Kevin Anthony Brown has published seven book projects. Like the others, his 8th book project (in progress, 2023) may all seem to be about one thing, namely history: art history; cultural history; Mexican history; or political history.
Closer reading reveals that what these six books actually have in common is related but distinct: namely, oral history and its transmission through the generations via elder griots at the intersection of oral and written traditions.
Beginning in 1983, Kevin Brown began publishing the pieces contemplated as his second collection of essays, Umpteen Essays in Search of a Novel, an ongoing project to discover Spanish-language authors in translation or to read/reread toward an ongoing exploration of the canon classic reissues of books in languages other than Spanish.
Nearly half the 50,000 words contemplated for Umpteen Essays have appeared in print, or are forthcoming.
Special mention for Notable Essays and Literary Nonfiction of 2020, “Criticism and the Age,” an essay-review of James Wood’s «Serious Noticing: Selected Essays, 1997-2019».
The San Diego Public Library, San Diego Writers Ink, Write Out Loud, and the La Jolla Historical Society invited San Diego County authors to submit stories for the San Diego Decameron Project. This project is inspired by The Decameron, a book written shortly after the Black Death overtook Florence in 1348, and a collection of novellas structured as a frame story by Italian author Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375). The book contains 100 stories told by a group of seven young women and three young men sheltering in a secluded villa. They fled Florence to quarantine themselves for two weeks from the pandemic that ravaged Europe between 1347-1351. To pass the evenings each member of the party tells a story each night, except for one day a week for chores and one for religious observance, resulting in ten nights of stories over the course of two weeks.
For the San Diego Decameron Project, local authors were invited to submit previously unpublished fiction or nonfiction narratives based loosely around the theme of the current pandemic. Twenty-five judges read all submissions and chose the top 100 stories. Winners will have their stories posted on one of the partners websites beginning in February 2021 (25 per site). The top 10 most compelling stories will be read by Write Out Loud actors and presented in a virtual presentation also premiering in February. All stories submitted will be digitally archived with the San Diego Public Library and La Jolla Historical Society.
The importance of this project is threefold. First, there is every intention to let creative writers comment on the present experience; to help all of us unpack and understand this moment; to reflect on what it means to live through the COVID pandemic as related through the written word. Second, during this time we’re all staying at home more, and as a result, people are reading more. So, to some degree, there’s been a rediscovery of the narrative form, the written word, and this project very much relates to that notion. Finally, there is this idea that we’ve been here before and survived. The 14th century Decameron was written during one of the worst plagues in history. Yet humanity survived, the human condition recovered, civilization re-emerged, and the early traces of the Renaissance resulted only a few years later and then carried on for two centuries.
This creative non-fiction group portrait depicts Countée Cullen, Ida Cullen-Cooper and their circle. It is not made up. It is based on biographies, letters, memoirs, newspaper archives and scores of other sources. Everything in this book actually happened, though not necessarily the order it happened in. My goal is to tell good stories well. Countée Cullen’s Harlem Renaissance: A Personal History strives to be as taut as a novella yet reliable as a fact-checked, long-form investigative piece. The dialogue represents things real people actually said to one another, ferreted from letters written to or about Ida Cullen-Cooper and Countée by members of their circle and others between the 1920s and 1960s.
Structurally, Countée Cullen’s Harlem Renaissance: A Personal History is a Foreword and Afterword book-ending 24 variations on themes of buried memory — the distortion, selectivity, subjectivity — and memory’s role in shaping and/or misshaping our identities.
In his introduction to Balzac’s Lost Illusions, translator Raymond N. MacKenzie says: “Whole family stories emerge across all these works, and the history, politics, and social relations of France are explored and analyzed from what seems like an endless series of varying angles. And allowing the reader to see these numerous characters from different perspectives, sometimes in the background, sometimes in the foreground, and in different situations at different points in their lives, gives them a depth that is unrivaled in fiction.”
By my count, at least 24 characters occur and recur in this essay-cycle, many of them outrageous even by Balzac standards.
