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 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 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. 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 (who was then Commissioner of the Arts for the District of Columbia), 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. 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. 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 who once let him ride/An empty going home?"
The way of the 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 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 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 fields of labor and almost casually rebuke despair, "No need in frettin'/Case good times go,/Things as dey hapen'/ Jes is so;/Nothin' las' always/Farz I know ..."
The timbre 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 in ways as immediate as a sharecropper's steamy breath on a winter's day.
However, all is not bleak and stoical 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 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. 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, 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." 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. 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, 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.
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|Title Annotation:||Sterling Brown|
|Author:||Baker, Houston A. Jr.|
|Publication:||Black Issues Book Review|
|Date:||May 1, 2001|
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