Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Coming Up Down Home is a touching story of the author’s early years, when, as a black boy in rural North Carolina, he is seeking to understand the world around him. Although eventually he comes to blame racism for many of the evils in that world, Cecil Brown is also aware of the differences in character between the various relatives who have authority over him. In fact, his episodic narrative is unified by this latter emphasis, Brown’s perception of the ways these individuals conducted their own lives and shaped his character.

The author has divided Coming Up Down Home into three major sections and a brief epilogue. The first part of the book, “Pickaninny,” deals with his early years, when Cecil, then called Morris, and his brother Cornelius, or “Knee,” who was just a year his junior, lived happily with their aunt and uncle, Amanda and Lofton Freeman. In the second section, “Dancing Without Shoes,” the boys are forced to adapt to a new kind of life with their bitter, abusive father and the mother whom they have never known. “Make Voyages!” describes Morris’s disillusioning but enlightening summer in New York City. It concludes with his returning home and, after a desperate effort, winning a scholarship to college. The brief epilogue, or “Coda,” takes place thirty years later, when Brown revisits his childhood home and confronts the father who so long ago forfeited his son’s love.

Brown’s memoir begins with scenes in which, when he is still little more than a baby, he comes to realize that he does not have the kind of relationship with his parents that other children have. In the first chapter, he is introduced to a woman who he is told is his mother, Dorothy Brown, but whom he remembers as someone who threw her shoe at him when he tried to follow her in her flight from her children. Seeing her again, Morris is understandably hostile. Soon, however, he realizes that he craves affection from her. On a visit to the prison where their father, Culphert “Cuffy” Brown, is incarcerated, Morris feels a similar ambivalence. On one hand, he is drawn to this man, who seems so gentle and so loving; on the other hand, he cannot help thinking of him as someone who is being punished for bad deeds or, alternatively, as a glamorous outlaw.

Fortunately, the childless aunt and uncle who have taken in Morris and Knee are as superior in parenting skills as the boys’ own parents are deficient. Aunt Amanda and Uncle Lofton give them the sense of security they need, assuring them of unconditional love while at the same time transmitting their own uncompromising values. Brown remembers his years with them as a golden time, when Aunt Amanda made even cotton picking fun and when Uncle Lofton demonstrated how to make dreams come true, even those that seemed impossible, such as Morris’s yearning for a bicycle like that of the white store-owner’s son. The lives of the boys are filled with the smells of Aunt Amanda’s pies, with the magic of Roy Melvin’s songs and stories, and occasionally with high drama, such as the first performance of a new preacher or the visit of...

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(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Brown, Cecil. Afterword to Target Zero: A Life in Writing, by Eldridge Cleaver. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006. Brown’s commentary on the importance of Cleaver’s life and writing showcases the writer’s political and literary investments in general and provides a valuable lens for assessing his own work.

Carroll, Rebecca. Swing Low: Black Men Writing. New York: Carol Southern Books, 1995. Includes a chapter on Brown’s life and work, reading him at the intersection of race and gender to evaluate his contributions to the ongoing representation of each in African American literature.

Kirkus Reviews. Review of Coming Up Down Home, by Cecil Brown. 61 (May 15, 1993). In a simple style reflecting “the child’s naïve perspective,” Brown has told a story that is often touching. Although he focuses on aspects of both South and North that approach the stereotypical, Brown’s memoir is “particularized and engaging in the telling.”

Publishers Weekly. Review of Coming Up Down Home, by Cecil Brown. 240 (May 10, 1993): 60. A favorable review noting that, although Brown has skillfully particularized his story, the childhood he recalls has universal dimensions. This story of a boy who grew up “poor but loved” is “totally engrossing.”