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Sterling A. Brown and Kevin Young - "Broad Noon Daylight: Words in the Mourning Time" - Portions of this piece are excerpted from «Umpteen Essays in Search of a Novel, 1983-2023»

Authors:
  • National Book Critics Circle

Abstract

Georgia State University journal Fall 2020 / Winter 2021 issue; an essay-review of: (1) Kevin Young's anthology «African American Poetry: 250 Years of Struggle and Song»; and (2) «Collected Poems of Sterling A. Brown».
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THE CHATTAHOOCHEE REVIEW
e Collected Poems of Sterling A. Brown. Northwestern University Press.
2020. 336 pp. $24.95 (trade paper).
African American Poetry: 250 Years of Struggle and Song. Edited by Kevin
Young. Penguin Random House. Library of America #333. 2020. 1,170 pp.
$45 (hardcover).
I
Every generation or so, a major African-American poet like Arna Bontemps,
Sterling Brown, Countée Cullen, James Weldon Johnson, or Kevin Young has
published, almost before the ink had dried on what their contemporaries had
written, anthologies re-imaging the canon of black poets from the United
States.
A century before he became Director of the Schomburg Center for
Research in Black Culture, Young’s poet-predecessors routinely gathered for
readings and discussions at the nearby Countee Cullen [sic] Branch of the
New York Public Library. Hughes, aged nineteen, fresh out of high school,
had already published “e Negro Speaks of Rivers” (qtd. in Young 190).
Countée Cullen, barely twenty, had published “e Shroud of Color.” Both
went on to publish famous rst books, Color and e Weary Blues. Some
thought that, between the two of them, African-American poetry had
already acquired the beginnings of a classic tradition. Odds were dead even
which would emerge as black America’s poet laureate. Hughes outlived, out-
hustled him. Cullen’s fame will never again be what Hughess is now, nor even
what Cullen’s was then. But the question isn’t whether Cullen or Hughes
is the better poet. e question isn’t which aesthetic is inherently superior,
Hughes’s free-form or Cullen’s classicism. e question, in certain quarters,
is whether either poet of the so-called Harlem Renaissance” rivals Sterling
Brown.
Kevin Brown
BROAD NOON DAYLIGHT: WORDS
IN THE MOURNING TIME
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BROAD NOON DAYLIGHT: WORDS IN THE MOURNING TIME
e Collected Poems of Sterling A. Brown, superimposed upon African
American Poetry: 250 Years of Struggle and Song, restores visibility to a central
gure in African-American literary history.
II
ink of Sterling Brown as midpoint along a timeline. James Weldon
Johnson and Dunbar precede him. Melvin Tolson, Hughes, Cullen, and their
many female contemporaries are coeval. Robert Hayden and scores of others
succeed him. e Reverend Frederick Asbury Cullen, Countée’s adoptive
father, was son of a slave from Maryland, where young Sterling Allen spent
summers down on the farm, o Whiskey Bottom Road, in Howard County.
e Reverend Sterling Nelson Brown, the poet’s father, was born a slave
in eastern Tennessee; Sterling Nelson’s mother had her rstborn sold into
slavery. Yet Sterling Nelson Brown wasn’t anxious to distance himself from
his slave heritage. On the contrary, he celebrated the folklore and folkways
of blacks rooted in slavery, inuences as crucial to Sterling Allens poetic
development as the classical texts and languages, Anglo Saxon and Beowulf,
Molière and Shakespeare, he studied at Williams College or Harvard three
years before Cullen earned his master’s there. at genius ear for southern
speech, that all-seeing eye on southern history, that perfect pitch—to name
just three things that make Sterling Brown inimitable—were passed from
father to son. Brown was his father’s only son but came from a large family.
(Unless otherwise noted, all poems and lines are from e Collected Poems
of Sterling A. Brown.) In After Winter,” Brown portrays, in his father’s own
words, his father’s innermost thoughts and feelings (82). Quatrains are
staggered down the page, roman and italic, historical present and receding
past, the sons third-person narration, the father’s interior monologue:
He snuggles his ngers
In the blacker loam
e lean months are done with,
e fat to come.
His eyes are set
On a brushwood-re
But his heart is soaring
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THE CHATTAHOOCHEE REVIEW
Kevin Brown
Higher and higher. (lines 1–8)
One thing James Weldon Johnson’s Book of American Negro Poetry
(1922), Cullens Caroling Dusk (1927), Sterling Brown’s Negro Caravan
(1941), to the Arna Bontemps-Langston Hughes Poetry of the Negro (1970)
and Kevin Young’s 250 Years all agree on: the key late-nineteenth-century
African-American gure is a poet whose parents were both slaves: Paul
Laurence Dunbar.
“e blues always dance / cheek to cheek with a church,” says Kevin
Young in one of the anthology’s best poems, Money Road” (lines 11–12).
e social and political impact of chattel slavery on black lives’ matters is hard
to overstate. So, too, the impact black social and political leaders wield on
black culture. James Weldon Johnson, poet of God’s Trombones: Seven Negro
Sermons in Verse, agrees with Zora Neale Hurston that “Negro preachers are
the rst artists, the ones intelligible to the masses.
Political subversive Dunbar, in An Antebellum Sermon” (qtd. in Young)
feints with humor.
But fu’ feah some one mistakes me,
I will pause right hyeah to say,
Dat I’m still a-preachin’ ancient,
I ain’t talkin’ ’bout to-day (lines 37–40)
Cullen saw dialect poetry—the depiction of black speech via mere
orthographic “ticks,” dropped consonants, phoneticized spellings, truncated
gerunds—as limited at best and poor judgment at worst. By the time he
died, worn out, aged thirty-three, Dunbar was pigeonholed by editors and
publishers as a poetaster who put his talent into King Edward VII’s English
and his genius into dialect. But for poets like James D. Corrothers, Ishmael
Reed, and omas Sayers, Dunbar remains emblematic.
African-American poetry published between the Dunbar 1890s and
World War I reects a centuries-long creative tension between an oral/
improvisatory culture of congregationally licit gathering and dangerously
clandestine, through-composed writing by slaves barred from literacy, “who
lived in dread of the singing whip” (Brown, “Memo: For the Race Orators,” line
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BROAD NOON DAYLIGHT: WORDS IN THE MOURNING TIME
5). Early twentieth century American verse, black or otherwise, embracing
or rejecting dialect, can be seen in terms of a general trend away from the
nineteenth century Romantic and Victorian vestiges, which Cullens critics
claim he rear-guards, and toward the depiction of a life more “ordinary,” in a
language closer to everyday speech. is vernacular was embraced by Robert
Frost, A. E. Houseman, Vachel Lindsay, Edgar Lee Masters, Edwin Arlington
Robinson, Carl Sandburg, and William Carlos Williams. For Johnson, black
dialect isn’t the problem; the problem is mediocrities who misuse it. For
Johnson, African-American poets, comic or otherwise, should, like any other
American poet, express the highest ambition, the subtlest shades of thought,
and the greatest depths of feeling the varieties of human experience demand.
ere’s no “appropriation,” only misappropriation.
For Sterling Brown, as for the fty-nine-plus poets of Generation
1960, Kevin Young’s generation, born between the publication of Baldwins
Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953), the U.S. withdrawal of combat troops
from Vietnam in 1973, and Robert Haydens Angle of Ascent (1975),
Paul Laurence Dunbar remains among the rst but would not be the last
American writer to accomplish such fullness of scope and depth of insight
in depicting the black experience. Poet in his own right, poetry editor of e
Ne w Yo rk er , Kevin Young is also a literary collections development specialist,
as was Bontemps. ere are minor editorial questions one might raise
about African American Poetry, but no major cavils. Young’s sense of literary
history, African-American and otherwise, is such that even when you doubt
or at out disagree with him, you nd him well-reasoned, enlightening, and
informative.
III
Young’s 1919–1936 era roughly corresponds to the Harlem Renaissance
chronologically. But where the Harlem” Renaissance took place is almost
more important as the who, what, when, why, and how.
Dozens of Old Guard gures and Young Turks—both “rst-wave”
(Cullen, Hughes, Claude McKay) and “second-wave” (Arna Bontemps, Zora
Neale Hurston, Rudolph (“Bud”) Fisher, Richard Bruce Nugent, Wallie
urman, and Dorothy West)—have published memoirs and/or had multi-
tome biographies written about them. Which perhaps explains why they’re
better known to general readers than is Sterling Brown.
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Kevin Brown
Whether or not Sterling Brown truly belongs to the Harlem
renaissance is a moot point. True, millionaire New York hosts A’Lelia Walker
and Carl Van Vechten were crucial in helping black artists social-network
with white counterparts uptown and downtown. But the history of men in
movements is often the hidden history of female gures working alongside
them. Poet Georgia Douglas Johnson’s house at 1461 South Street NW, in
DC—long before Ted Joans’s New York studio in 1951, before Villa Lewaro,
A’Lelia Walker’s thiry-four-room mansion in Irvington-on-Hudson, around
the time of the Harlem gathering place Bruce Nugent christened “e Dark
Tower”—became the S Street Salon, part literary salon, part liar’s club, where
Saturday nighters for forty years would attend her “at homes,” featuring poetry
readings by and book discussions for Alice Dunbar-Nelson, Jessie Redmon
Fauset, Bud Fisher, Angelina Weld Grimké, Langston Hughes, Alain Locke,
Richard Bruce Nugent, Eulalie Spence, Anne Spencer, Jean Toomer, and, of
course, Sterling Brown. Sterling Brown’s high school teacher Jessie Fauset,
who was Du Bois’s literary editor at the Crisis and more, published one of
Arna Bontempss poems, which emboldened him to quit his day job at Watts
post oce and buy a one-way ticket to Harlem. Fauset introduced Cullen,
thirty-ve years younger than Du Bois, to his future father-in-law, to Alain
Locke, twenty years Countée’s senior. As for Zora Neale Hurston, she “wasn’t
just at a party,” lied Sterling Brown, “she was the party.”
