African American music as "the genesis and foundation of our national popular medium for musical expression" (American Negro Spirituals 31). Johnson's political interpretation of this development was not hidden. In the preface to his 1926 collection of Negro spirituals, he noted that "America would not be precisely the America it is except for the silent power the Negro has exerted upon it, both positive and negative" (19). Johnson also asserted that authentic folk art posed a serious challenge for any academically trained artist who aspired to transcend, or even match, its distinctive qualities of honesty and emotionally overwhelming beauty.

That the type of reclamation effort Arthur Huff Fauset prescribed for African American folktales should also be required for the blues - a form that only emerged in the first decade of the century - should not surprise those who consider the carefully built and well-maintained mechanism of racism that was running at full throttle before World War II.

Texas A & M College professor Will H. Thomas's Some Current FolkSongs of the Negro was the very first publication of the Texas Folklore Society. While this essay provides evidence that the blues was a widespread and authentic form in Texas in 1912 - two years before W. C. Handy published "The St. Louis Blues" and launched its commercial development-the paper also offers disturbing documentation of white academics sitting around enjoying their own genteel version of "darkie" jokes. Sympathetic song collectors were also somewhat tainted by the general paternalism of the region and era.

Folklorist John A. Lomax, one of the earliest commentators on the blues, characterized them as "Negro songs of self-pity" in an article published in The Nation in 1917. Even when employed by a liberal, such terminology supported the negative social construction of the African American image that James Weldon Johnson succinctly summarized as the view that black people were, at best, "wards" of American society.

Benjamin A. Botkin, writing in 1927, accepted the Texas folklorists' idea that self-pity was "a trait of the Neg expressiveness of his reading/performance.

Part of Sterling Brown's effectiveness as a poet lies in his ability to reproduce the dialect of black rural folk. When Brown began writing poetry in the 1920s, there was a tendency among many writers to discard dialect and indict it because of the spurious, often demeaning conventions that had come to be associated with it. In 1922, James Weldon Johnson, writing in the preface to The Book of American Negro Poetry, recognized that black writers were breaking away from the use of conventionalized dialect and called for originality and authenticity in racial expression that would not limit the poet's emotional and intellectual response to life. Ten years later, Brown, with the publication of Southern Road, came as close to achieving Johnson's ideal of original racial expression as any American poet had before. Johnson, introducing Brown's poetry to the American public, said that Brown "infused his poetry with genuine characteristic flavor by adopting as his medium the common racy, living speech" of black life (Poems 17). What Johnson applauded in 1932, we treasure today as we hear Brown exploring with uncompromising honesty the range of folk responses.

If we are fortunate to hear a recording of Brown reading his poetry, the genius of his achievement is amplified. The poems assume an added dimension because of his voice. I will never forget the first time I heard Sterling Brown read "Old Lem." It was in the spring of 1972 when I met Sterling and Daisy Brown. I felt at once in the presence of two people who carried the mantle of the past as gossamer. Their brilliance, infectious humor, and great depth of feeling and understanding endeared them to me. They shared with me their stories, anecdotes, and personal legends in the cozy setting of their home at 1222 Kearney Street on the northeast side of Washington. I still remember their eyes, with one telling, the other listening, and both remembering so many unspoken things. That is the way I first experienced "Old Lem." Brown's voice intones:

I talked to Old Lem and Old Lem said: "They weigh the cotton They store the corn We only good enough To work the rows; They run the commissary They keep the books We gotta be grateful For being cheated. . . ." (Poems 180)

I saw Daisy Brown, Sterling's wife since 1927, respond to his reading with fresh and genuine emotion. As he read, they both seemed to remember the man who was lynched in a county south of Atlanta in 1935 and their own anger and feeling of powerlessness as they recalled other lynchings, too many to remember decently. It was one of those special moments when we became one in our understanding.

