Sterling A. Brown and the Afro-Modern Moment

by Mark A. Sanders
Sterling A. Brown and the Afro-Modern Moment
Mark A. Sanders
African American Review
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Sterling A. Brown and the Afro-Modern Moment

When Robert Penn Warren wrote his highly ironic line "Nigger, your breed ain't metaphysical" (321), he com- pressed into five deceptively economic feet nearly a half-millenni- um of white hegemonic philosophy, both its rhetorical strategies and underlying presuppositions. Buzzard, "the carrier of the ostracizing power of white discourse, the trope which declares the otherness of the black" (Nielsen 117), does not simply assert black inferiority but reconstructs and reaffirms the mutually exclusive mythic realms "white" and "black" must inhabit in order to sustain five hundred years of radical inequity. As ameta- physical, "the black" (or, better yet, blackness) must exist beyond the aesthetic, beyond the redemptive possibilities central to the humanistic tradition of arts and letters. As "fictive signifier of the nonwhite" (Nielsen lo), blackness serves as a repository of reify- ing antitheses: anti-intellectual, illiterate, subhuman, and ahistori- cal. All in all, Warren constructs a blackness thoroughly banished to the margins of the human community, a blackness of radical absence proclaiming the final and ultimate abstraction of damn- ing eternal sameness. Indeed Warren (and by extension what I will call hegemonic or conventional modernism) achieves much of his coherence through the assertion of objectified blackness, through a tropic vocabulary of necessarily reductive poses imper- vious to change over time (see Nielsen, North). Yet it is precisely the cultural force of these poses and the per- vasive nature of the objectifying language which would drive James Weldon Johnson, William Pickens, Carter G. Woodson, and even W. E. B. Du Bois (in "A Conservation of Races") to advance a countering but often equally reductive discourse. Johnson's rag- time piano players, for example, are "guided by their natural musical instinct" and their "extraordinary sense of rhythm"; thus Johnson effectively reinscribes essentializing tropes in an attempt to assert a "negro exceptionalism" worthy of notice and, ultimate- ly, of citizenship (20). The profound condensation of Warren's single line was not lost on Sterling A. Brown, whose famous retort some years later undermined entirely the conception of ahistorical blackness. His reply in a 1974 interview with Steven Jones, "Cracker, your breed ain't exegetical," appropriates Warren's five-foot economy in order to parody both the sound and sense of his poetry. Through such "signifying" Brown points to a crucial blindness which makes possible an assertion of black ametaphysicality. Signaling much more than a lack of specific exposition, Brown alludes to a profound illiteracy, a lack of attention to a broad corpus of texts and cultural idioms which assert African American complexity and change. So, too, Brown remained skeptical of these counter-

African American Review, Volume 31, Number 3 O 1997 Mark A. Sanders

Mark A. Sanders teaches in the Department of English at Emory University.

ing tropes on the part of New Negroes, tropes which could not account for the buigeoning complexities he found in Southern black life. Positioning himself outside (or perhaps beyond) the two competing discourses, Brown ques- tions the fundamental assumption (or acceptance) of ontological blackness, and so begins to formulate an Afro- modernism (both a poetic vocabulary and a theory of folk culture) capable of exploring a more dynamic range in African American being. In short, Brown embarks upon an artistic and aesthetic project which fundamentally reconceives black modernity. Appropriating contemporary notions concerning subjectivity and process, and applying them to a range of black idiomatic expressions and rituals, Brown reworks the language and tropes he inherited in order to explore the inventive ways in which African Americans articulate their modernity; that is, express a presence, a historicity, an ongoing engagement with the con- temporary moment.

