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The Last New Negro

1.

Sterling A. Brown was one of the few black writers of his generation who did not want to be part of the Harlem Renaissance. He was very proud that he had never shaken hands with Carl Van Vechten, who, he said, had done more than bad liquor to corrupt the Negro. The Harlem Renaissance was a publishers’ gimmick, he said. It didn’t last long enough to be called a renaissance, and very few Harlemites were in it. Black writers, he said, only went to Harlem for parties. Harlem was “the show-window, the cashier’s till.” While the young Niggerati were hovering around the tables of white patrons in Small’s Paradise, Sterling himself was down in Lynchburg, Virginia, talking to a guitar player, Big Boy Davis, one of the rural characters whose ethos engaged Sterling’s melancholy and rebellious sensibility, from which came a folk poetry of lasting originality.

Sterling was born in Washington, DC, in 1901, the youngest of six and the only boy. He died last month in a nursing home near Washington. His father, Dr. Sterling N. Brown, born a slave in Tennessee in 1858, had graduated from Fisk and Oberlin to become pastor of the Lincoln Memorial Temple Congregational Church, a professor of religion at Howard University, and an author of modest Bible studies. He was very much a “race man” in the style of the period. His friends included Frederick Douglass, Paul Laurence Dunbar, and James Mercer Langston. The younger Sterling attended Washington (later called Dunbar) High School, where among his classmates was the basketball star Jean Toomer, whose family belonged to Sterling’s father’s church. Sterling entered Williams in 1918, discovered realism and that his colleagues in Phi Beta Kappa didn’t dance, and after graduating in 1922 went up to Harvard for a master’s degree in English.

Whenever Sterling opened his mouth he taught. In 1923 he began teaching at the Virginia Theological Seminary and College, where he met his wife, Daisy, on a tennis court; he taught at Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Missouri, and at Fisk, before he settled in at Howard University in 1929. There he reigned, with some interruptions, until 1975. “I have been hired, fired, rehired, retired, and hired again,” he liked to say. Sterling’s work is hardly known today, and it has survived mostly through the devotion of generations of black writers, many of whom were his students, or considered themselves such. He spent his life talking—about folklore, stride piano, the shrewdness of the blues, A.E. Housman, Lena Horne, you name it. They used to say that every black in the United States knew every other black, and Sterling was one of those who had stories about everyone, from Jelly Roll Morton to a raconteur barber in Nashville. He was a connoisseur of black history and a guardian of its integrity. Volatile, ironic, and hopelessly genuine, he was in thrall to what he called the “mulch” of black culture. But black culture was also a text that he studied as no other black writer has before or since. He was the last of the New Negroes.

Sterling didn’t mind being called a New Negro, though he said he’d been an old Negro for so long it was too late to do anything about it. During the New Negro movement in the early Twenties Sterling’s poems began to appear in black magazines and anthologies, but his first collection of poems, Southern Road, wasn’t published until 1932. The book that made his name came after the parties uptown ended and as the bread lines all over began, and that, as much as his nonconformist temperament, left him to go his own way.

Swing dat hammer—hunh—
Steady, bo’;
Swing dat hammer—hunh—
Steady, bo’;
Ain’t no rush, bebby,
Long ways to go.

Burner tore his—hunh—
Black heart away;
Burner tore his—hunh—
Black heart away;
Got me life, bebby,
An’ a day.

Gal’s on Fifth Street—hunh—
Son done gone;
Gal’s on Fifth Street—hunh—
Son done gone;
Wife’s in de ward, bebby,
Babe’s not bo’n.

My ole man died—hunh—
Cussin’ me;
My ole man died—hunh—
Cussin’ me;
Ole lady rocks, bebby,
Huh misery.

Doubleshackled—hunh—
Guard behin’;
Doubleshackled—hunh—
Guard behin’;
Ball an’ chain, bebby,
On my min.’

White man tells me—hunh—
Damn yo’ soul;
White man tells me—hunh—
Damn yo’ soul;
Got no need, bebby,
To be tole.