During the next seven years, until Daisy's death in 1979, they brought me into the circle of their special memories. On several occasions, they would talk about the luminaries of Howard University where Brown taught for more than fifty years, or tell me stories about Calvin "Big Boy" Davis or Leadbelly, or invite me to the basement to hear an old recording of Bessie Smith's "Backwater Blues" from their marvelous record collection. They would always brighten as they talked about the Virginia Seminary days when they first met. Brown, often with a rakish twinkle in his eyes, would tell how he was attracted to the auburn-haired beauty, Daisy Turnbull. In his poem "Conjured," Brown captures the lasting magic that she held over him:

"She done put huh little hands On the back uh my head; I cain't git away from her Twill I'm dead." (Poems 252)

It was also in the rural communities surrounding Lynchburg that Brown met the people who would open up his poetic sensibility to black folk culture and unstop the wellsprings of his literary power. The people as steeped in the traditions of the spirituals, blues, aphorisms, old lies, and superstition of folk life as they were in the rich soil of the foothills of the Blue Ridge mountains taught the young seminary professor something of folk humor, irony, fortitude, and shrewdness.

The poetry that came out of these experiences vibrates with nuances and depth. We hear in "Sam Smiley," the first ballad that Brown wrote, his masterful use of irony. Sam, a black soldier returning from the war in France, finds that his sweetheart is in jail. He soon learns the full circumstances of her tragic fall; however, he cannot save her from her shame and from the "narrow gaping hole" that eases it. Sam - whom "the whites have taught . . . to rip / A Nordic belly with a thrust / Of bayonet" - "sent a rich white man / His woman's company to keep." The ubiquitous mob completes the scenario. Brown has the man who had danced to cheer the steerage on his return home buckdance "on the midnight air" (Poems 45-46).

This same ironic tone can be heard in "Transfer." However, in this poem Brown's irony is edged with a steely rage as he recounts the tale of a man who broke the Jim Crow law because "he didn't say sir" on Atlanta's Peachtree trolley line:

And then the motorman brained him with his crank, And the conductor clubbed him with his gun, But before they could place the nickels on his eyes, The cops rushed up to see justice done. (Poems 190)

The ballad ends with the man's message hard won in the street and prisons of the land:

"I stayed in my place, and my place stayed wid me, Took what was dished, said I liked it fine: Figgered they would see that I warn't no trouble, Figgered this must be the onliest line.

"But this is the wrong line we been ridin', This route doan git us where we got to go. Got to git transferred to a new direction. We can stand so much, then doan stan no mo'." (191)

The intensity that we hear filtered through the character's voice emanates from Brown's own familiarity with an integrity that demanded militance. In the 1930s, as the national editor of Negro affairs in the Federal Writers' Project, he battled racist state directors who were determined to keep blacks off their payrolls and to keep libelous and stereotypical treatment of black images in their publications. In the 1940s, often with resistance from his own colleagues, he struggled to gain acceptance for courses in black literature at Howard University, where there was still an overzealous attempt to imitate white institutions. During the McCarthy period in the 1950s, Brown, along with several of his colleagues, was interrogated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation for alleged subversive activities, and refused to back down from a radical adherence to the principle of academic freedom. By the 1960s, when Howard University students were testing their own militance, they discovered Sterling Brown. Students would crowd into his basement, lined with shelves of books and phonograph records, and talk well into the night about Marxism, Pan Africanism, Civil Rights, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., and nonviolence versus direct action.

Sometimes the discussions would give way to an impromptu reading by the "Prof," and Brown would invariably read "The Ballad of Joe Meek." The poem outlines the exploits of a "fighting fool" who started out as a mild-mannered man curious about the rough treatment of a black woman. The ballad ends with Joe talking in a different way:

"Ef my bullets weren't gone, An' my strength all spent - I'd send the chief something With a compliment.

