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Sterling A. Brown and the Afro-modern moment.

When Robert Penn Warren wrote his highly ironic line "Nigger, your breed ain't metaphysical" (321), he compressed into five deceptively economic feet nearly a half-millennium of white hegemonic philosophy, both its rhetorical strategies and underlying presuppositions. Buzzard, "the carrier of the ostracizing power of white discourse, the trope which declares the otherness of the black" (Nielsen 117), does not simply assert black inferiority but reconstructs and reaffirms the mutually exclusive mythic realms "white" and "black" must inhabit in order to sustain five hundred years of radical inequity. As ametaphysical, "the black" (or, better yet, blackness) must exist beyond the aesthetic, beyond the redemptive possibilities central to the humanistic tradition of arts and letters. As "fictive signifier of the nonwhite" (Nielsen 10), blackness serves as a repository of reifying antitheses: anti-intellectual, illiterate, subhuman, and ahistorical. All in all, Warren constructs a blackness thoroughly banished to the margins of the human community, a blackness of radical absence proclaiming the final and ultimate abstraction of damning eternal sameness. Indeed Warren (and by extension what I will call hegemonic or conventional modernism) achieves much of his coherence through the assertion of objectified blackness, through a tropic vocabulary of necessarily reductive poses impervious to change over time (see Nielsen, North).

Yet it is precisely the cultural force of these poses and the pervasive nature of the objectifying language which would drive James Weldon Johnson, William Pickens, Carter G. Woodson, and even W. E. B. Du Bois (in "A Conservation of Races") to advance a countering but often equally reductive discourse. Johnson's ragtime piano players, for example, are "guided by their natural musical instinct" and their "extraordinary sense of rhythm"; thus Johnson effectively reinscribes essentializing tropes in an attempt to assert a "negro exceptionalism" worthy of notice and, ultimately, of citizenship (20).

The profound condensation of Warren's single line was not lost on Sterling A. Brown, whose famous retort some years later undermined entirely the conception of ahistorical blackness. His reply in a 1974 interview with Steven Jones, "Cracker, your breed ain't exegetical," appropriates Warren's five-foot economy in order to parody both the sound and sense of his poetry. Through such "signifying" Brown points to a crucial blindness which makes possible an assertion of black ametaphysicality. Signaling much more than a lack of specific exposition, Brown alludes to a profound illiteracy, a lack of attention to a broad corpus of texts and cultural idioms which assert African American complexity and change. So, too, Brown remained skeptical of these countering tropes on the part of New Negroes, tropes which could not account for the burgeoning complexities he found in Southern black life. Positioning himself outside (or perhaps beyond) the two competing discourses, Brown questions the fundamental assumption (or acceptance) of ontological blackness, and so begins to formulate an Afromodernism (both a poetic vocabulary and a theory of folk culture) capable of exploring a more dynamic range in African American being. In short, Brown embarks upon an artistic and aesthetic project which fundamentally reconceives black modernity. Appropriating contemporary notions concerning subjectivity and process, and applying them to a range of black idiomatic expressions and rituals, Brown reworks the language and tropes he inherited in order to explore the inventive ways in which African Americans articulate their modernity; that is, express a presence, a historicity, an ongoing engagement with the contemporary moment.

A reading of "Odyssey of Big Boy," both within and beyond Southern Road, helps to illustrate Brown's larger concerns. Brown introduces Southern Road with an allusion to travel and experience, to independence, self-discovery, and the romantic possibilities of immortality. "Odyssey of Big Boy," in its gesture toward the mythic, initiates the road as witness, odyssey, and highly ambivalent duality, and thus presents the major motifs and metaphors which will develop through the course of the collection. "Odyssey," for Calvin Big Boy Davis, resonates with Homeric implications - extended travel resulting in catholic experiences and the possibility of heroic stature - but Davis's odyssey embarks upon an innovative variation on the standard theme and approach.

Significantly, Big Boy Davis's proclamation is not a third-person narrative rehearsing the past deeds and mythic status of cultural heroes; it is not the ballads of John Henry, Casey Jones, or Stagolee. Instead, as he confronts his imminent death, Davis embarks upon a personal odyssey toward self-realization, an incomplete journey into the future. This fundamental dynamic depends heavily upon the intricate play between past and future, a play which propels the poem out of the static sphere of traditional balladry into the dynamics of highly personalized subjectivity. Davis begins and ends not with a statement about the past, but with a vision of the future:

Lemme be wid Casey Jones, Lemme be wid Stagolee, Lemme be wid such like men When Death takes hol' on me, When Death takes hol' on me. . . .

