A Son’s Return: Selected Essays of Sterling A. Brown

A Son’s Return: Selected Essays of Sterling A. Brown

D.K. Campbell

A Son’s Return: Selected Essays of Sterling A. Brown. Ed. Mark A. Sanders. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1996. xxii + 314 pp. $15.95 paper.

In the Foreword to this collection of essays, Mark Sanders offers a basic introduction to the life and work of Sterling Brown, from his insistence on claiming a part in a “New Negro Movement” rather than a “Harlem Renaissance” to his part in the 1938-40 Gunnar Myrdal study of the Negro in America. Brown’s consuming interest in African American music and dialect, Sanders writes, was directed toward correcting the “middle-class exclusivity” of the Movement and introducing “a new and vital self-awareness” into the study of African American life and literature. Sanders ends his Foreword to this collection by naming Sterling Brown a “raconteur taken with the near-limitless possibilities language offers,” an apt appraisal of the man who is now being called the “Dean of American Negro Poets.”

The title essay, “A Son’s Return,” proves Sanders’s point well. It is the text of a speech delivered at Williams College in 1973 when Brown was teaching at Howard. In his “rambling” to the audience at Williams, he likens himself to both Euro- and African-American writers and offer no quarter even to scholars whom he respects or to Williams, the college where he earned his undergraduate degree:

I am the best liar at Howard University, in the Mark Twain tradition. I can

outlie Ralph Bunche, who was a great liar … J. Saunders Redding stated

that one quality of Negro folklore was that they had no dirty stories

except in the dirty dozens. And I want to know what fraternity houses J.

Saunders Redding did not go into.

In the same speech, Brown speaks of the racial segregation during his time at Williams, but he laughs–in the best of the Mark Twain tradition. Although he credits the college with teaching him how to read and to write, at least someone in the audience must have wondered whether this controversial critic and poet was praising or blaming his school. Later in the same speech, he contends: “My standards are not white. My standards are not black. My standards are human.” Throughout these essays, Brown insists that art should be judged on its quality, not its genesis in one or another race or culture, but that the culture from which each artist springs must be acknowledged as the wellhead of creativity. Brown lived–and wrote–by what he believed.

The essays following “A Son’s Return” are grouped by general topic: “African Americans and American Politics”; “American Literature”; “African American Music and Folk Culture”; and “Reviews.” Many of the major essays are included: “Negro Character as Seen by White Authors” (1933); “The American Race Problem as Reflected in American Literature” (1939); “Count Us In” (1945); “The New Negro in Literature (1925-1955)” (1955). The four essays on music and folk culture are knowledgeable, balanced, seminal works on the value of folk art and the dangers of ideological partisanship. In his discussion of the origin of spirituals, Brown warns again that we must consider any cultural product as it stands and not as we would have it for political purposes: “Extremists have set up the controversy as between Africanism, or complete originality, and white camp-meeting derivation, or complete unoriginality. This oversimplication does injustice to the careful scholarship of some of the men on both sides.” Throughout the essays, he returns to the same theme: We all take from and give to American culture; we are all, then, equal in fact if not yet in public recognition or political power.

This collection of essays would make an excellent companion volume for an undergraduate course in twentieth-century American literature. Brown read widely; he spoke plainly; and he knew great literature, whatever its source. Many of the works he thought excellent have been nearly forgotten; but he valued them only if they combined “integrity and artistry,” as he wrote of Evelyn Scott’s The Wave.

But there are some elements here that need time and patience if they are to be used fairly well. Henry Louis Gates’s review of The Collected Poems is quoted without question: “Not only were most of Brown’s poems composed in dialect, but they also had as their subjects distinctively black archetypal mythic characters, as well as the black common man whose roots were rural and Southern.” I had not read The Collected Poems before reading the Foreword; I have now. I would seriously question Gates’s critique–indeed, a great many were not written in dialect and Brown himself used “black” archetypes as human archetypes, a different matter entirely. Many of the themes, situations, and subjects of the poems seem to be as white-Southern as rural-black-Southern, to anyone who was raised in the small farming communities in my neck of the woods. Indeed, as Sanders himself makes clear, Brown uses his own experience to critique “the larger American paradox: the reality of economic and political servitude at radical variance with the highest ideals of the republic.”

Apparently not designed for advanced scholarly work, the Foreword does not make clear that the essays are arranged inside each general division by date of publication. Dates and sources of publication for each essay must be tracked down in the bibliography, which is the one compiled by Robert G. O’Meally in 1975 but appears as if it were created for this volume alone. The essay “Folk Literature” is neither included in the bibliography nor identified elsewhere in the volume. Also, the index seems a bit erratic in the indexer’s choice of inclusions. Although Lillian Smith and Evelyn Scott, for example, are “in,” the Scott entry is incomplete; and a great many writers and topics mentioned several times by Brown have been left out (William Faulkner, Zola, Dostoevsky, Joyce, O’Casey, Allen Tate, Gullah). Neither approval, disapproval, nor depth of discussion by Brown seems to be a criterion for inclusion.

In spite of some problems with sources and indexing, the publication of this volume of essays offers a much-needed addition to basic studies of Brown. With Joanne V. Gabbin’s biography (Sterling Brown: Building the Black Aesthetic Tradition, 1985) and Michael S. Harper’s edition of The Collected Poems of Sterling A. Brown (1996), much of Brown’s work has been made easily available. Gabbin’s Selected Bibliography offers other sources for the essays included in A Son’s Return, a readable and well-documented introduction to one scholar-poet’s life, and chapter-long discussions of the essays and the poetry. Also, Gabbin discusses in a bit more detail the rejection of some of Brown’s most striking–and most controversial–poems, the volume No Hiding Place. The Collected Poems, which includes the previously rejected No Hiding Place, can be read as a history of the entire body of an emergent literature, from a recognition of the strength and pragmatism of a folk culture to the inherent dialogism of great art; what Brown does with that history is powerful indeed.

Without reading the entire body of poems to the end, the power of the intellect behind them can too easily be misconstrued, denied, or lost. Without some insight into the reverse racism suffered by the man and his wife, both of whom refused to “pass,” the power and the humanity of the poetry and the essays may be forgotten or missed. Reading the entire Collected Poems, the Gabbin biography, and only finally the Selected Essays would offer a more complete and more balanced picture of the mind, the times, and the pervasive influence of Sterling Brown.

I was introduced to African American history and literature in 1971, in a senior level “Negro in American History” seminar in a nearly all-white Southern Baptist university (now an “independent” school). The young white professor–already a legendary teacher but not a “political activist,” as we used the term in those days–included on his reading list C. Vann Woodard’s Strange Career of Jim Crow, W. E. B. Du Bois’s Souls of Black Folk, and Arna Bontemps’s American Negro Poetry. The class included the only other student at the university who came from my home county. During one class session, that0 student asked our only African American classmate, “Would you rather be called `Negro’ or `colored’?” Very coolly, she answered, “I’d rather be called `Dottie.'” The entire class clapped.

Sterling Brown would have felt right at home that day.

Diana Kaye Campbell, Adjunct Professor at High Point University, teaches composition, grammar, and literature. She is completing work on a Bakhtinian comparison of Lee Smith and Leslie Marmon Silko and is interested in ethnic literatures and postcolonial theory.

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