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Southern Road and the "New Negro Renaissance"

James Smethurst

Sterling Brown’s own critical distinction between the term "Harlem Renaissance," dismissed as strictly box office, and the term "New Negro Renaissance," describing a literary moment with which Brown identifies, is not just a question of semantics or geographical accuracy, but is in fact a distinction between the values derived from a nationalism embodied in Southern Road similar to that of late-nineteenth-century and early-twentieth-century European nationalism and those of the allegedly transnational values of "high" modernism. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that Brown accepts the Eliotic premise--and the Comintern premise for that matter, at least as far as life under modem capitalism was concerned--that modem urban life is afflicted by a sickness of the spirit caused to a large extent by rampant individualism and the breakup of social and moral consensus. In fact, this spiritual malaise is in Brown's view perhaps more intense for African Americans in the northern urban centers than for other Americans. But Brown rejects the notion that such a sickness was universal in "the West" and instead posits, like Jean Toomer in Cane, an essential African-American culture in the South that is able to resist the sickness of modem society if only black Americans are willing to hold on to their history and the cultural forms of expression and resistance that developed in the intense racial oppression of the South. Unlike Toomer, who believes that the rural culture, and the perceived closeness of that culture to the land and nature which he chronicles in Cane, is fading, Brown argues that the culture of the Black Belt is alive and vital, though threatened by the inroads of mass culture and migration. And where black intellectuals such as Alain Locke in The New Negro and James Weldon Johnson in Black Manhattan locate the future of African-American social and artistic development in Harlem and, to a lesser extent, in the other urban black communities of the North and West, Brown seeks a return to the future in culture produced by black farmers, tenant farmers, farm laborers, and common workers in the rural (and urban) South.

But Brown does share Locke's notion of a tradition of African-American rural culture as the basis of modern African-American art and literature rather than the self-consciously modernist notions that influence most of the black writers associated with New York and/or Harlem (Hughes, Toomer, McKay, Walrond, Fauser, Larsen, and even Fisher). While Brown rejected the idea of a "Harlem Renaissance," he did subscribe to the notion of a "New Negro Renaissance," which implies that he shared Locke's sense of a movement, or at least a wish for that sort of movement, similar to that of a "New Ireland" or "New Czechoslovakia." Brown and Locke, like many European nationalists of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, saw a true national identity arising from somewhat static peasant culture whose essence was basically ahistorical. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that Brown was not so much antimodernist as against any sort of African-American modernism that abandoned the experience and culture of the southern folk. Thus even such writers as Toomer and James Weldon Johnson, who invoked and represented the vernacular in their works, become problematic for Brown in that they saw the culture represented in Cane and God's Trombones as fading and their works as in part elegies for that culture. As discussed below, there is certainly a preservationist aspect to Brown’s work, but it more closely resembles the utopian cultural nationalism that proposed a fading Irish as a national language with the notion that such an imagined linguistic revival would promote a genuine national culture than the cultural elegies of Toomer and Johnson.

There is an academic feel, a curatorial sense, to the work of both Locke and Brown. Locke proposes rural African-American folk culture as a basis for "high" culture, which would place the African-American artist and intellectual within the arena of international art and scholarship but would not change that scholarship much, only add to it in a manner that is not unlike T S. Eliot's notion that literary tradition is something that is increased incrementally and changed slowly and nearly imperceptibly. Brown, on the other hand proposed a whole new type of academy. The poems of Southern Road, written near the beginning of Brown's literary and academic career, are consonant with his lifelong work as a poet, anthologist, critic, teacher, promoter, and preserver of African-American literature, music--including jazz--and folklore. Southern Road is a radical redefinition of what has come to be known as the canon to include a far wider variety of cultural forms, specifically African-American folk forms, than had been accepted before. His project in Southern Road was not, however, to academize the folk, but rather to represent a process where an urban intellectual is able to rejoin the folk without glossing over the difficulties of such a process. At the same time, this process is not simply a sentimental return to the folk, or a new primitivism on the part of the intellectual, but also involves the intellectual-poet's giving a new consciousness to the folk that allows it to see its power and destiny more clearly while recognizing its weaknesses.

