The poetry of Sterling A. Brown is imbued with the folk spirit of African American culture. For Brown, there was no wide abyss between his poetry and the spirit inherent in slave poetry; indeed, his works evidence a continuity of racial spirit from the slave experience to the African American present and reflect his deep understanding of the multitudinous aspects of the African American personality and soul.
The setting for Brown’s poetry is primarily the South, through which he traveled to listen to the folktales, songs, wisdom, sorrows, and frustrations of his people, and where the blues and ballads were nurtured. Brown respected traditional folk forms and employed them in the construction of his own poems; thus he may be called “the poet of the soul of his people.”
Brown’s first published collection of poems, Southern Road, was critically acclaimed by his peers and colleagues James Weldon Johnson and Alain Locke, because of its rendering of the living speech of African Americans, its use of the raw material of folk poetry, and its poetic portrayal of African American folk life and thought. Later critics such as Arthur P. Davis, Jean Wagner, and Houston Baker have continued to praise his poetry for its creative and vital use of folk motifs. Some of the characters in Brown’s poetry, such as Ma Rainey, Big Boy Davis, and Mrs. Bibby, are based on real people. Other characters, such as Maumee Ruth, Sporting Beasley, and Sam Smiley seem real because of Brown’s dramatic and narrative talent. He is also highly skilled in the use of poetic techniques such as the refrain, alliteration, and onomatopoeia, and he employs several stanzaic forms with facility. Brown’s extraordinary gift for re-creating the nuances of folk speech and idiom adds vitality and authenticity to his verse.
Brown is successful in drawing on rich folk expressions to vitalize the speech of his characters through the cadences of southern speech. Though his poems cannot simply be called dialect poetry, Brown does imitate southern African American speech, using variant spellings and apostrophes to mark dropped consonants. He uses grunts and onomatopoeic sounds to give a natural rhythm to the speech of his characters. These techniques are readily seen in a poem that dramatizes the poignant story of a “po los boy” on a chain gang. This poem follows the traditional folk form of the work song to convey the convict’s personal tragedy.
Brown’s work may be classed as protest poetry influenced by poets such as Carl Sandburg and Robert Frost; he is able to draw on the entire canon of English and American poetry as well as African American folk material. Thus he is fluent in the use of the sonnet form, stanzaic forms, free-verse forms, and ballad and blues forms.
In Southern Road, several themes express the essence of the southern African American’s folk spirit and culture. Recurring themes and subjects in Brown’s poetry include endurance, tragedy, and survival. The theme of endurance is best illustrated in one of his most anthologized poems, “Strong Men,” which tells the story of the unjust treatment of black men and women from the slave ship, to the tenant farm, and finally to the black ghetto. The refrain of “Strong Men” uses rhythmic beats, relentlessly repeating an affirmation of the black people’s ability and determination to keep pressing onward, toward freedom and justice. The central image comes from a line of a Carl Sandburg poem, “The strong men keep coming on.” In “Strong Men,” Brown praises the indomitable spirit of African Americans in the face of racist exploitation. With its assertive tone, the rhythm of this poem suggests a martial song.
Some of the endurance poems express a stoic, fatalistic acceptance of the tragic fate of African Americans, as can be seen in “Old Man Buzzard,” “Memphis Blues,” and “Riverbank Blues.” Another important aspect of the endurance theme as portrayed by Brown is the poetic characters’ courage when they are confronted with tragedy and injustice. In the poem “Strange Legacies,” the speaker gives thanks to the legendary Jack Johnson and John...
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