Countée Cullen’s Harlem Renaissance: A Personal History — Structure/Table of Contents
Praise for Countée Cullen’s Harlem Renaissance: A Personal History
Also by Kevin Brown
Table of Illustrations
Part I – Past Imperfect
Part II – Future Continuous
The following presents Countée Cullen’s Harlem Renaissance: A Personal History in a nutshell.
Part I represents the years between Ida Cullen-Cooper’s birth and Countée Cullen’s death (1900-1946).
Countée Cullen’s career coincides with two phases in his life: (1) the ten years before he began seeing Ida Mae Roberson; and (2) the ten years after. Countée’s eventual marriage to Ida Mae had a happy ending, but lacked the melodrama of his fairy-tale wedding with W.E.B. Du Bois’ daughter Yolande: a disaster echoed in the famous wedding scene from Madame Bovary, discussed in the essay “The Bride of Yonville: Flaubert at 200”.
Who was Ida Cullen-Cooper? What are the unintended consequences of marrying one person and not another? How did they meet? And what were the odds of Ida Mae and Countée even marrying at all? Because both were married to other people.
Who was Countée Cullen? We know a great deal about his life, aspirations and triumphs from ages 15 to 42: the promise shown from the time he published his first poem; the eight or nine books published before his death. What I needed to know was who Countée really was, deep down, or imagined himself to be.
Where the “Harlem” Renaissance really took place is less important than who the players were, when and why they all met, how they became friends, rivals and, sometimes, even sworn enemies.
These portraits and group portraits are simple: picture a moviegoer watching Cicely Tyson as the 100-year-old escaped slave in Ernest J. Gaines’ The Autobiography of Ms. Jane Pittman (1974). She sits in her rocking chair, on a front porch in Louisiana, telling stories.
Harlem, in the years during and after WWI, was a continuation on the battlefront of arts and culture of warfare by other means.
Prohibition was repealed four years before Ida Mae settled in New York. Speakeasies and nightclubs closed down, the surviving cabarets re-segregated. The liquor wore off; the music stopped; the orgasm subsided. Whites began avoiding Harlem altogether. Langston put it bluntly: “a large and enthusiastic number” of whites wasn’t going to stay “crazy about Negroes” forever.
Cullen was in Paris on Black Tuesday in October 1929. He missed the stock market crash that sent the global economy into Depression. Uninspired, Cullen took and passed the New York City Board of Ed. teacher’s exam. “I shall teach literature if I can.”
In the midst of a hiring freeze, the New York City Department of Education extended Cullen a full-time offer. He began teaching French and creative writing to 12-15 year-olds at Public School 139, Frederick Douglass Junior High, popularly known as “139.” Over a 12-year period, the tension between fostering younger creative energies and nurturing his own was beginning to take its toll.
One September, dressed in ragged clothes and run-over shoes, James Arthur Baldwin began his academic career at P.S. 139. Cullen, the school faculty’s most famous author, was quick to recognize, value and put to use the raw talent of his school’s most naturally gifted writing student, who’d already appeared in print by age 12.
In the dead of winter, Ida Mae staked her chances on a one-way ticket and moved to New York. They began dating. In Ida Mae, Countée found the companion he missed in Yolande. In Countée, Ida Mae found somebody who could broaden her horizons.
Scholars of Lesbian & Gay Studies have proved that Cullen never really left gay life. What did Ida Mae know? And when did she know it? Some ask that. I’d rather know who managed the money. I bet she did.
Sugar Hill, where Ida-Cullen Cooper and Countée lived for a time, was a world of canopies and courtyards, liveried-doorman, and peopled by neighbors like Paul Robeson, an elite cadre of black doctors, dentists, lawyers and businessmen in luxury apartments landmarked by the American Institute of Architects.
In the Harlem River Valley, known as The Hollow, Cullen’s students lived in crowded roach- and rat-infested, under-heated apartments. When lucky enough to find even menial jobs, their parents earned lower wages than whites, and paid more than half those wages to rent housing which cost higher-income families less. Blacks paid higher prices for lower-quality food in the 125th Street stores that refused to hire them. Harlem rioted the year little “Jimmy” Baldwin entered P.S. 139, and exploded again eight years later.
