Jean Wagner: On The Slim Greer Sequence
Among all his humorous poems, in which he exercises his comic vein at the expense of whites no less than of blacks, the most remarkable are assuredly those which relate the adventures of Slim Greer. By uniting this new hero of the tall tale, Brown provided Paul Bunyan and John Henry with a younger brother fully worthy of them. For Slim shows extraordinary skill in extracting himself from the most unbelievable situations. He brings to naught the vigilance of the most vigilant, and at the same time exposes the oddities of the people he brushes up against.
Thus he succeeds, in Arkansas, in passing as a white man, though his skin color is "no lighter than a dark midnight." The white woman he set up house with thinks he is a Spaniard or a Frenchman. He is found out at last, not because of his color, but through his way of playing the blues:
An' he started a-tinklin'
Some mo’nful blues,
An' a-pattin' the time
With No. Fourteen shoes.
The cracker listened
An' then he spat
An' said, "No white man
Could play like that. . ."
But he is more agile than the whites and makes his getaway, of course without suffering the least hurt.
"Slim Lands a Job" mocks the demands that southern white employers make of their black employees. Slim is going to be hired as a waiter in a restaurant whose owner is complaining about the slowness of the Negro he already employs, when the latter bursts into the room:
A noise rung out
In rush a man
Wid a tray on his head
An' one in each han'
Wid de silver in his mouf
An' de soup plates in his vest
Pullin' a red wagon
Wid all de rest . . .
De man's said, "Dere's
Dat slow coon now
Dat wuthless lazy waiter!"
An' Slim says, "How?"
An' Slim threw his gears in
Put it in high,
An' kissed his hand to Arkansaw,
Sweetheart ... good-bye!
We meet Slim again in Atlanta, where the whites have passed laws "for to keep all de niggers from laughin' outdoors":
Hope to Gawd I may die
If I ain't speakin’ truth
Make de niggers do deir laughin’
In a telefoam booth.
When told about this rule on his arrival in Atlanta, he feels he is going to explode with laughter. He barely has time to skip past the queue waiting outside the phone booth and to dash inside--after dragging out the Negro who was there already. He laughs for hours on end, and the Negroes waiting in the lengthening queue groan in anguish as they wait their turn. In the end, Slim has to be taken away in an ambulance at the state's expense, so that things may return to normal in Atlanta.
Upon arriving in Paradise, Slim is entrusted by Saint Peter with the job of inspecting Hell. In the description of his departure, and then of his visit to the various regions, Brown proves a master humorist. His gallery of portraits is reminiscent of a large fresco of Dubout’s, in which each detail is a miracle of audacious suggestivity. Representatives of every vice pass before our eyes: gamblers, debauchees, the shameless, hypocritical preacher, the sellers of moonshine. By degrees, these tableaux begin to seem vaguely familiar, and Slim himself cannot refrain from commenting:
. . ."Dis makes
Me think of home –
Vicksburg, Little Rock, Jackson,
Waco, and Rome"
Immediately the devil laughs loudly and "turned into a cracker, wid a sheriff's star!" Slim barely has time to escape and make his way back to Saint Peter, to whom he shamefacedly confesses that he has no report to make, since he had mixed up the South and Hell:
Then Peter say, "You must
Be crazy, I vow,
Where'n hell dja think Hell was
"Git on back to de yearth,
Cause I got de fear,
You'se a leetle too dumb,
Fo' to stay up here ... "
But whites are not the only victims of the poet’s mockery, and Brown's humor, where his own race is concerned, sometimes is so bitter that it borders on cynicism. This is true, for instance, of "Slim Hears the Call," which satirizes the black preachers who grow rich at the people’s expense, and also of "Crispus Attucks McKoy," a mock-heroic poem which criticizes the excessive susceptibility and the misplaced patriotism of certain Negroes.
From Black Poets of the United States: From Paul Laurence Dunbar to Langston Hughes. Copyright © 1973 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois.
|Title||Jean Wagner: On The Slim Greer Sequence||Type of Content||Criticism|
|Criticism Author||Jean Wagner||Criticism Target||Sterling A. Brown|
|Criticism Type||Poet||Originally Posted||04 Jun 2015|
|Publication Status||Excerpted Criticism||Publication||Black Poets of the United States: From Paul Laurence Dunbar to Langston Hughes|
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