Inseparable from the American vernacular are the Great Liars, tellers
of tall tales, yarn-spinners, of whom Sterling Brown, like Twain, proudly
considered himself one.
Sometimes, on “S” Street, the conversation was nothing but lies.
“I have just nished Madame Bovary,” Langston told Locke, “and think
that the best thing Emma did was to kill herself.
Locke, in whose lexicon “snob” was not a four-letter word, tended to
dominate the conversation.
“Washington,” he snied, “externally is like a real capital—only it lacks
the proper people.
Sometimes, the “S” Street conversation was TALL smack talk, trash
talk, back talk;
“Lang!” Arna, as always, was genuinely happy to see Hughes.
Always something,” Hughes replied, “to keep a writer from writing!”
“I dug your piece,” Arna told Langston, “in e New Republic.”
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BROAD NOON DAYLIGHT: WORDS IN THE MOURNING TIME
“Hey, Arna!” Langston said.
“Yeah, man.”
“You wouldn’t, by any chance, have a $5 spot would you?”
“I knowed,Arna belly-laughed, “they’s a ace in that deck somewheres!”
Sometimes, the conversation did get highty-tighty on “S” Street.
“Jean Toomer,” Wallie told Langston, “should be enshrined as a genius.
Toomer,” Du Bois agreed, praising Cane, has written a powerful book.
Sometimes, in other rooms, behind closed doors, the conversation on “S
Street, to quote Sterling Brown, pulling on his pipe, or pung a Tiparillo
cigar, “was quite intellectual / And advanced” (“e Last Ride of Wild Bill,
Part VI, lines 21–22).
Alain,” Hughes urged Locke.
“Don’t be skeerd,” Zora teased.
“Do me a grand favor”—
“You need,” Hurston butted in, “some money? I’ll keep my big mouf
shut .”
“Mail me $10 until the rst when my royalties come due again.
Sterling Brown is a poet whose body of work, exploring the relationship
between humans and their environments, natural and built, combines
folklore with a vivid sense of character, sense of place, sense of history, and
sense of music.
e Sense of Place
It’s essential to know how rooted in real life Brown’s characters are. It’s
equally important to know how rooted they were in real places. Whether
or not Sterling Brown really belongs to the “Harlem” renaissance isn’t the
question. Harlem was just one of many vibrant hubs in an information
network routing data between Moscow and Berlin, Paris and London, Los
Angeles and other points Mountain West, Cleveland and Chicago, Boston
and Atlanta at ber-optic speed. True, most writers of the Renaissance did
end up buying one-way tickets to New York from wherever they happened
to be—Africa, the Caribbean, the Deep South, the Mountain West.
Zora arrived in Manhattan in the middle of winter, with a single suitcase
containing one change of underwear, with no job, no friends, and $1.50 to
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THE CHATTAHOOCHEE REVIEW
Kevin Brown
her name. Like Arna, Wallie urman left Los Angeles and came to Harlem
“hopefully,” as Dorothy West put it, “with nothing but his nerve.” True, New
York in the early 1920s is where Bontemps, Cullen, and Hughes began to see
themselves as a group. But a number of Harlem” renaissance writers were
in fact born in Washington, DC—Sterling Brown, Richard Bruce Nugent,
Andy Razaf, Jean Toomer. Young’s list of G60 poets and other writers born
and/or raised in Washington runs to over a dozen—Elizabeth Alexander,
Lewis Grandison Alexander, Gwendolyn B. Bennett, Waring Cuney, Clarissa
Scott Delany, Joel Dias-Porter, omas Sayers Ellis, Julia Fields, Rachel
Eliza Griths, Charlotte Forten Grimké, Walter Everette Hawkins, Essex
Hemphill, Dolores Kendrick, Dudley Randall. Others—Hughes, Zora
Neale Hurston, Alain Locke—spent as much or more time in Washington as
they did in New York, where Cullen, contrary to myth, was almost certainly
not born.
e Sense of Character
Apart from Dunbar, whom did Sterling Brown model his work after?
An oral historian’s oral historian, Sterling Brown had prodigious natural
talent nurtured by years of disciplined study from live models.
Jean Toomer sojourned in Sparta, Georgia, returning to his roots to
create that classic mixture of lyric prose, poetry, and dramatic narrative
known as Cane. Cane was an inuence on Sterling Brown. So much so that
when Cane appeared in 1923, Brown began his own sojourn among the folk,
teaching rst as a lecturer in English at Virginia eological Seminary and
College in Lynchburg, located in Southampton County, Virginia, and later
at the historically black Lincoln University in Jeerson City, Missouri, before
returning to his own roots at Fisk University, in Nashville, Tennessee, where
he lived among the folk. By day, he was teaching; on weekends and during
summers, he mingled with backwoods Virginians, met their kinfolk, shared
their vittles, shared their sweat. In those parts of the South, where their
ancestors were born and slaved or sometimes owned slaves themselves, both
Brown and Toomer, like Du Bois and James Weldon Johnson before them,
had their eyes opened to the vibrantly quilted beauty of black folk culture. As
early as 1930, Sterling Brown was writing about blues lyrics the way scholars
write about the poetry of Bob Dylan.
After years of teaching further aeld, he was appointed to an inuential
position at Howard University. During the Great Depression of the 1930s,
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BROAD NOON DAYLIGHT: WORDS IN THE MOURNING TIME
the Federal Writers’ Project hired Sterling Brown as Negro Aairs Director.
Brown had watched ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax make eld recordings,
under the auspices of the Library of Congress, of ballads, protest songs,
chain-gang work songs, spirituals, gospel hymns, nitty-gritty-dirt blues,
early jazz and its folk-music accompaniments,campre songs” sung by black
regiments like the First South Carolina Volunteers. Lomax had designed an
oral history questionnaire. Sterling Brown modied it in such a way that the
dozens of FWP workers he editorially supervised could use it, in dozens
of states, conducting eldwork documenting the oral history of ex-slaves—
their half-remembered African chants, their aphorisms, their campre songs
of black regiments “chanted underneath the stars” (“Virginia Portrait,” line
37). is “folk literature” forms the basis of Brown’s body of work.
Sterling Brown was a student of Molière, aka the French Menander.
Molière inuenced Congreve. And Congreve, aka the English Molière,
was a student of Ben Jonson with his Comedy of Humours. Now think of
“Character” in the seventeenth century sense of a moraliste like La Bruyère or
a Greek natural philosopher like eophrastus, whom La Bruyère translated,
and whom Ben Jonson would’ve heard of. eophrastus remains best
known today for the thirty ctional sketches that are known collectively as
Characters, each of which illustrates a dominant attribute, or fault, or “vice.”
eophrastus’s thirty characters” are all extreme “types,” whether decient or
excessive.
ink of eophrastus’s inuence on Greek stage comedy, and it’s easy
to see how this tradition,ltered through a poet like Sterling Brown, survives
in sketch comedy, in an “outrageous” Martin Lawrence “type” like Romie
Rome,” or “Ol’ Otis,” in Jamie Foxx, alias Cornbread Turner, and his sidekick
Duke Jeremy Jolly Rancher Remington Steele Louis Cadbury the third to
the fourth power! Old Comedy, New Comedy, black comedy—it doesn’t
really matter. ese types are perennial. Sterling Browns characters—
botanicals—personify human traits and foibles—similar to what the
reader has encountered on stage or in ction. e antithesis of analysis
by Proustication, Sterling Brown’s psychological vignettes are no less
penetrating or cartoonish for being brief and broadly satirical. ey seldom
lapse into caricature or parody. By his own admission, Sterling Brown’s
characters were American “types” in general and African-American types
in particular. But the action microscopes the characteristic essence, and the
characteristic essence telescopes the action. Hence the extreme economy of
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THE CHATTAHOOCHEE REVIEW
Kevin Brown
Sterling Brown’s sequences—character, dialogue, scene/situation. It’s in part
due to this typecasting that Sterling Browns characters don’t just aspire to
but attain the condition of universality, irrespective of their blackness. So
that Sterling Brown’s characters, engaged in what might on the surface seem
like just more of what LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs might call “coon bidness”
(qtd. in Young) are people all the same.
Working from the specic to the general, and vice versa, Brown broad-
strokes his characters, even those modeled on real life, as eophrastan
“types”—bumblers and grumblers, the braggart, the chatterbox, the atterbox,
the country bumkin, the moaner and groaner, the fatalist, the cynic, the
rumor-monger, young fool, the old fool, the curmudgeon, the huckster, the
shuckster, spendthrifts and penny-pinchers, the preachin’ man, the do-right
man, the music man, the workin’ man, the drankin’ man, the gamblin’ man.
“Slim Greer” is a central character from Sterling Browns classic series-
satire of ve poems: “Slim Greer,“Slim Lands a Job?” “Slim in Atlanta,“Slim
Hears ‘the Call’,” and Slim in Hell.” Greer is the kind of barbershop habit
familiar to everybody who’s seen Eddie Murphy in Coming to America. e
bowing-and-scraping, “yessuh,” ”nawsuh” type, “Old Lem” becomes the basis
for harborers of dreams too long deferred.
e Reverend Sterling Nelson Brown was a Professor of Divinity at
Howard University. Sterling Brown was born on campus and, except for
brief sabbaticals at places like Atlanta University, New York University,
Vassar College, or Yale, Sterling Brown spent his entire career at Howard,
living in the Brookland neighborhood, in Northeast Washington, D.C. His
poems reect how widely he traveled, not just among the turpentine jook
joints of Lower Dixie but also within the connes of Brookland. In much
the way Zora ran around conducting oral history interviews with voodoo
witchdoctors, ling anthropological eld reports and running around with
calipers used for measuring negroid craniums, much of Browns “eld work”
consisted of loang among the liars and philosophers of barbershops, pawn
shops, and pool halls, where the only recognizable English” is behind the
eight ball. ese larger-than-real-life characters—Mrs. Bibby, Calvin (“Big
Boy”) Davis, Slim Greer—became the personae of his most admired poems.
