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On the Slim Greer Sequence

John Edgar Tidwell

Slim Greer is both a literary character created by Sterling A. Brown and the term designating his memorable series of satiric poems. In the cycle are five poems: "Slim Greer," "Slim Hears ‘the Call’," "Slim in Atlanta," "Slim in Hell," and "Slim Lands a Job?," all of which were published between 1930 and 1933. These poems reveal Brown's careful study of oral and written literatures, from Moliére's satire to Mark Twain's humor, and his absorption of less formal teaching from a gallery of African American raconteurs. After graduation from Harvard University (MA, 1923), he immersed himself in the cultural life and lore of Black folk by frequenting barbershops, "jook-joints," and isolated farms. In these places, "master liars" like "Preacher," Duke Diggs, and an actual Slim Greer transformed mundane, prosaic experiences into performances of high art. The results of their informal instruction are readily discerned in Brown's poems.

The Slim Greer poems represent the principal concern in nearly all of Brown's work: reclaiming the humanity of African Americans to insure the completion of selfhood. To accomplish this purpose, Brown adapts features of the American tall tale, including Vernacular language, "deadpan" manner of narration, development from plausibility to frantic impossibility, and the snapper climax or exposure at the end. As in the best tall tales, these poems achieve their success by laughing the reader/listener into an awareness of practices that prevent the self from attaining wholeness, such as religious hypocrisy and the absurdity of racial segregation. In so doing, Brown makes his Slim Greer do in poetry what Langston Hughes's Simple does in short fiction.

From The Oxford Companion to African American Literature. Copyright © 1997 by Oxford University Press.

Jean Wagner

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.

Joanne V. Gabbin

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.

Mark A. Sanders

"Sam Yancey," "Crispus Attucks McKoy," and "Break of Day" all represent the hero as liberating potential tragically cut short. In each poem the hero embodies essential strengths common to the culture yet threatening to white authority. And in each instance, as the traditional martyr, he asserts these strengths, strives to defend them, and ultimately dies as a result of his agency. Martyrdom serves as the supreme affirmation of heroism, where superlative sacrifice in defense of self and culture ostensibly points toward an irrepressible continuity in heroic spirit. Each time the physical avatar is struck down, another manifestation of the spirit appears, ensuring sustained agitation for freedom and independence.

Having established this strident sense of agency, in both comic and tragic modes, Brown presents the Slim Greer series, which examines both the strengths and limitations of the comic hero. Following "Sam Yancey," Brown moves away from the high price of heroism to complete the Slim Greer series and its exploration of humor's potential. In 1932 Brown first presented Slim Greer in Southern Road, with only the first three poems: "Slim Greer." "Slim Lands a Job?," and "Slim in Atlanta." With this configuration Greer clearly conforms to the standard definition of the trickster, consistently subverting white authority through wit and humor. Brown’s introductory poem, "Slim Greer," outlines his persona and demonstrates both his ability to circumvent social restrictions and his ability to use them for his own gain. Beyond the immediate action of the drama, though, Slim's ability as comic figure reveals his superlative gifts in absurdity and burlesque. His outlandishness and the circumstances in which he finds himself acquire dramatic force, as Greer uses his rhetorical skills to diffuse oppressive situations, transforming them into moments of celebration. "Slim Lands a Job?" more aptly reflects this dynamic in that Greer does not so much outwit his potential employer but transforms the metaphoric implications of the latter-day overseer; here Greer turns historical exploitation and oppression into farce. Likewise, "Slim in Atlanta" redirects the implications of Jim Crow to highlight and ridicule its inherent absurdity.

It is within this context that the first three Slim Greer poems add a humorous dimension to the master trope, "the road" in Southern Road. But by completing the series and placing all five poems in Last Ride, Brown implies critically different connotations. First, by moving away from high burlesque, the latter two poems incorporate more ominous implications for both Greer's character and his ability to affect his surroundings. Furthermore, in relation to the broader signifying field of Last Ride, the Slim Greer series exposes the limitations of comic representation and thereby alludes to its final subsumption in "The Ballad of Joe Meek."

Following "Slim in Atlanta," "Slim Hears 'The Call’" continues the mode of burlesque but raises serious questions concerning Slim's use of his transformative powers. Simply the title stressing "the call" questions its ultimate meaning, anticipating an ironic call to make money rather than to serve God. Furthermore "Slim Hears 'The Call’" deviates from standard presentation in that it is Greer's own narrative rather than one told about him. Although the poem begins in the third person, it immediately shifts to highlight Greer's own voice and the ways in which he shapes his own narrative. This significant shift in perspective prefigures a fundamental shift in the kind of story told. Rather than a third-person narrative celebrating Greer's ability to outwit whites and to undermine potentially oppressive circumstances, Greer tells his own story of victimizing the powerless. This poem begins invoking the traditions of exaggeration and hyperbole; and much of its amusing quality stems from Greer's mastery of style and form In the first two stanzas Greer re-creates his adversity in order to elicit laughter, not pity; rather than illustrating the severity of his condition, he better demonstrates his rhetorical skills and mastery of form, a mastery implicitly asserting control over much more than oratorical tropes:

Down at the barbershop
    Slim had the floor,
"Ain’t never been so
    Far down before.

