Friday, July 26, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 94: Countee Cullen, The Ballad of the Brown Girl (#166)

Countee Cullen, "The Ballad of the Brown Girl" (1927) from Countee Cullen: Collected Poems:

This pdf will only be available until August 2013, so if you like ballads about death--Nick Cave, I'm talking to you--go read this now. Because it's very easy to read this as a simple, old-fashioned murder ballad: man loves one girl, but another girl is rich, so his mom tells him to marry the rich girl; then, at the wedding, when the man fails to protect the rich girl (now wife) from the beloved girl's insult, the rich girl kills the beloved; and then the man kills the rich girl and himself. The hero, of course, is the Conquerer Worm.

That's one way to read it--not the Conquerer Worm, but that it's a typical murder ballad. But there is another, which is as a race murder ballad. While I kept making the distinction between rich girl and loved girl, the poem makes the distinction between the fair girl and the dark girl (or the brown girl). And yes, it is easy to imagine an old English ballad making that distinction; but fair vs. dark takes on somewhat different meaning in America--especially when written by W. E. B. Dubois's son-in-law. (Temporary son-in-law, but still.) When the poem mentions "blue grass," it's hard not to think of the American south (even if the dude is named Lord Thomas). So the final disposition of the bodies--white woman at the husband's side, brown woman at his feet--can be read in either way: true love being given pride of place after death; or the black mistress taking second place to the white woman who should've been the wife.

Yet I almost find this poem more interesting because of the arguments among the black arts community about what it would mean to make "black art." Cullen takes an old style story--even saying in the subtitle that this is old--and gives it a few twists to make it speak to a racially divided nation; whereas Langston Hughes is out arguing that black art needs to speak to a different tradition; while George Schuyler is out arguing that "black art" is less about being black and more about economic class conditions.

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