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On "Old Lem"

Joanne V. Gabbin

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

Jean Wagner

In Brown’s poetry, the struggle of black against white appears not merely as an unequal battle -- this in full conformity with reality -- but as a conspiracy carefully plotted long before and the execution of which proceeds with all the inexorable precision of a piece of clockwork. This theme is worked out in particularly striking fashion in a poem like "Old Lem," which in its vigor has elements both of Carl Sandburg's somewhat brutal robustness and of the forceful realism of the protest songs of slavery days. In a struggle that finds all the weapons in the hands of one side, neither courage nor even heroism are any use. The result is always foreordained, and the most fanatical resistance will be pulverized in the end. Whether the innocent Negro succumbs to the collective hysteria of a lynch mob set on him ("He Was a Man") or to the mindless panic of a rookie cop ("Southern Cop"), his murderers will always find official justice on their side.

In a certain sense, Brown’s anti-racist poetry may be said to have eased to protest; it has gone far beyond. Protest takes place not only against, but also on behalf of, something. If Brown's forerunners could protest against the injustice that was victimizing their race, that was because they had faith in the democratic ideal the American nation so eagerly flaunted, and they invoked this ideal in demanding justice. Brown, on the other hand, has already lost all illusions concerning the practical efficacy of the "American dream."

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.

Mark A. Sanders

Brown constructs "Old Lem" to encompass the scope of implications of "The Cotton South." As a signature piece of the stature of "Odyssey of Big Boy" or "When de Saints Go Ma'ching Home," "Old Lem" chronicles not only the condition but, more important, the method of its maintenance. Indeed, Brown’s poignant refrain binds the entire piece both formally and thematically, resolving the poem's antithesis within the synthesis of an incremental refrain. As Gabbin points out, Brown draws heavily from the slave secular Frederick Douglass cites in My Bondage and My Freedom:

We Raise de wheat
Dey gib us de corn;
We bake de bread,
We sif de meal,
Dey gib us de huss.

Here, the compelling play, both formal and thematic, depends solely on antithesis--the tension between "we" and "dey," between our disenfranchisement and their empowerment. Further stressing antithesis, the two parallel lines are metrically identical, establishing a rhythmic repetitiveness at odds with the dramatic dissimilarities between black and white worlds. Brown employs the same structural and thematic parallelism in order to reference a social and political pattern broader than the strict opposition of black and white. The first stanza devotes two lines to "their" condition, followed by two lines describing "we":

They weigh the cotton
They store the corn
We only good enough
To work die rows.

He reverses the order of the secular, countering the position of power and privilege ("they") with one of subjugation and peonage ("we"). Now, instead of the injustice deriving from the theft of labor, the verse focuses on inequity in influence and power, the dramatic difference in social and political positions. The stanza ends with the encompassing refrain:

They don’t come by ones
They don’t come by twos
But they come by tens.

Brown then reproduces the formal pattern established in the first stanza, but with the one important distinction: he separates sections with single lines of the refrain:

They got the judges
They got the lawyers
They got the jury-rolls
They got the law
They don’t come by ones
They got the sheriffs
They got the deputies
They don’t come by twos.

The refrain becomes incremental, promoting the metaphoric progression of line clusters, thereby assigning broader meaning to specific incidents of injustice. Equally as important, by weaving the refrain into the folk form Brown changes the nature of the antithesis. Instead of the central opposition remaining focused on "we" versus "they," the tension shifts to "they" versus refrain.

They got the manhood
They got the courage
They don’t come by twos.

By the time Old Lem addresses his "buddy / Six foot of man," his oration speaks to the ironic fissure between the professed justice and honor of whites and the desperate measures they employ in order to maintain undemocratic privilege. Through reconstruction, Brown extends the metaphoric implications of the slave secular. By infusing the form with a modal dimension, a sense of progression, he takes a relatively static opposition and transforms its irony to address a broader and more profound political dynamic. Thus, "Old Lem" is ultimately historical in both form and theme. That his refrain refers to a history of brutality beginning with the middle passage and continuing through the current moment elevates the poem to a metahistorical address, encompassing major defining dynamics in African American life.

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

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