By Nicole Wexler
“When a work of art is successful, something in the world is different for a brief period of time, then disappears. The ephemeral nature of art is magical in that way, something you have to carry away from the experience.” These are the words of playwright, novelist, and professor, Wesley Brown. For twenty-six years Professor Brown has taught for Rutgers English. At the close of this school year Professor Brown retired, leaving the Rutgers community with something memorable and magical.
On March 30, Professor Brown read for the final installment of the Spring 2005 Writers at Rutgers Series. He shared from his current work in progress, a collection of interconnected short stories entitled In the Land of Ooh Blah Dee. The Multipurpose Room in the Rutgers Student Center was full of Brown’s admirers both young and old, including students, former students, colleagues, and fans.
Fellow Rutgers English Professor Cheryl A. Wall introduced Professor Brown. She spoke of her own appreciation for him as a colleague, and shared two powerful testimonials from former students. Jennifer Schrieber, who graduated in 2004, described the overwhelming number of prospective students who typically attended Professor Brown’s first class of the semester, “a pile of students in class and more out the door” who wanted to get into his classes because he was “always open to listen to our opinions and thoughts about the books we read, so that we students learned without feeling like we were learning.” Former student Junot Diaz, who graduated in 1992 and is now a published author himself, wrote directly to Professor Brown: “Wesley, you were brilliant and you believed in us young writers when no one did.” He finished with, “We owe you more than words can say.” Before finally turning the podium over to Professor Brown, Professor Wall agreed with the sentiment: “He speaks for me,” she said.
Professor Brown then introduced his latest work, and read a story describing the life of Anna DeNova, a high-school-aged daughter of Russian immigrants for whom jazz and dancing become both the center of her social life and a symbol of the possibilities of America. Professor Brown is known as a master of lively and engaging dialogue, and this story is no exception. In reading, he makes his fiction seem to perform itself, and the audience laughed appreciatively at the wisecracks of the jazz musicians who make cameo appearances and befriend Anna, including Earl Hines, Charlie Parker, and Sarah Vaughan.
About the main theme of Ooh Blah Dee, Professor Brown has stated, “I’m looking at how the characters are caught up in, and shaped by, cultural changes – not just historical changes, but shifts in the art forms they value. These changes shape new attitudes.”
A lively question and answer session followed the reading. When asked why he chose a Russian-American female as his protagonist, Professor Brown answered that as a writer, he wanted to “go where the stakes were greatest.” Because jazz has mostly been an artistic space of male prerogative, he wanted to challenge himself and write it from “her point of view, not mine, but hers.” As for her Russian heritage, Professor Brown commented on the melting pot of races that was typical of jazz concerts, saying that this sense of inclusive community is what caused many people to become enthralled by jazz in the first place.
According to Professor Brown, history and social issues have a necessary place in creative writing. “The best writing, I think, is both enchanting and instructive,” he says, “although writers always have to be careful not to cross the line into the didactic.” He often finds inspiration in reading the work of others. “I appreciate writers who gravitate toward engagement with how personal fates become entangled with larger social realities.”
His debut novel, published in 1978, was entitled Tragic Magic. The story follows Melvin Ellington, a young man on his first free day after two years of incarceration for being a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War. The book touches upon the reactions of Ellington’s family and friends, as well as his own inward battles with peace and violence.
In 1979, Livingston College hired Professor Brown to impart his creative writing counsel to fledgling writers. The Rutgers English Departments on various New Brunswick campuses would unify soon after, asking Professor Brown to extend his curriculum to include literature courses. He not only discovered that he enjoyed teaching the works of others but also carved out a niche for himself, teaching popular courses in nineteenth- and twentieth-century American literature, and both Black and Modern Drama.
Studying the historical circumstances around works of art led to his next novel. Darktown Strutters, first published in 1994, focuses on a different art form than jazz: the nineteenth-century minstrel show, as it existed both before and after the Civil War. Through a transcendent talent for dancing and the emergence of lackface, the main character Jim Crow swiftly becomes a celebrity despite the odds against him. Today, his name is remembered for an entirely different reason than his art, a circumstance the novel explores in fictional form.
Professor Brown has also written several plays that have been produced by companies in New York and nationwide. “Boogie Woogie and Booker T.,” imagines what would have taken place if there had been a 1904 summit conference of black leaders discussing the future of black politics, highlighting the tensions between “separate but equal” advocate Booker T. Washington and the more daring minds that began the civil rights movement.
Another play, “Life During Wartime,” recounts the true-life tragedy of Michael Stewart, detailing the aftermath of this graffiti artist’s mysterious death following police arrest. A critic for The New York Times wrote: “‘Life During Wartime’ dives into the heart of one of the most explosive issues a contemporary play could hope to confront – police brutality and race – and handles it with an impressive subtlety and evenhandedness.” That subtlety in dealing with controversial issues is a hallmark of Professor Brown’s writing.
Professor Brown’s other works include two anthologies he co-edited with Amy Ling, Imagining America: Stories from the Promised Land and Visions of America: Personal Narratives from the Promised Land, both of which illustrate how deeply the American experience and multicultural roots are connected. He also has a forthcoming novel entitled Push Comes to Shove, which returns to the characters of Tragic Magic, following them as they struggle with a society that has become increasingly obsessed with violence as a means to political and personal ends. Retiring from teaching – to which Professor Brown devotes a large amount of time and attention – will give him freedom to work on many new projects.
Professor Brown will be greatly missed here at Rutgers, which was evident from the long standing ovation he received after the reading. We wish him all the best, and look forward to having him return to share his new work with us.
Writers at Rutgers