Joanne V. Gabbin

Joanne V. Gabbin: On Dunbar's Life and Career

Other nineteenth-century African American poets anticipated Paul Laurence Dunbar’s question concerning "why the caged bird sings." James Monroe Whitfield appears to speak for several of his contemporaries when he has the speaker in "The Misanthropist" say, "In vain thou bid'st me strike the lyre, / and sing a song of mirth and glee." For Whitfield, James Madison Bell, and Albery Allson Whitman, the thoughts that troubled their minds--the evils of slavery, the hope of freedom, struggles with oppression and violence--were frought "with gloom and darkness, woe and pain." These poets continued

From The Oxford Companion to African American Literature. Ed. William L. Andrews, Frances Smith Foster, and Trudier Harris. New York: Oxford University Press. , 1997. Copyright © 1997 by Oxford University Press.

Joanne V. Gabbin: On "Old Lem"

In the poignant statements of "Old Lem," he captures the bitter resentment of a man grown weary of mob violence.

[ . . . . ]

With stark simplicity devoid of false sentimentality, Lem tells the story of his buddy, "Six foot of man/Muscled up perfect/Game to the heart," who defied the traditions of caste and "spoke out of turn at the commissary. . . . " For his "insolence" he is murdered.

Much of the power of the poem emanates from the complex and fully realized sensibility of Old Lem. His cogent wisdom and clarity of vision allow him to articulate simply and directly the consequences of racial injustice. In one part of the poem Brown has Old Lem recycle the wisdom of the folktale, "Old Sis Goose," in which a common goose seeks justice in a courthouse of foxes and ends up having her bones "picked."

[. . . .]

Lem's voice is charged with the vibrancy of the folk secular. Within this large body of non-religious music which includes the blues, songs of ridicule and recrimination, game songs, and numerous varieties of work songs, Brown recognized not only innovative musical elements but also attitudes, language, and circumstances--often cynical, ironic, signifying, and scatological--that are not the metier of the collectors of spirituals. It is the irony, the pithiness, and the elemental force of this material that informs Old Lem's speech. A comparison of a slave secular recorded by Frederick Douglass in My Bondage and My Freedom with a passage from "Old Lem" reveals Brown’s skillful assimilation of the form.

We raise de wheat,

Dey gib us de corn;

We bake de bread,

Dey gib us de crust;

We sif de meal,

Dey gib us de huss;

We peel de meat,

Dey gib us de skin;

And dat's de way

Dey take us in;

We skim de pot,

Dey gib us de liquor

And say dat's good enough for nigger.

In Old Lem's speech Brown achieves a similar syntactical pattern and cadence.

They weigh the cotton

They store the corn

    We only good enough

    To work the rows;

They run the commissary

They keep the books

    We gotta be grateful

    For being cheated;

Whippersnapper clerks

Call us out of our name

    We got to say mister

    To spindling boys

They make our figgers

Turn somersets

    We buck in the middle

    Say, "Thank yuh, sah."

Patterned on a rhythm prevalent in Black folk speech, the passage contains lines with two stresses each, often irregularly arranged. Several of the lines have verbs used near the beginning of the line that must be strongly stressed. Also, with a tightly controlled satiric tone, Brown contrasts what "they" do to what "we" are forced to accept, thereby having his structure effectively convey the great disparity that exists between the position of whites and that of Blacks in a caste-ridden society.

From Sterling A. Brown: Building the Black Aesthetic Tradition. Copyright © 1985 by Joanne V. Gabbin

Joanne V. Gabbin: On "Rent Day Blues"

In another poem, "Rent Day Blues," Brown, using extended dialogue, tells the story of a couple facing rent day without any money. As the man wonders where they will get the rent, his woman turns up with the money from a mysterious source. Though the man is briefly troubled, he finally resolves to let their good fortune stand. In "Rent Day Blues," Brown clearly presents one of the major themes of the blues--poverty and economic uncertainty--within the context of the blues' preoccupation with the love relationship. Here, Brown breaks with the blues tradition by having his blues poem "proceed in a narrative fashion." According to blues critic Charles Keil, the blues lyric rarely proceeds in this fashion but "is designed primarily to illustrate a particular theme or create a general mood." Using dialogue as a narrative technique, Brown is able to add a dramatic dimension and bits of characterization not typical of the blues lyric. For example, in the following stanzas the willingness of the woman to get the rent money any way she can and the man's suspicions and cynicism come through clearly.

