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Perhaps nowhere else does Brown take humor more as his metier than in the Slim Greer tales. [In "Slim Greer"] Slim is the familiar trickster in the folktale who by strength of his wit and his agility deceives, eludes, and outsmarts his opponents. The outcome of Slim's adventure could have been the same as that delivered in the tragic tale "Frankie and Johnny." Yet here Brown, turning the events around for his hilariously funny purpose, has Slim make tracks "with lightnin' speed." He skillfully takes the timeworn material of racial jokes, exploited and repeated on the minstrel stage, and reshapes it in such a way that the humor is intraracial. The butt of the joke is no longer the ludicrously dressed "coon" who wears "no. fourteen shoes" but the hypocrisy of sexual racism. . . . [I]nforming the "Slim in Hell" poem is not only black folk tradition from which the familiar images found in sermons and spirituals are drawn, but also allusions to the Orpheus and Eurydice story in classical mythology. Slim, like the favored Orpheus, is allowed to go to the underworld and is allowed to leave it. Here also is Cerberus, the terrible dog which guards the entrance to the internal regions, now transformed to a "big bloodhound . . . bayin' some po' devil's track." By a synthesis of two viable traditions, Brown creates this ballad through a process mentioned earlier called "cross-pollination." Brown accomplishes the fusion of the folk ballad using, as well, other resources of the literary artist: allusion as a means of reinforcing the idea of the descent into hell; language and imagery that have fidelity to the folk sermon; the right combination of irony, overstatement, and humor for an effective tone; and the use of the ballad form which accommodates the narrative.


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