Sterling Brown: An Ethnographic Perspective

by Beverly Lanier Skinner
Sterling Brown: An Ethnographic Perspective
Beverly Lanier Skinner
African American Review
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Sterling Brown: AnEthnographic Perspective

Iwould like to propose a method for reading the poetry of Sterling A. Brown in light of Brown's complete oeuvre. My proposed method is informed by interdisciplinary inquiry, including recent ethnographic theory and qualitative research methodology and an emerging cultural studies discourse that I and others term black cultural critique. This approach is not intended to overlook any aspect of the aesthetic values or artistic achievement of Brown's poetic output. Rather, this approach intends to offer an additional, interdisciplinary, theoretical con- text in which to appreciate Brown's poetic achievement. My the- sis is that Sterling Brown was a postmodern ethnographer who by the 1940s had pioneered solutions to three major problems with which today's cultural anthropologists are grappling: (1)what form ethnographic writing should take, (2) what methodology can result in competent ethnographies of non-hege- monic, oral-based cultures, and (3) what ways the authority of native informants can be acknowledged in ethnographies. James Clifford and George Marcus offer an eloquent explana- tion of why I feel it is important to look at Sterling Brown's poetic output from an ethnographic perspective. They see ethnography as an "emergent interdisciplinary phenomenon [whose] authority and rhetoric have spread to many fields where 'culture is a newly problematic object of description and critique' " (Writing Culture 3).I suggest that, if we consider Brown's entire oeuvre-poetry, literary criticism, oral history, and cultural critique-from an ethnographic perspective, we can emerge with the understanding that the sum of his writings constitutes an ethnographic method- ology that reflects postmodernist sensibilities. However, it was not until the 1970s and '80s that ethnographers like Clifford Geertz, Mary Douglas, Claude Levi-Strauss, and the late Victor Turner advocated the pursuit of what Sterling Brown already had accomplished-namely, "blurr[ing] the old distinction between art and science and challeng[ing] the very basis of the claim to exacting rigor, unblinking truth telling, and unbiased reporting that marked the boundary separating" art from science (Vidich and Lyman 41). Brown's methodology answers the call of numer- ous ethnographers and anthropologists who seek honest, nontra- ditional, competent ways of writing the ethnos of non-hegemonic and non-Western cultures. Before I proceed with my argument, let me offer some defini- tions. The Encyclopedia of Cultural Anthropology defines ethnography as "writing about customs or, more generally, the description of cultures based on firsthand observation and partic- ipation in fieldwork. Fieldwork is the process of observing and participating in life ways of people. Anthropologists report the

African American Review, Volume 31. Number 3 0 1997 Beverly Lanier Skinner



Cultures" 101). Clifford uses this poetic answers to hegemonic bias in phrase to describe unfairly weighted depictions of African Americans. In clashes between hegemonic and non- fact, the bulk of Brown's poems, oral hegemonic cultures. He argues that histories, and essays show the connec- ethnographers should provide deep tion between African-American culture contextualization for cultural beliefs and oppressive hegemonic societal and behaviors contaminated by these influences. clashes rather than provide mere Sterling Brown wrote ethnography description of cultural differences from by offering a diverse oeuvre of material the hegemonic norm. In "Strong Men," from which to glean an understanding Brown graphically illustrates the cul- and appreciation of the richness and ture of dissent that historically has diversity of black folk culture. This is developed among African Americans not to diminish his poetry as poetry, in response to the discriminatory prac- but the fact remains that one cannot tices of the dominant culture: escape the rich portrait of African-

American life and culture that Brown's

They heard the laugh and wondered;

poetry renders. Brown never tried to


offer a univocal or unified description

Unadmim'ng a deeper terror. . . .

of the culture he chose to examine.

The strong men keep a-comin' on Gittin' stronger. . . . (Southern Road53) Rather, by using diverse forms of expressivity, he pioneered a postmod- Thus, Clifford and Marcus's call for ern ethnographic methodology that ethnographic analyses that are "situat- turns the tables on a discipline, the ed between power systems of mean- depths of whose elitism, arrogance, ing" (2) was already in place in and chauvinism have barely been Brown's oeuvre, particularly in such tapped.

  1. For a cogent argument concerning Du Bois's ethnography of African-American culture and epis- temology, see Schrager.
  2. For an excellent retrospective of the development of the field of ethnography, see Clifford, "On Ethnographic Authority" (Predicament 21 -53).

Brown, Sterling A. The Collected Poems of Sterling A. Brown. New York: Harper, 1980.
--. The Last Ride of Wild Bill and Eleven Narrative Poems. Detroit: Broadside, 1975.
--. "Negro Character as Seen by White Authors." Journal of Negro Education 2.2 (1933): 179-203.

