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

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Criticism Overview
Title Mark A. Sanders: On "Old Lem" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Mark A. Sanders Criticism Target Sterling A. Brown
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 05 Jun 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Afro-Modernist Aesthetics and the Poetry of Sterling Brown
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