Work and the Poetry of Sterling Brown: Reclaiming Forced Labor

by Anita Patterson
Published December 28, 2013


Photographer unknown, “Richard’s family slave,” daguerreotype (circa 1850), collection of Greg French.

This man is holding a hoe, and his mouth is set in determination.  The hoe shows that he has worked hard all his life.  He has a look of defiant dignity in his eyes, verging on veiled outrage.  Unlike the Joseph T. Zealy daguerreotypes of degraded, naked slaves indecently posed as specimens of a racial type, this daguerreotype portrays an individual wearing his best Sunday clothes.  He is holding a hoe, a farm implement that was central to the farming culture of West Africa, where his ancestors came from.  It reminds us of cultural continuity with a long agricultural tradition throughout the Americas that goes all the way back to Africa.  There are many forms of hoe in Africa, but most of them had shorter handles.  (This one, which can be used while standing upright, is commonly called a Dutch hoe, and it was first manufactured in Europe.)  The man’s hoe is a symbol of cultural resistance and defiance:  it was used throughout the New World, and in some places (such as the non-Hispanic Caribbean) its cultural insistence was so strong that it replaced the plow.

I chose this image from the Mirror of Race collection because it surprised me as an image about “work,” and in particular because it tells us less about work itself than about the way in which this individual confronts the conditions of his work and of his identity as a producer. The portrait also surprised me because I interpreted it as a representation of defiance, under conditions in which a free and authentic expression of defiance would not have been possible.  After all, the man in this daguerreotype is a slave, “Richard’s Family Slave,” from Lewis County, Missouri, and his owner had the portrait taken around 1850.  The portrait made me wonder why I, as an early twenty-first-century viewer, would so readily interpret it as a mode of defiance, given that the portrait was posed—that is, its subject understood (even if he resisted) that he was being asked to present himself as a slave, to wear the mask of the slave, as Roland Barthes puts it in Camera Lucida.  In what follows, I’d like to consider some other works that influenced me as a viewer and interpreter, and very likely shaped my response to the slave’s portrait—a painting by Jean-François Millet, a photograph by Lewis Hine, and a poem by Sterling Brown.  I’ll conclude by examining some other examples from the collection that suggest why I consider this image of Richard’s family slave to be such a rare and interesting exception.

The slave’s portrait could not, in many ways, be more different from Jean-François Millet’s L’homme à la houe (Man with a Hoe), a painting that, like many others by Millet, evokes the heroism of people engaged in sowing, harvesting, gleaning, and other fieldwork, who put up with the incessant repetition and fatigue of labor in their daily lives.  Millet’s painting depicts a French peasant staring at the ground in despair, resting on his hoe for a moment while he is laboring in a field.  By contrast, the slave in the portrait is seated, proudly clasping his hoe; his gaze directly addresses the viewer, demanding that we think about the kind of work he does, and why.  The harvesting basket encircling his arm reminds us that he will eventually have to go back to the field to farm the land, and that he is burdened by his duties and labor as a slave.

One of Millet’s innovations as a painter was that he discovered new stylistic possibilities in the representation of types and scenes from country life.  In a composition of extreme simplicity, his portrayal of the peasant’s resigned and exhausted expression reveals Millet’s sympathy with him.  This makes sense when we remember that Millet was himself the son of Norman peasants, and labored on his father’s farm during his youth, before he decided to study art.(1)  During the nineteenth century, when Millet painted L’homme à la houe, a widely recognizable rhetoric of sympathy pervaded literature, the arts, and popular culture on both sides of the Atlantic as a protest against various forms of unjust oppression of laborers—including African Americans and children, as well as peasants. Consider the examples of Charles Dickens’s Hard Times (1854) or Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852). In this instance, however, it is undeniable, and significant, that Millet’s laboring man with a hoe is not owned by Millet—he is not Millet’s slave, someone forced to pose so that that Millet can render him.  L’homme à la houe thus highlights what is most different and complex about the slave’s portrait as a portrait of labor—namely, that the very labor of sitting for the portrait is unfree, just as the subject’s labor is unfree.

Still, my comparison with Millet is less far-fetched when we realize, as Ellwood Parry has observed, that as early as Alain Locke’s The Negro In Art of 1940, critics understood that American painters such as Winslow Homer raised awareness among nineteenth-century Americans about the startling similarity between the unjust and harsh socioeconomic conditions confronted by African Americans and by French peasants; and, further, as William Gerdts, Michael Quick, and others have shown, in taking on this theme, Homer was strongly influenced by Millet.(2) Like Millet’s painting, this daguerreotype portrait of a man with a hoe invites us to consider the laboring subject’s personhood, character, and condition.  We are invited, for example, to reflect on the symbolic resonance of their implements of labor:  Is the hoe a symbol of degradation or dignity?  Does it imply civilizational achievement and continuity or dehumanizing social death?



