Mark A. Sanders

Mark A. Sanders: On "Sharecroppers"

The sheriff and his "well-armed riff-raff" represent the "tens" that come to reinforce white supremacy. In the tradition of Crispus Attucks McKoy and Wild Bill (both to be seen in Brown’s last collection), the Union member stands against overwhelming numbers and thus gives his life for larger and more important principles. In stating "We gonna clean out dis brushwood round here soon, / Plant de white-oak and de black-oak side by side," the Union member reveals a vision of racial solidarity that would ultimately resolve the tension of the era.

From Afro-Modernist Aesthetics and the Poetry of Sterling A. Brown. Copyright © 1999 by the University of Georgia Press

Mark A. Sanders: On "Old Lem"

Brown constructs "Old Lem" to encompass the scope of implications of "The Cotton South." As a signature piece of the stature of "Odyssey of Big Boy" or "When de Saints Go Ma'ching Home," "Old Lem" chronicles not only the condition but, more important, the method of its maintenance. Indeed, Brown’s poignant refrain binds the entire piece both formally and thematically, resolving the poem's antithesis within the synthesis of an incremental refrain. As Gabbin points out, Brown draws heavily from the slave secular Frederick Douglass cites in My Bondage and My Freedom:

We Raise de wheat

Dey gib us de corn;

We bake de bread,

We sif de meal,

Dey gib us de huss.

 

Here, the compelling play, both formal and thematic, depends solely on antithesis--the tension between "we" and "dey," between our disenfranchisement and their empowerment. Further stressing antithesis, the two parallel lines are metrically identical, establishing a rhythmic repetitiveness at odds with the dramatic dissimilarities between black and white worlds. Brown employs the same structural and thematic parallelism in order to reference a social and political pattern broader than the strict opposition of black and white. The first stanza devotes two lines to "their" condition, followed by two lines describing "we":

They weigh the cotton

They store the corn

We only good enough

To work die rows.

 

He reverses the order of the secular, countering the position of power and privilege ("they") with one of subjugation and peonage ("we"). Now, instead of the injustice deriving from the theft of labor, the verse focuses on inequity in influence and power, the dramatic difference in social and political positions. The stanza ends with the encompassing refrain:

They don’t come by ones

They don’t come by twos

But they come by tens.

 

Brown then reproduces the formal pattern established in the first stanza, but with the one important distinction: he separates sections with single lines of the refrain:

They got the judges

They got the lawyers

They got the jury-rolls

They got the law

They don’t come by ones

They got the sheriffs

They got the deputies

They don’t come by twos.

 

The refrain becomes incremental, promoting the metaphoric progression of line clusters, thereby assigning broader meaning to specific incidents of injustice. Equally as important, by weaving the refrain into the folk form Brown changes the nature of the antithesis. Instead of the central opposition remaining focused on "we" versus "they," the tension shifts to "they" versus refrain.

They got the manhood

They got the courage

They don’t come by twos.

 

By the time Old Lem addresses his "buddy / Six foot of man," his oration speaks to the ironic fissure between the professed justice and honor of whites and the desperate measures they employ in order to maintain undemocratic privilege. Through reconstruction, Brown extends the metaphoric implications of the slave secular. By infusing the form with a modal dimension, a sense of progression, he takes a relatively static opposition and transforms its irony to address a broader and more profound political dynamic. Thus, "Old Lem" is ultimately historical in both form and theme. That his refrain refers to a history of brutality beginning with the middle passage and continuing through the current moment elevates the poem to a metahistorical address, encompassing major defining dynamics in African American life.

