Friday, February 13, 2009


This striking portrait of Sterling Brown by Jack Coughlin graces the cover of an indispensible new book just out from Oxford University Press.  After Winter: The Art and Life of Sterling A. Brown, edited by John Edgar Tidwell and Steven C. Tracy, makes a powerful follow-up to the recently published A Negro Looks at the South, also from Oxford and edited by Tidwell with Mark Sanders.  Quite some time separated these volumes from the earlier collection of Brown's essays, edited by Sanders, and so this veritable flood of Sterling's work and responses to it is even more than usually welcome.

"After Winter" is the title of one of Brown's most moving poems, one he often liked to use to close readings.  It's a poem that looks back to his childhood days on a farm near Laurel, Maryland, a retreat from the Brown family's busier days in D.C.  After Winter is also the title of Haile Gerima's too-seldom screened 1985 documentary film about Sterling Brown in which you can see him read the title poem and identify himself as the "little feller" of the poem.  If you'd like to arrange a screening of this important film you can find details here.

In addition to new essays on Brown, this volume collects such crucial earlier responses as Alain Locke's piece on Brown as New Negro folk poet, James Weldon Johnson's original introduction to Southern Road, Charles Rowell's Callaloo interview with Brown and Lorenzo Thomas's essay on Sterling Brown's theory of the blues.  The book also offers such useful materials as a short Brown chronology, an annotated bibliography and a discography that not only lists recordings of Brown, but details recordings relevant to individual poems by Brown.  For one example, lovers of the Slim Greer series can supplement their readings of "Slim in Atlanta" with the song "Negro Got No Justice" on a Rounder Records compilation identified in the discography.

It's always the poetry itself that brings us back to Brown, though, and this book also brings us two "lost" sonnets Brown published in the 1920s that were not collected in any of his subsequent books.

Like C.L.R. James, Sterling Brown's life encompassed the greater part of the twentieth century, and After Winter is a treasure of a book that will help us understand much of the transformations Brown lived through and impelled.

No comments: