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Sterling A. Brown's "Literary Chronicles."

When the judges of Opportunity's first literary contest awarded Sterling A. Brown Second Prize for his essay "Roland Hayes" (first prize went to E. Franklin Frazier for "Social Equality and the Negro"), they clearly did the right thing. The essay, Brown's first publication, appeared in the historic June 1925 isssue of the journal heralding the achievements of the young writers of the "Negro Renaissance." Brown received a whopping $30 in prize money for his critical review of a concert Hayes presented in Lynchburg, Virginia. To be sure, the essay was the catalyst that launched Brown into what more than likely proved an intellectually stimulating juncture in his professional life. For more than a decade, Brown's critical commentary appeared in Opportunity, but as a chronicle of the literary scene for Opportunity's readers, the majority of his work appeared principally, with monthly frequency, between 1931 and 1935. The chronicles included reviews and notes, as well as commentary on books, plays, movies, and musical productions. Sometimes featured under the titles "Our Book Shelf," "Chronicle and Comment," or "The Literary Scene," the most consistent title for the series was "The Literary Scene: Chronicle and Comment."

In the inaugural publication on Roland Hayes, Sterling Brown's readers were introduced to a young, candidly probing intellect who uncompromisingly dared to assert the aesthetic value of Black folk lives and verbal expression, and he did so in what was to become his nonconformist signature as a critic, a signature that Darryl Pinckney labels "volatile, ironic, and hopelessly genuine" (14). In the essay, Brown expresses concern about the audience's inability appropriately to appreciate the art of Hayes's performance: "The applause is not terrific. The whites do not understand, will not, cannot. They only know that they have caught distant glimpses from lofty perilous places. The Negroes feel somehow rebuked" (174).

Although whites were among Opportunity's readers, Brown addressed his commentary primarily to his Black readers. His was a not-too-delicate balancing act, for in his role as chronicler he sought to be personally instructive. "Whenever Sterling opened his mouth he taught," observes Pinckney, and his text, Black culture, was "a text he studied as no other black writer had before or since" (14). Joanne Gabbin identifies the details of Brown's text, mirroring clearly his broad literary interests and personal concerns:

Brown commented on modern developments in American literature: the trend toward regionalism, the newer traditions of realism and naturalism, the dominance of the lowly as subject matter, the use of dialect to achieve local color, and the rising tide of social protest in literature . . . the need for a literary audience interested in the genuine development of Black writers, the validity of portrayals of Black life and character regardless of their authorship, the distortion of historical fiction, and generally, the achievement of a high level of craftsmanship. (187)

"I have as yet, no logs to roll, and no brickbats to heave" - an ironic, "sterling" Brown affirmation - pivots the essay "Our Literary Audience" (42). Considered among his most compelling early critical commentaries, this essay exposes Brown's sensitivity to the challenges that faced African American artists seeking to master their craft, as well as his belief that the writers and their Black readers shared reciprocal responsibilities in the development of the literature. His was truly a genuinely felt commitment:

I have . . . a deep concern with the development of a literature worthy of our past, and of our destiny; without which literature certainly, we can never come to much. I have a deep concern with the development of an audience worthy of such literature. (42)

Acknowledging that his essay is based on six years of study, Brown discusses four chronic fallacies he believes plague Black readers:

We look upon Negro books, regardless of the author's intention, as representative of all Negroes, i.e. as sociological documents. We insist that Negro books be idealistic, optimistic tracts for race advertisement. We are afraid of truth telling, of satire. We criticize from the point of view of bourgeois America, of racial apologists. (42)

He challenges his readers to recognize such critical standards for what they are - negative impediments which stifle writers' creativity as well as "dwarf their stature as interpreters." For Brown, the artist's responsibility is to reject a "Pollyanna philosophy of life" in favor of both a responsive and responsible interpretation Of the truth, however unflattering it may appear. Likewise, he charges the audience to shed their thin skins and accept the artistic, in which truth and intelligence prevail over propaganda. Throughout the essay, Brown urges his readers to exercise their intellect and to eschew their reactionary defense of the race. An intelligent critical approach, he argues, would yield the realization and acceptance that "books about us may not be true of all of us; but that has nothing to do with their worth" (44). Having quoted Walt Whitman earlier, Brown concludes his essay by reaffirming Whitman's assessment that "without great audiences we cannot have great literature" (61).