Chain gang nevah—hunh—
Let me go;
Chain gang nevah—hunh—
Let me go;
Po’ los’ boy, bebby,
Evahmo’….
(“Southern Road”)

The historian Sterling Stuckey notes in his introduction to The Collected Poems1 that part of Sterling’s achievement was to reclaim from stereotype such subjects as chain gangs, gamblers, cabarets, and crimes of passion. The itinerant entertainer who sticks his cigarette in his guitar before he sings his mother’s favorite spiritual; the “golden, spacious grin” of Jack Johnson taking it like a man; a girl no longer recognizable under her streetwalker’s paint; a disillusioned veteran who ends up buckdancing on the midnight air; a woman who steals from the lady she works for “Cause what huh ‘dear grandfawthaw’ / Took from Mandy Jane’s grandpappy—/ Ain’ no basket in de worl’ / What kin tote all date away”—Sterling’s poems reveal how in the struggle to exist the historic stands alongside the everyday. Several of his narrative poems involve self-defense, the faith that looks through death, or the fearless, manly man respected in hell. (“He said ‘Come and get me’ / They came and got him. / And they came by tens.”) He had a vision of the folk as a subtle people at the mercy of what could jump out of the ordinary, and who take the tragic with uncommon understatement.

He carefully observed the Joe Meekses, Bessies, Big Jesses, Luther Johnsons, young Freds, Johnnies, and Sams, who abound in his poetry. He paid attention to their walks, their spare-ribbed yard dogs, silk shirts pink as sunsets, bulldog brogans, habits of mind (“Don’t be no Chinaman, George”), and to their landscape of locust, flooding rivers, and cotton. He recognized the “folk eloquence” in everyday talk, understood how Ma Rainey could “jes’ catch hold of us, somekindaway,” but none of the characters in his ballads is treated sentimentally because his first duty was not to his sympathies but to the poem. He already trusted what they stood for, these railroad men highballing through the country, trying to “git de Jack,” these lowlifes playing checkers with deacons, and placed the folk tradition of the black firmly within American poetry.

Laughter is a vengeance,” and as a poet Sterling was also a folklorist alive to the humor and paradoxes in his raw material. “Whuh folks, whuh folks; don’ wuk muh brown too hahd! / Who’s practisin’ de Chahlston in yo’ big backyahd.” He told some tall tales or lies, as they are called, about a rascal, Slim Greer, who passes for white and courts a white woman only to be detected when he plays the piano as only a black can. In another, when “niggers” in Atlanta are forced to do their laughing in a telephone booth, Slim holds up the line because every time he looks at the hundreds of “shines” gripping their sides to keep from breaking the law he can’t stop laughing. And when the dandy Sporting Beasley dies:

Lord help us, give a look at him.

Don’t make him dress up in no night gown, Lord.
Don’t put no fuss and feathers on his shoulders, Lord.

Let him know it’s heaven.

Let him keep his hat, his vest, his elkstooth, and everything.

Let him have his spats and cane
Let him have his spats and cane.

(Sterling used to say that Zora Neale Hurston was the biggest liar in the world and he was second.)

In his youth Sterling, like many other black writers of the period, was taken with the muckraking poetry of Carl Sandburg and the dramatic monologues of E.A. Robinson and especially with Frost, the speaking voice in modern poetry. But he has his own remarkable ability to fuse traditional meter with the natural rhythm of the speaker:

No need in frettin’
Case good times go,
Things as dey happen
Jes’ is so;
Nothin’ las’ always
Farz I know….”
(“Old Man Buzzard”)

Sometimes he used the meter of the Methodist hymn, which lent a prayerful tone to his folk musings:

Lemme be wid Casey Jones, Lemme be wid Stagolee,
Lemme be wid such like men When Death takes hol’ on me,
When Death takes hol’ on me.
(“Odyssey of Big Boy”)

The traditions he worked in were at once oral and literary, a synthesis essential to his language:

Memphis go
Memphis come back,
Ain’ no skin
Off de nigger’s back.
All dese cities
Ashes, rust….
De win’ sing sperrichals
Through deir dus’
(“Memphis Blues”)

Sterling wrote Petrarchan sonnets, free verse in standard English, blank verse, but he achieved his best poetic effects through his reinvention of dialect. He went beyond mimicry of broken English, or transcription of the blues line (“Leave ‘is dirty city, take my foot up in my hand”) or imitations of folksy metaphor.