Brown’s “Sister Lou” is dedicated to Ms. Bibby. Ms. Bibby is herself modeled
on the mother of one of Browns Virginia Union students from Lynchburg.
Brown combines the ear for dialogue, characterization, and dramatic
timing he saw at the Old Howard eater, at 7th and T” Streets in DC.
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BROAD NOON DAYLIGHT: WORDS IN THE MOURNING TIME
Particularly astonishing is his knack for description in general and stop-time
description especially.
In Roberta Lee,” a sassy chorine politely invites a contemptuous
daughter of the Confederacy to kiss her black ass:
to the rose of Dixie, to Roberta, Southerner,
e chorine presented, due South, a Southern exposure. (“Roberta
Lee, lines 31–32)
“e Last Ride of Wild Bill,” with its telegraphed image of a “masticated
stogie butt” (Part IV, line 17), has the plotting and pacing and dramatic
tension reminiscent of perhaps the greatest of all Westerns, High Noon.
Characters occur and recur. Working back from the general to the
specic, one such type, the dandy, whom Oscar Wilde would easily have
recognized, represents the pinnacle of what Sterling Brown calls “sartorial
excellence” (author’s sound-booth quip, from e Poetry of Sterling Brown,
recorded 1946–1973, released on Smithsonian Folkways, 1995), like Sportin’
Daniels, who appears in Southern Road as “Sporting Beasley,” with “his patent
leathers with his silk handkerchief ” (“Sporting Beasley,” line 25). ere’s
old Scrappy, in his silk shirt, suspenders, and brogans. In real life, William
Stanley Braithwaite was a dandy. One has only to think of Alain Locke, who
taught for decades alongside Sterling Brown at Howard University. Alain
Locke “so cosmopolitan,” to quote Cullen, “of thought and speech,” so self-
aware but not at all self-conscious; surely he must have recognized that, even
in a place like Harlem, so proigate of pimps, he invited stares as he tapped
his walking stick hurriedly along Lenox Avenue, nattily dressed in a gray suit
with matching kid gloves, gray spats strapped over custom-made, cap-toe
shoes—even his irises were matching gray—on the way downtown to meet
W.E.B. Du Bois for luncheon—Alain Locke was an uber-dandy, much like
“Sporting Beasley.
“High” and “low” characters often mingle, comingle, and/or intermingle
in Sterling Brown, a virtuoso ventriloquist who switches easily back and forth
between characters, speaking from behind a wide variety of masks. eir
uncanny likenesses” owe as much to the eye as to the ear. In “e Temple,” we
see Harlem street-corner orators, race-men ranting in West-Indian dialects
that Derek Walcott and Eric Walrond would surely recognize. But Brown
was no more exclusively a “dialect” poet than was Dunbar. In addition to
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THE CHATTAHOOCHEE REVIEW
Kevin Brown
ballads, Sterling Brown experiments with blues rhythms and refrains, with
traditional poetic forms he would have encountered at Williams College—
the sonnet, villanelle, to the eighteenth century French popular song by
Madame de Pompadour, Nous n’irons plus au bois, a sonnet. Sterling Brown
is both folk poet and lyric poet; To a Certain Lady, in Her Garden” is
traditionally English pastoral. “Call Boy” is an experiment in d-rhymed octet.
ere are experiments in free verse, as in “Roberta Lee” or Virginia Portrait.
“Choices” is a series of ten blues triplets and even doubled-triplets,
following the pattern aaa/bbb.
And though Sterling Brown didn’t at all object to the label of “folk poet,”
perhaps it’s more useful to think of him as a hybrid. In Sterling Brown, dialect
is a form of what Dana D. Nelson calls oral literacy,” folk wisdom. Sterling
Brown is, plainly, laughing with destiny’s fools, not laughing at them. Sterling
Brown’s accomplishment is the portrayal of black life the way black life sees
itself. Which is why, read back to back, it’s hard to hear Brown’s “Ma Rainey”
as anything other than a ri on Dunbar’s When Malindy Sings” (qtd. in
Young) or not suspect Sterling Brown, in “An Old Woman Remembers,” of
channeling a poem memorializing the 1906 race riot decried in Du Bois’s
“e Litany of Atlanta”; why, it’s almost impossible to read Sterling Brown’s
“Sister Lou,” dedicated to Miss Bibby, herself modeled on the mother of
one of Brown’s students at Virginia Union in Lynchburg, Virginia, without
channeling James Weldon Johnson.
e world of Sterling Brown’s Collected Poems is peopled thick with
suitors who croon each other sweet lies of love everlasting” (“Children’s
Children,” line 8). Even if his father hadn’t been one himself, there’d have been
deacons and preachers in Sterling Brown’s work. ere are also scoundrels/
hustlers, often appearing in the same dis/guise. ere are remen on
southern rails, working dirty jobs for good pay—pay so good poorer whites
would literally kill for the jobs; Mississippi riverboat troubadours, of poems
like “Call Boy” (225). Sometimes any/all of them will appear in a single
poem, like “Memphis Blues.” Sometimes, the character will be blue collar;
sometimes the character would not be caught dead working a job that might
break an impeccably manicured nail.
rough his travels North and South, Sterling Brown peopled his
human comedy with an entire range of eophrastans who rise above
cardboard types—“browns and yellers” (from Andy Razaf ’s “Black and Blue,
line 7, qtd. in Young), buck dancers, break dancers, Harlem streetwalkers
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on the stroll, cracker “rebs” (“An Old Woman Remembers,” line 16) and
damnyanks” (Roberta Lee, line 8), both urban rural, hangtailed hounds”
(“Old Lem,” line 44) from New Negro Chicago to Ole Miss and back down,
sharecroppers of every color, separated only by an eighteen-foot-cut of
railroad tie, who die wid they toes turnt t’ward Dixie, women-folk hongry
“for more then the men they know” (“Side by Side,” Part VI, line 9), Hebrews
and Anglo-Saxons, village half-wits, the overeducated “snowake” and the
na’chal man. ere is Big Boy Davis, a railroad man, troubadouring guitar
player and coal miner whose homage is chanted, in worksong-rhythm, in the
chain-gang ballad “Southern Road.” Big Boy also appears in Long Gone.
Sterling Brown’s folkways are not “folksy.” He respects his material
too much for that. He took an as uncondescending, genuinely respectful an
attitude toward the folk whom he encountered in the South as we now take
toward Sterling Brown himself.
e Sense of Place II
e sense of place, in poems like “Roberta Lee” or Harlem Happiness,” is as
fundamental to Brown’s verse as are settings like Atlanta, Georgia; Jeerson
City, Missouri; Nashville, Tennessee; Lynchburg, Virginia. In some poems,
we get both character and place, as in Virginia Portrait.” It’s important to
know how rooted in real life Sterling Brown’s characters are; it’s equally
important to know how rooted they are in real places.
A map of Sterling Brown’s work would read like traditional migration
routes—Texas and Louisiana, Mississippi and Chicago, Harlem and the Five
Points of Atlanta, Gee A” (“Slim in Atlanta,” line 36). Or the liminalities
between natural and the supernatural worlds. In Cajun country, we nd
backwoods doctors in superstitious parishes, where the nearest cabin lies
twelve miles [nigh]; in a place that might as well be the Pittsburgh of Romare
Bearden’s childhood, where poor immigrants, black and white,
burst forth from the factory
When the Abe Lincoln noon-whistle
blasted you free,
For one hot hour (“Side by Side,” Part V, lines 2–5);
In places like Chicago, where
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the tommy guns drill, and the bodies fall,
Mow them down, mow them down, gangsters or G-men
So long as the folks get killt, no dierence at all (“All Are Gay” lines
28–30);
Down in the cotton south, in Arkansas, where
there’s hell to pay;
e devil is a rider,
God may be the owner,
But he’s rich and forgetful,
And far away. (“Arkansas Chant” lines 12–16)
e Sense of History
It’s sad to say that Sterling Brown’s more topical “protest” poems seem to have
aged at least as well as his classicizing bucolics.
Some of Sterling Browns themes are those classically associated with
the spirituals: freedom, justice, and survival strategies.
e era Young calls “After the Hurricane (2009-2020)” was an era
of violent unrest in the wake of a seeming pandemic of police-involved
shootings of black women and even children. African American Poetry also
anthologizes half a dozen of Sterling Brown’s familiar poems, none more
powerful or timely than “Southern Cop” (1936).
Southern Cop
Let us forgive Ty Kendricks.
e place was Darktown. He was young.
His nerves were jittery. e day was hot.
e Negro ran out of the alley.
And so he shot.
Let us understand Ty Kendricks.
e Negro must have been dangerous,
Because he ran;
And here was a rookie with a chance
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To prove himself a man.
Let us condone Ty Kendricks
If we cannot decorate.
When he found what the Negro was running for,
It was too late;
And all we can say for the Negro is
It was unfortunate.
Let us pity Ty Kendricks,
He has been through enough,
Standing there, his big gun smoking,
Rabbit-scared, alone,
Having to hear the wenches wail
And the dying Negro moan. (lines 1–22)
By no means is the poetry of Sterling Brown all slapstick and sight-gag
humor.
ere are lynchings—cheered by women and children, like sporting
events—where swine swill moonshine from Coca-Cola bottles, then use
it for lighter uid on black bodies embered—pyred, as Anne Spencer says
(“White ings” line 12).