Exactly one year (February 1931) after the appearance of the pivotal "Our Literary Audience," Brown, in "The Literary Scene: Chronicle and Comment," began heaving brickbats - ever so subtly: "We are not as yet a reading public," he diplomatically opens, formally introducing himself as "Chronicler." Brown then delivers a mini-lecture on the power of books as tools, particularly in the Depression era, and he further describes his task as that of providing "the reader of Opportunity a list of whatever books and articles he is able to find that bear directly or indirectly upon our concerns" (53). He vows to include works by Black as well as other writers.

The landscape of Brown's premier official chronicle is expansive, and Brown the maturing critic becomes an active participant in creating responsive and responsible literary criticism: An essay from Ebony and Topaz entitled "The Prospects of the Black Bourgeosie" he considers "provocative"; a book, The Black Worker, he asserts is "an acute, thorough, ably written study of the Negro in his relationships to the American labor movement," and he further encourages his readers to embrace this work since it "is preeminently one of those that could be used as 'tools'" (53); a play, John Ferguson, performed by the newly organized Repertory Players of Washington, D.C., he calls "an excellent presentation"; the show Abraham Lincoln, most likely "sparsely attended" because of its direct competition with movie houses offering more risque fare, includes "rather warm love stories, wrestling matches according to the posters, with not even 'strangleholds' barred"; George Schuyler's soon-off-press Black No More, he teases his readers, "promises a few shocks" (54). Particularly telling is a classic "sterling" quip expressing displeasure with a comment allegedly made by Paul Robeson to a New Herald Tribune reporter - in an interview, Robeson was supposed to have stated that he planned to "penetrate the bush of Africa eventually and drink his fill of savage emotions" - to which Brown replies, "All of this is interesting, although, why one needs to go to Africa for savage emotions puzzles the chronicler" (54).

Throughout his tenure as chronicler, Brown continued to "teach" and no doubt to derive satisfaction from his efforts. But in all likelihood, nothing delighted him more than his central role in the logrolling and brickbat-heaving controversy resulting from his March 1935 review of a movie based on Fannie Hurst's popular novel Imitation of Lie. In the review, "Imitation of Life: Once a Pancake," Brown panned both the book and the movie, instigating a volley of letters to the editor in the subsequent April and May issues of the journal (all with the exception of one supporting Brown's critical stance).

Breaking ranks with Negro American officialdom, which lauded the reigning queen of pulp fiction, was no small feat, suggests David Levering Lewis, and "only Sterling Brown had the courage to break ranks and deeply anger Hurst" (297). A reviewer in at least one major newspaper, Boston Transcript, shared Brown's views about Hurst's book: "Delilah is a joy, of course, yet one is ready to contend that Miss Hurst has overcolored her portrait a little. Delilah is just not quite authentic. . . . The book is overlong and overwritten" (2).

Among Brown's objections to the movie is that, though the film's plot differs from that in the book, no substantive change exists in the characterizations and the social ideas set forth. While singling out the superb acting talent of Louise Beavers and Fredi Washington, Brown insists that his readers reject the characterization and ideas reinforcing images of the stereotyped contented mammy and tragic mulatto. Of particular offense to Brown was "the inebriation of [Delilah's] language, too designedly picturesque, her unintelligible character, now infantile, now mature, now cataloguing folk beliefs of the Southern Negro, and now cracking contemporary witticisms. Her baby talk to the white child partakes too much of maple sugar; to her own, too much of mustard." Citing the book's and movie's ideas that Delilah's contentment results from her natural comfort with being "completely black," Brown quotes several passages, one of which especially grates: "'It's de white horses dat's wild, a swimmin' in de blood of mah chile. . . . I wants to drown dem white horses plungin' in mah baby's blood.' "He retorts acidly, "Can one reader be forgiven, if during such passages, there runs into his mind something unmistakably like a wild horse laugh?" (87).