Rpt. The New Cavalcade: African American Writing from 1760to the Present. Ed. Arthur P. Davis,

et al. 2 vols. Washington: Howard UP, 1991. 1: 607-39. --. Southern Road. New York: Harcourt, 1932. Clifford, James. The Predicament of Culture: Twentieth-Century Ethnography, Literature, and Art.

Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1988. --. "Traveling Cultures." Cultural Studies. New York: Routledge, 1992. 96-1 16. -, and George E. Marcus, eds. Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography. Berkeley:

U of California P, 1986. Denzin, Norman K., and Yvonna S. Lincoln, eds. Handbook of Qualitative Research. Thousand Oaks: Sage, 1994. "Ethnography." Encyclopedia of Cultural Anthropology. Ed. David Levinson and Melvin Ember. New York: Holt, 1996. 416-22. Gabbin, Joanne V. Sterling A. Brown: Building the Black Aesthetic Tradition. 1985. Charlottesville:

UP of Virginia, 1994. Stanfield, John H., II. "Ethnic Modeling in Qualitative Research." Denzin and Lincoln 175-88. Schrager, Cynthia D. "Both Sides of the Veil: Race, Science, and Mysticism in W. E. B. Du Bois."

American Quarterly 48 (1996): 551-86. Vidich, Arthur J., and Stanford M. Lyman. "Qualitative Methods: Their History in Sociology and Anthropology." Denzin and Lincoln 23-59.


Beverly Skinner

is a faculty member in the Department of English at Millersville University in Pennsylvania.

results as ethnography" (416). Post- modem ethnographers, in the words of Vidich and Lyman, "tak[e] seriously the aim of such deconstructionists as Derrida . . . ,Lyotard . . . ,and Baudrillard." The postmodern ethnog- rapher is one who eschews such tradi- tional pursuits as "the quest for valid generalizations and substantive conclu- sions" and revlaces them with "thick descriptions," in the language of Geertz, so that postmodern ethnogra- phy encompasses the "lived experi- ence," "disprivileg[ing] all received

texts and established discourses on behalf of an all-encompassing critical skepticism about knowledge. . .

[instead] giv[ing] contingency. . . [to] language, . . . selfhood, . . . and . . . community" (Vidich and Lyman 41).

The ethnographic approach that Sterling Brown pioneered answers the call made by several of today's cutting- edge social scientists for a radical, multi-vocal, culturally astute approach to cultural studies. In fact, the brand of ethnography that Brown developed is one that can be appreciated by the most radical of cultural scholars. African-American sociologist John H. Stanfield I1 explains the problem cul- tural anthropologists have long faced in their attempts to describe and learn from non-hegemonic cultures. He implies in the following quotation that radical approaches to cultural study simply are not in the mission of univer- sities that currently train ethnogra- phers:

The oral basis of most African cultures and among aboriginal peoples around the world offers a major challenge, because adequate study of such cul- tures requires a different portfolio of skills from what researchers reared in written word-based cultures acquire easily. In oral-based cultures, . . . records . . . come in the form of poems, songs, testimonies, stories, performing arts, and proverbs, rather than diaries, newspapers, census reports, and sur- veys. (184-85)

Contemporary literary studies like

Gay1 Jones's Liberating Voices, Henry

Louis Gates's The Signieing Monkey, Houston Baker's Blues, Ideology, and Afro-American Literature, and Stephen Henderson's "The Form of Things Unknown" have helped establish African-American culture as an oral- based one. But even earlier, before the New Negro Renaissance that spawned Brown's literary endeavors, W. E. B. Du Bois had established the oral basis of African-American culture in his 1903 essay collection The Souls of Black ~01k.l

The methodology that Stanfield outlines for studying oral-based cul- tures is one that Sterling Brown had already employed before, during, and after his tenure as administrator of the WPA Writers' Project and researcher in the Gunner Myrdal-Carnegie study that resulted in the celebrated treatise An American Dilemma. (Joanne Gabbin chronicles Brown's profession- al and artistic accomplishments in her groundbreaking work Sterling A. Brown: Building the Black Aesthetic Tradition.) In fact, Brown anticipated Stanfield and Afrocentric cultural scholars like Asante, Ladner, Hamnett, and Merton by writing poetry and col- lecting oral histories in addition to publishing academic-style treatises to enlighten the world about African- American culture. In other words, rather than using a strictly empirical methodology for treating the unquan- tifiable and unprovable, and rather than generalizing from the particulars he culled from his travels among black folk in the South, Brown found a cul- turally functional alternative to the established but inadequate academic form of ethnographic reportage. He created a multi-voiced, polyphonic, self-reflexive, diversely genred oeuvre. He self-consciously and, I might add, defiantly represented an emic ethnog- raphy, one that reflects the values of the culture being described, rather than the traditional etic ethnography, which reflects the values of the newcomer to a culture (Vidich and Lyman 26). I call such an emic approach an autoethnog- raphy, since one writes of one's own


culture from the position of cultural insider.

