Joanne V. Gabbin: On "Old Lem"

In the poignant statements of "Old Lem," he captures the bitter resentment of a man grown weary of mob violence.

[ . . . . ]

With stark simplicity devoid of false sentimentality, Lem tells the story of his buddy, "Six foot of man/Muscled up perfect/Game to the heart," who defied the traditions of caste and "spoke out of turn at the commissary. . . . " For his "insolence" he is murdered.

Much of the power of the poem emanates from the complex and fully realized sensibility of Old Lem. His cogent wisdom and clarity of vision allow him to articulate simply and directly the consequences of racial injustice. In one part of the poem Brown has Old Lem recycle the wisdom of the folktale, "Old Sis Goose," in which a common goose seeks justice in a courthouse of foxes and ends up having her bones "picked."

[. . . .]

Lem's voice is charged with the vibrancy of the folk secular. Within this large body of non-religious music which includes the blues, songs of ridicule and recrimination, game songs, and numerous varieties of work songs, Brown recognized not only innovative musical elements but also attitudes, language, and circumstances--often cynical, ironic, signifying, and scatological--that are not the metier of the collectors of spirituals. It is the irony, the pithiness, and the elemental force of this material that informs Old Lem's speech. A comparison of a slave secular recorded by Frederick Douglass in My Bondage and My Freedom with a passage from "Old Lem" reveals Brown’s skillful assimilation of the form.

We raise de wheat,

Dey gib us de corn;

We bake de bread,

Dey gib us de crust;

We sif de meal,

Dey gib us de huss;

We peel de meat,

Dey gib us de skin;

And dat's de way

Dey take us in;

We skim de pot,

Dey gib us de liquor

And say dat's good enough for nigger.

In Old Lem's speech Brown achieves a similar syntactical pattern and cadence.

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;

Whippersnapper clerks

Call us out of our name

    We got to say mister

    To spindling boys

They make our figgers

Turn somersets

    We buck in the middle

    Say, "Thank yuh, sah."

Patterned on a rhythm prevalent in Black folk speech, the passage contains lines with two stresses each, often irregularly arranged. Several of the lines have verbs used near the beginning of the line that must be strongly stressed. Also, with a tightly controlled satiric tone, Brown contrasts what "they" do to what "we" are forced to accept, thereby having his structure effectively convey the great disparity that exists between the position of whites and that of Blacks in a caste-ridden society.

From Sterling A. Brown: Building the Black Aesthetic Tradition. Copyright © 1985 by Joanne V. Gabbin

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Criticism Overview
Title Joanne V. Gabbin: On "Old Lem" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Joanne V. Gabbin Criticism Target Sterling A. Brown
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 05 Jun 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Sterling A. Brown: Building the Black Aesthetic Tradition
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