From Afro-Modernist Aesthetics and the Poetry of Sterling A. Brown. Copyright © 1999 by the University of Georgia Press

Mark A. Sanders: On the Slim Greer Sequence

"Sam Yancey," "Crispus Attucks McKoy," and "Break of Day" all represent the hero as liberating potential tragically cut short. In each poem the hero embodies essential strengths common to the culture yet threatening to white authority. And in each instance, as the traditional martyr, he asserts these strengths, strives to defend them, and ultimately dies as a result of his agency. Martyrdom serves as the supreme affirmation of heroism, where superlative sacrifice in defense of self and culture ostensibly points toward an irrepressible continuity in heroic spirit. Each time the physical avatar is struck down, another manifestation of the spirit appears, ensuring sustained agitation for freedom and independence.

Having established this strident sense of agency, in both comic and tragic modes, Brown presents the Slim Greer series, which examines both the strengths and limitations of the comic hero. Following "Sam Yancey," Brown moves away from the high price of heroism to complete the Slim Greer series and its exploration of humor's potential. In 1932 Brown first presented Slim Greer in Southern Road, with only the first three poems: "Slim Greer." "Slim Lands a Job?," and "Slim in Atlanta." With this configuration Greer clearly conforms to the standard definition of the trickster, consistently subverting white authority through wit and humor. Brown’s introductory poem, "Slim Greer," outlines his persona and demonstrates both his ability to circumvent social restrictions and his ability to use them for his own gain. Beyond the immediate action of the drama, though, Slim's ability as comic figure reveals his superlative gifts in absurdity and burlesque. His outlandishness and the circumstances in which he finds himself acquire dramatic force, as Greer uses his rhetorical skills to diffuse oppressive situations, transforming them into moments of celebration. "Slim Lands a Job?" more aptly reflects this dynamic in that Greer does not so much outwit his potential employer but transforms the metaphoric implications of the latter-day overseer; here Greer turns historical exploitation and oppression into farce. Likewise, "Slim in Atlanta" redirects the implications of Jim Crow to highlight and ridicule its inherent absurdity.

It is within this context that the first three Slim Greer poems add a humorous dimension to the master trope, "the road" in Southern Road. But by completing the series and placing all five poems in Last Ride, Brown implies critically different connotations. First, by moving away from high burlesque, the latter two poems incorporate more ominous implications for both Greer's character and his ability to affect his surroundings. Furthermore, in relation to the broader signifying field of Last Ride, the Slim Greer series exposes the limitations of comic representation and thereby alludes to its final subsumption in "The Ballad of Joe Meek."

Following "Slim in Atlanta," "Slim Hears 'The Call’" continues the mode of burlesque but raises serious questions concerning Slim's use of his transformative powers. Simply the title stressing "the call" questions its ultimate meaning, anticipating an ironic call to make money rather than to serve God. Furthermore "Slim Hears 'The Call’" deviates from standard presentation in that it is Greer's own narrative rather than one told about him. Although the poem begins in the third person, it immediately shifts to highlight Greer's own voice and the ways in which he shapes his own narrative. This significant shift in perspective prefigures a fundamental shift in the kind of story told. Rather than a third-person narrative celebrating Greer's ability to outwit whites and to undermine potentially oppressive circumstances, Greer tells his own story of victimizing the powerless. This poem begins invoking the traditions of exaggeration and hyperbole; and much of its amusing quality stems from Greer's mastery of style and form In the first two stanzas Greer re-creates his adversity in order to elicit laughter, not pity; rather than illustrating the severity of his condition, he better demonstrates his rhetorical skills and mastery of form, a mastery implicitly asserting control over much more than oratorical tropes:

Down at the barbershop    

     Slim had the floor,

"Ain’t never been so

    Far down before.

 

"So ragged, I make a jaybird

    About to moult,

Look like he got on gloves

    An’ a overcoat,

"Got to walk backwards    

     All de time

Jes' a-puttin’ on front

    Wid a bare behime."

