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Brown, Wesley

BROWN, Wesley

Nationality: American. Born: New York, New York, 23 May 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.

* * *

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 themBrown'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 manhoodwhose disintegration he attributes more to the brainwashing bravado advertised in John Wayne movies than to the hand he lost in VietnamEllington 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 historythose 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 carshence, 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 uniquethey own their own minstrel company, are outspoken proto-feminists, carry concealed knives, and ignore social as well as gender codes by pursuing bisexual relationshipsthe 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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Brown, Wesley 1945–

Wesley Brown 1945

Author, professor

At a Glance


Writer Wesley Brown initially came to prominence with the publication of his first novel, Tragic Magic, in 1978. Since then, he has published work in a wide range of literary forms: plays, poems, short stories, essays, and another novel, Darktown Strutters, which appeared in 1994. His work has been published in a number of magazines and anthologies, including Essence, Black Creation, Poetry and We Be Word Sorcerers. In addition to his literary career, Brown is a professor of literature and creative writing at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He has co-edited two multicultural anthologies, Visions of America (1991) and Imagining America (1993). He also edited The Teachers & Writers Guide to Frederick Douglass, which was published in 1996.

For Brown, his literary work and his experience as an African American are inextricably linked. I consider myself as a black writer, he told Steven Hart of the (New Jersey) Home News. And I understand how loaded that category is: that assumption that someone will be writing only for blacks. I see it as an enhancement, not a limitation. Whether someone allows himself to be limited by a category is up to him.

Wesley Brown was born in New York City on May 23, 1945. From an early age, he was interested in African American speech patternsin Browns phrase, what happens to language in the mouths of black peoplean interest that would later become the basis for his literary work. In the autobiographical essay, You Talk Like You Got Books in Your Jaws, Brown wrote, The talk that has made the strongest impression on me, as a writer, has been inventive in the arrangement and choice of words and insightful in its interpretation of the human predicament. The first examples were, of course, my parents and relatives. But as time went on, I began to identify barbershops and churches as places where conscious efforts were made to raise talking to a high art.

As a college student in the early 1960s, Brown was swept up in the growing civil rights movement. He joined the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee in 1965 and worked on the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Partys voter registration program. His participation in the struggle for civil rights was a life-altering experience, Brown later recalled in an interview with the Home News. Extreme times bring extreme responses, Brown told Steven Hart. My definition of myself as a person was sharpened. My experience showed me that each individual has some responsibility for improving the quality of life. Brown has also traced his interest in writing to this period in his life. I found my way into writing by temperament, Brown told Hart of the Home News. The writing came out of my involvement with the civil rights movement. It seemed if I could explain things, at least to myself, then I would have more of a handle on my life and not be at the mercy of things.

At a Glance

Born Wesley Brown, May 23, 1945, New York City, Education: Oswego State University, Oswego, NY, B.A. in history and political science, 1968; City College of New York, M.A., creative writing and literature, 1976.

Career: Taught at York College, Hunter College, and Sarah Lawrence College during the late 1970s. Professor of literature and creative writing, Rutgers University, Newark, NJ, 1979-; author, Tragic Magic (novel, 1978), Boogie Woogie and Booker T (play, 1986), life During Wartime (play, 1992), Darktown Strutters (novel, 1994). Co-author, W.E.B. DuBois: A Biography in four Voices (documentary film, 1996); editor, The Teachers & Writers Guide to Frederick Douglass, (1996), Co-editor, Visions of America: Personal Narratives from the Promised Land (1991) and Imagining America: Stories from the Promised Land, (1993).

Addresses; Office Murray Hill 047, Rutgers University, Newark, NJ.

In 1968, Brown earned a bachelors degree in history and political science from Oswego State University in New York. In 1972, he spent a year in jail for refusing to serve in the military during the Vietnam War. The reaction of the other prisoners, Brown told Hart of the Home News, was not very cordial. It did vary, he said. The fact of someone voluntarily going to prison was a bit bizarre. A lot of the inmates found it pretty astonishing.

