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by Bamber Gascoigne

Roark Bradford (1896-1948)


American writer, whose works of fiction and folklore were based on his childhood's contacts with African-American preachers, musicians, and storytellers in his father's plantations. Bradford's first book, Ol' Man Adam an' His Chillun (1928) was adapted by Marc Connelly for the stage as The Green Pastures in 1930. The play won the Pulitzer Prize for Connelly; it was banned by Lord Chamberlain in Great Britain on religious grounds. The novel John Henry (1931), which Bradford himself adapted into a play, received harsh reviews and was closed after seven performances.

"The night John Henry was born the moon was copper-colored and the sky was black. The stars wouldn't shine and the rain fell hard. Forked lightning cleaved the air and the earth trembled like a leaf. The panthers squalled in the brake like a baby and the Mississippi River ran upstream a thousand miles. John Henry weighted forty-four pounds." (from John Henry)

Roark Whitney Wickliffe Bradford was born in Lauderdale county, Tennessee. He was the eighth of eleven children of Richard Clarence Bradford and Patricia Adelaide (Tillman) Bradford, both of whom were descended from families prominent in colonial and Southern history. Both of his grandfathers served in the Confederate Army.

Bradford grew up on a cotton plantation situated in the Nankipoo-Knob Creek area, near the Mississippi River. Early in life he was educated at home, he also attended public schools, and the University of California, receiving an L.L.B. degree. During World War I he served as a first lieutenant in the U.S. Army Artillery Reserve, stationed in the Panama Canal Zone. The was ended before he was shipped to France. Bradford then became an instructor in military science and tactics at Mississippi Agricultural and Mechanical College; he was discharged in 1920. From 1920 to 1922 he worked as a reporter for the Atlanta Georgian and the Macaon Telegraph. According to the playwright Marc Connelly, he was inadvertently involved in the hazing of a black football player, his own teammate at the University of California. This experience left him forever n advovcate of equal treatment of blacks. (Black Stereotypes in Popular Series Fiction, 1851-1955: Jim Crow Era Authors and Their Characters by Bernard A. Drew, 2015, p. 184)

In 1924 Bradford moved to New Orleans, where he was a staff member of the Times-Picayune. His home he made in the French Quarter, living there and at Little Bee Bend Plantation in Benton, Louisiana. After the death of his first wife, Lydia Sehorn, his high-school English teacher, he married Mary Rose Sciarra Himler; their son, born in 1932, became a novelist, too. In 1926 Bradford devoted himself entirely to writing fiction. However, it was not his passion, but something he was good at and enabled him to support his family adequately. He liked to fish and to travel, and played the guitar well. After he had a gaff-rigged 36-foot sloop built, he discovered a love for sailing.

Bradford's stories appeared in the New York World and in other magazines. His literary friends included John McClure and William Faulkner, with whom he often spent time at a small café in Franklin Street, listening the talented jazz clarinetist George ("Georgia Boy") Boyd. Bradford considered Faulkner the greatest writer in America. Another café cafe which they visited was said to have been the owner's business headquarters in directing much of the section's prostitution. ('Introduction' by Carvel Collins, in William Faulkner: New Orleans Sketches, edited by Carvel Collins, 1958, pp. xxv-xxvi) William Spratling drew a cartoon portrait of Bradford for Faulkner's Sherwood Anderson & Other Famous Creoles (1926).

In 1942-46 Bradford served as a lieutenant in the United States Naval Reserve, with assignment to the Bureau of Aeronautics Training, Navy Department. In 1946 he accepted a visiting lectureship in the English Department of Tulane University. While serving in French West Africa with the Navy in 1943, Bradford contracted amebiasis. He died in New Orleans on November 13, 1948.

Ol' Man Adam an' His Chillum, issued by Harper & Brothers, was collected from stories first published in the World. Later the book was loosely adapted by Marc Connelly into the musical The Green Pastures, which had 640 performances in New York and five national tours. W.E.B. Du Bois praised Connelly's stage version as "an extraordinary appealing and beautiful play based on the folk religion of Negroes." Langston Hughes noted in his story 'Trouble with the Angels' (New Theatre, July 1935), that "although the white producer and his backers made more than half a million dollars, the colored troupers on tour lived in cheap hotels and often slept in beds that were full of bugs." (The Collected Works of Langston Hughes: Volume 15: The Short Stories, edited by R. Baxter Miller, 2002, p. 267) The production won in 1930 a Pulitzer Prize for Connelly, and lead actor Richard B. Harrison received the NAACP's 1931 Spingarn Medal for making the year's most significant contribution to his race.

As was usual with Broadway hits, the musical was made into a movie in 1936, directed by William Keighley and Marc Connelly. This first all-black film since King Vidor's Hallelujah! (1929) begins with the sounds of a black choir singing the traditional spiritual 'City Called Heaven.'  Rex Ingram played three roles – Hezdrel, De Lawd, and Adam. A white actor from Louisiana was imported to coach the cast in bayou accents. Warner Bros. reissued the film on DVD in 2006, with commentary by black filmmakers.

Brandford also wrote novels which depicted the plight of African-Americans in its historical perspective, such as This Side of Jordan (1929), but the majority of Bradford's work was lighthearted and humorous. John Henry (1931) was based on the legend of the "steel-driving man" who died after beating in a contest a steam-powered drill. Between 1924 and 1931, there were nineteen versions of songs dealing with "John Henry" and over thirty versions of jazz, blues, and old-time versions of the song had been recorded. Possibly Bradford had heard some of them. In his story the protagonist is a steamboat roustabout who travels up and down the Mississippi river. The novel was made into a play in 1939. Paul Robeson played in 1940 John Henry in a Broadway musical production, which closed after seven performances.