In He Was a Man,” Brown narrates a lynching that takes place “in the
broad noon daylight” (line 33). Much like today, yesterday’s lynching was not
carried out by “Ku Klux hoods” (line 39):
ey strung him up on Main Street,
On a tree in the Court House Square,
And people came from miles around
To enjoy a holiday there,
He was a man, and they laid him down. (“He Was a Man,” lines
41–45)
Later, it continues:
It wasn’t no solemn business,
Was more like a barbecue,
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e crackers yelled when the re blazed,
And the women and the children too—
He was a man, and we laid him down.
e Coroner and the Sheri
Said “Death by Hands Unknown.(“He Was a Man,” lines
51–57)
And those who survive being shot in the back go on to feed the pipelines
feeding the relocation centers of our penitentiary-industrial complex:
is is the schooling ungrudged by the state.
Short in time, as usual, but fashioned to last.
e scholars are apt, and never play truant.
e stockade is waiting. . . . And they will not be late. (“All Are Gay,”
lines 61–64)
From “Convict”:
Jim is on the gang,
Working on the road;
Goes out in the morning
With the prison load;
Sees the little shacks
Mist covered, dim. . . .
And another daybreak
Comes back to him,
at brought him to handcus,
And a dingy cell,
Daytime on the highways,
Nights in hell.
When the truck rolls back
As the sun goes down,
Jim sees what he is used to
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In Shantytown.
Sleeping hounds everywhere,
Flies crawling thick,
Grownups drunken
And children sick.
ree long months
Till he takes his ease,
With their lth and squalor
And miseries. . . .
Jim as the night falls
Gets his view
Of the longed-for heaven
He’s returning to. . . . (85)
But Toomer became an adept of Gurdjie. Robert Hayden was a Baha’i, and
his poem “Words in the Mourning Time” specically alludes to the prophet
Bahaullah. For Hayden as for Toomer, the belief in the unity of peoples
everywhere on this earth was greater than their belief in race or even religion
itself.
Nor are Sterling Brown’s Collected Poems all about bullwhips, trace
chains, or lynchings. If he were a one-note poet, poets like Maya Angelou
wouldn’t have bothered writing about him.
Between the years Ida Mae and I were born, between 1900 and 1960,
were what Claudia Rankine calls “the years of passage, plantation, migration,
of Jim Crow segregation, of poverty, inner cities, proling” (qtd . in Young, 875)
of entire peoples “pinioned,” as Jesmyn Ward writes in e Fire is Time, in
a carotid restraint of “poverty and history and racism.” Paradoxically, the very
forces that made the Harlem Renaissance possible in the rst place—what
Isabel Wilkerson identies as “red-lining, over-policing, hypersegration”—
have led us not just to where we are now but to what Sterling Brown called
the abandonment of an Underclass, even by middle-class blacks, in the form
of inner-city exegesis, exodus, whatever dey calls it” (Author’s sound-booth
quip, from e Poetry of Sterling Brown, recorded 1946–1973, released on
Smithsonian Folkways, 1995).
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e legacy of a poet like Cullen, a translator from the French, aords
a writer like Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah the luxury of allowing “the fact that I
am black to fade to the back,” to just think oughts. It’s a grossly unhelpful
oversimplication—a Folly in Chief—to characterize recent police-involved
shootings as what Baldwin, who is himself in some ways a victim of his almost
endless quotability, a foul and violent orgy.” In a country as traumatized by
forgetting as by remembering, merely defacing history seems unequal to
the braver task of facing history. A more radically sustainable, more deeply
subversive alternative to the toppling of white monuments, or burning of
others’ books, is the ongoing creation of a black canon, despite the fact that
at this point in literary history, black poetry worldwide, in Spanish, French,
or English no longer requires special pleading.
e Sense of Swing
Some keys to Sterling Brown’s work are found in character, some in the sense
of place, others in the sense of history, but many in his sense of musical
“swing.
Steeped as he was in the classical repertoire, Brown never seems to let
that interfere with his sense of “swing.
Brown’s poetic work was inuenced in content, form, and cadence by
African-American music, including work songs, blues, and jazz. And then
there are spirituals straight outta the soundtrack of O Brother, Where Art
ou? Lonesome Valley,” performed by Faireld Four. What you hear in
the title poem of the series, “Slim Greer,” where Sterling Brown pulls o
the perfect combination of scene and characterization to the tune of an up-
tempo, honky tonk, boogie woogie, or stride piano rhythm, danceable, jaunty,
something along the lines of jukebox swing like that of Louis (“Beans and
Cornbread”) Jordan, the king of jump blues, replete with sexual innuendo.
An’ he started a-tinklin’
Some mo’nful blues,
An’ a-pattin’ the time
With No. Fourteen shoes. (“Slim Greer,” lines 36–40)
Try hearing something up-tempo, danceable, somewhere between jazz,
blues, and boogie-woogie or stride piano. ink Louis Jordan. ink “Open
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the Door, Richard.
At other times, the sound a reader may hear should be that of young
girls jumping rope to the rhymes of Fat and Skinny.” Slim Greer seeking to
pass for white and romancing the southern white woman was faced with an
especially deadly moment of racial truth when his love
Crept into the parlor
Soft as you please
Where Slim was agitatin’
e ivories.
Heard Slim’s music—
An’ then, hot damn!
Shouted sharp—“Nigger!”
An’ Slim said, “Ma’am?” (“Slim Greer,” lines 49–56)
ere’s a wide range of tonal centers, majors, and rippling “minors on de
black an’ yellow keys” (“Ma Rainey,” Part II, line 8). Sterling Brown’s scores
are a mix of octaves and octaroons—of “mournful blues with hill-billy tunes”
(“Side by Side, Part VIII, line 2). Block-chords strong-armed like robbery,
fore-armed like poet-pianist Cecil Taylor. In “e Last Ride of Wild Bill,
all a-whoopin’ and a-hollerin,’ you almost hear the soundtrack to the poems
Benny Hill antics in terms of the novelty tune Yakety Sax”; Riverbank
Blues” is almost Dunbaresque in its pastoral tone, its characters talkin’ quiet,
quiet lak an’ slow. Not only that, Sterling Brown is a careful orchestrator of
transitions.
Sterling Brown’s verse experiments are as formally varied as his subject
matter; some ballads are based in meter and refrain rather than rhyme. “New
St. Louis Blues” is a triptych in triplets, its three sections, “Market Street
Woman,” “Tornado Blues,” and Low Down” eshed out in ve or six stanzas
each. You can’t just take in a blues like this by eye; you really have to hear it,
musically, in your head.
Steeped as Sterling Brown was in classics, he never let that impede his
sense of swing.
IV
Of the many anthologies of African-American poetry published during the
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last 100 years, 250 Years is not just a new version, not just a revision. It’s an
alternative vision, what Lucille Clifton calls “a shift of knowing” (from Lucille
Clifton’s “homage to my hips,” [sic] line 17, qtd. in Young). 1,170 pages span
250 poets dating from 1770 to 2020. Some poets are represented by a single,
long poem; others by multiple short poems.
A poet common to almost all anthologies of African-American poetry
is Countée Cullen.
Come Rain or Come Shine
During the entire twelve years Cullen taught French and creative writing to
middle school students like James Baldwin at Public School 139, years of
fame and weak royalty statements forced Cullen to scrounge ways of writing
full-time, one of them prospecting for theatrical success to pan out on the
Great White Way. Cullen had a mortgage in the suburbs to pay for so that
little Duan, my mother, could grow up comfortably unhappy and attend
boarding school.
You have to remember how theater-mad that pre-TV era was. Weldon
Johnson, an opera librettist with a passion for the stage, was an inspiration to
many of the younger generation because, as vaudeville lyricist, Johnson once
earned a decade’s worth of royalties in a single year. Many of the poets who
gathered at Georgia Douglas Johnsons S” Street Salon were published and
produced playwrights themselves. ey wrote for the page as if writing for the
stage. Cullen wasn’t unique among Harlem Renaissance writers in his mania
for live theater. His entire circle was implicated in it, one way or another. Arna
Bontemps wrote in a variety of genres on a variety of themes—biography,
essays, novels, poems—and was among the rst to encourage Cullen to write
children’s books. But Bontemps, who’d never seriously considered writing for
the theater, after some initial hesitation said yes to helping Cullen adapt one
of Arna’s novels for the stage, a project that became the Broadway musical St.
Louis Woman. e three of them, Bontemps, Cullen, and Hughes, agreed to
split the royalties in the event a production was staged, lmed, or produced
on radio.
For twelve years, Cullen stressed out; and stress aggravated his already
high blood pressure. Between feverish rewrites and worries about his family,
Cullen began to experience hypertension headaches. He also suered gastro-
intestinal problems, his ulcer exacerbated both by a tendency to worry and a
weakness for soul food. He should have seen a doctor but was determined to
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see the project through.
Young introduces a wider audience to Owen Dodson, who wrote poems
both experimental and traditional, “e Morning Duke Ellington Praised the
Lord and Six Little Black Davids Tapped Dance Unto” and “Sorrow Is the
Only Faithful One.” Dodson knew Lena Horne, Frank Horne’s niece from
Brooklyn. But Dodson couldn’t persuade Horne, who had no intention of
playing a “ashy lady of easy virtue,” to take the lead role in St. Louis Woman,
today best known for that standard of the American songbook “Come Rain
or Come Shine.” It ran for 113 performances, propelling Pearl Bailey, in her
Broadway debut, to eventual stardom.
Harlem Book of the Dead
“How,” Zora Neale Hurston asked, “is Cullen?”
He was in worse shape than friends and family imagined.