James Weldon Johnson once complained that dialect had only two stops, pathos and humor. Though Paul Laurence Dunbar had elevated the medium, young black poets after World War I were in revolt against Negro dialect poetry because of what Johnson saw as the artificiality of its subjects and “exaggerated geniality,” which had no relation to “actual Negro life.” Johnson believed that black poets had to find racial symbols from within, as Synge had done for the Irish. But Southern Road broke with the comic minstrel and plantation traditions. It made use of folk epics and ballads—like “Stagolee,” “John Henry,” “Casey Jones,” and “Long Gone John”—to create what Johnson hailed as “the common, racy, living speech of the Negro in certain parts of real life.” Alain Locke pointed out that Sterling’s portrayal of the Negro folk life succeeded not because it depended on being true to an idiom, but because in his psychological distance “he dared to give the Negro credit for thinking.”2

Southern Road was widely praised, yet trouble came. Sterling’s second book of poems, No Hiding Place, was turned down by his publisher, Harcourt Brace, maybe for commercial reasons. Sterling never got over the rejection. He didn’t publish another book of poems until 1975 when a black publisher issued The Last Ride of Wild Bill, a ballad from the 1930s about a numbers runner.3 The militant portraits of sharecroppers and “niggrah” clowns of No Hiding Place were later included in his Collected Poems.

Meanwhile, Sterling continued to produce reviews and essays on black literature, folklore, history, and music. He was a national editor of the Federal Writers Project from 1936 to 1939, and made important contributions to Washington: City and Capital (1937) and The Negro in Virginia (1940). He developed, with Alain Locke, a series for which he wrote the historical surveys The Negro in American Fiction (1937) and Negro Poetry and Drama (1937).4 He published, in the 1940s, unusually cool short stories about the South; traveled throughout the country as a kind of one-man department of black studies; and, of course, taught at Howard and at other universities as a visiting professor.

2.

Sterling’s readings were performances; between poems he would tell stories, and managed to be both down-home and as courtly as Duke Ellington. Someone told me he once demonstrated how to dance on a dime. Until I read Sterling’s The Negro Caravan,5 dialect, to me, meant Uncle Remus, something to get over, just as stuck-up audiences had looked down their noses fifty years before. Sterling’s 1941 anthology is still unsurpassed as a resource, even though black writing from Phyllis Wheatley and the slave narratives doesn’t fit between the covers of one book anymore. I had never heard of novelists like J.A. Rogers and William Attaway, or playwrights like Theodore Ward. Spirituals, work songs, tall tales, and the blues became an accessible literature.

Sterling’s father and my maternal great-grandfather were brothers. This faded connection mattered more to me than it did to Sterling. I’d heard the usual stories, like the one about Sterling stopping in Opelika, Alabama, on a research trip and being taken to see cotton fields where he caught a boll weevil that got loose in Aunt Clara’s house. Some of the after-dinner lore I heard hinted that Sterling was more than just nonconforming: how he had got in trouble for yelling at the dean that he wasn’t black, he was yellow; how he got in trouble for yelling that he was indeed black; how he got written up in Jet for “flipping out over this black thing.”

He seemed to be always ready to set out the gin for visitors. He was famous for his capacity for friendship, his rapport with youth, his eagerness to release into the common air everything he had stored up in his head. I found him as intimidating as the Negro past itself. He had a “hellified” library and record collection. The eight-pound first edition of Nancy Cunard’s Negro was at my feet, brown and big as an ottoman. “Daisy was worried that something was going on with Nancy and me. Nancy came here to this house once. She was skinny and tall as that door. Daisy looked at her and knew she had nothing to worry about.” He worked in his basement—the rocks cried out no hiding place—with his pipe and tobacco barrel, among pale blue ledgers of scratched-over lines.

I like poetry to be simple, sensuous—notice I didn’t say sensual, not what some silly girl wrote in a paper—simple, sensuous, and impassioned.” I wondered if any new lines had gone into those ledgers since the 1940s. Even the poems that one could find in used-bookshop copies of Freedomways from the early 1960s were introduced as having been written a long while before. His vast bibliography trailed off in the 1950s. Occasionally he would mention a new edition of his anthology or a definitive edition of essays, but then nothing happened. Perhaps he was the fence in the way, perhaps having been forgotten for so long had taken its tithe. “It is late and still I am losing, but still I am steady and unaccusing.” He said Frost used the second “still” in the Elizabethan sense. He once told me with emotion of the day he, the son of a former slave, and Frost, the son of “an unregenerate confederate,” met and embraced. Sterling was crazy about his wife—“Made a man out of me”—and after she died, in 1979, the year his Collected Poems was going to press, something aggressive began to spoil the smile of his learning.

