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.

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Criticism Overview
Title Mark A. Sanders: On the Slim Greer Sequence Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Mark A. Sanders Criticism Target Sterling A. Brown
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 04 Jun 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Afro-Modernist Aesthetics and the Poetry of Sterling Brown
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