Cullen threw a Christmas party, picked up his paycheck, came home
Friday afternoon. He was to meet a Hollywood producer on Saturday. But he
told my great-grandmother, Ida, call Ed for me. Tell him I just don’t feel up
to coming today. I have this awful headache. I’ll stay home over the weekend
and Monday—for sure—I’ll be able to come down to the city.”
Ida Mae called the doctor; the doctor urged Cullen to rest a few days.
But Cullen only got worse; the doctor ordered him into Sydenham Hospital
on January 2. When Cullen suggested she carry on his work—earn herself
a little money touring, giving lectures, and readings—Ida Mae laughed, in
shock.
Are you crazy?”
“ Hey, Ar n a.”
“Yeah, Lang.”
“What happened to Cullen?”
On Wednesday, 9 January 1946, Cullen died at Sydenham Hospital
from kidney failure precipitated by hypertension and uremic poisoning. He
was forty-two.
Executrix
Ida Mae came into her own, took over the family business. Active in the
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cultural life of New York, she spent the rest of her days traveling, giving
lectures and readings. As executrix of Cullens literary estate from 1947 to
1986, she dedicated herself to promoting his posthumous career. But Ida
Mae’s rst ocial duty was to bury him with some semblance of dignity.
Chair of the Howard University Drama Department and director of
the Howard University Players, Owen Dodson was a passionate advocate for
black theater. His rst book, Powerful Long Ladder, was published the year
Cullen died.
Cullen’s funeral was on Saturday. Pall bearers included Bontemps,
Dodson, and Hughes. Cullens friendship with Owen carried over to Ida
Mae, and lasted the rest of Owen’s life.
Ida Mae acquired a habit of command and expected unquestioning
obedience. Owen learned, easily, to comply where her wishes were concerned.
I learned the hard way.
Ida Mae instructed that Owen do the following: (1) come to the house in
Tuckahoe to help pack up some books, manuscripts, and other memorabilia;
(2) publish in some periodical a poem tting as epitaph for Cullen; and (3)
stop by the Harlem funeral home, make sure Cullen was wearing a fresh shirt
for the open-casket viewing, see to it his hair was brushed and combed just
the way he’d liked it.
Friday morning, one day before the funeral, Owen goes to Tuckahoe.
Helps Ida Mae pack some things. Goes down to Harlem. Rangs the doe
bell at the underground specialist’s startlingly tacky funeral establishment.
At the third-story window appears a head dressed in huge pink hair curlers,
its torso draped in an old bathrobe. Attendant voice hollers down.
“What you want?”
Might Mr. Dodson see Mr. Cullen?
Pink curlers dart inside. Head pokes back out the window.
“He ain’t ready yet.
Owen’s innate sense of theater convinced him it was to be a very long
funeral.
On 12 January 1946, three thousand spectators stood outside Salem
Methodist Episcopal Church, freezing in the cold. Inside, Bontemps,
Dodson, Hughes, Ida Mae, Locke, Richard Wright, and some of Cullen’s
students holding owers aloft in tribute were in attendance. Paul Robeson,
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Carl Van Vechten, and other honorary pallbearers carried Cullen’s casket
to its place of viewing. e casket was opened; people moaned and wailed.
Inside, Cullen was laid out in his customary dark three-piece suit, regimental
tie, and starched white collar, a Phi Beta Kappa key glittering across his vest.
Owen wanted classically trained concert soprano Dorothy Maynor to sing,
but instead an elderly congregant croaked out a song. e diminutive gure of
Alain Locke, all gray from his hair down to his shoes, approached the casket.
Stopped. Stared a long time. en snapped four ngers to his forehead in
salute. At long last, Ida Mae stood up and read Cullens uncharacteristically
angry lines From the Dark Tower” (qtd. in Young):
We shall not always plant while others reap
e golden increment of bursting fruit,
Not always countenance, abject and mute
at lesser men should hold their brothers cheap;
Not everlastingly while others sleep
Shall we beguile their limbs with mellow ute,
Not always bend to some more subtle brute;
We were not made eternally to weep.
e night whose sable breast relieves the stark
White stars is no less lovely being dark,
And there are buds that cannot bloom at all
In light, but crumple, piteous, and fall;
So in the dark we hide the heart that bleeds,
And wait, and tend our agonizing seeds. (1–14)
e service—not including interment at Woodlawn Cemetery—lasted three
hours. Attendees began ducking out, politely and discreetly as they could.
By the time they laid Cullen to rest in the cold wet ground, a pallbearer—
Bontemps, Dodson, Hughes, one of them—damn near slipped in the mud.
A Valediction
Since 1918, Cullen’s admirers have been many. Even more so than the three
thousand who attended his wedding, the three thousand attending his funeral
demonstrate how valued Cullen was as a person, not just in Harlem but in
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the global literary community. But as a writer he was seen by some as the
embodiment of disappointment, dashed hopes, and disillusionment. Even
Du Bois, who had given his daughter’s hand in marriage to Cullen when he
proposed to her during the Christmas season of 1927, who’d taken family
pride in Cullen as being a prosodist who could play the English language
like a musical instrument,” was now saying that “Cullens career . . . did not
culminate.” e bright promise of Cullen’s early years, one reviewer sadly
noted, had “faded into mediocrity.” At the time, Cullen wasn’t even thirty.
My own opinion of Cullen has come full circle from early infatuation
to premature disillusionment to abiding respect. Before he died, Cullen said,
“I want to be sure of having some sane and logical criticism (and that does
not necessarily mean criticism favorable to me) to oset the purely emotional
criticism that may have a tendency to prevail in some quarters.” I hope to
strike a critical balance between the two extremes of zealous and dismissive
partisanship.
At one critical extreme, zealots argue that there’s “no point in measuring
him merely beside Dunbar,” as Clement Wood put it; he must stand or
fail beside Shakespeare and Keats and Maseeld, Whitman and Poe and
Robinson.” is is the logical result of applying the letter and not the spirit
of the law to Cullen’s insistence on being judged rst and foremost as a poet,
not a “negro poet.” For the moment, since Cullen wouldn’t have had it any
other way, let’s take him at his word.
e verse Cullen published between the ages of fteen and forty-two
coincides with the Kevin Young era of African American Poetry, 19181946,
bookended by Amy Lowell and Robert Lowell. Eliot published Prufrock and
Other Observations in 1917, a pivotal year for African-American literature,
when Claude McKay became among the rst to publish e. e. cummings.
Robert Lowell’s Lord Weary’s Castle (1946) appeared the year Cullen died.
Let’s leave Shakespeare and Elizabethans out of this, for now. Rappers
and hip-hop artists are perhaps fairer game in terms of comparison. Consider
this: poetry in English underwent another great explosion, qualitatively and
quantitatively, between World War I and the death of Yeats. e U.S. roster,
to limit this discussion to poets represented in e Oxford Book of American
Ve r s e (1950), is daunting: Conrad Aiken; Hart Crane; poet-critic-translators
like Randall Jarrell and Richard Wilbur; Robinson Jeers; Marianne Moore;
John Crowe Ransom; Delmore Schwartz; Wallace Stevens; Allen Tate.
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Cullen’s detractors are funnier than his admirers. Darryl Pinckney, in
e New York Review of Books, said Cullen was essentially a neo-romantic
with a taste for classical forms, a traditionalist whose couplets tend to go “in
one eye and out the other.” Even staunch supporters note a tendency toward
sentimentality in Cullens verse. In his weakest poems, they say, “the rhymes
are clumsy and the symbolism . . . clichéd.” ey are “facile,“rather stilted
poem[s], laden with medieval and courtly imagery” and excessively archaic
language.” At this critical extreme, Cullen is seen as a merely reactionary
formalist of no great depth or originality, a sonneteer whose lyrics rise
only sporadically above the level of undergraduate eusion, a second-rate
Edna St. Vincent Millay. Wallie urman accused Cullen of, among other
things, sacricing originality to mere virtuosity, genuine depth of feeling to
grandiloquence.
By any sane and logical standard Cullen isn’t a rst-rate writer, seen in
this context. Or so it seemed during my disenchantment phase. My reasoning
seems valid, my conclusions premature. Some think Sterling Brown’s poems
more resonant than Cullen’s, more varied than Hughes’s. But the transition
between Young’s eras is a continuum of similarities, not a hierarchy of
dierences.
Reading Cullen alongside poets I grew up discovering as I read my way,
cover to cover, through e Oxford Book of English Verse: 1250–1918 and
surveys like Young’s, I thought I’d outgrown Cullen. As one raised on Cullen’s
work, coming of age contemporaneously with creative nonction writers of
the G60, somewhere between the critical extremes of idolatry and detraction,
I now see things dierently.
Young’s contributors know from experience that expressing nuanced
feeling and thought, within the strict connes of sonnets and quatrains and
without undue distortion of syntax, is harder than it looks. Cullen shares with
Tate a profound conviction that classical forms have life left in them, that the
trick is to make their content “appear natural,” as his biographer Molesworth
says, even easy.” A careful student of Tennyson, Cullen infused iambic
pentameter with metrical devices (enjambment, runover lines) designed to
heighten the illusion of natural speech. Cullen’s vocabulary employs vibrant
admixtures of plain Anglo-Saxon and more abstract words of Greek, Latin,
or French origin. His uses of classical myth and biblical allusion, of slang
and subjunctive, of thee and thou, of shades in coloring, changes in pitch
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Kevin Brown
and angles of attack, are skillful and varied. To the eye scanning swiftly
across the page, Cullen’s formalism may seem monotonous. But read aloud
with the proper emphases, a poem like “She of the Dancing Feet” is alive
with the eye-rolling, head-swiveling, lip-smacking swagger and sass of street
vernacular. And because he’d harbored ambitions to succeed as both novelist
and playwright, Cullen’s storytelling air in short narrative verse squeezes
from any given quatrain every iota of dramatic tension—tensions of action,
characterization, description, dialogue, humor, pathos, plot, point of view,
scene, and transition—that you can possibly squeeze from just thirty-two
beats. At their very best, Cullen’s verses speak with both the authority of the
pulpit and the intimacy of the salon. Cullen’s very naturalness is his highest
achievement. e wonder isn’t that he sometimes fell short of it but that he
realized it as often as he did.
