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Sterling Brown: an ethnographic perspective.

I would like to propose a method for reading the poetry of Sterling A. Brown in light of Brown's complete oeuvre. My proposed method is informed by interdisciplinary inquiry, including recent ethnographic theory and qualitative research methodology and an emerging cultural studies discourse that I and others term black cultural critique. This approach is not intended to overlook any aspect of the aesthetic values or artistic achievement of Brown's poetic output. Rather, this approach intends to offer an additional, interdisciplinary, theoretical context in which to appreciate Brown's poetic achievement. My thesis is that Sterling Brown was a postmodern ethnographer who by the 1940s had pioneered solutions to three major problems with which today's cultural anthropologists are grappling: (1) what form ethnographic writing should take, (2) what methodology can result in competent ethnographies of non-hegemonic, oral-based cultures, and (3) what ways the authority of native informants can be acknowledged in ethnographies.

James Clifford and George Marcus offer an eloquent explanation of why I feel it is important to look at Sterling Brown's poetic output from an ethnographic perspective. They see ethnography as an "emergent interdisciplinary phenomenon [whose] authority and rhetoric have spread to many fields where 'culture is a newly problematic object of description and critique'" (Writing Culture 3). I suggest that, if we consider Brown's entire oeuvre - poetry, literary criticism, oral history, and cultural critique - from an ethnographic perspective, we can emerge with the understanding that the sum of his writings constitutes an ethnographic methodology that reflects postmodernist sensibilities. However, it was not until the 1970s and '80s that ethnographers like Clifford Geertz, Mary Douglas, Claude Levi-Strauss, and the late Victor Turner advocated the pursuit of what Sterling Brown already had accomplished - namely, "blurr[ing] the old distinction between art and science and challeng[ing] the very basis of the claim to exacting rigor, unblinking truth telling, and unbiased reporting that marked the boundary separating" art from science (Vidich and Lyman 41). Brown's methodology answers the call of numerous ethnographers and anthropologists who seek honest, nontraditional, competent ways of writing the ethnos of non-hegemonic and non-Western cultures.

Before I proceed with my argument, let me offer some definitions. The Encyclopedia of Cultural Anthoropology? defines ethnography as "writing about customs or, more generally, the description of cultures based on firsthand observation and participation in fieldwork. Fieldwork is the process of observing and participating in life ways of people. Anthropologists report the results as ethnography" (416). Postmodern ethnographers, in the words of Vidich and Lyman, "tak[e] seriously the aim of such deconstructionists as Derrida . . ., Lyotard . . ., and Baudrillard." The postmodern ethnographer is one who eschews such traditional pursuits as "the quest for valid generalizations and substantive conclusions" and replaces them with "thick descriptions," in the language of Geertz, so that postmodern ethnography encompasses the "lived experience," "disprivileg[ing] all received texts and established discourses on behalf of an all-encompassing critical skepticism about knowledge . . . [instead] giv[ing] contingency . . . [to] language, . . . selfhood, . . . and . . . community" (Vidich and Lyman 41).

The ethnographic approach that Sterling Brown pioneered answers the call made by several of today's cutting-edge social scientists for a radical, multi-vocal, culturally astute approach to cultural studies. In fact, the brand of ethnography that Brown developed is one that can be appreciated by the most radical of cultural scholars. African-American sociologist John H. Stanfield II explains the problem cultural anthropologists have long faced in their attempts to describe and learn from non-hegemonic cultures. He implies in the following quotation that radical approaches to cultural study simply are not in the mission of universities that currently train ethnographers:

The oral basis of most African cultures and among aboriginal peoples around the world offers a major challenge, because adequate study of such cultures requires a different portfolio of skills from what researchers reared in written word-based cultures acquire easily. In oral-based cultures, . . . records . . . come in the form of poems, songs, testimonies, stories, performing arts, and proverbs, rather than diaries, newspapers, census reports, and surveys. (184-85)

Contemporary literary studies like Gayl Jones's Liberating Voices, Henry Louis Gates's The Signifying Monkey, Houston Baker's Blues, Ideology, and Afro-American Literature, and Stephen Henderson's "The Form of Things Unknown" have helped establish African-American culture as an oral-based one. But even earlier, before the New Negro Renaissance that spawned Brown's literary endeavors, W. E. B. Du Bois had established the oral basis of African-American culture in his 1903 essay collection The Souls of Black Folk.(1)