"So ragged, I make a jaybird
    About to moult,
Look like he got on gloves
    An’ a overcoat,

"Got to walk backwards
    All de time
Jes' a-puttin’ on front
    Wid a bare behime."

Indeed, Greer's display of rhetorical expertise serves as prelude to his mastery of a cultural form, "de bishopric"; thus his tale is one of apprenticeship in preparation for his next moneymaking scheme. Greer retells, with humorous irony, the mercenary practices of a fraudulent clergyman; that his friend misrepresents himself, steals from his congregation, and ultimately undermines the religious imperative of his position for Greer constitutes the epitome of cunning and shrewdness. Greer's admiration ultimately is for the ability to control, manipulate, and make money with the least amount of effort:

So here he was de head man
    Of de whole heap --
Wid dis solemn charge dat
    He had to keep:

"A passel of Niggers
    From near an’ far
Bringin’ in de sacred bucks

And Greer ends his apprenticeship and his amusing tale with a resounding endorsement of his enterprise and with an embracing call for everyone, so inclined, to do as he does:

"Don’t know so much
    'Bout de Holy Ghost,
But I likes de long green
    Better'n most.

"I kin talk out dis worl'
    As you folks all know,
An’ I'm good wid de women,
    Dey'll tell you so ...

"An’ I says to all de Bishops,
    What is hearin’ my song --
Ef de cap fits you, brother,
    Put it on."

On the one hand, Greer successfully promotes the same persona celebrated in the previous three poems; he is witty, resourceful, and above all farcically entertaining. But as he shifts the focus of his talents away from the empowered to the dispossessed, he begins to work against the iconography previously assigned him. He no longer ridicules and dismantles figures and forces of oppression; he now reinforces them. Clearly Brown is in reference to a tradition of African American folktales in which tricksters victimize their own communities. In this vein, Brown pokes fun at the disreputable figures in the African American clergy; clear enough, too, is the attempt to add levity to the sobering reality of African American exploitation in one of its most important institutions. But in terms of Greer's development, and in terms of his broader implications within the collection, "Slim Hears 'The Call’" constitutes a serious departure from the established metaphoric development.

Greer's willful exultation of his own ability to exploit begins to indicate the limitations of burlesque. At this point the mode of the tale subsumes the overt politics of the content; humor begins to serve its own ends--pure entertainment--and thus divorces itself from a broader political context.

This implication, that the very form Greer represents necessarily embodies severe limitations in terms of historical vision, receives further treatment in the last poem of the series. More so than "Slim Hears 'The Call,’" "Slim in Hell" entertains a number of potentially sobering ironies while sustaining the tradition of the burlesque. The premise of the poem--Greer in an odd situation--automatically advances the comic mode of the series. But given the comic conventions, that Greer finds hell to be in truth the South strikes a poignancy accurate note. As Saint Peter corroborates Greer's encroaching suspicions, comedy quickly becomes satire:

Then Pete say, "You must
    Be crazy, I vow,
Where'n hell dja think Hell was,

This acerbic indictment of the South and its racial politics works in and of itself to darken the implications of the poem. That the poem ends not with the realization of such a harsh reality but with Greer's expulsion from heaven due to his limited vision shifts the focus from the injustice of the South to Greer's misunderstanding of its ramifications:

"Git on back to de yearth,
    Cause I got de fear
You'se a leetle too dumb,
    Fo' to stay up here."

As a product of the South, and as one having resisted many of its stifling forces, Greer fails to perceive the literally cosmic implications of racial oppression. In the broadest of religious schemes hell and Dixie hold the same literal meaning, which its victims are expected to understand. That Greer fails calls into question his understanding of his own gifts and the implications of their application. Although he perceives and fights the oppression directed specifically at him, he does not, or cannot, read beyond his own circumstances; nor does he invoke an appreciation for a continuum of oppressive forces. Simply put, Greer exists in a historical vacuum, employing only ad hoc measures of resistance; therefore, as the result of an extremely truncated view of his own condition, Greer's talents remain equally limited. He dupes the "nice white woman" in "Slim Greer" simply because he can; he escapes Big Pete in "Slim Lands a Job?" simply because he must; and he finds the "telefoam booth" hilarious in "Slim in Atlanta" simply because of its self-evident absurdity. In none of his encounters does he move toward any broader understanding of political conflict; and when given the chance to tell his own story, he celebrates his talents when used for exploitation. That Brown ends the series with Greer's expulsion from heaven because of his misreading implicates the entirety of his progression and finally raises the issue of his limitations. As the trickster fails to see or act beyond his own self-interest--thus he perpetually assumes a defensive rather than offensive political position--Brown begins to circumscribe the comic mode of the hero within a limited metaphoric and political sphere, limited at least relative to the final expansion of the tragic hero and his import.

From Afro-American Aesthetics and the Poetry of Sterling A. Brown. Copyright © 1999 by the University of Georgia Press.

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