Sterling Brown's poetic voice: a living legacy.
I don't know which way I'm travelin' - Far or near, All I know fo' certain is I cain't stay here.
Ain't no call at all, sweet woman, Fo' to carry on - Jes' my name and jes' my habit To be Long Gone. . . . (Poems 23)
Sterling A. Brown - poet, critic, legendary teacher, irreverent raconteur - whose life spanned the first eighty-eight years of the twentieth century, is gone, but fortunately his voice remains. His is the voice of the poet that captures the blues moan of lost and long-gone loves, the chant of saints who pray to be in the number, the tragicomic cry in the face of injustice and violence, and the jubilee songs of endurance and perseverance.
The man who would capture the authentic nuances of black people was born in Washington, D.C., on May 1, 1901, in a house at Sixth and Fairmount. He was the last of six children and the only son born to Reverend Sterling Nelson Brown and Adelaide Allen Brown. The young Sterling grew up on the campus of Howard University, where his father had taught in the School of Religion since 1892. A preacher's kid, Sterling was brought up hearing the hymns and spirituals sung at Lincoln Temple Congregational Church, where his father pastored. Later in life, when he became a devotee of blues and jazz, he had no difficulty combining and synthesizing these forms, generally considered antithetical, in his work. Though Brown's fun-loving personality rejected his father's penchant toward sobriety and reserve, the Reverend Brown's standards of integrity and spiritual strength made an indelible mark on his sun's character. In the poem "After Winter," Brown tenderly remembers the days with his father on a farm near Laurel, Maryland:
He snuggles his fingers In the blacker loam The lean months are done with, The fat to come.
His eyes are set On a brushwood-fire But his heart is soaring Higher and higher.
Though he stands ragged An old scarecrow, This is the way His swift thoughts go,
"Butter beans fo' Clara Sugar corn fo' Grace An' fo' de little feller Runnin' space." (Poems 74)
Brown is the "little feller" who remembers his father as hopeful, loving, and bound to the soil. The depth of feeling in the poem serves to suggest the extent of his father's impression on him.
From his mother, Adelaide Allen Brown, the young Sterling inherited a love for poetry and books. On May 14, 1973, Brown recalled for me that she read widely and had a great facility with reading poetry:
My mother read . . . Longfellow, she read Burns; and she read Dunbar - grew up on Dunbar - "'Lias! 'Lias! Bless de Lawd!" "The Party," and "Lay me down beneaf de willers in de grass." . . . I remember even now her stopping her sweeping . . . now standing over the broom and reading poetry to me, and she was a good reader, great sense of rhythm.
It is this inherited sense of rhythm, unmistakably sure, that we hear in Brown's poetry.
Through his poetry we also come to know ourselves in all our beauty and ugliness, truth and treachery, confidence and insecurity, humor and pathos. Brown created portraits of the blues-singing roustabout Calvin "Big Boy" Davis, the phlegmatic Old Lem, the flamboyant Sporting Beasley, Ma Rainey, and the irrepressible Slim Greer, whose images parade before us as convincing portraits of ourselves. He took our speech with the rich cadences of backwater blues and field hollers and transformed it into poetry that touches our soul.
Brown's most significant achievement was his subtle adaptation of song forms, especially the blues, to his poetry. Experimenting with the blues, spirituals, work songs, and ballads, he invented combinations that, at their best, retain the ethos of folk forms and intensify the literary quality of the poetry. Because these folk forms were conceived and developed in the matrix of the folk community, they were products of folk aesthetics. In his introduction to the "Folk Literature" section in The Negro Caravan (1941), Brown gave a convincing view of how the folk, for instance, pulled from a common storehouse in producing the spirituals. He explained that individuals "with poetic ingenuity, a rhyming gift, or a good memory" (414) composed or remembered lines out of the folk tradition and - in conjunction with the group, and with its approval - shaped the stanzas. As these songs were passed from one generation to the next, the songs were changed, updated, and sometimes lost. The folk artists who created the blues created in solitude, yet their blues messages intimately touched their listeners. Blues singers conveyed their listeners' preoccupation with love (in all its varieties), their misfortunes and losses, their wisdom and resilience.
In the hauntingly melancholic "Long Track Blues," Brown becomes the blues singer with a poetic intensity that allows us to understand more than the railroad lore of the early twentieth century, more than lost or unrequited love. We hear in his words something about permanent loss, death, and an end that may not round into a beginning:
Red light is my block, Green light down the line; Lawdy, let yo' green light Shine down on that babe o' mine. (Poems 253)
Stepping up the tempo in "Puttin' on Dog," Brown cleverly alternates stanzas that echo the rhythms and rhyme of a children's game song with ballad stanzas. The poem tells of old Scrappy, a flamboyant showoff, who runs up against badman Buck:
Look at old Scrappy puttin' on dog, Puttin' on dog, puttin' on dog, Look at old Scrappy puttin' on dog, Callin' for the bad man Buck. (Poems 240)
Or consider the sorrowful line of "Sharecroppers." Here Brown is successful in suggesting several of the qualities, themes, and idioms we associate with the spirituals. In the poem the victimization of the steadfast sharecropper is punctuated by his "wife's weak moans" and his "children's wails":
Then his landlord shot him in the side. He toppled, and the blood gushed out. But he didn't mumble even a word, And cursing, they left him there for dead.
Clothed with sacrifice and hope, the sharecropper gives up no secret but one:
"We gonna clean out dis brushwood round here soon, Plant de white-oak and de black-oak side by side." (Poems 182)
What black folk expressed in story, proverb, and song, Brown considered and absorbed in his poetic imagination and infused in his poems. Besides the song forms themselves, he adopted themes and symbols from the folk storehouse; catastrophe, hardship, superstition, religion, poverty, murder, death, loneliness, travel, and courage are among the ideas that Brown handles with originality. In "Break of Day," Brown tells the tragic story of Big Jess, who "fired on the Alabama Central." Big Jess "had a pleasing woman, name of Mame," and "Had a boy growing up to be a fireman, / Just like his pa." Yet Jess was denied his full man's right to life and happiness when he was ambushed and killed by "crackers" who "craved his job":
Mob stopped the train crossing Black Bear Mountain Shot rang out, babe, shot rang out. They left Big Jess on the Black Bear Mountain, Break of day, baby, break of day.
Sweet Mame sits rocking, waiting for the whistle Long past due, babe, long past due. The grits are cold, and the coffee's boiled over, But Jess done gone, baby he done gone. (Poems 156)
In presenting Big Jess's story, Brown avoids a sentimental and melodramatic treatment by conveying the tale in the form of a ballad/work song. Written in an idiom that is direct, terse, and brimming with the vernacular of the railroad song, the poem is marked by a series of caesuras that punctuate the lines. Through repetition and well-placed emphasis, Brown intensifies the tragic circumstances of Big Jess's bid for a decent life. Jess's refusal to quit his job and his laugh in the face of intimidation were, for Brown, badges of courage.
With a remarkable ear for the idiom, cadence, and the tones of folk speech, Brown absorbed its vibrant qualities in his poetry. Brown naturalizes his black dialect, softens and elides the sounds, and captures the inflection, the timbre, the racial sound of the vernacular. Brown effectively creates the accent of the Creole patois in "Uncle Joe," the twangy drawl of the sheriff in "The Ballad of Joe Meek," and the edgy crackle of the old woman's voice in "Remembering Nat Turner." All of these accents add to the 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 leit-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 gonna 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.
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:||Gabbin, Joanne V.|
|Publication:||African American Review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 1997|
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