Arts Listings

The Life and Loves of Novelist Cecil Brown

By Ken Bullock Special to the Planet
Thursday October 09, 2008 - 09:49:00 AM

When novelist and educator Cecil Brown—longtime Berkeley resident and teacher at Bay Area colleges—was introduced for a reading and talk he gave a few weeks ago at Washington University in St. Louis, Prof. Gerald Early recalled when he was in high school in the ‘60s, “The three books that everybody just had to read were James Baldwin’s Another Country, John A. Williams’ The Man Who Cried I Am and Cecil Brown’s The Life and Loves of Mr. Jiveass Nigger.” 

Now, Brown notes, Baldwin is dead and Williams doesn’t have a major publisher. “He isn’t appreciated anymore. I’ve tried to review him, and it’s been hard to get the reviews published.” 

Brown’s most celebrated book, The Life and Loves, was reissued at the beginning of this month by North Atlantic Press in Berkeley. Originally published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 1969 to great acclaim, Brown recalled his book’s reception: “Roger Straus was the greatest publisher in the world! There were Hollywood stars at the book party. I was on the Tonight Show, went to England ... I doubt any African American writer today would get the accolade we got in those days. It’s dead, now. No one’s interested.” 

Brown’s books continue to get published, reprinted and garner critical acclaim. His nonfiction book, Stagolee Shot Billy, published in 2005 by Harvard University Press, was praised by Time Magazine, the New York Times, the Guardian (U.K.) and in the Times Literary Supplement. The Life and Loves has been reprinted multiple times in Europe, Germany in particular (“But I don’t usually hear about it till later!”). 

With the Stagolee book, “I found the nonfiction material so interesting, I novelized it.” I, Stagolee was published in 2006, and “there’s the possibility of a film. Samuel Jackson read and liked it.”  

Brown, who also works with the UC Berkeley Department of Information, developing digital education video games for 3- to 5-year-olds, has made a video game based on the Stagolee tales for 13- to 15-year-olds, “for drop-outs,” he said. “Forty-eight percent of Alameda County’s young black men drop out of high school. Violence is such a waste of time. They need recourse to understand the structure of racism they’re involved in. And it would behoove us to find out what in playing video games, not reading—which about the same percentage doesn’t do—is a reaction to the system making learning boring, penalizing African Americans for a different understanding of what is play, what is work.” 

Brown was born in rural North Carolina. After he and several other students were lent a coach’s car to drive to an SAT test center, Brown received a scholarship to A & T College in Greensboro, N.C.  

As a college freshman, he was influenced by an event: when Jesse Jackson (“He was in a fraternity”) came in late to class, he answered the teacher’s query of where he was by “saying he’d been across the street at a sit-in at the Woolworth’s five-and-dime, protesting that black people couldn’t eat at the lunch counter there. The teacher turned to us and said ‘the rest of you should be doing that, too.’ I was witness to that history when it really got started, and never forgot how students could influence a country’s history.” 

Brown later attended Columbia, publishing stories in the student magazine. “I was writing everything I could; I always wanted to be a novelist. I went to Europe for the first time. None of this had been in the cards for me. I’d been a plowboy. After Columbia, it gave me such confidence ... worldly classmates inviting me to Nantucket—‘Meet my mom, she’s a painter’—I’d never have been accepted in such homes in Mississippi or Georgia, and I came in the front door with their kid, treated as an equal ... . 

“That’s why I feel such pain about the avenues closed to young blacks today. Young guys don’t get to hang out like that, meeting sculptors and musicians like I did, people thinking about what to do with their life—and so did I.” 

At Columbia, Brown was encouraged to write “by LeRoi Jones, now Amiri Baraka, who gave me a tip for an agent, and Seymour Krim, who sent me to Evergreen Review.”  

Brown later attended the University of Chicago, where he witnessed “the eruption of the Democratic National Convention, and when Martin Luther King was assassinated, the rioting on the South Side that spilled over into Hyde Park.”  

But it was with a recommendation from his Columbia teacher Mark Van Doren’s son Charles that Brown drove west “in a Cadillac, with a couple other students” to interview for a teaching job at Modesto Junior College. 

“I took one look at Modesto and could not even stop the car. We drove straight to Berkeley,” he said. 

Brown ended up teaching at Merritt College “and ran into Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, students organizing their own curriculum—and the Black Panther Party.” Brown staged his own plays at Merritt, where a UC Berkeley professor saw them and told him he should be teaching in the UC English Department. 

At UC, Brown met Leonard Michaels, Al Young, Ishmael Reed and David Henderson—“And I added Claude Brown and Richard Pryor,” who was performing at the Mandrake in Berkeley. Brown later followed “when Richard went down to Hollywood, working with him, being his full-time running buddy, day-to-day,” before “taking off to Berlin,” where Brown got involved in filmmaking.  

Asked what influence Pryor had on him—or vice versa—Brown replied, “I had such admiration for Richard. Taj Mahal claims Richard got all these nuances he needed for his characters from me, being from the South, Richard being from the Midwest. Like Taj, living next door to blues players, he paid attention. He says Richard did that with me.” 

(As Brown was explaining this, his cellphone rang. It was Taj Mahal, who, asked to amplify, said: “I bought a four DVD set of Richard Pryor, and said, ‘Wait a second! This cat’s from Peoria, Ill., and sounds like he’s Down South—like Cecil Brown.’ You meet Cecil and see how much Richard got from him for his characters.”)  

Brown’s Hollywood experiences found their way into a 1982 novel, Days Without Weather. Currently, his biography of Pryor, Kiss My Rich, Happy, Black Ass (a remark Pryor famously made to gay leaders, with Brown a witness) is making the rounds of publishers. 

Brown returned to Berkeley in the late ’80s to teach, gaining his Ph.D. in African American Studies, Folklore and Narrative in 1993. Currently, he’s preparing a class at Stanford: Classics 130: From Homer to Hip-Hop, on the oral tradition, studying “Greeks and Griots.”  

He said he believes that “with their feet in the oral tradition, African Americans anticipated the digital age.” 

“No Child Left Behind is the negative onslaught of the world Marshall McLuhan predicted in his famous Playboy interview in 1966, when he described the conflict between the white world versus the black as rooted in envy of a life left out for whites—and that blacks should maintain their connection with the Africa within,” Brown said. “I want to remind the academic world—and certainly students—of that, and to look at what real change is.”  

Cecil Brown’s website is