Cullen’s cumulative impact on black culture is greater than the sum of
even his best poems. Writers from South Africa and Nigeria would come
pay their respects to Ida Mae, remembering how rst hearing Cullen’s poetry
as children had profoundly inuenced their decision to become writers.
Whatever the unevenness of Cullen’s body of work as a whole, he was
emblematic of a ashpoint in global black culture the likes of which could
only have occurred in a select few places at that particular time. Harlem and
Washington, DC, were among them.
Is Cullens “failure” as poet to manage perhaps unrealistic expectations
after what Jessie Fauset called such a brave and beautiful beginning”
somehow synonymous with his “failure” in life? Obviously not. So what
if Cullen is no longer considered a “major” poet? His time was short, but
he never ceased reaching for the stars. His reach did exceed his grasp, but
that’s what Browning said a heaven’s for. As for his work, there’s a place
for Cullen if there’s a place for Stephen Vincent Benét, John Peale Bishop,
Archibald Macleish, Phelps Putnam, Trumbull Stickney and other gures
now considered “minor” but represented in F. O. Matthieson’s anthology. As
for his life, by any humane measure it was an unqualied success.
V
African American Poetry features at least fourteen contributors who are
Harvard graduates. But much less in the era of Alain Locke, who did
graduate work at Oxford before earning is Ph.D., in 1918 a black Harvard
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man couldn’t hope to teach at Harvard. Sterling Brown in fact attended Paul
Laurence Dunbar High School, then one of the most rigorous and prestigious
of all DC public schools, and was mentored there, as Jean Toomer had been
before him, by poets Anne Spencer and Jessie Fauset, who would have been
university professors today.
Hard to imagine which was more tightly wound, Alain Locke or his
English umbrella. Some describe his manner as a mixture of prissiness and
violent haste. Locke drilled Howard students, fussily, in German and in
Greek. His conversation was brisk. His strolls were brisk. His solicitations
were brisk, as were his fallings out. Self-assured to the point of arrogance,
impatient to the point of tyranny, Locke had opinions,” biographers say, that
were “seldom equivocal.” It must have given Jessie Fauset great pleasure to
note that so towering a gure wasn’t even ve feet tall.
A tolerant view of Locke is that he was a frustrated artist. He’d published
relatively little, and that little fell short of his grandiose expectations. e eld
of black studies hadn’t yet been recognized, even at a historically black college
like Howard, and Dean Locke was powerless to institute it. So there, for all
his brilliance, he languished between bouts of depression, ever expectant of
“the shock of beauty,” a scholar without a recognized specialty, a philosopher
without a major philosophy, an artist without a form, wasting precious time
and talent on one disappointing amorous intrigue after another, his heart
literally weak from an early age due to rheumatic fever.
e gravitational pull on writers both witting and unwitting of
Howard University’s orbit is hard to overstate. Sterling Brown’s sense of
the power of inherited tradition was as keen as his sense of responsibility
toward transmitting it to future generations. Younger generations of writers
like Amiri Baraka, A. B. Spellman, Toni Morrison, Kwame Ture (Stokely
Carmichael), Kwame Nkrumah, omas Sowell, Ossie Davis, and many
others were beneciaries of Sterling Browns pioneering studies in black
culture. Sterling Brown, you feel, would have been Sterling Brown with or
without Dudley Randall. But would Dudley Randall have been Dudley
Randall if not for Sterling Brown? In Kevin Young, we get a sense of how
his contributors “read”—ri on—the canon of African-American literature
Sterling Brown practically invented. Paul Laurence Dunbar’s Sympathy”
anticipates Maya Angelou; Amiri Barakas Preface to a Twenty Volume
Suicide Note,” confessional, harks back to Frank Horne’s “Notes Found Near
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a Suicide,” an Edgar Lee Masters–like evocation of a voice from beyond the
grave. e To One Who Called Me Nigger” section of Frank Horne’s “Notes
Found Near a Suicide” is not only contemporary with Cullens Incident” but
also harks back, as does Cullen, to the Spoon River Anthology. I can’t say
how expectations this high must have aected Myron O’Higgins or other
Sterling Brown alums. I can only say what it was like for me.
Just as blues, jazz, and gospel were sources of inspiration for Sterling
Brown, rappers are indebted to Sterling Brown for his pioneering role in the
evolution of an overarching Black Aesthetic.
On Rhapsodies in Black: Music and Words from the Harlem Renaissance,
blues singers, neo-soul singer-songwriters, rappers, spoken-word
performance artists and tap dancers cross and recross the boundaries along
the “seeming divide” between oral and literary traditions, classical and
vernacular, the old apartheid between gospel and gangsta, “high” and “low.
Coolio reads Bontemps’s “e Day Breakers”; Ice-T recites Claude McKay’s
“If We Must Die”; Eartha Kitt not only enacts, not only chants, not only
dances but conjures a poem by a Sterling Brown contemporary Nicolás
Guillén, “Sensemayá–Chant for Killing a Snake,” translated by Hughes in
such a way that the speech, song, and dance rhythms Hughes heard behind
the Cuban-Spanish original approximate the African-American vernacular;
Carl Hancock Rux performs Richard Bruce Nugent’s “Smoke, Lilies and
Jade!” (Young’s “Biographical Contributor Notes” on Richard Bruce Nugent).
I played on Junior Bantam and Bantam ice-hockey travel teams at Eastridge
Mall, in San Jose, in the Bay Area. I was about my present height, only
lighter, faster. I wasn’t shy about letting out my aggression in full-contact
drills. ere was the usual give-and-take of teenage put-downs, but for the
most part I was just one of the guys, was rarely bullied, and never developed
that complex kids who try out for the team and don’t get picked carry around
the rest of their lives. I never thought of myself as a “nerd.
Don’t Come Home Early, Child
e rst time I remember visiting New York was when Carl Van Vechten
died. In subsequent years, I saw Ida Mae infrequently; but one summer
between 1977 and 1979, our relationship changed. Before this visit, the
rhythm of our relationship had been staccato. Ida Mae had never had to
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take me in large doses. Nor I her. By August, we were getting on each other’s
nerves. Tired of hearing about Cullen and the Harlem Renaissance, I was
also tired of the way, with Ida Mae, every day seemed like black history
month. Tempers ared.
I was, as Claude McKay said of himself, “suicidally frank.
“How many times we gonna hear that story?”
Ida Mae shot me a know-it-all glance. Slitted her eyes. And said, “Child,
you keep that up people aren’t gonna wanna be around you.
To her way of thinking, I had a lot to learn emotionally and professionally.
Intellectual rigor and clarity are virtues. But so is the tolerant, good-natured
sharing of opinions and simple pleasures in social settings via the art of
conversation. Under my present conditions of sunlight and temperature, I
hope to mellow into something highly structured yet nuanced, with more
complex notes. But at the time, harsh and tannic as immature Bordeaux, I
was a writer in need of a little aging. e kindest thing I can say about my
adolescence is that I’m outgrowing it. On one of the occasions when I lashed
out at her, Ida Mae didn’t spank me. But boy did she tan my hide.
First Period
It was one of those “3H” days in New York—hazy, hot, and humid. Ida
Mae took me over to the West Side to meet Owen in the thirteenth-oor
penthouse he shared with his sister on 51st Street. Down below, yellow
horns bopped cacophony through the canyons, contrapuntal.
Ida Mae had a habit that annoyed me. She would recite a distinguished
friend or colleague’s resume like a collector quoting an artwork’s provenance.
On this occasion, she does the same.
“Owen is a novelist. He’s written thirty-seven plays and operas, twenty-
seven of which have been produced, two of them at Kennedy Center.”
She went on and on and on about his production of Jimmy Baldwins
Amen Corner, of Chekhov’s Cherry Orchard, of T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the
Cathedral, of Tennessee Williamss e Glass Menagerie, about how Owen
won a Guggenheim Fellowship, just like Countée; about how President
Lyndon Johnson invited Owen to the White House for a celebration of
Shakespeare’s four hundredth.
I suspect she arranged this trip for several reasons, not least of which
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was that if I were as serious about writing as I pretended to be, had anywhere
near as much talent as I thought I had, then Owen would know what to do
with it.
From the very beginning, Ida Mae, physically distant as she might
be, played a role in shaping my life without my realizing. She was partly
responsible for keeping me alive during the years between 1960 and 1980.
But, then, as Baldwin puts it, “the problems of keeping children alive are not
real for children.” She bought that expensive hockey gear I wore, back when
the California Golden Seals played in the National Hockey League. Hockey
demands that toddlers learn to skate almost as soon as walk, that they leave
home during their teens to live with networks of extended “hockey families,”
sacrice teeth and entire decades of their short careers to a game in which
injury forces most into retirement by the average age of twenty-eight. Ice
hockey, like writing, reveres its history and tradition. Commentators talk
about “power” forwards and lethal “shots.” ey also talk about nesse, about
“hockey IQ,” about players who are “students of the game.” Ida Mae ensured
I got scouted by an author who was used to developing raw talent. Baldwin
wrote some great essays from Notes of a Native Son while living at Owen’s
apartment. Like teenage Major Junior Hockey League prospect aspiring
to the American Hockey League or the NHL, I suddenly nd myself in
league with heavier, faster, savvier opponents who have neither the time nor
inclination to take it easy on me. Owen was a decade younger than Countée.