In Southern Road, even Brown's road poems and poems of individual portraiture set in the South emphasize the protagonists' generally positive connections to other members of the southern African-American community. If the sympathetic folk narrators and characters move around, it is not the linear and unidirectional movement of the emigrant but rather a circular movement implicitly or explicitly linked with the itinerant blues musician that generally terminates back home in the South--often after trial in the North.

The title of Souther Road is a declaration of independence from the Harlem Renaissance specifically set in opposition to the poem "Bound No'th Blues" of Langston Hughes, a writer who is often connected with Brown because of Hughes's exploration of African-American vernacular English and various "folk" forms as the basis of literature that went beyond the humor and sentimentality of nineteenth-century "dialect" and regional poetry. In "Bound No'th Blues" from the 1927 collection Fine Clothes to the Jew, Hughes creates a black narrator who rejects his former life in the South and surrenders himself to the uncertainty and cultural dislocation of the immigrant on the "Northern road."

[. . . .]

Brown's choice of Southern Road, as opposed to Hughes's "Northern Road," as a title indicates that he is following a different cultural model. Instead of focusing on a vision of liberation through progress (which in Hughes's case admittedly retains a decided sense of continuity with a folk tradition), Brown emphasizes an endurance that occasionally flashes into anger and heroic (and fatal) self-defense, as well as a relatively indirect cultural resistance by African Americans in the rural South. The opposition to Hughes's work suggested by the naming of the collection is further emphasized in the form of Brown's title poem--the first published instance of Brown’s use of the blues form. "Southern Road" is unusual in that it, as Joan Gabbin and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. point out, is a chain-gang work song with its stanzas cast in the form of a blues in which, as in much of Hughes's blues poetry, the lines of the basic three-line blues stanza are split to create six-line stanzas:

Swing dat hammer--hunh--
Steady, bo';
Swing dat hammer—hunh--
Steady, bo';
Ain't no rush, bebby,
Long ways to go.

Though the form of Brown's stanzas resembles that of Hughes's, the implications of the work song-blues hybrid are far different. The "hunh" that punctuates the first and third lines of each stanza is a reminder that the narrator is a member of a community engaged in a common effort, albeit against its will. (The focus on the coercive power of the state operating on a group of people as opposed to individual acts of racism or "unofficial" social attitudes also distinguishes this poem from most of the poetry of the New Negro Renaissance concerning racism and racist violence, say Cullen’s "The Black Christ" or Hughes's "Song for a Black Gal," while linking it to other poetry of the 1930s, such as Hughes's verse play "Scottsboro Limited.") The "hunh" marks the moment when all the men on the chain gang swing their hammers together. The injunction "Steady bo'" of the first stanza (and the following "Ain’t no rush, bebby, / Long ways to go") is not directed by the narrator to himself, but to the rest of the crew that he is presumably leading. This injunction is a call to communal self-preservation, endurance, and a type of resistance that attempts to negotiate the terms of the community's exploitation by setting a limit to the work pace. The voice of the narrator is speaking a communal story in which the narrator's individual story, or what might be considered the blues aspect of the poem, is inextricably bound up with common experience and activity signified by the elements drawn from the work song. While the dominant sentiment of the poem seems to be that of personal despair, the hybrid of blues and work song, individual and community, emphasizes communal resistance and survival in the face of crushing oppression from which there is no immediate escape.

However, that there is no immediate escape does not imply, as Jean Wagner and Alain Locke have suggested, that there is no hope or that resistance is futile. There is not what Wagner calls a "stoic acceptance" by the narrator of his situation; the narrator declares that his condition weighs "on my min."' Rather, when read with the other poems of the "Road So Rocky" section of Southern Road with the epigraph from an old spiritual "Road may be rocky/ Won’t be rocky long," "Southern Road" suggests that the survival of community and a communal expression that authorizes and frames the individual narrative, even on the chain gang, is a form of resistance.

From The New Red Negro: The Literary Left and African American Poetry, 1930-1946. Copyright 1999 by Oxford University Press.

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