Sterling A. Brown's A Negro Looks at the South

Sterling A. Brown's A Negro Looks at the South

Sterling A. Brown's A Negro Looks at the South

Sterling A. Brown's A Negro Looks at the South

Excerpt

From their humble beginnings with Lucy Terry’s earliest poem to Rita Dove’s Pulitzer Prize–winning verse and Toni Morrison’s Nobel Prize–winning prose, African American letters have laid claim, either implicitly or explicitly, to the same Enlightenment values and ideals shaping the founding documents of the American Republic: freedom, equality, justice, and, above all, universal personhood. Indeed, in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century contexts, where letters and the literary tradition often served as the demarcation between human and animal, free and slave, subject and object, the very assertion of literary ability was the assertion of being, citizenship, and democratic inclusion. Thus a poor eighteenthcentury black woman’s chronicle of her community in Deerfield, Massachusetts, and a contemporary black woman’s epic tale of slavery’s (and emancipation’s) trauma may serve as bookends to a tradition shaped by the African American struggle for full democratic access.

Sterling A. Brown, poet, essayist, literary and cultural critic, teacher, ethnographer, anthologist, and raconteur, is a pivotal figure in this two-hundredyear-plus tradition, a figure who culls from his literary and cultural past, from prosody, voice, and idiom, and reinvents them for his generation and those to follow him. A quintessential New Negro, Brown stood in the vanguard as his generation reassessed its literary heritage; indeed, Brown created a completely new artistic and poetic vocabulary, re-created the modes of conception and

1. Henry Louis Gates Jr., “Literary Theory and the Black Tradition,” in Figures in Black: Words, Signs, and the “Racial” Self (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), 25.

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