Uncategorized

Wesley Brown Revisited

[By Jerry Ward]

Like
the walking bodies in our country that are in a slow hurry to advertise the
fine art of tattooing,  we best be asking
hard questions about keeping Black
real compared to what. Or can we defamiliarize an answer to Roberta Flack’s
explicit question by saying Pink
passing for White ain’t real?
In
a pure fantasy that lacks referentiality, Wesley Brown’s second novel Darktown Strutters (New York: Crane Hill
Press, 1994) is the inspiration for Spike Lee’s film Bamboozled ( 2000).  Fantasy precludes
proof. But we can have a noisy shock of recognition by juxtaposing the mumbling
surrounding the film with the silence that engulfs the novel.  Lee addressed the history of blacking up from
the outside, from the vantage of an imminent present, and his satire sticks
like water on Teflon.  Brown, on the
other hand, dealt with the racecraft of minstrelsy in America from the inside,
from the interiors of its languages by allowing his characters Jim Crow and Jim
Crow Two to be the partial narrators of the story. His fiction informs a consciousness
of American class and caste formation; Lee’s film trivializes that
consciousness and cashes in on entertainment values.

We
should note also that Wesley Brown has credentials in terms of cultural
nationalism that Lee must envy.  In 1965,
Brown worked with the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party; he became a member
of the Black Panther Party in 1968, a year marked by the publication of the
landmark anthology Black Fire and a
year that the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History so richly
documented ( read  In Black America: 1968: The Year of Awakening ). Brown became a
political prisoner in 1972 for refusing to be inducted in the military and
spent eighteen months of his three-year sentence in Lewisburg Federal
Penitentiary. We have a conflicted romance with incarceration in America, but
Brown’s excellence as a fiction writer and dramatist and editor is to be
measured both because of his political sacrifices and despite them.  His mastery of craft is not innately wed to
his ideology.  Let us be clear about
that. The separation of realms is no excuse, however, for failing to honor
those who teach us that art and ethos are united.
It
helps greatly to suggest that Darktown
Strutters
is to African American fiction what Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class
(New York: Oxford University Press, 1995) is to Euro-American critical theory.
The books do the work of enlightenment. 
Eric Lott tells us much that we do need to know about the centrality of
race in the whole history of American entertainment, although he carefully
avoids outing who now controls the entertainment industry in America.  Wesley Brown is exempt from having to deal
with that vexed and dangerous subject in his novel, because his objective was
to liberate the languages of minstrelsy to speak for themselves.  His superior artistry is implicated with a
difference that Gayl Jones noted between Zora Neale Hurston and Ernest Gaines
in Liberating Voices: Oral Tradition in
African American
Literature
(Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1991) —–“Gaines has carried us beyond
Hurston’s illusion of Janie’s voice to the full value and reality of Miss
Jane’s tall-telling” (169).
We
have too long denied ourselves the pleasure of Wesley Brown’s company and
denied that he is one of our national treasures, and we have squandered much
too much of our literary energy in consuming what the Idols of the Marketplace
have hoodwinked us into believing is Black. 
Do we have to remind ourselves that American Kente cloth is “made in
China”? One purchases the real thing in Ghana.  Wesley Brown’s novels Tragic Magic, Darktown
Strutters
, and Push Comes to Shove
may have been tossed under the bus by marketplace politics in twentieth-century
African American literature, but we do know they survived the accident and are
well. If it is probable that we can have a renaissance of intelligence about
what is Black and real, we will find ourselves teaching young African Americans
how to write well by reading Wesley Brown as we sing to them a memorable line
from Darktown Strutters: “Our people
pass the word more regular than we pass water”(47).