Sterling A. Brown (1901-1989)
Contributing Editor: John Edgar Tidwell
Classroom Issues and Strategies
Two problems come immediately to mind when I consider my past experiences in teaching Brown's poetry. First the relative obscurity of Brown's place in the American literary tradition is the biggest obstacle in teaching Brown because students think his presence in the syllabus requires some big justification.
The second problem, ironically, is much more complicated. Because Brown is a black poet, students are quite willing to interpret his poetry in light of his "blackness," by which they generally mean hard luck, pain, and suffering imposed by "Jim Crow" laws. They are less willing to acknowledge Brown as a poet, one conscientiously crafting and representing experience in poetic form. Brown's fundamental assertion of a humanistic vision is rooted in the democratic principles of the U.S. Constitution. The way in which this assertion is set forth as compelling poetry sometimes escapes the vision of students, who often want to see him engaged in special pleading. They're often reluctant to see him in a tradition established by Robert Frost, E. A. Robinson, Carl Sandburg, and Edgar Lee Masters; at times, a myopia prevents them from seeing how Brown takes aesthetic forms from black folk--the blues, tales, work songs--and adapts them for poetic purpose. In short, it is a problem of getting students to understand how Brown is, in fact, an Americanist, whose precepts and examples sought to argue his liberation from, as he considered it, the more narrow designation black writer.
To handle the problem of Brown's relative obscurity, I begin by placing him within a thematic and structural context of black and white writers who sought the "extraordinary in ordinary life." In part, this means illustrating Brown's comment that when Sandburg said yes to his Chicago hog butchers and stackers of wheat, he was moved to celebrate the lives, lore, and language of black folk.
To establish a context of writers using black folk traditions during Brown's era, I begin with Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, James Weldon Johnson, and Waring Cuney, among others. I discuss very generally the differing ways they made use of black folk experiences to establish texts and aesthetic contexts. What this permits is a comparative approach; it asks for ways Brown's blues poems, for example, conform and depart from those of Hughes and Cuney.
Of the various presentational techniques I've used, one has been especially useful: listening to Brown reading his own poetry, which is available on several Folkways records. Brown is an exceptional reader, in part because of his background in drama and his reputation for being a raconteur.
Most questions students pose relate to the subtle way in which Brown calls into question the panoply of Jim Crow laws. In Brown's "Old Lem," for example, they ask for clarification about the nonverbal communication suggested by Old Lem's standing with bowed head, averted eyes, and open hands, in contrast to the whites with hands balled in fists and eyes in direct, confrontational stares. The history of these gestures dating from its formalization into law during the early nineteenth century is something they usually don't understand, but come to see when it is explained.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
How does Brown's work simultaneously refute racial stereotypes and affirm the humanity of black life? What is distinctive about Brown's humor? In what ways does it borrow from the vernacular tradition brought to prominence by Twain? How does the theme of the pursuit of democracy figure into Brown's aesthetic vision? How do sociological concerns coalesce with aesthetic pursuits without one overshadowing the other? What innovations in technique and craft can be discerned in Brown's poetry?
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
I find the issues of period and school to be particularly interesting. Brown has been vociferous in refuting the term Harlem Renaissance. His opposition takes on two points: First, Harlem was a, not the, center of Negro creative activity during this era. To locate it in Harlem, he continues, is to afford too much credit to Carl Van Vechten and not enough to blacks themselves. Second, he often puns, if this era was the Renaissance, where is the naissance? Critics generally include him in the group of writers who came of age during the twenties. Brown questions his inclusion in the group, by preferring to be considered a "lone wolf." And he further questions the neat periodization of the New Negro Movement into the years 1922-1929. A renaissance, he contends, is much longer. One could use Brown's denials, then, as bases for defining problems of period, school, and even aesthetic convention. For example, how does Brown's use of black idiom differ from his immediate predecessors and from writers as early as Paul Laurence Dunbar and his imitators?
Brown himself is his own best spokesman on the question of audience. In terms of an external audience, he confronted "the dilemma of a divided audience." On one hand, a white readership, thoroughly conditioned by racial stereotyping to expect superficial depictions of blacks, sought confirmation of their beliefs in black poetry. Bristling at any hint of a racially demeaning representation of blacks, the audience of black readers sought glorified portraits of blacks, which became stereotypes in another direction. Brown rejected both audiences and instead hypostatized one. The oral or speakerly quality of his poetry depends in part on the audience he creates within his poetry. The dynamics of speaker-listener are central to understanding the performative nature of his work. In Brown's description, poetry should communicate something. (The explanation of "communication" can be inferred from his letter to Langston Hughes, in which he said poets should not follow the elitist path of Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot, two poets he considers no longer talking to each other, only themselves.) Communication is accomplished by using forms and structures and the language of black folk. Such use articulates a vision of the world that celebrates the dignity, humanism, and worth of a people largely misunderstood and misrepresented.
Readers of Brown's poetry today come away with a similar sense of the performative dimensions of his poetry, I think, because much of Brown's poetry continues to hold up. Even though today's audience may not know the character of racial discrimination in the way Brown experienced it, his poetry has a quality that transcends particular time and place. "She jes' gits hold of us dataway" the speaker in Brown's "Ma Rainey" tells us. Readers of the poem today, like those of an earlier generation, come away with the same feeling.
Questions for Reading and Discussion/Approaches to Writing
1. The questions I assign are determined by the approach and the poems I use. My approach to the Slim Greer poems, for example, centers on the poem as tall tale. I generally ask students to consult a literary handbook for features of the tall tale and to read the poems in light of their findings. In this same vein, I often assign actual tall tales (such as Roger Welsch's Shingling the Fog and Other Plain Lies) or other examples of poetry written in this tradition (such as Fireside Tales by Joe Allen), as a way of suggesting Brown's distinctiveness.
2. My paper topics are assigned to extend students' understanding of works we read and discuss in class by encouraging them to build upon the assigned reading a comparative critical analysis. The issues raised in the first part of this question give students a chance to range beyond class discussion.
For criticism on Brown, the list of works cited at the end of the headnote is extremely useful. Important additions to the list include the following titles:
Brown, Sterling A. A Son's Return: Selected Essays of Sterling A. Brown. Ed. with foreward by Mark Sanders. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1996.
"Brown, Sterling A." and "Slim Greer." In Oxford Companion to African American Literature. Eds. William L. Andrews, et al. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.
Nichols, Charles H. "Sterling Brown, Poet, His Place in Afro-American Literary History." In The Harlem Renaissance: Revaluations, edited by Amritjit Singh, et al., 91-100. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1989.
Stepto, Robert B. "Sterling A. Brown: Outsider in the Harlem Renaissance?" In The Harlem Renaissance: Revaluations, edited by Amritjit Singh, et al., 73-81. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1989.
Tidwell, John Edgar. "The Summer of '46': Sterling A. Brown Among the Minnesotans," Black Heartland, 1.1 (Spring 1996): 27-41.
Tidwell, John Edgar, guest editor. "Oh, Didn't He Ramble: Sterling A. Brown (1901-1989)," special section of Black American Literature Forum, 23.1 (1989): 89-112.
Wagner, Jean. Black Poets of the United States. Urbana-Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1973. Chapter 11, "Sterling Brown."