Jimmy was promoted to editorial staffer on his school newspaper. Cullen had recently published a children’s book, and was rumored to be at work on another. A faculty advisor suggested Jimmy interview Cullen. What Cullen never realized the day these two squared off in a vacant classroom was that, for Jimmy, this interview was more than just an exercise.
Cullen had a mortgage in the Westchester suburbs to pay. For 12 years, he literally killed himself writing the Broadway musical St. Louis Woman. Rouben Mamoulian, who directed Oklahoma and Carousel, headed the production today best known for that standard of the American songbook, “Come Rain or Come Shine.”
On Wednesday, 9 January 1946, Cullen died at Sydenham Hospital from kidney failure precipitated by hypertension and uremic poisoning.
Future Perfect Continuous
Part II (1946-1986), represents the years between Ida Cullen-Cooper’s appointment as executrix of the Countée Cullen literary estate and her death.
Ida Mae came into her own; took over the family business. As early as the 1950s, Master’s degree theses and doctoral dissertations about Cullen began appearing. Then African-American studies departments and programs proliferated. By the 80s, the Harlem Renaissance was an academic industry, Cullen its poster boy. Active in the cultural life of New York, Ida Mae spent the remainder of her years traveling, giving lectures, readings. As executrix of Cullen’s literary estate from 1947 to 1986, she dedicated herself to promoting his posthumous career.
Friends who in their early 20s had bought one-way tickets, and reached that “rise of dreams,” New York City, starving, with a lonely dollar in their pockets, while Pig-Foot Mary hawked homesick chittlins on Lenox Avenue at 135th Street, who aged, more or less gracefully, and put on weight together, and now, 25 years later, shriveled and brown as fallen leaves from early-winter trees, marching in blank, funereal lock-step, gathered solemnly at churches and cemeteries to bury one another.
Countée Cullen’s Harlem Renaissance: A Personal History introduces just enough autobiographical material dating from author Kevin Brown’s birth in 1960 to contextualize his 1977 aspiration to become a writer himself. Critical writings published in Part II are fully intelligible only in terms of material in Part I.
Like Cullen, the author begins publishing in his teens. His first piece, appearing in Hemingway’s Kansas City Star, is a bombastic letter to the editor about prison reform before the author has even spent a week in jail.
“Bearden,” says Schmidt-Campbell, “was foreshadowing a generation of artists that succeeded those of the Harlem Renaissance.” Harlem without Romare Bearden is imaginable, but the artist of the monumental Block (1971) is unimaginable without Harlem.
This essay closely argues jargon-free criticisms about Cullen’s life and work the author has heard no other writer make.
Every generation or so, an African-American poet like Arna Bontemps, Sterling Brown, Countée Cullen, James Weldon Johnson or Kevin Young has published, almost before the ink had dried on what their contemporaries had written, anthologies redefining the canon of black poets from the United States.
The Collected Poems of Sterling A. Brown, superimposed upon African American Poetry: 250 Years of Struggle and Song, restores visibility to a central figure in African-American literary history.
Less blood pooled over juke-joint floors on hot Saturday nights than ink has spilled in the name of “Robert Johnson.” He wasn’t even born in the Mississippi Delta, didn’t always answer to the surname “Johnson.” Grown folk called him “Li’l Robert.” He called himself “R.L.”, short for Robert Leroy. How did a “1930s blues singer-guitarist who lived a short and colorful life” become a commemorative postage stamp? By what degrees was he transformed in life from the laughing stock of contemporaries into a “good player of old-time songs,” into a bona fide recording artist and thence in death into “the preeminent exponent of the Delta tradition”?
My saddest memory of the biggest literary gathering of my 40 year career was meeting James Baldwin. Sidney Poitier introduced me to Baldwin, who was in conversation with Kurt Vonnegut.
Efraín Bartolomé, a poet from Chiapas, lived through the entire beginning of the Zapatista uprising in 1994. His family, like many in the village of Ocosingo, received death threats from the Zapatista guerrillas who demanded they join them at risk of being declared enemies of the Revolution. This book, equal parts poetry and diary, is his account of that conflict.
