The Souths of Sterling A. Brown

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The Souths of Sterling A. Brown

by Elizabeth Davey
Southern Cultures, Vol. 5, No. 2: Summer 1999

"One author's attempts to dispense with the Negro and to reveal a fuller African American experience."

‘Folk’ has no meaning without ‘modern,'” historian Robin D. G. Kelley reminds us. In this description by Sterling A. Brown in 1953 of the technological transformation of southern black communities, the expansion of the modern brings the folk into sharp relief. The extension of electricity, roads, and the mass media into America’s rural areas in the 1920s and 1930s inspired tremendous interest in the communities that lay on the edge of these transformations. The term “folk” suggests that these communities are outside the modern, the urban, and the industrial and values them as both threatened and unchanging in rapidly changing times. But in the essay “Negro Folk Expression,” Brown chose the phrase “breaking up” to describe an African American folk culture that was both changing and dispersing. Migration had brought this folk creativity to the cities; American literature and music were showing its influence. “Just as Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer were fascinated by the immense lore of their friend Jim,” Brown wrote, “American authors have been drawn to Negro folk life and character.”