Indeed, Greer's display of rhetorical expertise serves as prelude to his mastery of a cultural form, "de bishopric"; thus his tale is one of apprenticeship in preparation for his next moneymaking scheme. Greer retells, with humorous irony, the mercenary practices of a fraudulent clergyman; that his friend misrepresents himself, steals from his congregation, and ultimately undermines the religious imperative of his position for Greer constitutes the epitome of cunning and shrewdness. Greer's admiration ultimately is for the ability to control, manipulate, and make money with the least amount of effort:

So here he was de head man

    Of de whole heap --

Wid dis solemn charge dat

    He had to keep:

 

"A passel of Niggers

    From near an’ far

Bringin’ in de sacred bucks

    Regular."

And Greer ends his apprenticeship and his amusing tale with a resounding endorsement of his enterprise and with an embracing call for everyone, so inclined, to do as he does:

"Don’t know so much    

     'Bout de Holy Ghost,

But I likes de long green

    Better'n most.

 

"I kin talk out dis worl'

    As you folks all know,

An’ I'm good wid de women,

    Dey'll tell you so ...

 

"An’ I says to all de Bishops,

    What is hearin’ my song --

Ef de cap fits you, brother,

    Put it on."

On the one hand, Greer successfully promotes the same persona celebrated in the previous three poems; he is witty, resourceful, and above all farcically entertaining. But as he shifts the focus of his talents away from the empowered to the dispossessed, he begins to work against the iconography previously assigned him. He no longer ridicules and dismantles figures and forces of oppression; he now reinforces them. Clearly Brown is in reference to a tradition of African American folktales in which tricksters victimize their own communities. In this vein, Brown pokes fun at the disreputable figures in the African American clergy; clear enough, too, is the attempt to add levity to the sobering reality of African American exploitation in one of its most important institutions. But in terms of Greer's development, and in terms of his broader implications within the collection, "Slim Hears 'The Call’" constitutes a serious departure from the established metaphoric development.

Greer's willful exultation of his own ability to exploit begins to indicate the limitations of burlesque. At this point the mode of the tale subsumes the overt politics of the content; humor begins to serve its own ends--pure entertainment--and thus divorces itself from a broader political context.

This implication, that the very form Greer represents necessarily embodies severe limitations in terms of historical vision, receives further treatment in the last poem of the series. More so than "Slim Hears 'The Call,’" "Slim in Hell" entertains a number of potentially sobering ironies while sustaining the tradition of the burlesque. The premise of the poem--Greer in an odd situation--automatically advances the comic mode of the series. But given the comic conventions, that Greer finds hell to be in truth the South strikes a poignancy accurate note. As Saint Peter corroborates Greer's encroaching suspicions, comedy quickly becomes satire:

Then Pete say, "You must

    Be crazy, I vow,

Where'n hell dja think Hell was,

    Anyhow?"

This acerbic indictment of the South and its racial politics works in and of itself to darken the implications of the poem. That the poem ends not with the realization of such a harsh reality but with Greer's expulsion from heaven due to his limited vision shifts the focus from the injustice of the South to Greer's misunderstanding of its ramifications:

"Git on back to de yearth,

    Cause I got de fear

You'se a leetle too dumb,

    Fo' to stay up here."

As a product of the South, and as one having resisted many of its stifling forces, Greer fails to perceive the literally cosmic implications of racial oppression. In the broadest of religious schemes hell and Dixie hold the same literal meaning, which its victims are expected to understand. That Greer fails calls into question his understanding of his own gifts and the implications of their application. Although he perceives and fights the oppression directed specifically at him, he does not, or cannot, read beyond his own circumstances; nor does he invoke an appreciation for a continuum of oppressive forces. Simply put, Greer exists in a historical vacuum, employing only ad hoc measures of resistance; therefore, as the result of an extremely truncated view of his own condition, Greer's talents remain equally limited. He dupes the "nice white woman" in "Slim Greer" simply because he can; he escapes Big Pete in "Slim Lands a Job?" simply because he must; and he finds the "telefoam booth" hilarious in "Slim in Atlanta" simply because of its self-evident absurdity. In none of his encounters does he move toward any broader understanding of political conflict; and when given the chance to tell his own story, he celebrates his talents when used for exploitation. That Brown ends the series with Greer's expulsion from heaven because of his misreading implicates the entirety of his progression and finally raises the issue of his limitations. As the trickster fails to see or act beyond his own self-interest--thus he perpetually assumes a defensive rather than offensive political position--Brown begins to circumscribe the comic mode of the hero within a limited metaphoric and political sphere, limited at least relative to the final expansion of the tragic hero and his import.