The methodology that Stanfield outlines for studying oral-based cultures is one that Sterling Brown had already employed before, during, and after his tenure as administrator of the WPA Writers' Project and researcher in the Gunner Myrdal-Carnegie study that resulted in the celebrated treatise An American Dilemma. (Joanne Gabbin chronicles Brown's professional and artistic accomplishments in her groundbreaking work Sterling A. Brown: Building the Black Aesthetic Tradition.) In fact, Brown anticipated Stanfield and Afrocentric cultural scholars like Asante, Ladner, Hamnett, and Merton by writing poetry and collecting oral histories in addition to publishing academic-style treatises to enlighten the world about African-American culture. In other words, rather than using a strictly empirical methodology for treating the unquantifiable and unprovable, and rather than generalizing from the particulars he culled from his travels among black folk in the South, Brown found a culturally functional alternative to the established but inadequate academic form of ethnographic reportage. He created a multi-voiced, polyphonic, self-reflexive, diversely genred oeuvre. He self-consciously and, I might add, defiantly represented an emic ethnography, one that reflects the values of the culture being described, rather than the traditional etic ethnography, which reflects the values of the newcomer to a culture (Vidich and Lyman 26). I call such an emic approach an authoethnography, since one writes of one's own culture from the position of cultural insider.

The autoethnographer is more than the sum of native informant and participant observer, the former being the so-called native guide for the ethnographic researcher and the latter being the outsider ethnographer engaged in fieldwork. The autoethnographer is more than what James Clifford terms the "fieldworker-theorist," whose "cultural description [as of the 1920s was] based on participant observation" (Predicament 30). The autoethnographer is nothing like the cultural anthropologist, whom Vidich and Lyman describe as a self-defined newcomer to the habitat and life world of his or her subjects (41). Rather, the autoethnographer has cultural roots in, and an insider's grasp of, the group being described and therefore needs no native informant to assist in the translation of language and culture. Of cultural necessity, the autoethnographer renders the description of his or her own culture on levels that exceed the narrow boundaries of the academic report from the field.

During the time that Brown wrote and studied his own culture, Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict were ascending the anthropological throne of intellectual and scholarly authority and were influential in discrediting native informants on the grounds that natives of a culture lack impartiality and objectivity. According to Clifford, "It was tacitly agreed that the new-style ethnographer, whose sojourn in the field seldom exceeded two years, and more frequently was much shorter, could efficiently 'use' native languages without 'mastering' them." Mead and others, in spite of objections from followers of Franz Boas, "established that valid research could be accomplished on the basis of one or two years' familiarity with a foreign vernacular. A distinct primacy was accorded to the visual: interpretation was tied to description. After Bronislaw Malinowski, a general suspicion of 'privileged informants' reflected this systematic preference for the (methodical) observations of the ethnographer over the (interested) interpretations of indigenous authorities" (Predicament 31).

Brown, however, questioned the importance and validity of objectivity and impartiality in cultural study and hotly questioned the usefulness of outsider reports of culture. He interrogated the intellectual establishment that presumed it was possible, interesting, and profitable to study the culture of a group whose differences rendered it fair game for examination, interpretation, and explanation. In Brown's famous and frequently anthologized essay "Negro Character As Seen By White Authors," he invalidates the ethnographic claims of literary artists who exploited the so-called Negro as literary subject, and in so doing he discredits the entire ethnographic enterprise widely embraced by the academy and the literati of his era. Ostensibly, the essay chides literary artists for making ethnographic claims best left to what Brown terms professional ethnographers; but, reenacting the trickster aspect of the African-American folk ethos, Brown is actually critiquing the field of ethnography for perpetuating the fiction that a university-trained ethnographer can master a culture in six months or two years, or even in ten years.(2) Brown consciously set standards for ethnography that were impossible for the establishment ethnographers of his day to satisfy. In "Negro Characters," he writes:

The exploration of Negro life and character rather than its exploitation must come from Negro authors themselves. This, of course, runs counter to the American conviction that the Southern white man knows the Negro best, and can best interpret him. . . . But whether Negro life and character are to be best interpreted from without or within is an interesting by-path that we had better not enter here. One manifest truth, however, is this: the sincere, sensitive artist, willing to go beneath the cliches of popular belief to get at an underlying reality, will be wary of confining a race's entire character to a half-dozen narrow grooves. He will hardly have the temerity to say that his necessarily limited observation of a few Negroes in a restricted environment can be taken as the last word about some mythical the Negro. He will hesitate to do this, even though he had a Negro mammy, or spent a night in Harlem, or has been a Negro all his life. The writer submits that such an artist is the only one worth listening to, although the rest are legion. (639)

