Brown, Cecil M. 1943–
Cecil M. Brown 1943–
Cecil Brown is best known for his 1969 novel The Life and Loves of Mr. Jiveass Nigger. His writings focus on the black man’s search for respect and identity in a racist white society. An angry and provocative writer, Brown uses humor to inform his social protest. Brown has written both fiction and nonfiction; he is a poet, playwright, screenwriter, filmmaker, commentator, and critic.
In his personal and poignant memoir Coming Up Down Home, Cecil Brown recounted his life as a sharecropper’s son in the small farming community of Bolton in southeastern North Carolina. Born on July 3, 1943, Cecil Morris Brown spent a very short time with his real parents, Cecil Culphert “Cuffy” and Dorothy Brown. He and his younger brother Cornelius, or “Knee,” were raised by their loving aunt and uncle. Though Brown would not learn the details of his family’s history until he was grown, he knew, even as a small child, that it was both sad and violent.
After living for ten years with their aunt and uncle, whom they cherished as their own mother and father, the boys’ birth father was released from prison. That event changed their lives dramatically. With their real parents, the boys moved to their grandfather’s swamp. Under their father’s abusive rule, the boys worked the land and sharecropped tobacco to support their family, which soon included four younger siblings.
Brown worked hard, but developed other interests. At age 13 he perfected his magic skills. His attempt to show off his magic on a local television talent show led to his first encounter with racism; he was denied air time. Brown’s enthusiasm for his own interests sometimes brought the wrath of his father upon him. When Brown would read or play music instead of working in the fields, his father would punish him. But his father recognized that his son had talent and bought him a saxophone. By age 16 Morris headed his own rhythm and blues band—the Bebop Kings. That summer he ran off to New York City. He dreamed of becoming a jazz musician until a heroin addict stole his sax. “Even when Culphert beat me, I didn’t feel this way… Why had a black man done this to me? My saxophone was a symbol of my effort to escape the oppression of my father…I let an old black man rip my magic shield from me,” Brown recalled in his memoir. As Brown walked the streets of New York, he recalled that “The frustration in the faces of the black men who passed me now was the same frustration I had seen in my father’s face…and I began to see and understand why he had been so mean and brutal to me. Perhaps he had not been brutal enough.” With his saxophone gone, Brown returned to Bolton to finish high school.
Defying his father, who wanted him to farm, and his teachers, who said he was not “college material,” Brown won a scholarship to the Agricultural and Technical College in Greensboro, North Carolina. To help him in his new endeavor, his father bought him a typewriter.
Brown had high expectations for his education. Disappointed with the state school, he transferred to Columbia University in New York City where he came under the influence of writer/activist LeRoi Jones. After
Born Cecil Morris Brown on July 3, 1943, in Bolton, NC. Education: Agricultural and Technical State University, Greensboro, NC, 1961; Columbia University, BA, 1966; University of Chicago, MA, 1967; UC Berkeley, PhD, 1993; W. E. Dubois Institute, Harvard University, fellow, 2001.
Career: Writer, 1967-; Warner Brothers, screenwriter, 1977-79; University of Illinois at Chicago Circle, teacher, 1967-68; Merritt College, Oakland, CA, teacher, 1968-70; University of California Berkeley, teacher, 1969-71, 1987-90, 1993, 1998, 2001-03; San Francisco State University, teacher, 1980-82, 1994; University of Maryland European Campus in Berlin, teacher, 1984-86; St. Mary’s College, Moraga, CA, teacher, 1991-94, 2001, 2003; UC Davis, teacher, 1993-98; Université Michel de Montaigne, Bordeaux, France, teacher, 1998-99; University of San Francisco, teacher, 2002.
Awards: Columbia University English Dept., Professor John Angus Burrell Memorial Prize, 1966; Before Columbus Foundation American Book Award for Days Without Weather, 1984; Berlin Literary Fellowship, 1985; Besonders Wertvoll Film Preises, 1986; UC Berkeley, Mentor Fellowship, 1992,
Addresses: Home —Kensington, CA.
earning his bachelor’s degree in comparative literature at Columbia and his master’s degree in English and American literature at the University of Chicago, Brown began his career as a writer and itinerant university lecturer, teaching African American studies, literature, drama, film, and creative writing throughout the country.
