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Cecil Brown

(b. 1943)


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(b. 1943), novelist and short story and script writer.

Cecil Brown has not been a prolific writer; indeed, the bulk of his literary reputation rests on his first novel, The Life and Loves of Mr. Jiveass Nigger, published in 1969. Yet to dismiss Brown as a minor writer based on the lack of prolificacy is to diminish the tremendous impact that his starkly ironic and penetratingly satiric narrative voice has made on the development of contemporary African American letters. Brown's influence has grown tremendously in the quarter century since his literary debut, and the discomfiting hilarity that is his trademark is now far more the rule than the exception in African American literature, particularly among African American male writers.

Cecil Brown was born 3 July 1943 in Bolton, North Carolina, in the southeastern section of the state, to tobacco sharecropper parents. He began his college education at North Carolina A & T State University in Greensboro but later transferred to Columbia University, where he was awarded a BA in English in 1966. He earned an MA degree from the University of Chicago in 1967 before embarking upon the dual career of writer and teacher at the collegiate level. He later earned a PhD in folklore from the University of California at Berkeley.

After a few short articles placed in reputable journals like the Kenyon Review and Negro Digest, Brown's The Life and Loves of Mr. Jiveass Nigger appeared in 1969 to mixed, though often exuberant, reviews. Most critics point to the novel's central character, George Washington, as the archetypal figure of the prodigal son who wanders far from home (to Copenhagen in this case), wastes himself in riotous living, meets with adversity and misfortune, and resolves to return home where things are infinitely better than he had earlier supposed. Brown infuses new life into a predictable plot with an insistence on the importance of myth and storytelling, and with a narrative voice that bridges Ralph Ellison's comic elegance of the 1940s and 1950s with the comic bawdiness and perverseness of writers like Ishmael Reed, Clarence Major, Charles R. Johnson, and Percival Everett of subsequent decades.

Brown continued the development of both theme and technique in subsequent works, most notably in a short story, “The Time Is Now” (1981), in his second novel, Days Without Weather (1982), and in his autobiography, Coming Up Down Home (1993). Here the homecoming of the prodigal son is more in the spiritual sense of recognizing, embracing, and understanding one's roots. The tone is customarily comic and sardonic.

Dating back to the early years of his career, Cecil Brown has been involved in writing screenplays and stage plays, including some work with the comic actor Richard Pryor. These endeavors, while sustaining him between publishing projects, also demonstrate Brown's appreciation of the comic aspects of African American life and his knowledge that within the comedy one also finds irony, complexity, beauty, and strength.

Jean M. Bright, “Cecil Brown,” in DLB, vol. 33, [Afro-American Fiction Writers after 1955], eds. Trudier Harris and Thadious M. Davis, 1984, pp. 32–35.Randall Kenan, “Coming Up Down Home: A Memoir of Southern Childhood,” New York Times Book Review, 22 Aug. 1993, 13.

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Subjects: Literature.


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