The autoethnographer is more than the sum of native informant and partic- ipant observer, the former being the so- called native guide for the ethnograph- ic researcher and the latter being the outsider ethnographer engaged in fieldwork. The autoethnographer is more than what James Clifford terms the "fieldworker-theorist," whose "cul- tural description [as of the 1920s was] based on participant observation" (Predicament30).The autoethnograph- er is nothing like the cultural anthro- pologist, whom Vidich and Lyman describe as a self-defined newcomer to the habitat and life world of his or her subjects (41). Rather, the autoethnogra- pher has cultural roots in, and an insid- er's grasp of, the group being described and therefore needs no native informant to assist in the trans- lation of language and culture. Of cul- tural necessity, the autoethnographer renders the description of his or her own culture on levels that exceed the narrow boundaries of the academic report from the field.

During the time that Brown wrote and studied his own culture, Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict were ascend- ing the anthropological throne of intel- lectual and scholarly authority and were influential in discrediting native informants on the grounds that natives of a culture lack impartiality and objec- tivity. According to Clifford, "It was tacitly agreed that the new-style ethno- grapher, whose sojourn in the field sel- dom exceeded two years, and more fre- quently was much shorter, could effi- ciently 'use' native languages without 'mastering' them." Mead and others, in spite of objections from followers of Franz Boas, "established that valid research could be accomplished on the basis of one or two years' familiarity with a foreign vernacular. A distinct primacy was accorded to the visual: interpretation was tied to description. After Bronislaw Malinowski, a general suspicion of 'privileged informants' reflected this systematic preference for the (methodical) observations of the ethnographer over the (interested) interpretations of indigenous authori- ties" (Predicament 31).

Brown, however, questioned the importance and validity of objectivity and impartiality in cultural study and hotly questioned the usefulness of out- sider reports of culture. He interrogat- ed the intellectual establishment that presumed it was possible, interesting, and profitable to study the culture of a group whose differences rendered it fair game for examination, interpreta- tion, and explanation. In Brown's famous and frequently anthologized essay "Negro Character As Seen By White Authors," he invalidates the ethnographic claims of literary artists who exploited the so-called Negro as literary subject, and in so doing he dis- credits the entire ethnographic enter- prise widely embraced by the academy and the literati of his era. Ostensibly, the essay chides literary artists for making ethnographic claims best left to what Brown terms professional ethno- graphers; but, reenacting the trickster aspect of the African-American folk ethos, Brown is actually critiquing the field of ethnography for perpetuiting the fiction that a university-trained ethnographer can master a culture in six months or two years, or even in ten years.2 Brown consciously set stan- dards for ethnography that were impossible for the establishment ethno- graphers of his day to satisfy. In "Negro Characters," he writes:

The exploration of Negro life and char- acter rather than its exploitation must come from Negro authors themselves. This, of course, runs counter to the American conviction that the Southern white man knows the Negro best, and can best interpret him. . . . But whether Negro life and character are to be best interpreted from without or within is an interesting by-path that we had bet- ter not enter here. One manifest truth, however, is this: the sincere, sensitive artist, willing to go beneath the cliches of popular belief to get at an underly- ing reality, will be wary of confining a race's entire character to a half-dozen narrow grooves. He will hardly have the temerity to say that his necessarily


limited observation of a few Negroes linked to a physical environment, it [is] in a restricted environment can be

crucial for a qualitative [research]

taken as the last word about some

be grounded

mythical the Negro. He will hesitate to

do this, even though he had a Negro in holistic rather than fragmented and

mammy, or spent a night in Harlem, or dichotomized notions of human

has been a Negro all his life. The writer

beings" (185). grown acquiesces to the

submits that such an artist is the only

problematics of recording immediate

one worth listening to, although the rest are legion. (639) experience by creating the fictional

character of Slim Greer, In reference to the form

who through humor and take ng insider knowledge critiques

Vidich and Lyman, among diverse the hegemonic structure others, assert that "an

that has led to apartheid ethnography is now to be forms of and modern-day slavery in regarded as a piece of writ- expressivity, the land of Dixie.

ing-as such, it cannot be "Slim in Atlanta" is a said to . . . represent . . . an Brown

case in point. In this poem, accurate portrait the cul-pioneered a the rascal Greer dominates

ture of the 'other.' " They the one "telefoam booth"

discredit traditional ethnog- postmodern blacks are allowed to raphy's claim of creating an ethnographic when they feel the need to "unmodified and unfiltered laugh. Within this poetic record of immediate experi- tall tale is a vitriolic critiaue