"An we'd race to hell. And I'd best him there, Like I would of done here Ef he'd played me fair." (Poems 162)

In this poem and others, Brown becomes the African voice, the eloquent griot who makes the past merge into the present by dint of his virtuoso skill. Those who heard Brown read his poems, tell his remarkable "lies," or give his irreverent toasts are convinced of the power of this man whom Sonia Sanchez calls in her tribute poem "griot of the wind/glorifying red gums smiling tom-tom teeth" (92).

Perhaps nowhere is his power more evident than in his signature poem "Strong Men" Taking the left motif from Carl Sandburg's line "The strong men keep coming on," Brown celebrates the indomitable spirit of black people in the face of racism and economic and political exploitation. As Brown recounts the horrors of the Middle Passage, the scourges of slavery, and the humiliation of economic peonage and social segregation, his message is not merely one of unrelieved suffering and victimization but one of stoicism. Evoking the sound of spirituals and seculars, Brown allows these songs with all of their remembered stoicism and irony to transport the listener from the past to the present:

They dragged you from homeland, They chained you in coffles, They huddled you spoon-fashion in filthy hatches, They sold you to give a few gentlemen ease.

They broke you in like oxen, They scourged you, They branded you, They made your women breeders, They swelled your numbers with bastards. . . . They taught you the religion they disgraced.

You sang: Keep a-inchin along Lak a po' inch worm. . . .

You sang: Bye and bye I'm gorma lay down dis heaby load,

You sang: Walk togedder, chillen, Dontcha git weary. . . . The strong men keep a-comin' on The strong men git stronger. (Poems 56)

Much of the force of the poem may be attributed to syntax. Brown launches most of his lines with heavily stressed verbs that are preceded by the contrasting pronouns they or you, which also must be stressed strongly. The cadence of the poem suggests the rhythm of a martial approach, which quickens and becomes more pronounced as the poem reaches its conclusion:

What, from the slums Where they have hemmed you, What, from the tiny huts They could not keep from you

One thing they cannot prohibit - The strong men . . . coming on The strong men gittin' stronger. Strong men. . . . Stronger. . . . (57-58)

Brown also becomes the African American voice, the elegant trickster, the bodacious badman, the heroic strong man, as he juggles wit, understatement, irony, and humor with his inimitable style. Perhaps nowhere does Brown take humor more as his metier than in the Slim Greer tales. A favorite of many generations, the character is based on a virtuoso tall-tale teller whom Brown met waiting tables at the Hotel Jefferson in Jefferson City, Missouri. In the Slim Greer tales, we find the hero in humorous situations that obliquely comment on the absurdity of Southern racism. In "Slim in Hell," the joke exposes Southern racism and oppression with a kind of laughter out of hell. Brown's unsuspecting hero makes a discovery on his visit to hell:

St. Peter said, "Well, You got back quick. How's de devil? An' what's His latest trick?"

An' Slim say, "Peter, I really cain't tell, De place was Dixie Dat I took for hell."

Then Peter say, "You must Be crazy, I vow, Where'n hell dja think Hell was, Anyhow?" (Poems 92)

Informing this poem are not only the familiar images found in hell-and brimstone sermons of the folk tradition but also subtle allusions to the Orpheus and Eurydice story in classical Greek mythology. Slim, like the favored Orpheus, is allowed to go to and leave the underworld. Here also is Cerberus, the terrible dog that guards the entrance to the infernal regions, now transformed to a "Big bloodhound . . . bayin' / Some po' devil's track" (90). By a synthesis of two viable traditions, Brown created this ballad through "cross-pollination." He linked the early stirrings of expression with present literary development, affirming the breadth of the black creative experience in America. He made the necessary connections between folk culture and self-conscious literature, identifying in his own poetry his debt to the folk. Significantly, he also managed to eliminate the much-touted gulf between particular racial experiences and the so-called "universal" experience.