Q: What was the purpose behind translating this particular book?
A: In 2006, I began corresponding with Mexican poet Efraín Bartolomé through PEN American Center. I was in my final undergraduate year in New York, and I’d been studying with Gregory Rabassa, translator of 100 Years of Solitude and many other works by Latin American and peninsular Nobel laureates. I’d begun publishing short translations in eXchanges and other literary magazines, but hadn’t had the opportunity to work on a book-length project. So, Bartolomé agreed to let me translate first book of prose, Ocosingo.
Translating a short book one short chapter at a time and then serially publishing those excerpts in literary publications makes the project less daunting that it might otherwise be but also presents challenges.
One challenge was Bartolomé’s vivid but not at all ‘picturesque’ description of a modern-day Maya Indian dressed in traditional clothing. Another challenge was how best to convey the emotional relief that seeing food trucks had on a besieged and famished city.
‘Replenishments are on the way’
is a serviceable option, but just doesn’t have the joyous leap of ‘volverán los víveres.’
The ultimate challenge every translator faces is to achieve high fidelity with low distortion. With any work, literary or technical, too literal a translation does as much disservice to the original as does taking too many liberties. I searched for equivalents that are faithful enough to pass peer review yet felicitous enough to capture some of the beauty of the original. The echo of A Portrait of the Artists as a Young Man in my version of Bartolomé’s prologue is both intentional and, I hope, felicitous. ‘Do the first draft,’ one of Rabassa’s colleagues used to tell students, ‘and then throw away the dictionary. Trust your meaning, and try to make it sing.’
On this project, length is not the difficulty. Part pastoral elegy, part eye-witness reportage, Bartolomé’s artful war diary is as much a prose poem as it is a memoir of the 1994 New Year’s massacre. Deceptively simple prose can be very hard to write, and Efraín Bartolomé’s Spanish proved more difficult to translate than I originally anticipated. His lines — double- and quadruple-spaced upon the page as if engulfed in a pervasive void of white — mimic the tense expectancy of nights and days punctuated by not-so-distant gun fire. At their best, they are as sonorous as recited poetry. A deceptively short work, Ocosingo has both the sparseness and density of a chapbook.
Translation is an inherent act of collaboration, whether proximate in space or remote in time. This was certainly the case with Ocosingo War Diary: Voices from Chiapas, which Mexican author Efraín Bartolomé affectionately refers to as ‘our book.’
This brief note will touch upon some specific literary, technical and logistical challenges we faced rendering ‘3 January 1994’ and Ocosingo’s 18 other chapters into English.
In purely literary terms, Ocosingo is a landmark in writings about Chiapas. To do justice to this multifaceted prose work composed by a poet, I weighed each word carefully while trying to make the text read as rapidly as possible — to the eye, if not the sense. I employed certain techniques to pare down the text and speed up the action, thus adding to the impression of someone scribbling hastily in real time under conditions of extreme stress.
I consciously mimicked the telegraphic urgency of these rhythms. Dropped subject pronouns whenever it was clear from the antecedent who was doing or saying what. Started sentences directly with the verb, thus imitating a feature of Spanish readily familiar to readers who have studied Latin, Greek or other highly inflected languages. For similar reasons, I used contractions wherever rhythm and narrative tone didn’t otherwise indicate.
Logistically, project management and time management were the main challenges. 19 chapters meant several times that many moving parts. Each chapter consisted of: (1) the Spanish-language source text in Microsoft Word; (2) an English draft translation exported to an Intermediate Translation Document (‘ITD’) format associated with the computer assisted translation (‘CAT’) program known to technical translators as SDL/Trados; (3) a file generated by SDL and re-exported to Microsoft Word, formatted with footnotes, endnotes and sprinkled with translator queries electronically highlighted and bracketed in [yellow]; (4) a separate Microsoft Word document consisting of author comments, numbered in red and correcting, confirming or clarifying line by line, sometimes word for word queries from the draft translation; and lastly (5) an English language final incorporating the author comments and improving on any infelicities the translator missed first time around.