An' all dat Big Boy axes When time comes fo' to go, Lemme be wid John Henry, steel drivin' man, Lemme be wid old Jazzbo, Lemme be wid ole Jazzbo. . . . (20-21)

With such a framing, Davis delivers a history which plays upon the creative tension between past and future, and thus transforms his odyssey into one of present voice. His "future link with the past" depends entirely upon the oral reshaping of his history; therefore the vocal act of proclamation and assertion becomes the odyssey toward apotheosis-hence the voice as passage and "mode of knowing" (Benston 33).

Driven by this central tension, Davis's chronicle takes on a particularly personal urgency, while continuing to embrace the collective cultural potential for recreation. His history, a review of jobs, travel, and romantic conquests, invokes a masculinist tradition defining personhood in terms of physical and psychological autonomy, in terms of mobility and abundant vitality. And thus the road alludes to those larger cultural icons of superlative success. Having "seen what dey is to see" (20), his life should find fulfillment once assigned the same symbolic stature as that of his heroes.

But just as Davis's odyssey toward myth and immortality depends upon the statement of his life, it also depends upon the form that statement takes, essentially the formal poetic constructions which aid in his search for voice. In short, Davis rhetorically reconstructs himself in the form of John Henry as he is received and preserved through balladry. In terms of stanza form - specifically the number of lines, rhyme scheme, and repetition - Davis directly mimics "John Henry," the ballad Brown uses in Negro Caravan. The only major formal difference is the length of the line. Thus, the process of shaping Davis's own history through the invocation of an historical form reveals the vital acts of reclaiming and refashioning; Davis's gesture is historical, reaching into the past to claim a form and voice that will allow him to envision his future. So this process intertwines the personal and the collective.

This formal appropriation also effects a kind of "double voicing," where his "semantic orientation" colors the established cultural articulation - to use Henry Louis Gates Jr.'s application of Bakhtin (50). But distinct from Bakhtin's sense of parody, Davis's double voicing "evaluates" the John Henry ballad as the superlative sign of mythic heroism and masculinity. Thus, Davis's sense of enduring meaning depends entirely upon an absolute identification with John Henry's transcendent signification. Here Davis grafts his biography onto a cultural continuum; his blues-inflected lyric odyssey signifies his own progression as well as the larger cultural modality.

Playing on this dramatic tension between past and future, "Odyssey of Big Boy" concerns itself, then, with the present moment of vocalization, with the ongoing dynamic of self-articulation and self-recreation, and the ability of voice to project and reconstruct. For Davis the past looms as power and evidence; the future serves as hope and possibility dependent upon the present voice and its ability to shape the past and thus the future. For Big Boy Davis, his performing voice, enacting a ritual of mythic invocation, works as a visionary tool, allowing him to access the broader meaning which leads beyond his immediate circumstances. In short, "Odyssey" dramatizes the perpetually temporal, the entirely subjective moment which is at once excruciatingly private yet self-consciously public and representative, both in process and aspiration. In this sense, "Odyssey of Big Boy" addresses the dynamics of individual and collective history; it exults the challenge to rationalize, reshape, and rediscover the past and, by extension, the challenge to discover expansive possibilities for the future. As Davis reshapes himself in the form of John Henry, and thus shapes his life-song in reference to the culture's superlatives, his vocal odyssey also constructs Davis as artist, both musician and poet able to squeeze from his experience "a near-tragic, near comic lyricism" (Ellison 129). His successful vocalization projects Davis as a metaphor for the artist and his/her ability to shape and recreate reality, to access alternative and liberating psychic spaces. And of course implicit in this reading is Brown himself, the poet able to envision and provoke profound transformation.

These larger concerns force "Odyssey of Big Boy" beyond an insulated ritual of self-proclamation to an eloquent introduction to the entire collection, and perhaps Brown's larger poetic project, which stresses dynamics and movement. Brown reconceives the past and history as active agents in the ongoing present. Kimberly Benston comments: "Brown's poems inscribe the past not as a nostalgic after-thought but as a process engendering unlimited visions, not as a feeble gesture toward an unrealizable ideal but as a dynamic proposition, an after-song that is both petition and re-petition" (Benston 35).

