Summary: For Black History Month; using the poetry of Sterling A. Brown, "Strong Men", to illuminate the African-American experience and to connect with Paul’s analysis of the source of strength.
Bill Cosby has a routine about little old ladies who stand around looking cool. He says that if you mess with one of these harmless-looking, gray-haired little old ladies, don’t imagine that you can take them on and win. Says Cosby, you ought never to mess with a little old lady standing around looking cool. They may look small and sweet and weak. But just when you least expect it, that little old lady standing around looking cool will say something to stop you in your tracks and cut you down to size. Gruff Goliaths have been reduced to tears by little old ladies standing around looking cool. In fact, says Cosby, that’s how you get to be a little old lady, by standing around looking cool!
I think he means that if you can keep yourself together no matter what is going on around you; if you can marshal your inner resources, you can make it. You can be strong. You can prevail. And as the Bible puts it, you will not lose heart.
Standing around looking cool is a theme in the Christian experience. It is also a theme in the African-American experience. Silence, keeping your mouth shut, lest a job be lost or an insult be counted, or worse, a life be forfeited. Keeping quiet, though the mind and the heart want to speak up. Standing around looking cool.
Now in the African-American experience, it may sound like a betrayal for anybody to stand around looking cool. That may sound dangerously close to the old “yassuh shuffle” of yesteryear, when Uncle Tom and Aunt Jane were supposed to duck their eyes and agree to whatever Mr. Charley said. Standing around looking cool, quiet and collected in the face of whatever is happening – that might be mistaken for accepting insults and bowing to the system.
But I’m talking about more than simple silence. I’m talking about more than accommodating the system. I’m not speaking of cowardice or swallowing the bitter pill of prejudice. Standing around looking cool is what strong people do in a time of great stress. Standing around looking cool is what spiritual people do in a time of trial. That is indeed how you get to be a little old lady or a gentle old man or a great saint – standing around looking cool.
Thank you, St. Cosby, for that word! I don’t think it’s a whole lot different from Paul’s word:
“We do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.”
Sterling Allen Brown was a great voice, lifting up the African-American experience in poetry. His poetry is special, for he used the language of the people as well as the language of the academy. Brown heard the people, deep down, and in his poetry blended dialect with a style like his contemporaries Carl Sandburg and Robert Frost. When you hear dialect in Sterling Brown’s poetry, it is never a putdown. It is always the heart of the people, rendered faithfully.
One of the most celebrated of Sterling Brown’s poems is, “Strong Men”. It is a conversation between the poet and the people. The poet describes the horrors of racism, the middle passage, and onward. But the people counter, in dialect, with sage wisdom and a shrewd spirit. What the scholar sees and understands, the people have already understood. And they express their understanding by “standing around looking cool”. Remember – that’s not being passive. That’s not doing the “yassuh shuffle”. That’s not giving in to the abuse of power. It’s strength. Great strength.
What does it mean to be strong by standing around looking cool? Sterling Brown’s poem, “Strong Men” can help us grasp the African-American experience; and Paul’s powerful word in Second Corinthians can put it all into spiritual context.
First of all, let’s face it, life deals us crushing blows. Things happen to people that are so horrible they exceed what the most daring storyteller might make up. Who would have imagined that man’s cruelty to man would mean that human beings, made in the image of God, might be snatched from homes and families, herded like cattle into the holds of ships, and made to lie in stifling heat and sickening filth for months? Words cannot do justice to the terror of the middle passage. Sterling Brown can approximate it in a few pointed words:
“They dragged you from the homeland,
They chained you in coffles,
They huddled you spoon-fashion in filthy hatches,