His Folk Nation, by Darryl Pinckney

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From his memoir Come Back in September, which was published in October by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

1.

My boss, Fran, was hoping to publish Sterling Brown’s collected poems. She sent me down to green Washington.

Brown had invented his own folk idiom to express a rebellious sensibility. The son of a distinguished pastor and professor of religion, he grew up in a house of six schoolteacher sisters, and then went in search of black life where there was not always electricity. He carefully observed the Joe Meekses, Bessies, Big Jesses, Luther Johnsons, young Freds, Johnnies, and Sams who abound in his poetry. He paid attention to their walks, their spare-ribbed yard dogs, bulldog brogans, landscapes of locusts, cotton, and flooding rivers, their habits of mind.

I thought his work was telling us that his first duty was to the poem and not to his sympathies, because he trusted what his folk nation stood for: railroad men highballing through the country, trying to get ‘de jack’; lowlifes playing checkers with deacons; nice girls unrecognizable under streetwalker paint; an itinerant guitar player singing his mother’s favorite spiritual, his cigarette held by the strings; a disillusioned veteran buck dancing on the midnight air. Laughter is a vengeance, he said.

2.

Sterling was sitting on his porch with his pipes, waiting. He was still tall and boxy. His thinned, white hair was straight, and his complexion a pinkish brown. He, like Zora Neale Hurston, had published his first book after the Harlem Renaissance had come to an end—supposedly. His reputation as a poet rested on a single volume from 1932, Southern Road. He was one of the few black writers of his generation who did not want to be part of the Harlem Renaissance.

—There were no intellectuals in Harlem.

None of the black intellectuals lived in Harlem, he went on. People only went to parties there.

—Zora Neale Hurston was the biggest liar in the world and I’m the second.

He meant tall tales. He told me one.

I said, thinking it for real—Oh, really?

He gave me an odd look.

—That’s something we, as a people, have lost. Son, you ought to know when I’m telling you a tale and appreciate it.

3.

In the kitchen, while deciding whose gin to give me, he said,

—Zora wanted me to love her, but she didn’t like men, because of what they could get, just for being men.

He said something really rude, large face smiling.

I said Zora Neale Hurston was turning over in her unmarked grave, forgetting that Alice Walker had had a headstone made for her when she found where she was buried.

—If she is, it’s with her legs wide open.

Sterling hated Allen Tate, he hated Pound, he hated Eliot. (He despised Tate for his cultural racism, including his saying that too much education was bad for a black person.)

—When I read The Waste Land at Harvard, I thought it was a lie. This is not a wasteland for blacks.

Before I left, Sterling showed me the basement where he worked. Walls of books and records, the overflow stacked on sofas, the desk behind another wall, the liquor.

—Too good to give to cats like you.

It was an intimate gesture, showing us his hiding place. But he went too far.

4.

Sterling would never give us his telephone number. But all summer long he called me up at home at unpredictable times to tell me things: Machado de Assis wasn’t white; I should have been in a black fraternity; Jean Toomer, his father’s parishioner and his basketball teammate at Washington High School, was not, strictly speaking, trying to pass. He was always in the middle of a sentence attacking agrarians. To what he said was Robert Penn Warren’s:

Nigger, your poetry isn’t metaphysical

Sterling had answered:

Cracker, your poetry ain’t exegetical.

His temper came from his grief. His phone improvisations were unpleasant. He said:

—Sartre ain’t worth a fartre.

Genet is gay.

Imagine a Negro appearing in The Blacks.

But something aggressive began to spoil the smile of his learning.

—Fran tells me you’re entranced by a lady whose last name begins with the initial H and ends with K. Now what are you doing with that cracker?

—She’s not a cracker.

—She was married to one.

—Robert Lowell was not a cracker.

—He was a Yankee, but he wanted to be a cracker. He tried to be difficult, not that he is.

Sterling hated New Criticism and “Ode to the Confederate Dead.” He hung up before I could say I didn’t know Allen Tate.

5.

I had to go over Sterling’s manuscript with the copy editor. He was not phoning back. There were so many errors and illegible words in the copies of the poems we had. Finally, it went to the printer. He had gotten carried away with the dedications. It was his last book, his summing up.

He called one more time before he gave up on me. There was to be a conference on African history in Washington, D.C. He wanted me to come to a party and meet Sterling Stuckey, the historian named for him, and John Henrik Clarke.

I said I couldn’t leave work and, no, I also couldn’t let him pay for it.

—Man, you are so influenced by those white intellectuals. You need to get away from them and be with some niggers.


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