Ocosingo contains many lyric contemplations of the natural world — mountain ranges, river systems — alongside graphic descriptions of battle scenes:
17:00 Death hangs its hammock beneath the rainbow
My Spanish vocabulary, despite 4 years of formal training and 10 years of professional technical translation experience, was stretched by this project. In addition to the document files mentioned earlier, I maintained several project data files: (1) a Microsoft Access translation memory associated with the .itd file; a separate SDL terminology database devoted to lexical quandaries like exotic flora, fauna, foodstuffs, slang (which all vary greatly from country to country and even region to region within a given language), weaponry and other technical terms not frequently used in everyday speech. Sometimes a very simple word will have what linguists call a ‘low frequency’ shade of meaning or nuance. The act of seeing an unfamiliar word or usage, researching it on a social media translators’ networking website like proz.com, then manually entering that word or usage into one or more databases definitely helps reinforce retention. But it also adds exponentially to the time it takes to draft a given passage. Google is faster than combing through physically far-flung, specialized reference volumes, but still very time-consuming.
My preliminary version was even rougher than I thought. I proofread the English draft against the Spanish original with a fresh eye, then sent the author an email attaching the draft translation for his review and comment. He sent me an email acknowledging receipt. Days or weeks might pass before I heard back from him. Which was a good thing. Because it allowed me to move on to the next chapter, repeat the process, and gain some much needed perspective on the one currently under draft.
The author’s corrections were always clear and easy to follow. Sometimes he would clarify what at first reading seemed an obscure literary allusion but was simply a reference to the Mexican National Anthem or a remark overheard in the street. Sometimes an endnote I’d spent a lot of time and energy proactively researching was simply way off base. Sometimes exuberantly vulgar jokes or references to Mexican politics had to be explained. Other times, his comments came complete with picture dictionary illustrations. Usually, the author simply wrote ‘OK’, confirming that English words like ‘Governor’ or ‘guerrillas’, not found in the original Spanish text, were in fact necessary to clarify for the reader what was meant by ‘him’ or ‘they’. In the end, in purely word-processing mode, I auto shuffled through the 900 mp3 music files on my hard drive, cranked up my headphones, and actually enjoyed the translation process for a couple of hours. I gave it one last read-through for glaring typos or omissions, then transmitted what follows to Hayden’s Ferry Review.
We made a good team, Efraín and I. In this way, the moving parts were coordinated, and the complete manuscript grew incrementally, chapter by completed chapter, until the entire book was, relatively painlessly, complete. As translator, I found working with a savvy and cooperative living author so advantageous I almost can’t imagine doing it any other way.
Our book has provided me a unique opportunity to delve deeper into the rich and varied literary traditions of the language I married into. Ocosingo’s artistry and historical importance are such that every chapter, every page almost, offered technical and literary challenges that helped me continue growing as a writer in my own right. Here’s hoping these notes may prove useful to others as they face their own translation project challenges.
A wealth of vital information about African-American history, culture, and contemporary life In the tradition of the million-selling New York Public Library Desk Reference, here is the ultimate one-stop resource for information about African-American life. Packed with over 5,000 entries, this landmark reference taps the resources of the prestigious Schomberg Center for Research in Black Culture to provide an array of frequently sought information. whether you’re looking for Nat Turner’s revolt, scholarships for black students, Bessie Smith’s greatest hits, or members of the Congressional Black Caucus. Combining information not found in any other single book — and hard to find on the Internet — this unique work serves as an essential historical and cultural reference, comprehensive resource directory, and browsable collection of fascinating facts and figures. Topics covered include politics and civil rights, business, religion, science, health, the arts, sports, and the Diaspora. The information is presented in a host of formats, including charts, tables, timelines, historical entries, reading lists, recipes, and biographical profiles. The New York Public Library is one of the most respected names in reference publishing. Their acclaimed reference works have sold in excess of a million copies. The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture is regarded as one of the world’s foremost research facilities devoted to the collection, preservation, and interpretation of materials documenting black life.
