Wesley Brown Biography
Nationality: American. Born: New York, New York, 1945. Education: Oswego State University, B.A. 1968.
Tragic Magic. New York, Random House, 1978.
Darktown Strutters. New York, Cane Hill Press, 1994.
Boogie Woogie and Booker T. New York, Theatre CommunicationsGroup, 1987.
W.E.B. Du Bois, A Biography in Four Voices (with others). 1996.
The Teachers and Writers Guide to Frederick Douglass. New York, Teachers & Writers Collaborative, 1996.
Contributor, Action: The Nuyorican Poets Cafe Theatre Festiva, edited by Michael Algarin and Lois Griffith. New York, Simon & Schuster, 1997.
Editor, with Amy Ling, Imagining America: Stories from the Promised Land. New York, Persea Books, 1991.
Editor, with Amy Ling, Visions of America: Personal Narratives from the Promised Land. New York, Persea Books, 1992.
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Though he may not be prolific, Wesley Brown is certainly a proficient author and his two novels Tragic Magic and Darktown Strutters offer virtuoso proof of his talents. While both works explore issues of racial injustice roiling beneath the surface of white America, it is the seismic and shifting conscience of black America, of African-American men in particular, that invigorates Brown's work. Most compelling is his use of anxiety-laden themes such as masculinity in crisis, the double minoritization of black women, and the vexing conundrum of racial performativity: whether a socially constructed and thus "mimicable" blackness ever completely displaces a concept of black essentialism. And while nearly two decades span the publication of two vastly different novels (one recounts urban life in the 1970s while the other is set in the mid-nineteenth century) there is a binding aesthetic interweaving them—Brown's signature lyricism. Few novelists display such acumen for capturing the jazzy nuances of various types of black speech. With a crafty ear for a dialogue built upon generations of signifying, as well as the ribald ripostes of the dirty dozens and incantatory street poetics, Wesley Brown exemplifies the "blues matrix" which Houston Baker, Jr., and other literary critics have theorized as the central catalyzing framework through which all African-American art generates. This "blues matrix" is recognized as a central, shared component of a widely divergent body of late twentieth-century African-American writing loosely dubbed the "New Black Aesthetic."
Brown's first novel, Tragic Magic is the story of Melvin Ellington, a.k.a. Mouth, a black, twenty-something, ex-college radical who has just been released from a five-year prison stretch after being a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War. Brown structures this first-person tale around Ellington's first day on the outside. Although hungry for freedom and desperate for female companionship, Ellington is haunted by a past that drives him to make sense of those choices leading up to this day. Through a filmic series of flashbacks the novel revisits Ellington's prison experiences, where he is forced to play the unwilling patsy to the predatorial Chilly and the callow pupil of the not-so-predatorial Hardknocks; then dips further back to Ellington's college days where again he takes second stage to the hypnotic militarism of the Black Pantheresque Theo, whose antiwar politics incite the impressionable narrator to oppose his parents and to choose imprisonment over conscription; and finally back to his earliest high school days where we meet in Otis the presumed archetype of Ellington's "tragic magic" relationships with magnetic but dangerous avatars of black masculinity in crisis. But the effect of the novel cannot be conveyed through plot recapitulation alone, for its style is perhaps even more provoking than its subject.