Brown’s first novel, The Life and Loves of Mr. Jiveass Nigger, was a dark, funny, satirical story of a young black expatriate searching for invisibility in white society. Although reviews were mixed, it became a bestseller among young disaffected blacks and college students of the 1960s and Brown enjoyed a brief period as a literary star.
He made influential contacts and began working in the film industry. In 1968 Brown met the actor Richard Pryor, after a friend told him that the comedian was crazier than Brown. He later co-wrote the screenplay for Which Way Is Up? with Carl Gottlieb, which starred Pryor. Brown’s experiences as a screenwriter at Warner Brothers and Universal Studios in the mid-1970s formed the basis for his 1983 novel Days Without Weather. In his story of a young black comic and a screenwriter trying to make a movie about a slave revolt, only to be confronted with black stereotyping and betrayal, Brown compared the Hollywood film industry to southern plantation life. Reviews were mixed. In a 1998 story in the Village Voice, Ishmael Reed, calling Brown “one of the most underrated writers in the country,” charged that a black critic had killed the novel because of its negativity.
On Christmas Eve of 1990, Brown returned to Bolton to conclude his memoir. His father finally told him why he had gone to prison: in the course of a drunken fight, he had killed his good friend—his wife’s favorite cousin. The information added depth and insight into his life and helped him finish his memoir. Coming Up Down Home received excellent reviews. At the time of his death in 1995, the French director Louis Malle was planning to make a film based on the memoir.
Inspiration for his next book came from a visit with a friend. Brown told Joel Selvin of the San Francisco Chronicle in 2003 that while visiting a German friend’s library: “I wondered why we don’t have a philosophy… We don’t have any books. We must have a folklore.” The idea fueled Brown’s imagination, and he returned to the University of California at Berkeley (UC Berkeley) where he began his PhD dissertation in African-American literature, folklore, and the theory of narrative—Stagolee: A Study of Black Oral Narrative. It was published as Stagolee Shot Billy in 2003.
The story of “Stagolee” had been a part of Brown’s life for a long time. He had first heard his uncle recite a version of the Stagolee legend in a Bolton juke joint when he was about six. In his memoir he recalled that afterward one of the men said to him: “Now, boy, talking about a bad nigger. That Cuffy is a real Stagolee!” Brown wrote: “Suddenly I felt I knew more about my father than I had ever known. Their gestures, their language, their looks, and their glances told me that my father was a hero to them.”
In his book, Brown traced the Stagolee legend to the fatal barroom shooting of Billy Lyon by “Stack” Lee Shelton on Christmas night of 1895. Brown vividly described the politics and culture of the 1890s St. Louis black community and the century-long influence of the Stagolee legend on literature, music, and revolutionary black politics. “Stagolee is a metaphor that structures the life of black males from childhood through maturity,” wrote Brown. Stagolee was “a ‘bad nigger’ cultural hero” and “a defiant, angry revolutionary…a symbol of protest.” Brown told Selvin: “It gets to the struggle of the Afro-American male for dignity and masculinity.” Although some reviews were critical of Brown’s scholarship, it was named a best book of the year by Esquire magazine.
The Life and Loves of Mr. Jiveass Nigger: A Novel, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1969; revised edition, Ecco Press, 1991.
Days Without Weather, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1983.
Coming Up Down Home: A Memoir of a Southern Childhood, Ecco Press, 1993.
“Go Home to Your Wife. Go Home to Your Wife,” Speak My Name: Black Men on Masculinity and the American Dream, Beacon Press, 1995.
Stagolee Shot Billy, Harvard University Press, 2003.
(With Carl Gottlieb) Which Way Is Up? (screenplay), Universal, 1977.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 51, Gale, 1987, pp. 32-35.
African American Review, Spring 2004, pp. 171-173.
Artforum, Summer 2003, p. 51.
Black Issues Book Review, June-August 2003, pp. 60-61.
New York Times, June 7, 2003, p. B9.
New York Times Book Review, April 27, 2003, p. 19.
San Francisco Chronicle, July 13, 2003, p. 24.
Sing Out! Fall 2003, pp 122-123.
Village Voice, October 20, 1998, p. 141.
“Cecil M(orris) Brown,” Contemporary Authors On-line, Biography Resource Center, www.galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/BioRC (June 3, 2004).
Stagolee Shot Billy, www.stagoleeshotbilly.com (June 3, 2004).
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