‘Indispensable for those interested in the African American experience. We have no better source for quick and reliable information.’ ~ Cornel West, Alphonse Fletcher University Professor, Harvard University
‘As much about African American culture as one could possibly gain from one volume is now available in this highly readable, easily accessible, genuinely informative desk reference.’ ~ Johnetta B. Cole, PhD, President Emerita, Spelman College; Presidential Distinguished Professor, Emory University
Commissioned in 1993, just after the release of Spike Lee’s movie on the same subject, Kevin Brown’s second book attempts to chronicle the rise and fall of Malcolm X as well as that of rival leader Martin Luther King against the backdrop of the civil rights and black nationalist movements.
Q: What was the purpose behind writing this particular book?
A: A more ambitious book, Malcolm X attempts to chronicle his rise as well as that of rival leader Martin Luther King against the backdrop of the civil rights and black nationalist movements.
Formally, I wanted to explore two literary genres: biography; and the essay. Malcolm X aspires to all the things biography has historically been–didactic, exemplary, commemorative, cautionary– everything but hagiographic. Formal or informal, lyric or expository, solemn or satirical as the context requires, Malcolm X is essentially an attempt at a vividly nuanced biographical essay, interpretive analysis of the Nation of Islam in the larger context of the civil rights movement and a theory of his sudden reemergence as pop-culture icon a generation after his assassination. Ideally, the aim was to combine both forms to achieve something of the wit and perspicacity of Strachey’s superb quartet, Eminent Victorians.
Biographically, in writing about a figure as simultaneously overexposed and elusive as Malcolm X, the challenge was either to say something about him that hadn’t already been said, or to say it in a different way. The tension between myth and memory as well as the use of multiple perspectives and interior monologue were intended to reveal as many facets of his character from as many angles as possible. The idea was to evoke both subjective and objective reality, revealing the minds of Malcolm and Muhammad at work–their ambitions, their frustrations and reasoning, however flawed. This multiplicity of ‘truths’ was intended to create the impression of complexity, not confusion. Far from mere conceit, this technique seemed the most economical means, in a book so short, of illuminating character from the inside out.
I wanted to reach the broadest possible audience in the liveliest possible manner while remaining true to my own aesthetic; to create a provocative portrait without resorting to shock tactics. Was Malcolm X merely a ‘talented rabble-rouser’, as one critic put it, or was he an inspired and inspiring teacher? A little of both, I think. Malcolm’s life, like his Autobiography, is a classic story of transformation and redemption. Whatever his lasting political and philosophical legacy, recognition of his courage, charisma, intelligence and influence in struggling to articulate the plight of African Americans and its implications for the country at large is long overdue. 1995 being the 30th anniversary of his assassination, it seemed a good time to reassess, citing a fairly representative cross-section of thinking by contemporary writers on Malcolm X, just what his life might mean for mine and future generations.
Depicting the life of Romare Bearden, a biography tells the story of a brilliant artist who created powerful collages and paintings of humanity from the perspective of African-American experience. Bearden’s Southern childhood, teenage years in New York at the height of the Harlem Renaissance, and lifelong struggles with channeling his artistic talent fuel this thoughtfully presented book. Black-and-white reproductions and a few color plates give an indication of the artist’s work. ~ Horn Book
Q: What was the purpose behind writing this particular book?
A: I first learned of Aaron Douglas, Palmer Hayden, Jacob Lawrence, Augusta Savage, Hale Woodruff and other African-American artists through my great-grandmother, who had known them all and proudly owned their work. Romare Bearden was a family friend, Harlem Renaissance poet Countée Cullen having been an early supporter and collector. Even at his death in 1988, Bearden was still underrated in comparison with New York School contemporaries like Jackson Pollock and Robert Motherwell or even post- Harlem Renaissance contemporaries like Jacob Lawrence. Romare Bearden, my first book written under contract, afforded me an opportunity to: (1) help bring his work to the attention of an ever-widening public; (2) explore my African- American heritage, namely the Great Migration of blacks to the urban North from the rural South between World Wars I and II; and further my interest in the visual arts.