E. Clay (essay date June 1934)
SOURCE: Clay, E. “Sterling Brown: American Peoples' Poet.” International Literature 8, no. 2 (June 1934): 117-22.
[In the following essay, Clay assesses Brown's contribution to African American poetry.]
Somewhere a long time ago, I ran across this apt couplet in an old poem, “The Singer:”
Thus in his manhood, clean, superb and strong To him was born the priceless gift of song.
That fits Sterling Brown exactly: Brown is a singer, a rhapsodos, a singer of his people. The Greek rhapsodos was a reciter of the epic also. Epic poetry is usually great poetry and requires mighty subject matter. There is vast, unmined material for epic poetry in the Negro race and one hopes fervently that Sterling Brown will fulfill the fine echoed prophecy of Stephen Vincent Benet in his John Brown's Body:
Oh, blackskinned epic, epic with the black spear I cannot sing you, having too white a heart And yet some day a poet will rise to sing you And sing you with such truth and mellowness. …
Yes, that is the kind of poet Brown is, a poet who, we hope, is conscious that his is at last the task of singing the Negro as he is and not as he has been written about or sung. And the fecundity with which he endows his explicit characterizations ensures his poetry a well placed niche in the American poetic scene.
Sterling Brown has never written for any special group, black or white. He has no pandering, truculent desire to appeal to the genteel diversion and tradition. That is his real value. He has created new values, or rather transvalued old dog-eared ones. In his indigenous, of-the-earth poetry, there is never any lachrymose piddling. The darts he sends find their destination almost anywhere:
They cooped you in their kitchens, They penned you in their factories, They gave you the jobs they were too good for They tried to guarantee happiness to themselves By shunting dirt and misery to you.
There are others writing poetry similar to this, but as will be shown, Brown's poetry has somehow struck a newer note in Negro poetry. We have been waiting for this note a long time—a divergence of our racial stream performed by a poet who has his gaze riveted upon the social panorama—a poet whose social sensitivity enables him to draw in his poetry those psychologic, historic and sociologic ideologies so peculiar to American Negro life. He has tried to see his Negro life whole and this in itself is significant. He has sterilized Negro art forms and purged them of their decadent white-washed effusions. He has returned to the dialect form—for much the same reasons as Synge and McKay—and he uses it with a truly novel effect.
There had to arise some day a poet who would be conscious of the social maladjustments of the Negro scene, who could drink in the kaleidoscope of rich and varied living with thirsty attention. Toomer has enriched our poetic vaults with his unforgettable characterizations of Southern life as he saw it. But here we have a poet who has given us the cross-section, country and city, North, South, East and West. None are missing from his canvas, Big Boy, Jack Johnson, Sporting Beasley, Slim Greer, dicties, dudes, Bessie “gaunt of flesh and painted,” Ma Rainy, Harlem street-walkers, John Henry, Jewish cabaret owners, convicts, Hardrock Gene, Mississippi and Father Missouri “children,” Hambone, the whole gamut is on his page.
To be worthwhile today, an artist must have his roots in the social soil, he must have something new. And Brown's poetry startles us because we see in it a razing of washed-out nostrums into fresh components, a creation of new social values into the alembic of social reality. His poetry makes for discovery because it is socially significant, because his poetic gaze is fixed upon that part of humanity who feel, suffer and produce. He does not romanticize or idealize those he portrays. These people are real to him:
These folks knew then the hints of fear For all their loafings on the levee Unperturbably spendthrifts of time.
(“Children of the Mississippi”1)
He does have faith in them and the humanity they typify. He is glad they can laugh and sing even if
They bought off some of your leaders You stumbled as blind men will. … They coaxed you, unwontedly, soft voiced You followed a way Then laughed as usual They heard the laugh and wondered Uncomfortable Unadmitting a deeper terror
Do any escape this fear? Not many, for Brown writes of them all with amazing fidelity, of Long Gone who
Aint never caught you wrong, But it jes aint nachal Fo' to stay here long
of Big Boy who
Done shocked de co'n in Marylan' In Georgia done cut cane Done planted rice in South Caline
of Maumee Sal, Maumee Ruth, elders, deacons, of handsome Daniel who became a pimp, of Lulu and Jim who “found religion in a chubby baby boy,” of Georgie Grimes who murdered his woman, of wise old men and women, of those who must abide by the uncontrollable Father Missouri and Ole Man Mississippi, of those who are victims of destructive tornadoes, and of those unfortunate children who do not know what is to be their lot in a capitalistic society:
They have forgotten What had to be endured
He portrays with equal warmth the lot of the sharecroppers who
Buy one rusty mule We stays in debt Until we're dead.
He knows well the problems of debt slavery, economic injustice, trials by prejudice, wage slavery, discrimination, segregation, slums, peonage, starvation and he scalpels them all with broad swathes.
Sterling Brown is a product of the Negro upper middle class. This bourgeois heritage has not deterred him in laying bare the surface superfluities of Negro “society.” His environment has been the parsonage of educated parents, Williams College, Harvard and university teaching. He has been able to pierce through the...
(The entire section is 2525 words.)