In the wake of the Civil-Rights Movement, Bradford's stories were re-evaluated, especially his stereotypical images of African-Americans and patronizing attitudes came under criticism. "Mr. Bradford's stories remain highly amusing," said the black Harvard professor and literary critic Sterling A. Brown in 1968, "his generalizations about the Negro remain a far better analysis of a white man that of the Negro." ('Negro Character as Seen by White Authors' by Sterling A. Brown, in Dark Symphony, edited by James A. Emanuel and Theodore L. Gross, 1968, p. 139) Bradford argued in Ol' Man Adam an' His Chillun that there are three types of Negroes, "the nigger, the 'colored person,' and the Negro – upper case N." The Negro is the race leader, not too militant, concerned more with economic indepencence that with civil equality. The colored person, "frequently of mixed blood, lothes the blacks and despises the whites . . . Generally he inherits the weaknesses lof both races and seldom inherits the strength  of either." "The nigger" is indolent, entirely irresponsible, shiftless, the bugaboo of Anglo-Saxon ideals, a poor fighter and a poor hater, primitively emotional and uproariously funny. In an article published in Collier's ('Make Mine the Human Race,' 1945) Bradford said: "The only actual difference between members of the Negro race and members of any other human race in the degree of pigmentation under the skin. The oher so-called 'racial characteristics' one hears so much about . . . are pure hogwash."

For further reading: Black Stereotypes in Popular Series Fiction, 1851-1955: Jim Crow Era Authors and Their Characters by Bernard A. Drew (2015); 'Introduction' by Steven C. Tracy, in John Henry: Roark Bradford's Novel and Play (2008); 'Bradford, Roark,' in World Authors 1900-1950, Volume 1, ed. by Martin Seymour-Smith & Andrew C. Kimmens (1996); The History of Southern Literature, ed. by L.D. Rubin et al. (1985); The Smiling Phoenix by W. Hall (1965); John Henry: A Negro Folk Play Based on the Novel by Roark Bradford by Eileen J. Burrer (1951) - The Green Pastures (play), first produced in New York, Mansfield Theatre, February 26, 1930. All-black cast. In heaven the Lord, a kindhearted patriarch, enjoys a fish fry with His angels. God mingles among his creatures, just created, and becomes angered by their sins. He sends the unrepentant Cain wandering and generations later the Lord finds sin still rampant. In anger the Lord sends down the Deluge. But wickedness continues to prevail. When corruption has spread among the chosen people, the Lord renounces man. In the end, however, the belief of one man, Hezdra, and the suffering of Jesus for all men, move the Lord to become a God of love and mercy. The New York Times characterized it "Marc Connelly's naive, ludicrous, sublime and heartbreaking masterpiece." The Green Pastures (1936), film dir. by William Keighley, Marc Connelly, starring Rex Ingram, Oscar Polk, Eddie Anderson, Frank Wilson, George Reed. Humorous folk version of Old Testament stories as seen through the eyes of blacks of the southern United States. The film has been attacked for perpetuating unacceptable stereotypes; cunningly adapted for the screen in a series of dramatic scenes from Bradford's tales. Rex Ingram went on to play supporting roles in many films, including The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, as Jim, the runaway slave, and in The Thief of Bagdad, as the giant genie. "This is as good a religious play as one is likely to get in this age from a practiced New York writer." (Graham Greene). Note: Marc Connelly (1890-1980), an American director, producer, and playwright, won the Pulitzer Prize for the fantasy The Green Pastures. In the film he was given co-director status. Connelly's collaboration with George S. Kaufman resulted in a series of successful comedies, among them Dulcy (1921), To the Ladies (1922), Merton of the Movies (1922), and Beggar on Horseback (1924).

Selected works:

  • Ol' Man Adam An' His Chillun Being the Tales They Tell about the Time When the Lord Walked the Earth Like a Natural Man, 1928 (with drawings by A. B. Walker) - film: The Green Pastures (1936), prod. by Warner Bros. Pictures; banned in many countries, including Finland, on religious, not racial grounds. "A racist film, it nevertheless marked a sympathetic if patronizing appreciation of black culture and folk traditions at the time it was made, and as such represented an advance for Hollywood . . . Codirector Marc Connelly, author of the original stage play, wanted to shoot on location in the South and out-of-doors, but he was overruled; the entire production, a virtual stencil of his play, occurred on indoor studio sets. As mild as this film seems today, it evoked plenty of controversy, especially in the South, where most exhibitors boycotted it."(Retakes by John Eastman, 1989, p. 138) 
  • This Side of Jordan, 1929 (with drawings by Erick Berry)
  • Ol' King David an' the Philistine Boys, 1930 (with drawings by A. B. Walker)
  • How Come Christmas: A Modern Morality, 1930
  • John Henry, 1931 (illustrated with woodcuts by J. J. Lankes)
  • Kingdom Coming, 1933
  • Let the Band Play Dixie, and Other Stories, 1934
  • The Three-Headed Angel, 1937
  • John Henry, 1939 (play, music by J. Wolfe)
  • The Green Roller, 1949 (with drawings by Peter Burchard)
  • John Henry: Roark Bradford’s Novel and Play, 2008 (introduction and scholarly materials by Steven C. Tracy)

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