Because Brown's poetry Succeeds in expressing the universality of human experience, in bridging the experience of one generation with the next, it has a timeless quality. Poems that appeared in Southern Road in 1932 have a strong sense of contemporaneity when heard today. In "Remembering Nat Turner," Brown retells in eloquent free verse the historic story of the fiercest of the black insurrectionists. As we figuratively follow the path that Nat Turner took from Cross Keys to Jerusalem, we get his story from blacks who "had only the faintest recollections" of who he was, and from an old white woman whose memory of Nat's deeds had been made concomitantly more vivid by an inherited sense of hysteria or dulled by present-day inconsequence:

"Ain't no slavery no more, things is going all right, Pervided thar's a good goober market this year. We had a sign post here with printing on it, But it rotted in the hole, and thar it lays, And the nigger tenants split the marker for kindling. Things is all right, now, ain't no trouble with the niggers Why they make this big to-do over Nat?" (Poems 209)

Another reason for the lasting appeal of his poetry is his ability to draw some of the most memorable portraits in American literature. In his poems we meet Sporting Beasley, Slim Greer, Old Lem, and Joe Meek, characters that are now considered national treasures. Brown directs us:

Good glory, give a look at Sporting Beasley Strutting, oh my Lord.

Tophat cocked one side his bulldog head, Striped four-in-hand, and in his buttonhole A red carnation; Prince Albert coat Form-fitting, corset-like; vest snugly filled, Gray morning trousers, spotless and full-flowing, White spats and a cane.

Step it, Mr. Beasley, oh step it till the sun goes down. (Poems 109)

With a measured irony and equally measured hyperbolic humor, Brown acquaints us with a man for whom exaggeration is small compensation for all that Sam Beasley has lost or never had. Sporting Beasley is allowed to forget the insults and drabness of his inconsequential life as he, resplendent with Prince Albert coat, white spats, and cane, struts it "till the sun goes down." In a tone that is decidedly mock-epical, the speaker describes the bon vivant at a concert as he strides down the aisle to his seat in row A and majestically pulls out his opera glasses amid the laughter of the crowd. One of Brown's folk transplanted in the city, Sporting Beasley is a character based on a hero from Brown's youth named Sporting Daniels "who used to walk up and down in front of the Howard Theater in Washington, D.C., in all his sartorial excellence." In actuality, Sporting Daniels did strut into a huge auditorium about twenty minutes late, walked slowly down the aisle to give those seated ample time to admire his clothes and cane, and, once at his seat in the very front of the auditorium, pulled out opera glasses in order to see the gigantic Paul Robeson in concert (14 May 1973 interview).

Brown achieves in these portraits truth in representation because of his willingness to refrain from idealizing his subjects and his insistence on an approach that eschews sentimentality and special pleading. For example, Brown's masterful portrait of Uncle Joe may be attributed to his keen observation and his excellent ear for dialect. We hear Unc' Joe, the garrulous old Creole, in a one-sided dialogue with the narrator, expounding on educating his children and standing up to the gratuitous threats and intimidation of the whites and Cajuns in the parish. With a penchant for humor and understatement, Unc' Joe smiles at the narrator and says," 'You know, I gret big liar, me . . . / But still I kin do what I gots to do. / And dats no lie.' "When the narrator concludes "Unc' Joe, c'est drole," we agree (Poems 230).

Invariably Brown's poetry reveals an exploration of selfhood, a celebration of the strength and stoicism of Black people, and an abiding faith in the possibilities of their lives. Brown becomes the myth-maker, keeper of the images, preserver of values and definitions. As was the case in his life, Brown does not glorify or belittle race in his poetry. His quest is to explore the wellsprings of the racial strength and endurance that he so often celebrates. In "Children's Children," Brown chastises those who would deny their heritage and identity:

They have forgotten What had to be endured -

That they, babbling young ones, with their paled faces, coppered lips, And sleek hair cajoled to Caucasian straightness, Might drown the quiet voice of beauty With sensuous stridency;

And might, on hearing those memoirs of their sires, Giggle, And nudge each other's satin clad Sleek sides. . . . (Poems 104)

Brown's message is conveyed in language that is "simple, sensuous, and impassioned" (Gabbin 38). As vivid and vibrant as a Romare Bearden collage, Brown's poetry displays strikingly imaginative, metaphoric language somehow akin to that of the unknown bards. Whether Brown is describing the beautiful fallen woman whose life has been twisted by the corruption of Rampart Street in "Cloteel" or the young healer in "Parish Doctor" who tells the parishioners that "he's the best conjuh doctor . . . / North of New Orleans" (Poems 227), we sense in Brown's characterizations his intimacy with their humanity.