Brown amplifies his hip coming-of-age story with a musical intonation making almost every paragraph ring with the cadences of jazz. Drawing from the trick chords of Thelonius Monk and the unresolving rhapsodies of Charlie "Birdland" Parker, Brown does more than simply quote music, he transcribes jazz into prose. Like inmate Shoobee Doobie who plays the "lingo" instrument and trades licks of street philosophy with his favorite records, Brown's narrative literally riffs on Ellington's past, building towards an epiphany of meaning which ultimately never really plays out as we, the listener-readers, or Ellington himself expect. After Otis is knifed while trying to restore his shattered manhood—whose disintegration he attributes more to the brainwashing bravado advertised in John Wayne movies than to the hand he lost in Vietnam—Ellington is also stabbed, but his wound results from a senseless act of selflessness as he attempts to stop a fight between two boys. The pain sends him into an aleatory fugue that begins with memories of Oedipal confusion, replays random moments of childhood, and crescendos into a psychological finale that mixes characters from each field of his past life and momentarily breaks the novel away from traditional narrative and temporal structures. In these last pages Brown evokes a postmodernist sense of what Frederic Jameson would call "depthlessness," for Ellington finally learns after recovering from his near death experience that despite his constant modernist searching for an ultimate meaning in life, a Miles Davis tune called "So What!" has held the secret all along, that "things really don't matter." But the novel does not terminate here. In a coda that dramatizes Ellington finally having sex with his new girlfriend, Brown provides a closure that is more erotic than emotional and redeems a hitherto problematic masculinity at the expense of the black woman, who is reduced to secondary status in the universe of the novel.
Darktown Strutters is a different sort of coming-of-age novel than Tragic Magic. This novel is not only set in the era of Jim Crow, its protagonist is Jim Crow, an antebellum slave whose dances are so incredible that they spawn a slave uprising, provide an avenue toward freedom in a white minstrelsy troupe, and even gain an interview with the renowned orator Frederick Douglass. As an example of what Linda Hutcheon calls "historical metafiction," the novel reveals Brown's maturation in moving away from his own time and milieu in Tragic Magic and turning a backward glance to history—those harrowing years just leading up to and just beyond the Civil War, when Jim Crow embodied the color line that prohibited blacks from enjoying the same activities as whites such as riding in the same train cars—hence, the designation of Jim Crow cars reserved for African Americans. In the novel, Brown dramatizes the "history" of the Jim Crow car as Jim rides in isolation to cities where the troupe releases racial anxieties by making fun of them. This is not the first time, however, that Brown commingles historical celebrities with fictional characters. A look at the dramatis personae of his play Boogie Woogie and Booker T (Ida B. Wells, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Booker T. Washington) provides further evidence of this impulse to thematize black history. And yet, it is important to note that Brown's historical approach approximates the more traditional roman a clef, in that he does not disrupt either the history that he writes about nor the method used to write it, as does, for example, Ishmael Reed, a novelist to whom Brown is often compared.
If Tragic Magic is a novel that sings and scats, then Darktown Strutters is a book that dances and shuffles. But critics have been quick to point out moments where Brown stumbles in his performance. Remonstrances once again center on Brown's characterization of black women, in particular the Featherstone Sisters, with whom Jim and Jubilee (an unpredictably violent male who represents another variation on the "tragic magic" love-hate masculine friendship) travel and perform for audiences after the Civil War. Even though Brown goes against the grain of popular American history by making these women so unique—they own their own minstrel company, are outspoken proto-feminists, carry concealed knives, and ignore social as well as gender codes by pursuing bisexual relationships—the sisters still operate within the parameters of a patriarchal fantasy, becoming the focus of hetero-masculine love interests instead of the potentially oppositional figures that their initial description would seem to imply.
Notwithstanding a lackluster characterization of women and an unbalanced distribution of give-and-take dialogue, Darktown Strutters intervenes into a current academic debate over the historical significance of minstrelsy regarding not only black representationality, but also the construction of American whiteness. However, those moments where characters brood most profoundly over these issues (Jim explaining his refusal to blacken up, the homosexual minstrel leader who can only cope with life while blackened up) occur during the first part of the book set before the Civil War. Thereafter, the postbellum sections build towards an unexpected riotous ending that tragically leaves most of the characters dead. In this way, the plot trajectory of Brown's second novel mirrors that of his first: both seethe as moods turgidly push toward an explosive ending. But the tone of Darktown Strutters and the stakes of its tragedy give it a naturalistic quality that Tragic Magic does not possess.
—Michael A. Chaney
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