Areading of "Odyssey of Big Boy," both within and beyond Southern Road, helps to illustrate Brown's larger concerns. Brown intro- duces Southern Road with an allusion to travel and experience, to indepen- dence, self-discovery, and the romantic possibilities of immortality. "Odyssey of Big Boy," in its gesture toward the mythic, initiates the road as witness, odyssey, and highly ambivalent duali- ty, and thus presents the major motifs and metaphors which will develop through the course of the collection. "Odyssey," for Calvin Big Boy Davis, resonates with Homeric implications- extended travel resulting in catholic experiences and the possibility of hero- ic stature-but Davis's odyssey embarks upon an innovative variation on the standard theme and approach. Significantly, Big Boy Davis's proclamation is not a third-person nar- rative rehearsing the past deeds and mythic status of cultural heroes; it is not the ballads of John Henry, Casey Jones, or Stagolee. Instead, as he con- fronts his imminent death, Davis embarks upon a personal odyssey toward self-realization, an incomplete journey into the future. This funda- mental dynamic depends heavily upon the intricate play between past and future, a play which propels the poem out of the static sphere of traditional balladry into the dynamics of highly personalized subjectivity. Davis begins

and ends not with a statement about the past, but with a vision of the future:

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. . . .

An' all dat Big Boy axes

When time comes fo' to go,

Lemme be wid John Henry, steel dri-

vin' man,

Lemme be wid old Jazzbo,

Lernme be wid ole Jazzbo. . . . (20-21)

With such a framing, Davis delivers a history which plays upon the creative tension between past and future, and thus transforms his odyssey into one of present voice. His "future link with the past" depends entirely upon the oral reshaping of his history; therefore the vocal act of proclamation and assertion becomes the odyssey toward apotheo- sis-hence the voice as passage and "mode of knowing" (Benston 33).

Driven by this central tension, Davis's chronicle takes on a particular- ly personal urgency, while continuing to embrace the collective cultural potential for recreation. His history, a review of jobs, travel, and romantic conquests, invokes a masculinist tradi- tion defining personhood in terms of physical and psychological autonomy, in terms of mobility and abundant vitality. And thus the road alludes to those larger cultural icons of superla- tive success. Having "seen what dey is to see" (20), his life should find fulfill-


ment once assigned the same symbolic stature as that of his heroes.

But just as Davis's odyssey toward myth and immortality depends upon the statement of his life, it also depends uDon the form that statement takes, eisentially the formal poetic construc- tions which aid in his search for voice. In short, Davis rhetorically reconstructs himself in the form of John Henry as he is received and preserved through bal- ladry. In terms of stanza form-specifi- cally the number of lines, rhyme scheme, and repetition-Davis directly mimics "John Henry," the ballad Brown uses in Negro Caravan. The only major formal difference is the length of the line. Thus, the process of shaping Davis's own history through the invocation of an historical form reveals the vital acts of reclaiming and refashioning; Davis's gesture is histori- cal, reaching into the past to claim a form and voice that will allow him to envision his future. So this process intertwines the personal and the collec- tive.

Playing on this dramatic tension between past and future, "Odyssey of Big Boy" concerns itself, then, with the present moment of vocalization, with the ongoing dynamic of self-articula- tion and self-recreation. and the abilitv of voice to project and reconstruct. For Davis the past looms as power and evi- dence; the future serves as hope and possibility dependent upon the present voice and its ability to shape the past and thus the future. For Big Boy Davis, his performing voice, enacting a ritual of mythic invocation, works as a visionary tool, allowing him to access the broader meaning which leads beyond his immediate circumstances. In short, "Odyssey" dramatizes the perpetually temporal, the entirely sub- jective moment which is at once excru- ciatingly private yet self-consciously public and representative, both in process and aspiration. In this sense, "Odyssey of Big Boy" addresses the dynamics of individual and collective history; it exults the challenge to ratio- nalize, reshape, and rediscover the past and, by extension, the challenge to dis- cover expansive possibilities for the future. As Davis reshapes himself in the form of John Henry, and thus shapes his life-song in reference to the culture's superlatives, his vocal odyssey also constructs Davis as artist, both musician and poet able to squeeze from his experience "a near-tragic, near comic lyricism" (Ellison 129).His suc- cessful vocalization projects Davis as a metaphor for the artist and his/her ability to shape and recreate reality, to access alternative and liberating psy- chic spaces. And of course implicit in this reading is Brown himself, the poet able to envision and provoke profound transformation.

These larger concerns force "Odyssey of Big Boy" beyond an insu- lated ritual of self-proclamation to an eloquent introduction to the entire col- lection, and perhaps Brown's larger poetic project, which stresses dynamics and movement. Brown reconceives the past and history as active agents in the ongoing present. Kimberly Benston comments: "Brown's poems inscribe the past not as a nostalgic after-thought but as a process engendering unlimited visions, not as a feeble gesture toward an unrealizable ideal but as a dynamic proposition, an after-songthat is both petition and re-petition" (Benston 35).