Brown's poetic sensibility experiments with diverse elements in literature and culture, amplifies understanding through performance, confronts the tragic-comic conditions of life, and attests to the continuity of black creativity. In "Ma Rainey," one of Brown's finest poems, he skillfully brings together the ballad and blues forms and, demonstrating his inventive genius, creates the blues ballad. In this brilliant portrait of Gertrude "Ma" Rainey, the husky-voiced mother of the blues, Brown allows us to see her make her entrance on stage with a sequined gown hugging her short, stocky frame; an elaborate gold necklace encircling her cleavage; tasseled earrings; and a brilliant, gold-toothed grin. But even more than giving us a vivid portrait of the venerated blues singer, he draws an emotional portrait of the people who flocked to hear "Ma do her stuff."

An' some jokers keep deir laughs a-goin' in de crowded aisles, An' some folks sits dere waitin' wid deir aches an' miseries. . . . (Poems 62)

Brown effectively frames these portraits with a performance. Ma Rainey is on stage articulating the pain and suffering of her people. She sings "'bout de hard luck / Roun' our do' / . . . 'bout de lonesome road / We mus' go. . . . "Her power over her audience emanates from her ability to translate the chaos and uncertainty of their lives into terms that can be understood and confronted. When she sings "Backwater Blues," she catches" 'hold of us, somekindaway'" (63).

In the final analysis Brown's poetry, too, has the effect of getting "hold of us dataway" (63). Through his poetry, Brown offers us a kind of clairvoyance, a sure vision, that gives guidance, warning, admonishment, and encouragement. When we flounder in confusion, fear, and divisiveness, Brown offers us in "Sharecroppers" the images of blacks and whites who became comrades in mutual struggle. When our children cast their heads down in collective shame upon first learning that their ancestors were slaves, Brown's "Strong Men" speaks to them of endurance, resilience, and strength of character. When we find it comfortable to forget our past and expedient to deny who we are, Brown shows in "Children's Children" the tragic emptiness and falseness of the "babbling young ones" who "have forgotten / What had to be endured" (104). Even when we take ourselves too seriously and view life as through a veil of tears, Brown sends us Ole Slim Greer:

Talkinges' guy An' biggest liar, With always a new lie On the fire. (Poems 77)

Remarkably balanced in his approach, Brown brought to American literature a voice rich in racial memory and resonant with messages of struggle and strength. When he died on January 13, 1989, I lost a dear friend and mentor, and the literary world lost a champion. Now what remains is his voice resonating with dignity and truth. His poetry is his legacy to all of us.

Works Cited

Brown, Sterling A. The Collected Poems of Sterling A. Brown. 1980. Chicago: TriQuarterly P, 1989.

-----. "Folk Literature." The Negro Caravan. Ed. Brown, Arthur P. Davis, and Ulysses Lee. 1941. New York: Arno, 1970. 412-34.

Gabbin, Joanne. Sterling A. Brown: Building the Black Aesthetic Tradition. 1985. Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 1994.

Sanchez, Sonia. I've Been A Woman: New and Selected Poems. Sausalito: Black Scholar P, 1978.

Joanne V. Gabbin is the author of Sterling A. Brown: Building the Black Aesthetic Tradition (1985, 1994) and Professor of English at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia.
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Author:Thomas, Lorenzo
Publication:African American Review
Date:Sep 22, 1997
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