After his release, Brown enrolled in the literature and creative writing program at City College in New York, earning a masters degree in 1976. Just two years later, he published his first novel, Tragic Magic, which received immediate critical acclaim. Lin Rosechild Harris, writing in the (New York) Village Voice, observed that the book sings with images and rhythms of urban black America, while Alan Cheuse, in the New York Times Book Review, described it as a jaunty prose version of the urban blues.

Several reviewers praised Browns skill in capturing speech patterns: Magic abounds in closely observed vignettes of city life and well-rendered dialogue, Hart wrote in the Home News. For Brown, the relationship between African Americans and language also has a political dimension. In a country that, as a matter of social policy, consistently tries to talk us out of an account of our own lives, there is no way to measure the importance of holding on to the languageto talk out of turn, no matter how exalted the source of official opinion, he wrote in You Talk Like You Got Books in Your Jaws.

There are many autobiographical elements in Tragic Magic, which tells the story of Melvin Ellington, a conscientious objector who serves time in jail. The novel follows the events of Ellingtons first day out of prison, when he returns to his neighborhood in Queens and meets up with old friends, whose lives have also had their share of tragedy. Interspersed in the narrative are Ellingtons recollections of his years in college and prison.

In addition to the emphasis on African American speech patterns, jazz is an important theme in Tragic Magic. Jazz has been important to me spiritually, Brown was quoted as saying in the Home News. The references to jazz are rooted in that kind of connection. Jazz sets a standard of behavior for me: where my values are, the value of improvisation, what freedom is.

During the late 1970s, Brown taught writing courses at York College, Hunter College, and Sarah Lawrence College. In 1979, he took a job teaching literature and creative writing at Rutgers University in Newark, New Jersey. He also taught courses on 19th & 20th century American literature, modern drama, American drama, black drama, and contemporary drama.

Brown is no longer involved in politics, he told Hart of the Home News: Not in any organizational sense of the word, but my values are as strong or even stronger than they were in the sixties, he remarked. People think if youre not involved in some political activity, then youre isolated. I dont believe that. At Rutgers, Brown has been involved with a number of minority organizations, including Carta Latina/Black Voice, the Bahai Student Organization, and the Advisory Committee on Gay and Lesbian Affairs.

In 1994, Brown published his second novel, Darktown Strutters. The story, an exploration of race before and after the Civil War, centers on an African American dancer, Jim Crow, who performs in minstrel shows, the primary images of Darktown Strutters remain powerful and ominous, Thomas Fleming wrote in the New York Times Book Review. Combining the simple prose of a folk tale with the metapsychology of a philosopher, Wesley Brown has created a vivid, disturbing work of the historical imagination.

Brown has also edited and co-edited several books. In 1991, he co-edited, along with Amy Ling, the anthology Imagining America: Stories from the Promised Land. This was followed by the 1993 book Visions of America: Personal Narratives from the Promised Land. Three years later, Brown edited the book The Teachers and Writers Guide to Frederick Douglass. Also in 1996, he co-wrote the documentary W. E. B. DuBois: A Biography in Four Voices.

In 1998, a revival of Browns 1992 play Life During Wartime was performed at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe in New York. The play begins when a young African American graffiti artist is arrested, and dies on the way to the police station, allegedly of a heart attack. The drama concerns the reactions of his family, news media, and witnesses. Life During Wartime was based on the real-life case of Michael Stewart, a young African American man who died in police custody. Anita Gates, writing in the New York Times, described Life During Wartime as a complex, intelligent, and thought-provoking drama. Its a demanding play, calling for the most intense of emotions

Brown regularly conducts workshops and holds public readings of his work. He also planned to write a play about writer James Baldwin. In addition, Brown planned to write a novel about characters who are caught up in the turmoil of the 1960s.



Berg, Stephen, ed. In Praise of What Persists, Harper & Row, 1983.


Home News, June 12, 1983.

New York Times, April 14, 1998, p. E5.

New York Times Book Review, March 6, 1994, p. 9.


Additional information for this profile was obtained from Wesley Browns Annual Faculty Survey, Rutgers University, July 1997 to June 1998.

Carrie Golus

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