Jean-François Millet, L’Homme à la houe (Man with a Hoe), oil on canvas (1860–1862), Wikimedia Commons and the Getty Center, Los Angeles.

Another body of work that probably preconditioned my interpretation of the slave’s portrait is the collection of photographs that Lewis W. Hine took when he was hired as an investigative photographer for the National Child Labor Committee, and traveled across America from 1908 to 1912, photographing children forced to work long hours under dangerous conditions.  Like Hine’s later photographs about work, these images offer a great opportunity for thinking about what kind of social context made the slave’s portrait newly meaningful to me as a viewer—why, that is, I could have interpreted the slave’s portrait as an expression of defiance in the first place. Consider, for example, Hine’s photograph of three boys picking shade-grown tobacco in Buckland, Connecticut.  The caption, written by Hine, mentions, “The ‘first picking’ necessitates a sitting posture,” thereby reassuring the viewer that the children as subjects were forced to pose not by Hine, but by terrible conditions of labor within the complex, greed-ridden social mechanism Hine seeks to discredit and expose:


Lewis Wickes Hine, “Three boys, one of 13 yrs., two of 14 yrs., picking shade-grown tobacco on Hackett farm. The ‘first picking’ necessitates a sitting posture. Location: Buckland, Connecticut,” Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

As Alan Trachtenberg has observed, Hine knew all too well that documenting factual information, which was often hidden by nervous owners, managers, inspectors, and even the parents and children themselves, would not be enough to make the telling of the story a “social act,” because this would only be possible when some genuine communication had occurred. “Hine developed methods of presenting his pictures,” Trachtenberg writes, “as mute monuments seeking a voice in the viewer’s imagination, a voice in dialogue.” This helps to explain why, viewed in the aftermath of Hine’s social photography, the slave’s portrait demanded such active participation on my part. “The point of view,” Trachtenberg writes, “toward the status of social fact which evolves in his work (not just the work of picture making but of presentation, of interpretation of his own pictures) is the most interesting, difficult, and neglected feature of Hine’s American photographs; it accounts for what is most important in his work, the way his pictures invite and demand a particular kind of participatory viewing.”(3)

But what does such active participation in the communication of an image mean? How did I learn, consciously or not, to interpret the work performed by Richard’s family slave, even under such conditions of dishonor and subjection, as his source of pride and hope?  Such communication only happens when a viewer not only takes the time to sympathize, but then goes on to interpret actively and learn from the implications of the imagery, captioning, and composition of Hine’s photographs. Appealing to my visual sense, Hine admonished me to reflect upon my own experience and responsibility as a participant, not a passive spectator, in the social reality rendered by this image of child labor, and this, in turn, taught me to regard the slave’s portrait in a similar light.

There is, finally, a poem by Sterling Brown, which very likely influenced my response to the slave’s portrait.  Brown adapts the techniques of modernism to demand our participatory engagement with his text, in much the same way that Hine’s photographs do. Written in memory of his father, the Reverend Sterling Nelson Brown, it is called “After Winter” and goes like this:

He snuggles his fingers
In the blacker loam
The lean months are done with,
The fat to come.

His eyes are set
On a brushwood-fire
But his heart is soaring
Higher and higher.

Though he stands ragged
An old scarecrow,
This is the way
His swift thoughts go,

“Butter beans fo’ Clara
Sugar corn fo’ Grace
An fo’ the little feller
Runnin’ space.

“Radishes and lettuce
Eggplants and beets
Turnips fo’ de winter
An’ candied sweets.

“Homespun tobacco
Apples in de bin
Fo’ smoking’ an’ fo’ cider
When de folks draps in.”

He thinks with the winter
His troubles are gone;
Ten acres unplanted
To raise dreams on.

The lean months are done with,
The fat to come.
His hopes, winter wanderers,
Hasten home.

“Butter beans fo’ Clara
Sugar corn fo’ Grace
An fo’ the little feller
Runnin’ space.