From Afro-American Aesthetics and the Poetry of Sterling A. Brown. Copyright © 1999 by the University of Georgia Press.

Mark A. Sanders: On "Memphis Blues"

With a striking vision of apocalyptic retribution, [in] "Memphis Blues" natural and political calamity hold center stage. Yet another folk voice asserts its vision and agency as it identifies the temporal nature of Western civilization and thus of white hegemony. In the larger scheme of things, both modern and ancient Memphis signify the same mutability in human endeavors; edifices constructed in a futile gesture toward immortality, both cities must remain subject to God's destructive wrath. Although the poem never cites God or Christianity directly, its African American emphasis on Old Testament types and judgment is obvious. First listing Old Testament cities of sin and Hebrew or Israelite slavery, the poem begins to position the modern African American relative to transhistorical oppressive forces. The destruction of Nineveh, Tyre, and Babylon serves as evidence of God's justice, as these cities refused to listen to God's will. Thus they were judged and condemned. In the context of the poem, they stand as prelude to contemporary circumstances. Through natural catastrophe, an Old Testament God wreaks his revenge on a people too evil to follow his commandments.

[ . . . .]

As these rapidly paced lines quickly conflate past and present, they implicitly reiterate the analogy between Old Testament Israelites and modern African Americans. Both structure and statement also establish a critical tension with the ensuing section, one highlighting a folk response to the inevitable apocalypse. In contrast to the declarative statement of part 1, the dialogic approach of part 2 portrays interracial conversations in response to calamity. Brown appropriates the form and mode from a spiritual, "What You Gonna Do?," which Howard Odum and Guy Johnson collected in Negro Workaday Songs:

Sinner, what you gonna do

When de world's on fi-er?

Sinner, what you gonna do

When de world's on fi-er?

Sinner, what you gonna do

When de world's on fi-er?

O my Lawd.

 

Brother, what you gonna do? etc.

Sister, what you gonna do? etc.

Father, what you gonna do? etc.

Mother, what you gonna do? etc.

The spiritual, by implication, implores the sinner to seek salvation in anticipation of the coming judgment. "Memphis Blues" replicates the same sense of urgency and inevitability but stresses consistency, rather than transformation:

Watcha gonna do when Memphis on fire,

Memphis on fire, Mistah Preachin’ Man?

Gonna pray to Jesus and nebber tire,

Gonna pray to Jesus, loud as I can,

Gonna pray to my Jesus, oh, my Lawd!

The preacher continues to preach; the lover continues to pursue, and the gambler continues to bet, all in direct contrast to cataclysmic change. The final stanza makes explicit the dichotomy between mutability and permanence, inferring black continuity in the midst of God's wrath:

Memphis go

By Flood or Flame;

Nigger won’t worry

All de same--

Memphis go

Memphis come back,

Air’ no skin

Off de nigger's back.

All dese cities

Ashes, rust....

De win’ sing sperrichals

Through deir dus’.

In the midst of desolation "de win’ sing sperrichals," signaling an African American presence beyond God's judgment and one independent of (perhaps transcending) hegemonic forces. Here, the cultural dynamic within the poem is spiritual, but the poem itself asserts a blues inflection, indeed a blues ballad used for even greater dramatic effect in "Ma Rainey." But here, as we have seen in section one, the blues process itself asserts the ability of specific personas to envision being free or beyond circumscription.

From Afro-Modernist Aesthetics and the Poetry of Sterling Brown. Copyright © 1999 by The University of Georgia Press.