In this essay, Retman explores Sterling Brown’s radical use of signifying ethnography in his posthumous collection A Negro Looks at the South (2007), a work of mostly unpublished essays written in the early 1940s when Brown journeyed as a participant observer to take stock of African American life in the South. Employing the methodology of anthropology and the genres of travelogue and documentary book, Brown attends to the silenced voices, ignored stories, displaced songs, and unmarked memorial sites of the South’s black inhabitants. He charts a narrative of the region altogether different from the white-authored Southern histories that preceded it. Indeed, A Negro Looks bears witness to the myriad ways in which Brown’s own mobility is constrained within the segregated spaces of the South, including its official monuments and markers. This is an ethnography that, in part, dramatizes the ways the ethnographer cannot gain access to his field. As Brown interrogates the practice of anthropology that he himself deploys, he adopts oppositional or signifying methods of observation and representation, different ways of seeing, hearing, moving and telling, in his fieldwork. Retman argues that Brown uses signifying ethnography to craft a radical counterhistory: as he dismantles glorified depictions of the South, Brown locates alternative geographies of dissent in which to secure modern black political identities.
Research Article| March 01 2014
Sonnet Retman; “Return of the Native”: Sterling Brown’s A Negro Looks at the South and the Work of Signifying Ethnography. American Literature 1 March 2014; 86 (1): 87–115. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00029831-2395528
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