Brown’s father was a former slave who worked his way through Fisk University, attended Oberlin College seminary, and became a minister who was also a professor and chairman at the School of Theology at Howard University.  The poem explores how, even or perhaps especially after the long, dark winter of slavery, the emancipated slave’s experience of freedom, of planting his own crops in the field, is a step toward articulating and realizing the American dream:  “Ten acres unplanted / To raise dreams on.”  Brown confers dignity on the field-worker in the poem in part by revealing his inner life and vision of a better future for himself, his family, and community.  The stanzas containing the field-worker’s thoughts are interwoven with stanzas that convey the perspective of a knowing poet-speaker, who suggests that, even after this hopeful moment, there will be troubles to confront in the future:  even if the man in the field “thinks” that his troubles will dissipate with the winter, we know this is not the case.  Rather than portraying the field-worker as a naive or self-deluding idealist, however, the poem demonstrates how, through his imaginative act of envisioning a happier future, his work has been transfigured from an experience that is backbreaking and demoralizing into a ritual that is healing, regenerative, and enjoyable, not only because it creates a sense of direction and goals in life, but also because it is done for the benefit of his family and community.  As Joanne Gabbin observes in her groundbreaking study of his poetry, “Brown’s poetry reveals an exploration of self-hood, a celebration of the strength and stoicism of Black people, and an abiding faith in the possibilities of their lives.”(4)

There are other images of work in this collection, but none conveys this message as poetically or powerfully as the 1850 portrait of Richard’s family slave.


Photographer unknown, oxcart with passengers and driver, tintype (circa 1875), collection of Greg French.

Consider this tintype, which was made about 1875:  it illustrates a community tragically divided.  The people are waiting for someone, and while it may seem odd to us now that the wagon is drawn by a large ox, this was not uncommon for those not rich enough to afford a horse and carriage, and so it is possible that the cart belongs not to the well-dressed women but to the driver, who alone appears to look at the camera.  The woman on the left looks bored and tired, the woman on the right seems resigned, and the woman in the center looks expectantly for someone who is not in the picture.  The women are looking everywhere except at each other, and certainly not at the driver; the driver’s stance suggests isolation and indifference, and although these ladies may be dressed for some occasion, we have no idea what it is, where they are going, or why.


Photographer unknown, cotton pickers, carte-de-visite (1860s), collection of Greg French.

Or this one, a carte-de-visite taken in the 1860s.  It looks as though the cotton crop is sparse, and there is not much for the pickers to do—possibly showing the shortages of the postbellum economy.  Or they may be cotton gleaners whose job is to collect the leftovers from the picked-over fields after the harvest.  The image draws the viewer’s eye to the large half-empty basket of cotton.  The environment is arid and people are not talking to one another.  There may be a woman with a baby in the background, which suggests that they could be gleaners, because this was work sometimes done by women, but we cannot see them clearly.  Given how stark and hopeless the image is (again, offering a vivid contrast with Millet’s sympathetic, heroic rendering of peasant women gleaning grains of wheat in a painting done in 1857), it is strange to recall that it was used on a carte-de-visite, presumably to advertise the wealth and social status of the property owner.

Unlike the portrait of the man with the hoe, this image tells us next to nothing about the character or humanity of the workers themselves—they are presented as mute, still figures in the landscape.  We learn little about the vitality of the folk culture associated with their daily work—the fact that, as Brown reminds us, “Out of the workaday life came figures of speech.”(5)  Brown admired, studied, and wrote about work songs as a traditional folk form:  according to one scholar, Mark Sanders, Brown’s creative adaptation of the prosody and stanzaic organization of African American work songs is one of his key achievements as a poet.(6)

Brown observes how work songs helped people to harmonize their physical movement under dangerous working conditions, whether picking in the fields; rowing, heaving or unloading on a boat; or swinging a broadax, pick, hammer, or tamper.  Elsewhere, he remarks that “coonjine” songs were created by African American roustabouts on waterfronts along the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, and named after “the shuffling dance over bucking gang-planks in and out of steamboat holds.”  Here, he says, having a bad sense of rhythm could have potentially terrible consequences:  “Unless the rhythm was just right a roustabout and his bale or sack of cottonseed might be jolted into the brown waters.” Similarly, when a gang of men was chanting a work song while they unloaded heavy steel rails, any break in the rhythm of lifting them from the flat cars to the ground could result in serious injury or death.  Work songs sung in prisons were “brewed in bitterness,” disclosing “the naked truth of desperate men telling what is on their brooding minds.”(7) Viewed in these terms, the poetry of work is not just a luxury, it is a cherished and necessary form of cultural sustenance that engenders a remarkable, heroic capacity to survive against all odds.