But Countée treated Owen as an equal, not a protégé. And this, I now see,
is how Owen was about to treat me, though I was generations his junior.
Could I think on my feet? Would I prove as eective in the give-and-take of
improvised conversation as on the through-composed page? Most crucially,
could I stay healthy? Each and every failure to “nish,” every turnover, every
blown coverage, every sloppy shift change, every battle lost along the boards,
every failure to “read” the play as it developed would be closely scrutinized.
And if I didn’t perform to potential I would be cut or, if I was lucky, sent
down.” is was my tryout.
I’ve been given quality scoring chances but never coddled by veterans,
either as a writer or a rookie. Id better not be wasting their time and
generosity if they went out on a limb to secure me access to a magazine editor
or a book publisher.
ere are ve of us in Owen’s apartment. Ida Mae does the play-by-play.
“at’s Edith, Owens older sister.”
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BROAD NOON DAYLIGHT: WORDS IN THE MOURNING TIME
Edith doesn’t say much, but does do some ociating, drops the face-o
puck.
“Child,” Ida Mae gestures toward a regular seated across the dining room
table, “Id like you to meet Noel Da Costa—classical violinist, conductor, jazz
composer. He teaches over there at Rutgers, don’t you know.
I sense these are connoisseurs of performance; I have to be “on.Today’s
not a good day for a bad game. But I must learn not to panic with the puck,
under pressure. To my surprise, I nd that the higher the stakes the better I
feel. If I do have any pregame jitters, there’s no time to dwell on them.
I shake Noel’s hand.
“You were one of Countée’s students, I understand.
“Mmm hmm.”
You can tell Ida Mae’s at ease because she spits her mouthpiece out into
her glove.
“Hush yo’ mouf, child!”
She beams, clearly as proud of the young man I’m growing into as I am
to be someone she can be proud of.
“I mean go on, child. You are inn-arresting!”
Not all players see ice-time in all situations. Some quarterback the
power play. Others kill penalties. Still others dominate the face-o circle.
Some are called who only drop the gloves.
Changing on the y, I query my inner Grove Dictionary of Music and
Musicians.
Ida Mae shovels me a soft pass in front of the crease.
Spouting trivia about how Noel set several of Countée’s “Epitaphs” to
music, along with poems by Gwendolyn Brooks, Hughes, and others, I blast
a one-timer past the goalie from below the hash marks.
Shoots, he scores!
Ida Mae nearly leaps from her seat.
Ain’t that da troof!”
Stick raised rafterward in celebration, I look for applause out in the
stands, where Noel sits behind the players’ bench, smiling but otherwise
noncommittal.
Problem is, I am “precocious” in the way immature writers often are: I
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Kevin Brown
can put all the right words in the right order but have no lived experience
to draw from. Like Countée, I begin publishing in my teens. My rst piece,
appearing in Hemingway’s Kansas City Star, is a bombastic letter to the
editor about prison reform before I’d even spent a week in jail.
“He can coin some grand phrases,” Zora says to Locke behind the back
of a young writer who might as well be me, but has that awkwardness of
youth .”
Come to think of it, this scene takes place between the time Owen
publishes Come Home Early, Child (1977) and e Harlem Book of the Dead
(1978), his collaboration with Ida Mae’s friend Camille Billops—“archivist,
lmmaker, printmaker, sculptor, don’t you know”—and photographer James
Van Der Zee. Owen is down the hall conducting a telephone interview with
National Public Radio before he makes his entrance.
And Owen, of course, you know all about. Kevin here,” Ida Mae pauses,
dramatically, for the benet of all in attendance, “knows everything.
Punishing check at center ice. Oohs and aahs from the crowd. Old Ida
Mae hits me hard. And she’s just getting warmed up.
e arena’s abuzz. Edith waves o the call. Good, clean hit. No penalty.
Let ’em play! Strong on my skates, I absorb the impact, and circle back, stick-
handling, to buy some time, get a better “read” on the developing situation,
gure out my next move, and keep the conversational puck in play.
“Mr. Dodson.”
“Call me Owen, dammit.
I make the high-percentage play, skate back over to the bench, and quit
while I’m ahead. For the remainder of the luncheon, I keep my smart mouth
shut.
Second Period
Owen loved to cook, and hosted meals for both Countée and Du Bois.
Whatever we had before the cheese course must have been very tasty, because
Ida Mae spit her mouthpiece back into her glove and said something like,
“Oooh wee! We eatin’ high on the hog, child!”
After lunch, Owen invited me to his study. Ida Mae gave her blessing.
I must have been eighteen—ve years older than Hilton Als was when
he rst encountered Owen. ey’d ceased to be lovers by the time I nished
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BROAD NOON DAYLIGHT: WORDS IN THE MOURNING TIME
high school, so my memory of Owen diers sharply from that depicted in
e Women.
I don’t remember Owen as the has-been Als describes: too young
to be included in the Harlem Renaissance; insuciently “militant” to be
grouped with 1960s and 1970s playwrights like Ed Bullins or Amiri Baraka,
Owen’s former student at Howard. I certainly don’t remember him being
“intellectually lazy,” because he was sharply critical of what he deemed a lack
of intellectual curiosity on my part.
Physical disability doesn’t linger in my mind as his distinguishing
characteristic, even though hip-replacement operations required him to
use a walker. My uncle wore a lift shoe just like Owens and walked with a
pronounced limp. So, I scarcely noticed Owen was a cripple.
Ida Mae seemed unashamed that Owen had struggled with alcoholism.
I didn’t know him well enough to tell the dierence. For all I knew, he could
have been performing with a hangover. My own dependence on alcohol grew
gradually. Living in the Bay Area during my early twenties, I was a purely
social, occasional-weekend-in-the-wine-country-type drinker. After willing
myself o drugs during my late twenties, throughout my thirties I dabbled
in single-malts, which I sipped slowly while writing. In New York, my chaser
of choice became a 12-ounce bottle of the Dominican Pilsner, Presidente.
Drinking in bars got to be both expensive and time-consuming, so I started
drinking home alone. A prisoner of habit, I write every day, which meant
drinking became routine, and an already high tolerance inherited from my
father’s side of the family heightened. Ergo, I drank too much. If I had a
hangover in the morning, I simply spiked my iced cappuccino with a little
Irish on the way in to work. By the time that high-functioning buzz wore
o, it’d be time for lunch. For optimal eect, I’d slam an airliner-sized nip
or “shooter” on an empty stomach before I wrote during lunch hour, which
buzz might last till happy hour. By dinner time, I’d poured out the last of a
half-pint of empty calories from whatever was 80-proof and cheap, usually
vodka or whiskey but rarely gin, and chased that rot-gut liquor with a pint
of Heineken, eaten a little something, or not, watched the PBS News Hour
and/or a movie, taken a sleeping pill, and gone to bed. Except when behaving
belligerently in public and/or otherwise making a spectacle of myself, as I’d
grown up ashamed to watch my mother do, I got to the point where nobody,
not even I, could tell whether or not I was buzzed—buzzed drinking, buzzed
driving—because I was always buzzed. Who am I to judge Owen for being
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THE CHATTAHOOCHEE REVIEW
Kevin Brown
an alcoholic just because, at a dinner party, he once barfed in his soup?
What I remember about meeting Owen Dodson was his frustration
at my lack of initiative. He joined the Howard faculty after nishing his
MFA at Yale. Of others’ or his own estimate of Owen’s place in African-
American theater history I have no idea because it never occurred to me to
ask him. Like Ida Mae, Owen was a raconteur, and probably would have told
me anything I cared to know about his work with the Howard University
Players and Alain Locke. He might even have told me, as Ida Mae certainly
never would, the story of how Locke used to invite young men to his DC
home, widely rumored to be haunted, in the Shaw West neighborhood, near
Howard. He’d have them do a striptease to the accompaniment of classical
music; then Locke would have them sit on the bed while he sprinkled coins
all over their naked bodies. I was even more ignorant of art history than I was
of theater history; I demonstrated no curiosity about what it must have been
like to work alongside Lois Mailou Jones, who taught design and watercolor
at Howard for forty-seven years, right up until my visit with him. I was
reading George Bernard Shaw, who literally wrote the book on the essence of
Ibsenism, but never once asked Owen for an account of turn-of-the-century
“new drama” or his production of Ghosts. Owen met Benjamin Britten in
Brooklyn Heights after the war, but I didn’t seem interested in what song
cycles or opera projects the composer was writing with Peter Pears’s voice
specically in mind. No wonder Owen seemed annoyed.
“You do know,” Owen sighed, “that Arna taught at Yale?”
“I did not know that.”
“You’ve visited Yale?”
“ No .”
“Why the hell not? It’s less than two hours away!”
Yet another rookie mistake: I was so preoccupied with scoring goals that
I hadn’t developed into a two-way player, responsible in my own zone. I hadn’t
gone out of my way to read anything Owen had written, yet had the nerve
to ask him to read the novel I was writing. A copy of which unpublishable
fragment is housed among Owens papers at—where else?—Yale.
In 1977, a famously underrated actress portrayed Lady Macbeth in
Orson Welles’s production at the Henry Street New Federal eater. I knew
her only from roles in sitcoms like Maude.
Tell me what you know about Esther Rolle.
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BROAD NOON DAYLIGHT: WORDS IN THE MOURNING TIME
From Good Times?”
Exasperated, he smacked himself upside his highly Shavian forehead.
“From. Mac. Beth.”
Had I even read Shakespeare? Which O-Broadway or O-O
Broadway productions did I intend to see?
I had no satisfactory answers to Owen’s pointed questions.
“What did you come to New York for,” Owen’s voice was stern with
youth-is-wasted-on-the-young reproach, “if not to take advantage of what it
has to oer?”
I was out of my league.