Thus, as "Odyssey of Big Boy" works as perpetual vocal epic, Big Boy Davis - improvisationalist, student of tradition, and blues hero-serves as the sign of the modernity of folk culture, and as the possibility of artistic expression born of eclectic antecedents. Davis synthesizes idioms, voices, traditions, and forms, and thus exacts the essentially eclectic process at the heart of Brown's aesthetic project. Davis establishes the metaphoric perimeters for Southern Road's master trope, the road, and thus anticipates "When the Saints Go Ma'ching Home," "Strong Men," "Ma Rainey," and "Southern Road." Each of these poems and the collection as a whole explore the triumphs and vicissitudes of contemporary Southern black life, and thus they stress the ongoing agency of folk forms in confronting contemporary dilemmas.

Finally, recognizing the critical interdependence of New Negroism and American modernity, Brown pursues an ultimately synthetic poetic project, exposing and dramatizing the dynamic hybridity fundamental to African American being. But in order to forge a project re-envisioning modernist and New Negro formulations, he must confront and subvert the exclusionary nature of the racial discourse in which both hegemonic modernism and bourgeois New Negroism participate. If the dichotomy dividing hegemonic modernism and New Negroism is in fact false - a point which Brown's poetry ultimately suggests - then Brown must demonstrate the ways in which modernist aesthetics and techniques may actually aid in the deepening and widening of African American artistic representation. But Brown does not draw upon an homogenized Anglo/ Eliot-styled modernism, one marked by fragmentation, malaise, and cultural exhaustion; Big Boy Davis's moment is not one of Prufrock-like retreat and psychic paralysis. Rather, Brown invokes a modernism of possibility, animated by new combinations, synthesis, or "superintegration" (McFarlane 92) and marked by formal experimentation, modal progression, and perpetual process. Employing a notion of "strategic essentialism," Brown posits the political and cultural category "black," yet suspends - indeed perpetually troubles - any sense of conceptual fixity which may serve the rival discourses of primitivism and exceptionalism.

As the proposition of ontological blackness dissolves into a constellation of historicized contingencies, into subjectivity, fluidity, and modality, all play key roles in a poetics invested in the radical temporality of the present moment. Brown's sense of modernity leads him to a vision of the past as a "process engendering unlimited visions," a "dynamic proposition" which must be perpetually reconfigured, reconstructed (Benston 35). Brown's poetics hold up both past and future as ultimately malleable resources; it is the present moment of consciousness itself, the perpetual moment of manipulation - through voice, ritual, performance, and so forth - which constitutes the thoroughly historicized black subject, the historical actor continually reconstructing the self, and thus the political and cultural landscape. In distinct yet complementary ways, Anne Spencer, Jean Toomer, and the later James Weldon Johnson (of God's Trombones) participate in a similarly hybrid, Afro-modernist poetic project. That "strong men keep on a-comin' on" is not simply a statement of political agency or black heroism, but an assertion of historicity, of modality which keeps in play those dimensions of being and personhood which lie beyond (or perhaps beneath) the limitations of crude categorization. From Big Boy Davis's expansive orality to Joe Meek's highly textured sense of irony, Brown's "profoundly Modernist consciousness of poetry's radical historicity, its desire to be both original and related to what precedes it" (Benston 34) leads him to a fundamental reformulation of modernism, one demanding exegesis and giving full voice to a burgeoning Afro-modernism.

Works Cited

Benston, Kimberly W. "Sterling Brown's After-Song: 'When de Saints Go Ma'ching Home' and the Performance of Afro-American Voice." Callaloo 14-15 (1982): 33-42.

Brown, Sterling A. "Odyssey of Big Boy." The Collected Poems of Sterling A. Brown. 1980. Chicago: TriQuartedy P, 1989.20-21.

Ellison, Ralph. "Richard Wright's Blues." The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison. Ed. John Callahan. New York: Modern Library, 1995. 128-44.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism. New York: Oxford UP, 1988.

Johnson, James Weldon. "Preface." The Book of American Negro Poetry. New York: Harcourt, 1922. 9-48.

Jones, Steven. Interview with Sterling A. Brown. 4 May 1974.

McFarlane, James. "The Mind of Modernism." Modernism, 1890-1930. Ed. Malcolm Bradbury and McFarlane. New York: Humanities P, 1976.71-93.

Nielsen, Alden Lynn. Reading Race: White American Poets and the Racial Discourse in the Twentieth Century. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1988.

North, Michael. The Dialect of Modernism: Race, Language, and Twentieth-Century Literature. New York: Oxford UP, 1994.

Warren, Robert Penn. "Pondy Woods." A Robert Penn Warren Reader. New York: Random, 1987. 320-22.

Mark A. Sanders teaches in the Department of English at Emory University.
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Author:Sanders, Mark A.
Publication:African American Review
Date:Sep 22, 1997
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