Sterling proved to me that nine letters out of ten answer themselves, and he wouldn’t give me his telephone number. I had to call his sister, Helen, who lived next door. They shared a garden. He’d call back and tell me things: Machado de Assis wasn’t white; I should have been in a black fraternity; Jean Toomer was not, strictly speaking, trying to pass. He sometimes called to announce he was coming to New York and would I please make a reservation at his hotel, but I failed him because I could never find in the phone book the hotel where he liked to stay, and I felt that I had failed, too, whenever I couldn’t think of what to say to verdicts like, “When I read The Waste Land I thought it was a lie. This is not a wasteland for blacks.”

Then came sudden, too-early-for-Saturday-morning calls when I picked up the receiver to hear him in the middle of a sentence about “Yankees who want to be crackers.” He’d written about Agrarians, Fugitives—to Robert Penn Warren’s “Nigger, your poetry isn’t metaphysical,” Sterling had answered, “Cracker, your poetry ain’t exegitical”—and Southern apologists was a topic he would not let go of. “You need to come down here and get with some black folk. Get away from that Allen Tate.” He hung up before I could say that I didn’t know Allen Tate. Sometimes he put me in mind of Mark Twain stalking prey with his nineteen rules of literary art, especially when he talked about black characters in fiction, and at other times I didn’t know what to think: “Sartre ain’t worth a fartre. / Genet is gay. / Imagine a Negro appearing in The Blacks.”

One summer afternoon in 1984 I dropped by his house in Washington unannounced. He was bravely holding forth on his side porch. Gin, red wine, and a bucket of what had been ice stood on a table. He was waiting in an old T-shirt for a group from the University of Maryland. Stubble rolled across a face that looked as though it was melting. He seemed to live most of his life on that porch (“I found me a cranny of perpetual dusk”). Records were scattered across the living-room rug and I said it looked as though he needed some help cataloging. The heavens broke. I heard him say in no uncertain terms that he neither needed nor wanted any help. He stormed off to his basement retreat, returned to tell me that I was not to follow him down there, then blew back upstairs to tell me to get out of his house. I went next door to his sister’s. Helen had broken her hip and was confined to a couch. In her time she had been one of those light-skinned, woodwind-voiced daughters with “good hair.” “I know,” she said. “I didn’t mean to upset him this morning when I told him to take his medicine.” She gave me a copy of her father’s book, Bible Mastery, as a consolation. I heard Sterling calling and I hurried across the yard. He wanted to make sure that I understood that he meant nevah come back. He slammed the door so hard my glasses shifted. Some time afterward Helen died and with her my source of intelligence about Sterling.

When I was in Washington last summer August was burning, and Jesse Jackson had just been passed over—“I understand,” he told the NAACP. “I wasn’t always on television.” Because I didn’t live in the US anymore, I, clown of God, thought that I would get a soldier’s welcome and be forgiven for wanting to take from him more of his anecdotes. Sterling’s door was still slammed shut. I knocked at what used to be Helen’s. The white guy in jogging shorts who’d bought both houses couldn’t tell me where Sterling had been taken, but he offered to let me see the garden again, where I had once watched Sterling feed birds, talk off-color, put on a beret to sing “I’m a bo-diddlie…,” and where, stunned by the obtuseness in my lack of response, Sterling had straightened up to a great height: “Son, you ought to know when I’m telling you a tale and learn to appreciate it. That’s something we as a people have lost.”

They have forgotten, they have never known,
Long days beneath the torrid Dixie sun
In miasma’d riceswamps;
The chopping of dried grass, on the third go round
In strangling cotton;
Wintry nights in mud-daubed make- shift huts,
With these songs, sole comfort.

They have forgotten
What had to be endured—

  1. 1

    The Collected Poems of Sterling A. Brown (Harper & Row, 1980).

  2. 2

    See James Weldon Johnson, ed., The Book of American Negro Poetry (Harcourt Brace, 1931); and “Sterling Brown: The New Negro Folk Poet” by Alain Locke in Nancy Cunard, ed., Negro: An Anthology (Wishart, 1934). See also Stephen Henderson, “A Strong Man Called Sterling Brown,” Black World, Vol. XIX (September 1970); and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., “Songs of a Racial Self: On Sterling A. Brown” in Figures in Black: Words, Signs, and the “Racial” Self (Oxford University Press, 1987).

  3. 3

    The Last Ride of Wild Bill and Eleven Narrative Poems (Broadside Press, 1975).

  4. 4

    Reprinted by Argosy-Antiquarian, Ltd., 1969.

  5. 5

    Sterling A. Brown, Arthur P. Davis, and Ulysses Lee, eds., The Negro Caravan: Writings by American Negroes (The Dryden Press, 1941).

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