For Brown, Delilah's characterization in the movie is undeniably straight out of Southern fiction: The welfare of Delilah's mistress's daughter Jessie figures more prominently among her concerns than that of her own daughter Peola. He cites many unbelievable episodes. In one she emerges as the old slave refusing freedom (satirized in Dunbar's "Chrismus on the Plantation," in which the newly freed slave proclaims: "Well, ef dat's de way dis freedom ac's on people white er black / You kin jes' tell Mistah Lincum fu' to tek his freedom back"). She refuses to accept twenty percent of the business profit and live independently of Miss Bea: "My own house? You gonna send me away? How I gonna take care of you and Miss Jessie if I's away? I's yo' cook. You kin have it; I make you a present of it" (88). Other references to hard-to-believe events include some of the passing incidents, as well as Delilah's canniness regarding male and female relationships but ignorance and/or naivete of her daughter Peola's desire to enjoy parties and music. Brown observes that an especially illuminating, symbolic moment in the film, capturing the social realities of the two races, is a scene in which Miss Bea ascends the stairs while Delilah descends them:

It is symbolic of many things. One is, that in Imitation of Life, where Claudette Colbert has a role to bring out all there is in her, both Miss Beavers and Miss Washington have, so to speak, to go downstairs; Miss Beavers to a much greater childishness, and Miss Washington to a much greater bewilderment than they would recognize in real life. But so Hollywood would have it; and so Hollywood gets something less artistic and less true. (88)

The following month, an outraged and stunned Fannie Hurst replied to Brown's review. Paternalistically, she takes issue with his "carping, petty angles of criticism" and reprimands him for being neither grateful for her efforts on behalf of Black people nor intelligent in his review. Accusing him of not seeing the woods for the trees, of concerning himself too much "with the superficialities of idiom, and the shape of the cook's cap" rather than "the larger social values" of the picture, Hurst praises the film for having made a significant contribution to humanizing Black people: "The important social value of this picture is that it practically inaugurates into the important medium of the motion picture, a consideration of the Negro as part of the social pattern of American life" (121).

Brown's rebuttal, three times the length of Hurst's letter, both reinforces his original argument and deflates her comments - logs roll and brickbats heave. Direct and unrelentless in his response, he reiterates his position: "I believe, and have stated time and time again that 'outsiders' have contributed some of the very best interpretations of Negro life. But I do not consider Miss Hurst's book, or the picture, to belong with these" (121). Among his most poignant comments: "My review was a decided failure if it did not reveal the book and picture were uppermost in my - let us call it thinking." He caustically rejects any notion of social value in the movie:

Pity is not enough; sentimentality is not enough. The picture breaks no new ground. The beloved mammy is a long familiar darling in the American consciousness. . . . moving pictures and novels have placed her there. The tragic mulatto . . . is likewise a fixture. She is so woebegone that she is a walking argument against miscegenation. . . . Like her mammy, she contributes to Anglo-Saxon self esteem. It is not easy to see any "social value" in perpetuating these stock characters. . . . To me the social value is still suggested by the subtitle of the review: "Once a pancake, always a pancake." (122)

Regarding Hurst's questioning of his intelligence, Brown responds coolly, "Far be it from me to dispute such a trivial point with a lady." And his final quip about the matter of showing gratefulness to Hurst is characteristically "sterling": "Concerning my ungratefulness, let me cheerfully acknowledge this degree of unintelligence: that I cannot imagine what in the world I would have to be grateful for, either to Universal Pictures or to Miss Hurst" (122).

Sterling Brown in his literary chronicles for Opportunity indisputably remains the teacher par excellence. His curriculum is brilliantly simple, consistent. The foundation he laid more than half a century ago was solid, and the fruit of his labor is manifest both at home and abroad. He was privileged to have witnessed the fruition of his life's work: Ours is, and will continue to be, as he envisioned, a literature orthy of our past; and without a doubt, evidence abounds that an audience worthy of that literature has emerged.

Works Cited

Boston Transcript 4 Feb. 1933: 2.

Brown, Sterling A. "Imitation of Life: Once a Pancake." Opportunity 13 (1935): 87-88.

-----. "The Literary Scene: Chronicle and Comment." Opportunity 9 (1931): 53-54.

-----. "The Literary Scene: Chronicle and Comment." Opportunity 13 (1935): 121-22.

-----. "Our Literary Audience." Opportunity 8 (1930): 42-46, 61.

-----. "Roland Hayes." Opportunity 3 (1925): 173-74.

Gabbin, Joanne V. Sterling A. Brown: Building the Black Aesthetic Tradition. Westport: Greenwood, 1985.

Lewis, David Levering. When Harlem Was in Vogue. New York: Oxford UP, 1989.

Pinckney, Darryl. "The Last New Negro." New York Review of Books 16 Mar. 1989: 14+.

Hortense E. Simmons is Professor of English and Ethnic Studies at California State University, Sacramento.
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Author:Simmons, Hortense E.
Publication:African American Review
Date:Sep 22, 1997
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