My baby says, "Honey,

Dontcha worry 'bout the rent.

Looky here, daddy,

At de money what de good Lord sent."


Says to my baby,

"Baby, I been all aroun';

Never knowed de good Lord

To send no greenbacks down."

Brown is also experimenting with the rhythm of the blues poem. For example, he infuses a jazz-style offbeat rhythm in the poem. The established pattern appears to be iambic trimeter. However, in the first stanza cited above, the last line breaks from this basic pattern with a syncopated pentameter line. In a solidly aesthetic gesture, Brown is taking on the risk and challenge of the literary rather than the oral poet.

From Sterling A. Brown: Building the Black Aesthetic Tradition. Copyright © 1985 by Joanne V. Gabbin

Joanne V. Gabbin: On the Slim Greer Sequence

Perhaps nowhere else does Brown take humor more as his metier than in the Slim Greer tales. [In "Slim Greer"] Slim is the familiar trickster in the folktale who by strength of his wit and his agility deceives, eludes, and outsmarts his opponents. The outcome of Slim's adventure could have been the same as that delivered in the tragic tale "Frankie and Johnny." Yet here Brown, turning the events around for his hilariously funny purpose, has Slim make tracks "with lightnin' speed." He skillfully takes the timeworn material of racial jokes, exploited and repeated on the minstrel stage, and reshapes it in such a way that the humor is intraracial. The butt of the joke is no longer the ludicrously dressed "coon" who wears "no. fourteen shoes" but the hypocrisy of sexual racism. . . . [I]nforming the "Slim in Hell" poem is not only black folk tradition from which the familiar images found in sermons and spirituals are drawn, but also allusions to the Orpheus and Eurydice story in classical mythology. Slim, like the favored Orpheus, is allowed to go to the underworld and is allowed to leave it. Here also is Cerberus, the terrible dog which guards the entrance to the internal regions, now transformed to a "big bloodhound . . . bayin' some po' devil's track." By a synthesis of two viable traditions, Brown creates this ballad through a process mentioned earlier called "cross-pollination." Brown accomplishes the fusion of the folk ballad using, as well, other resources of the literary artist: allusion as a means of reinforcing the idea of the descent into hell; language and imagery that have fidelity to the folk sermon; the right combination of irony, overstatement, and humor for an effective tone; and the use of the ballad form which accommodates the narrative.

From Sterling A. Brown: Building the Black Aesthetic Tradition. Copyright © 1985 by Joanne V. Gabbin.

Joanne V. Gabbin: On "Memphis Blues"

In "Memphis Blues," Brown uses folk rhymes, working in concert with "the rhythm and imagery of the black folk sermon," to convey "the black folk preacher's vision of the threat of destruction" and a deeper, more pervasive "comment on the transitory nature of all things man-made." Charles H. Rowell recognizes Brown's "excellent employment of the rhythm of black folk rhymes" to emphasize the speakers' indifference to the inevitable destruction of Memphis . . . ."

As Rowell suggests, Brown, projecting on the speaker a child's indifference to death, uses playful, teasing, lines to heighten the poem's message. The Black man is indifferent to the destruction of Memphis, for he has never seen it as his own.

In part two of "Memphis Blues," Brown employs the call and response patterns of certain spirituals to create voices similar to the folk preacher's exhorting his congregation to salvation and those of the members responding to his call.

[ . . . .]

Here, however, is a difference. "Ironically, the response of each speaker in the poem has nothing to do with the impending destruction; while Memphis is being destroyed, each speaker plans to do what he thinks is best for him. " Implicit in their responses is "the sensibility of the blues singer--his stoic ability to transcend his deprived condition." Also present is the blues song's emphasis "on the immediacy of life, the nature of man, and human survival in all of its physical and psychological manifestations." The preacher man, the drinking man, the gambling man, and so on, see themselves as outsiders. As they have been excluded from the society by proscription and prejudice, they define their survival in their own terms; they take their pleasure and their meaning from within the boundaries set for them. However, moving at a deeper level is Brown's paradox. Being outside will not keep them from destruction. Even those distinctions made and boundaries set among men will have no meaning then.

As Brown brings into play a combination of folk forms--the secular rhyme, the sermon, the blues, and the scattered notes of the gospel shout--in "Memphis Blues," they function not only to further the meaning of the poem but also to suggest the essential interrelatedness of the forms.

From Sterling A. Brown: Building the Black Aesthetic Tradition. Copyright © 1985 by Joanne V. Gabbin.