My audition with drama coach Dodson was over.
ird Period
Owen delivered his scouting report to the theatrical troupe.
“He ain’t ready yet.
Brief silence. en hoots of belly laughter from the seats.
Edith waved o the hit-from-behind boarding call. Let ’em play!
“Kevin here,” Ida Mae paused just long enough for me to take my cue,
excuse myself, and leave, “was just on his way to Penn Station. Weren’t you,
Kevin?”
“Penn Station? Where you goin’?”
“ Wa s h i n g t o n .”
“ Wa s h i n g t o n ! What on earth for?”
Ida Mae diagrammed the play.
“He’s going down to Howard to visit that Moorland-Spingarn Research
Center, where Alain Locke’s papers are held—isn’t that what you said?”
I gritted my teeth, nodded my head.
“Yes, ma’am.
Ida Mae gloves her mouthpiece back in. She made a mental checklist of
chores for me to do.
And, since you’re going down to DC on a weekday,” her voice took on
an urgency typically reserved for when she sent me on coupon-day errands
at the supermarket,child, I want you to look up Charles Cooney, in the
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Manuscripts Division, over there at that Library of Congress.
Ida Mae sensed my uncertainty about navigating Manhattan Island.
“Child, avenues run north and south. Numbered streets run
perpendicular from the East River to the Hudson. If you get lost, just look
up at the Empire State Building. at way, you always know where you are.
She spits her mouthpiece back out.
“Go on! And don’t,” she winked around the table, really hamming it up
for her audience,come home early, child!
ey guawed, smacked their hands down on the table, clutched their
sides, and dabbed their eyes.
Ida Mae whupped me real bad that game. I underestimated her, as both
ally and opponent, to put it mildly. Had no clue how successfully she would
scheme to have me invest decades of life on a subject I swore I had no interest
in. I no longer put it past her to have masterminded this entire operation in
the rst place. at Ida Mae, she was somethin’ else.
Owen was right. I wasn’t ready. Now I get it. Rejection is part of the
trajectory of any writer not so thin-skinned or easily enough discouraged as
to give up at the very rst sign of adversity.
VI
No, I’m not Bob Kaufmans son. Bob Kaufman died the year I moved to
New York to keep vigil during the short remainder of Ida Mae’s long life. My
real father was John Henry Brown. I’d been living on the Upper West Side
seven years or so when the San Francisco coroner’s oce left a message on
my machine: I was ocially an orphan. Let us remember John Brown, not as
dead/Beat dad; let us forget he was found dead, in the Tenderloin, “with the
remains of / [his] last paycheck in [his] pocket.” Let us see John Brown the
way he saw himself, as a poet. He was about the age I am now, sixty. All those
verses written but never published; or else published but never collected. Bob
Kaufman was not my father. But he might just as well have been.
Call them collectives; call them movements; call them cohorts. G60 has
had the Darkroom Collective and Cave Canem. Each of them, like a place-
name, has its own genius loci.
e San Francisco “Renaissance,” like the Chicago Renaissance, has less
to do with name-recognition than with specic women and men who peopled
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BROAD NOON DAYLIGHT: WORDS IN THE MOURNING TIME
it. Between my father and myself there was history but no real relationship.
Except for one year on the Beatnik Grand Tour, I never even lived with
him. John Henry was singular but didn’t come from out of nowhere, and
Culture wasn’t just something he married into. After graduating high school
in Kansas City in the 1950s, he went o to the University of Iowa. ere, he
did a great deal of writing, including poetry. Whether or to what extent he
participated in the Writers Workshop I wish I knew. at he was aware of it
I do know. Because he told me so on the rare occasions, at North Beach cafés,
we spent time together.
In North Beach, John asked me how much I knew or remembered
about Tangier, Morocco, about Ted Joans, a trumpeter, born on the 4th of
July, who’d roomed with Charlie Parker, and was admired by the Beats for
incorporating jazz rhythms into verse. During the period John refers to,
circa 1964–65, Tangier was what he described as an atypically Moroccan
city—like post–World War II Berlin without the wall. Tangier was governed
by a patchwork of foreign powers, the United States among them. Some
inhabitants spoke Spanish, others Arabic or French. Tangier was a haven for
gay men. Arab street boys cost $1, bed-bug-infested hotel rooms were $.50 a
day, the food was good, and the hash was strong.
Gone completely native, Claude McKay lived in Tangier in the early
1930s; went about with a red fez on; threw parties for newcomers like Paul
Bowles. For $25 a month, McKay had a house, an errand-boy, a live-in native
woman to do the cooking, and, for entertainment, would summon, with a
clapping of his hands, an eleven-year-old girl to dance before horried guests
to the accompaniment of Moroccan musicians. ( Du Bois would most certainly
not have approved. Du Bois, who renounced his American citizenship, spent
the nal days of an eighty-year career editing the Encyclopedia Africana,
surrounded by portrait busts of Karl Marx, Lenin, and Chairman Mao, as he
lay outstretched upon the divan, receiving dignitaries’ visits. e intellectual
architect of Pan-Africanism, now grown frail, his memory not quite as sharp
as it used to be, he lived out the remainder of his life in Ghana, within view
of owering shrubs in one of the capital’s more spacious homes, an honorary
guest of Howard University graduate President Kwame Nkrumah. Du Bois,
his birthday declared a national holiday at Peking by Zhou Enlai, awarded
the Lenin Peace Prize at Moscow, died the night before Martin Luther King
delivered his I Have a Dream” speech, the NAACP announcing to a crowd as
populous as that of Harlem at its peak, that Dr. William Edward Burghardt
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Kevin Brown
Du Bois was no more. He was ninety-ve.) Within a year of Bowles’s arrival
in Tangier, McKay’s lease expired, his money ran out, and, tired of living hand
to mouth, he left. Bowles settled in the year after Countée died, and aspiring
writers like my father began gathering round him. Some got stranded; most
couldn’t or wouldn’t leave. “I have never seen,” said William S. Burroughs,
who’d have been about fty by the time I bummed around with my father, a
poet without prospects, four sheets to the wind in Copenhagen, in Russell
Square, “so many people in one place without money.” To Burroughs, Tangier
was like Tijuana: some shithole at the end of the world. In answer to my
father’s question, what did I remember, before the age of reason, about a
bunch of drunks hanging around Deans Bar, Mar Chica, or the Parade
Bar? Nothing. At four or ve, my memories were not literary but sensory.
Tangier” tasted like a coconut macaroon steeped in mint tea; looked like
mud-brick baked in strong sun, like women hooded in djelabas, djebalas,
whatever, like Arabic calligraphy on Moorish tile. And London sounded like
the Beatles’ “Hard Day’s Night.
San Francisco had a literary tradition long before Ginsberg arrived in the
mid-1950s and Bob Kaufman in 1958. James Monroe Whiteld, son of an
escaped slave, settled there during the gold rush, published a poem about
Amistad slave revolt leader Cinque. In one of the warmer, sunnier parts of
e City, Potrero Hill, east of the Mission District, San Francisco renaissance
man Kenneth Rexroth once lived. He moved to what the Bay Area calls e
City around the time Countée met Ida Mae in Harlem, and for the longest
while went about in the pinstriped suit Al Capone had given him during the
Depression. Hughes, who’d spent time in Robert Louis Stevenson’s house on
Russian Hill, was well aware of the inuence San Francisco native Robert
Frost’s “In Dives’ Dive” had on Sterling Brown. Robinson Jeers, whom
Hughes used to visit, lived just a few hours away, in Big Sur. North Beach
became to the Beats what Chicago had been to Sherwood Anderson and
Carl Sandburg, or Greenwich Village to many others. When Philip Lamantia
published Becoming Visible in 1981, and was to give a reading from it at City
Lights Bookstore, we could with no fuss at all meet Lawrence Ferlinghetti.
e San Francisco Renaissance supposedly peaked between the time
Ginsberg published Howl and the time that I moved to the Haight-Ashbury,
with my mother, in 1969. Many of the Beats had already moved on—to
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BROAD NOON DAYLIGHT: WORDS IN THE MOURNING TIME
Venice Beach, to New York, to Europe. But those like John Brown were
everywhere, like the scent of patchouli (which we called hippie oil”), like the
sound of bongo-congas from Golden Gate Park. Playing outside with friends
outside the Cole Street Muni tunnel, I once caught a glimpse of him—John
Brown—stoned out of his mind, walking barefoot over dog shit and broken
glass. I pretended not to notice.
Hughes says Wallie urman adored bohemianism, but thought it wrong to
be a bohemian.” Growing up, Hughes bounced around the Midwest. Zora,
after her mother died, left Florida at age fteen, and drifted around the South,
working odd jobs at the Congressional barbershop as a manicurist, and in
musical theater troupes. I’ve lived a more drifterly life than suits my comfort,
bounced between families, spending nights in juvenile hall or county jail. I
might have become a ward of the court had Ida Mae not intervened. As for
substance abuse, well in some ways I’m just a typical product of the 1960s
and 1970s, an era of hard drugs and easy intercourse. I can relate to how
authentically funny William S. BurroughsJunky really is. And Jim Carroll’s
Basketball Diaries maps, with cartographic precision, the road I traveled,
down and out on the Lower East Side. But like many adult children of
hippies, I suspect—I’m paranoically skeptical of the tendency to glamorize
la vie bohème. With one eye open, and with great gusto, I do read poems and
novels by what Frank Horne calls “shattered dreamers” (“Notes Found Near
a Suicide,” Section To Mariette”, qtd. in Young, line 5), Charles Bukowski
and Bob Kaufman, artists who’ve actually lived that kind of life; respond
instinctively to Tom Waits’s chord-painting, songs like “Burma Shave” or
“$29” or “Muriel,” precisely because I have no desire to relive those lost years.
And yet I have, and do.
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ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any references for this publication.