In reference to the form ethnography should take - Vidich and Lyman, among others, assert that "an ethnography is now to be regarded as a piece of writing - as such, it cannot be said to . . . represent . . . an accurate portrait of the culture of the 'other.' "They discredit traditional ethnography's claim of creating an "unmodified and unfiltered record of immediate experience" (41). But these cutting-edge scholars of the dominant hegemonic culture do not go far enough in discrediting traditional ethnography's modus operandi. They do not understand that their proclamation-that ethnography is a piece of writing - ignores the experiential quality a successful ethnographic study should impart. To reduce ethnography to writing ignores the irony, the subversiveness, the double consciousness of the non-hegemonic cultural experience. Such pigeon holing does not acknowledge the musical, artistic, and performative aspects of non-hegemonic cultures.

Brown's references to music in poems the "Cabaret" and to physical posturing in poems like "Sporting Beasley" and to gesticulation in poems like "Wild Bill" acknowledge the possibility that ethnography is more than writing - that it encompasses performance, oral history, oral storytelling, and other non-written forms of expressivity. Stanfield argues that, since "many non-Westerners view the social, the emotional, and the spiritual as integral parts of a whole person linked to a physical environment, it [is] crucial for a qualitative [research] method's epistemology to be grounded in holistic rather than fragmented and dichotomized notions of human beings" (185). Brown acquiesces to the problematics of recording immediate experience by creating the fictional character of Slim Greer, who through humor and insider knowledge critiques the hegemonic structure that has led to apartheid and modern-day slavery in the land of Dixie.

"Slim in Atlanta" is a case in point. In this poem, the rascal Greer dominates the one "telefoam booth" blacks are allowed to use when they feel the need to laugh. Within this poetic tall tale is a vitriolic critique of the so-called "separate-but-equal" accommodations blacks had to put up with during the days of apartheid in the pre-Civil Rights Act South. But within even this poem, Brown radically interrogates and discredits the monologism of traditional ethnography by wearing two hats in his poetic study of the Southern black folk community. Brown writes as a native observer, along the lines of autoethnography, but at the same time acknowledges his limitations as a city dweller, identifying some of his experience as tangential to some aspects of folk culture. He does this in "Slim in Atlanta" through the device of Slim Greer's disbelieving laughter, but in other poems he uses the device of distanced language. This is to say that, in poems like "Strong Men," "Old Lem," and "Ma Rainey," Brown distances the ethnographer's voice by using standard English-speaking personae who play the part of participant observer - the traditional role of ethnographers in the field. And he permits characters like Sister Lou, Slim Greer, Sporting Beasley, Scotty, and Big Boy to express vernacularly certain folk notions of life that standard English is hard pressed to express.

James Clifford, a widely celebrated ethnographer of the post-modern era, focused his attention in 1988 on academia's recently acknowledged problems representing the authority of native informants in ethnographic field research: "Current ethnographic writing is seeking new ways to represent adequately the authority of informants. . . . ethnographic exposition routinely folds into itself a diversity of descriptions, transcriptions, and interpretations by a variety of indigenous 'authors.' How should these authorial presences be made manifest?" (45-46) Brown didn't seem to have a problem manifesting indigenous authorial presences. In "Slim in Hell," for example, Saint Peter turns Slim back from the pearly gates when Slim explains that, instead of surveying hell as Saint Peter had requested, he had mistakenly gone to Dixie:

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, The place was Dixie That I took for hell."

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

Certainly the indigenous authorial voice is present here, as it is in poems like "A Bad, Bad Man" (Last Ride 46) and "Sister Lou," whose poetic autobiographer understands that this black woman Lou's vision of eternal life is different from the dominant culture's, that Lou's concern for the biblical Judas Iscariot involves a deep cultural concern for the scapegoat:

Give a good talkin' to To yo' favorite 'postle Peter, An' rub the po' head Of mixed-up Judas, An' joke awhile wid Jonah. (Southern Road 49)