Henry Louis Gates has argued that “Brown is a regionalist whose poems embody William Carlos Williams’s notion that the classic is the local, fully realized.”(8) Like Williams, Edwin Arlington Robinson, and especially Robert Frost, whose poems he greatly admired, Brown recognized that work, combined with the resources of longstanding folk traditions, fosters expressions and metaphors that are beautiful, concise, and richly evocative.  “I was interested in how a person . . . could say so much without using too many words,” he once remarked.  “I saw a very tonic shrewdness; I saw an ability to take it. . . . I saw fortitude; I saw an irony and the humor . . . a double edged humor built up of irony and shrewd observation.”(9)  His grasp of folk traditions was scholarly, and deliberately comparative:  he read widely in Irish, English, German, and French folklore, and, having studied what Yeats had done with folklore in Irish literature, he saw African American folklore as having the same role in American literature and in his own poetry.  “I became interested in folklore,” he said, “because of my desire to write poetry and prose fiction. . . .  I wanted to get an understanding of people, to acquire an accuracy in the portrayal of their lives.”  Like many of his contemporaries, Brown lamented the destructive impact of mechanization and mass production on the ways working people regarded their activity of work:  “Song,” he noted, “as a rhythmic accompaniment to work is declining,” and although men still sang as they worked, “their fancies ramble from the job oftener than they stay with it.”(10)

I now realize how much painstaking interdisciplinary scholarship has yet to be done before we even begin to satisfy our longing for a vivid and richly detailed record of the lives, thoughts, and experiences of millions of slaves, here and throughout the Americas. Millet’s painterly discourse of sympathy, and the active reflection and engagement elicited by Hine and Brown, have given me precious insight into why I considered the portrait of Richard’s family slave to be an exceptional image of work in The Mirror of Race collection.  Millet taught me to imaginatively identify and sympathize with the slave; Hine and Brown encouraged me to consider my experience and responsibility as a participant, not a passive spectator, in the social reality rendered by the image.  In Brown’s poem I encountered an altogether new portrait of a laborer, the portrait of a former slave who is now free at last to work for himself and his community. It is one of the profound ironies of American history that, given how much work African American slaves did to create our nation, how very few images exist to acknowledge this reality. Millet, Hine, and Brown helped me, in different ways, to communicate with that lost humanity, people who would otherwise have been deprived of all dignity, and even a name, in the performance of their labor.  It is a valuable and far-reaching truth to have learned that art can, at its best, restore and commemorate their achievement.

(1) See Estelle Hurll, Jean-François Millet (Cambridge, Massachusetts:  Riverside Press, 1901), 1.

(2) See Alain Locke, ed., The Negro in Art:  A Pictorial Record of the Negro Artist and of the Nero Theme in Art (Washington, DC:  Associates in Negro Folk Education, 1940), 139; Ellwood Parry, The Image of the Indian and the Black Man in American Arts, 1590–1900 (New York:  Braziller, 1974); William Gerdts, “Winslow Homer in Cullercoats,” Yale University of Art Gallery Bulletin 26 (Spring 1977); Michael Quick, “Homer in Virginia,” Los Angeles County Museum of Art Bulletin 24 (1978).

(3) See Alan Trachtenberg, Reading American Photographs: Images as History: Mathew Brady to Walker Evans (New York: Hill and Wang, 1989), 203 and 197.

(4) Gabbin, Joanne V., Sterling A. Brown: Building the Black Aesthetic Tradition (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1994), 4–5.

(5) Brown, Sterling A., “Negro Folk Expression: Spirituals, Ballads and Work,” in A Son’s Return: Selected Essays of Sterling A. Brown, Mark A. Sanders, editor (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1996), 246. Brown’s essay dates from 1953.

(6) Sanders, Mark A., Afro-Modernist Aesthetics and the Poetry of Sterling A. Brown (Athens, Georgia:  University of Georgia Press, 1999), 56.

(7) See Brown, “Negro Folk Expression,” 257 and 260.

(8) Gates, Henry Louis, Figures in Black:  Words, Signs, and the ‘Racial’ Self (New York:  Oxford UP, 1989), 228.

(9) Quoted in Gabbin, Sterling A. Brown: Building the Black Aesthetic Tradition, 36. Gabbin’s source is a May 10, 1973, interview of Brown by Steven Jones and Stephen Henderson at Howard University. The interview was transcribed, and the transcript is at the Institute for the Arts and Humanities at Howard.

(10) See Brown, “Negro Folk Expression,” 259.