Peace to the folklorists: On Sterling Brown / "We often lose sight of writers, scholars and visionaries who saw value in the lower frequencies"
The preservation of black folklore traditions was once a radically dangerous professional choice. Zora Neale Hurston, one of the first black writers to invoke the daily language of black people in literature, once received this scathing criticism from Richard Wright,
"She exploits that phase of Negro life which is "quaint," the phase which evokes a piteous smile on the lips of the "superior" race."
Where we can now safely enjoy spirituals, the blues, trickster stories as important components of African-American culture, we often lose sight of the first generation of writers, scholars and visionaries who saw the value in the "lower frequencies" when others would have much rather forgotten these painful artifacts of the black experience in slavery and the Jim Crow South.
One of the first scholars to really push black folklore into the national consciousness was Sterling A. Brown. Born in Washington, DC, Brown spent his undergraduate years at Williams College in Williamstown, MA. After receiving his masters degree at Harvard, he went on to become a professor at Howard University where he would teach Toni Morrison, Amiri Baraka, Kwame Toure, and Ossie Davis.
As an academic, he made his career writing and teaching poetry that captured the vernacular traditions of black working-class. Where some of his contemporaries sought to create "a new negro" in the more cosmopolitan spaces of Harlem and Paris, Brown found solace in the folk expressions of the South. He once noted, “I wanted to understand my people. I wanted to understand what it meant to he a Negro. what the qualities of life were. With their imagination, they combine two great loves: the love of words and the love of life. Poetry results.”
His magnum opus Southern Road would influence a generation of writers who would go on to talk of blues people and songs of Solomon. What made Sterling Brown such a powerful figure was not what he captured, but the moment when he captured these shifts. In 1953, as he looked back on the various changes in black culture over the course of the twentieth century, Brown noted,
"In the city the folk become a submerged proletariat. Leisurely yarn-spinning, slow-paced aphoristic conversation become lost arts; jazzed-up gospel hymns provide a different sort of release from the old spirituals; the blues reflect the distortions of the new way of life. Folk arts are no longer by the folk for the folk; smart businessmen now put them up for sale. Gospel songs often become show-pieces for radio slummers, and the blues become the double-talk of the dives."
The return to the chain gang, the tenant farm and the levee camp, in many ways marks an attempt to recover something, dare I say, authentic. Whether this sort of quest is ultimately noble or quixotic is not for me to decide. What we can gain from returning to the work of Sterling Brown may not necessarily be a prepackaged, easily consumed truth. In many ways, the folk traditions are always entangled in other histories. This means eschewing sanitized narratives that elide the tragicomic realities of the human experience. That is, after all, "what bluesmen do":
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