Thus, as "Odyssey of Big Boy" works as perpetual vocal epic, Big Boy


Davis-improvisationalist, student of tradition, and blues hero-serves as the sign of the modernity of folk culture, and as the possibility of artistic expres- sion born of eclectic antecedents. Davis synthesizes idioms, voices, traditions, and forms, and thus exacts the essen- tially eclectic process at the heart of Brown's aesthetic project. Davis establishes the

metaphoric perimeters for Brown tual fixity which may serve Southern Road's master embarks the rival discourses of trope, the road, and thus primitivism and exception- anticipates "When the upon an alism. Saints Go Ma'ching Home," art isf ic and As the proposition of "Strong Men," "Ma ontological blackness dis- Rainey," and "Southern aesthetic s~lvesinto a constellation Road." Each of these poems ~roiect.which of historicized contingen- and the collection' as a I cies, into subjectivity,-fluid- whole explore the triumphs ity, and modality, all play and vicissitudes of contem- reconceives kev roles in a poetics porary Southern black life, in;ested in thk radical tem-

This formal appropriation also effects a kind of "double voicing," where his "semantic orientation" colors the established cultural articulation- to use Henry Louis Gates Jr.'s applica- tion of Bakhtin (50).But distinct from Bakhtin's sense 'of harody, Davis's dou- ble voicing "evaluates" the John Henry ballad as the superlative sign of mythic heroism and masculinitv. Thus, Davis's sense of enduring meaking depends entirely upon an absolute identification with John Henry's transcendent signifi- cation. Here Davis grafts his biography onto a cultural continuum; his blues- inflected lyric odyssey signifies his own progression as well as the larger cultural modality.


and thus they stress the porality of the present ongoing agency of folk modernity. moment. Brown's sense of animated by new combinations, syn- thesis, or "superintegration" (McFarlane92) and marked by formal experimentation, modal progression, and perpetual process. Employing a notion of "strategic essentialism," Brown posits the political and cultural category "black," yet suspends-

indeed perpetually trou-

bles-any sense of concep-

forms in confronting con- temporary dilemmas.

Finally, recognizing the critical interdependence of New Negroism and American modernity, Brown pur- sues an ultimately synthetic poetic pro- ject, exposing and dramatizing the dynamic hybridity fundamental to African American being. But in order to forge a project re-envisioning mod- ernist and New Negro formulations, he must confront and subvert the exclu- sionary nature of the racial discourse in which both hegemonic modernism and bourgeois New Negroism participate. If the dichotomy dividing hegemonic modernism and New Negroism is in fact false-a point which Brown's poet- ry ultimately suggests-then Brown must demonstrate the ways in which modernist aesthetics and techniques may actually aid in the deepening and widening of African American artistic representation. But Brown does not draw upon an homogenized Anglo/ Eliot-styled modernism, one marked by fragmentation, malaise, and cultural exhaustion; Big Boy Davis's moment is not one of Prufrock-like retreat and psychic paralysis. Rather, Brown invokes a modernism of possibility,

modernity leads him to a

vision of the past as a "process engendering unlimited visions," a "dynamic proposition" which must be perpetually reconfig- ured, reconstructed (Benston 35). Brown's poetics hold up both past and future as ultimately malleable resources; it is the present moment of consciousness itself, the perpetual moment of manipulation-through voice, ritual, performance, and so forth-which constitutes the thorough- ly historicized black subject, the histor- ical actor continually reconstructing the self, and thus the political and cul- tural landscape. In distinct yet comple- mentary ways, Anne Spencer, Jean Toomer, and the later James Weldon Johnson (of God's Trombones) partici- pate in a similarly hybrid, Afro-mod- ernist poetic project. That "strong men keep on a-comin' on " is not simply a statement of political agency or black heroism, but an assertion of historicity, of modality which keeps in play those dimensions of being and personhood which lie beyond (or perhaps beneath) the limitations of crude categorization. From Big Boy Davis's expansive orality to Joe Meek's highly textured sense of


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