In "Traveling Cultures" Clifford critiques establishment ethnography and sets up the ideal goal of ethnographic research. He asserts that, "in much traditional ethnography, . . . the ethnographer has localized what is actually a regional/national/global nexus, relegating to the margins a 'culture's' external relations and displacements" (100). He calls for analyses of "constructed and disputed historicities" (101). Sterling Brown's sensitivity to depicting "disputed historicities" is perhaps best exemplified in his poem "Remembering Nat Turner." There, a cackling old Caucasian woman, herself on the margins of the dominant culture, is depicted as the repository of an eventful moment in African-American and American history, the rebellion of Nat Turner. But this hag-like person (as depicted in Brown's poem) is inadequate to the task of preserving and conveying even a single momentous event of African-American history. Her confused and distorted rendition of the events surrounding the Nat Turner rebellion, trial, and execution is reminiscent of many official lies and coverups that eventually become local truths, marring the scattered remains of African-American material culture:

"Ain't no slavery no more, things is going all right. . . . 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?" . . . We remembered the poster rotted through and falling, The marker split for kindling a kitchen fire. (Poems 209-10)

In another example of the ideal mission of ethnography, the poem "Strong Men" reveals what Clifford calls "sites of displacement, interference, and interaction" ("Traveling Cultures" 101). Clifford uses this phrase to describe unfairly weighted clashes between hegemonic and nonhegemonic cultures. He argues that ethnographers should provide deep contextualization for cultural beliefs and behaviors contaminated by these clashes rather than provide mere description of cultural differences from the hegemonic norm. In "Strong Men," Brown graphically illustrates the culture of dissent that historically has developed among African Americans in response to the discriminatory practices of the dominant culture:

They heard the laugh and wondered; Uncomfortable; Unadmitting a deeper terror. . . . The strong men keep a-comin' on Gittin' stronger. . . . (Southern Road 53)

Thus, Clifford and Marcus's call for ethnographic analyses that are "situated between power systems of meaning" (2) was already in place in Brown's oeuvre, particularly in such poetic answers to hegemonic bias in depictions of African Americans. In fact, the bulk of Brown's poems, oral histories, and essays show the connection between African-American culture and oppressive hegemonic societal influences.

Sterling Brown wrote ethnography by offering a diverse oeuvre of material from which to glean an understanding and appreciation of the richness and diversity of black folk culture. This is not to diminish his poetry as poetry, but the fact remains that one cannot escape the rich portrait of African-American life and culture that Brown's poetry renders. Brown never tried to offer a univocal or unified description of the culture he chose to examine. Rather, by using diverse forms of expressivity, he pioneered a postmodern ethnographic methodology that turns the tables on a discipline, the depths of whose elitism, arrogance, and chauvinism have barely been tapped.


1. For a cogent argument concerning Du Bois's ethnography of African-American culture and epistemology, see Schrager.

2. For an excellent retrospective of the development of the field of ethnography, see Clifford, "On Ethnographic Authority" (Predicament 21-53).

Works Cited

Brown, Sterling A. The Collected Poems of Sterling A. Brown. New York: Harper, 1980.

-----. The Last Ride of Wild Bill and Eleven Narrative Poems. Detroit: Broadside, 1975.

----- . "Negro Character as Seen by White Authors." Journal of Negro Education 2.2 (1933): 179-203. Rpt. The New Cavalcade: African American Writing from 1760 to the Present. Ed. Arthur P. Davis, et al. 2 vols. Washington: Howard UP, 1991. 1: 607-39.

----- . Southern Road. New York: Harcourt, 193Z

Clifford, James. The Predicament of Culture: Twentieth-Century Ethnography, Literature, and Art. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1988.

-----. "Traveling Cultures." Cultural Studies. New York: Routledge, 1992.96-116.

-----, and George E. Marcus, eds. Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography. Berkeley: U of California P, 1986.

Denzin, Norman K., and Yvonna S. Lincoln, eds. Handbook of Qualitative Research. Thousand Oaks: Sage, 1994.

"Ethnography." Encyclopedia of Cultural Anthropology. Ed. David Levinson and Melvin Ember. New York: Holt, 1996. 416-22.

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

Stanfield, John H., II. "Ethnic Modeling in Qualitative Research." Denzin and Lincoln 175-88.

Schrager, Cynthia D. "Both Sides of the Veil: Race, Science, and Mysticism in W. E. B. Du Bols." American Quarterly 48 (1996): 551-86.

Vidich, Arthur J., and Stanford M Lyman. "Qualitative Methods: Their History in Sociology and Anthropology." Denzin and Lincoln 23-59.

Beverly Lanier Skinner is a faculty member in the Department of English at Millersville University in Pennsylvania.
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Author:Skinner, Beverly Lanier
Publication:African American Review
Date:Sep 22, 1997
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