~ --~~

ence" (41). But theseAcut- of the so-called "separate'-

ting-edge scholars of the dominant but-equal" accommodations blacks had

hegemonic culture do not go far to put up with during the days of

enough in discrediting traditional apartheid in the pre-Civil Rights Act

ethnography's modus operandi. They South. But within even this poem,

do not understand that their proclama- Brown radically interrogates and dis-

tion-that ethnography is a piece of credits the monologism of traditional

writing-ignores the experiential quali- ethnography by wearing two hats in

ty a successful ethnographic study his poetic study.of the Southern black

should impart. To reduce ethnography folk community. Brown writes as a

to writing ignores the irony, the sub- native observer, along the lines of

versiveness, the double consciousness autoethnography, but at the same time

of the non-hegemonic cultural experi- acknowledges his limitations as a city ence. Such pigeon holing does not dweller, identifying some of his experi- acknowledge the musical, artistic, and ence as tangential to some aspects of performative aspects of non-hegemonic folk culture. He does this in "Slim in cultures. Atlanta" through the device of Slim

Greer's disbelieving laughter, but in other poems he uses the device of dis-

Brown's references to music in tanced language. This is to say that, in poems like "Cabaret" and to poems like "Strong Men," "Old Lem," physical posturing in poems like and "Ma Rainey," Brown distances the "Sporting Beasley" and to gesticulation ethnographer's voice by using stan- in poems like "Wild Bill" acknowledge dard English-speaking personae who the possibility that ethnography is play the part of participant observer- more than writing-that it encompass- the traditional role of ethnographers in es performance, oral history, oral story- the field. And he permits characters telling, and other non-written forms of like Sister Lou, Slim Greer, Sporting expressivity. Stanfield argues that, Beasley, Scotty, and Big Boy to express since "many non-Westerners view the vernacularly certain folk notions of life social, the emotional, and the spiritual that standard English is hard pressed as integral parts of a whole person to express.


St. Peter said, "Well, You got back quick. How's de devil? An' what's His latest trick?

An' Slim say, "Peter,
I really cain't tell,
The place was Dixie
That I took for hell."

Then Peter say, "You must Be crazy, I vow, Where'n hell dja think Hell was, Anyhow?" (Poems 92)

Certainly the indigenous authorial voice is present here, as it is in poems like "A Bad, Bad Man" (Last Ride 46) and "Sister Lou," whose poetic autobi- ographer understands that this black woman Lou's vision of eternal life is different from the dominant culture's, that Lou's concern for the biblical Judas Iscariot involves a deep cultural concern for the scapegoat:

Give a good talkin' to

To yo' favorite 'postle Peter,

An' rub the pot head

Of mixed-up Judas,

An' joke awhile wid Jonah.

(Southern Road 49)

1 In "Traveling Cultures" Clifford 1 critiques establishment ethnography and sets up the ideal goal of ethno-

1 graphic research. He asserts that, "in much traditional ethnography, . . . the ethnographer has localized what is actually a regional/national/global nexus, relegating to the margins a 'cul- ture's' external relations and displace- ments" (100). He calls for analyses of "constructed and disputed historicities" (101). Sterling Brown's sensitivity to depicting "disputed his- toricities" is perhaps best exemplified in his poem "Remembering Nat Turner." There, a cackling old Caucasian woman, herself on the mar- gins of the dominant culture, is depict- ed as the repository of an eventful moment in African-American and American history, the rebellion of Nat Turner. But this hag-like person (as depicted in Brown's poem) is inade- quate to the task of preserving and conveying even a single momentous event of African-American historv. Her confused and distorted rendition'of the events surrounding the Nat Turner rebellion, trial, and execution is remi- niscent of many official lies and cover- ups that eventually become local truths, marring the scattered remains of African-American material culture:

"Ain't no slavery no more, things is going all right . . . . We had a sign post here with printing on it, But it rotted in the hole, and thar it lays, And the nigger tenants split the mark- er for kindling. Things is all right now, ain't no trouble with the niggers Why they make this big to-do over Nat?". . . We remembered the voster rotted through and falling: The marker split for kindling a kitchen fire. (Poems 209-10)

In another example of the ideal mission of ethnography, the poem "Strong Men" reveals what Clifford calls "sites of displacement, interfer- ence, and interaction" ("Traveling


James Clifford, a widely celebrated ethnographer of the post-modern era, focused his attention in 1988 on acade- mia's recently acknowledged problems representing the authority of native informants in ethnographic field research: "Current ethnographic writ- ing is seeking new ways to represent adequately the authority of informants. . . . ethnographic exposition routinely folds into itself a diversity of descrip- tions, transcriptions, and interpreta- tions by a variety of indigenous 'authors.' How should these authorial presences be made manifest?" (45-46) Brown didn't seem to have a problem manifesting indigenous authorial pres- ences. In "Slim in Hell," for example, Saint Peter turns Slim back from the pearly gates when Slim explains that, instead of surveying hell as Saint Peter had requested, he had mistakenly gone to Dixie:

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