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Sterling A. Brown's Life and Career

John Edgar Tidwell

Sterling Allen Brown was born on May 1901 into some have called the "smug" or even "affected" respectability of Washington’s African American middle class. He grew up in the Washington world of official segregation, which engendered a contradiction between full citizenship and marginalized existence. The son of a distinguished pastor and theologian, Brown graduated with honors from the prestigious Dunbar High School in 1918. That fall, he entered Williams College on a scholarship set aside for minority students. By the time he left in 1922, he had performed spectacularly: election to Phi Beta Kappa in his junior year, the Graves Prize for his essay "The Comic Spirit in Shakespeare and Moliére," the only student awarded "Final Honors" in English, and cum laude graduation with an AB degree.

At Harvard University from 1922 to 1923, Brown took an MA degree in English. In retrospect, he always talked about his fortuitous discovery of Louis Untermeyer’s Modern American Poetry (1921). This anthology, more than any other single work he read, radically altered his view of art by introducing him to the New American Poetry of Edwin Arlington Robinson, Robert Frost, Carl Sandburg, Vachel Lindsay, and other experimenters in melding vernacular language, democratic values, and "the extraordinary in ordinary life." When he left, however, he left knowing what the illustrator of Southern Road (1932) would later observe about him: "Harvard only gave you the way to put it down, not how to feel about things."

The sensitivity to the philosophical and poetic potential in African American folk life, lore, and language was developed in Brown during a series of teaching assignments in Negro colleges, including Virginia Seminary and College (1923-1926), Lincoln University in Missouri (1926-1928), and Fisk University (1928-1929). In each of these locations, he set about absorbing the cultural and aesthetic influences that would define the folk-based metaphysic of his art. On numerous "folklore collecting trips" into "jook-joints," barbershops, and isolated farms, Brown absorbed the wit and wisdom of Mrs. Bibby, Calvin "Big Boy" Davis, Slim Greer, and many more actual persons who are refashioned into the many memorable folk characters of his poetry.

The poetry collected into Southern Road challenges James Weldon Johnson's dictum that the that the poetic and philosophical range of Black speech and dialect is limited to pathos and humor. Although the minstrel and plantation traditions had heavily burdened African American speech with the yoke of racial stereotypes, Brown, along with Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston, admirably demonstrated the aesthetic potential of that speech when it is centered in careful study of the folk themselves. Brown came to this conclusion, as he said in a 1942 speech, when he discovered the way folklore became a lens through which to view African American vernacular language. Taking the approach of a creative writer to folklore, he said: "I was first attracted by certain qualities that I thought the speech of the people had, and I wanted to get for my own writing a flavor, a color, a pungency of speech. Then later, I came to something more important--I wanted to get an understanding of people, to acquire an accuracy in the portrayal of their lives."

Brown found support for his vision of "folk" in the work of Benjamin A. Botkin, whose term "folk-say" suggested a profound shift in folklore studies that Brown knew and approved of. Folklore, as Botkin pointed out, was something more than collecting, verifying, indexing, and annotating sources; it was people talking, doing, and describing themselves. To underscore this new emphasis, Botkin published a series of regional miscellanies under the name Folk-Say beginning in 1929. Brown contributed eighteen poems and two essays to editions two through four of Folk-Say.

The success of Brown's "theory" of folklore is revealed in its implementation. Brown's poetry received its motivation from a need to reveal the humanity that lies below the surface racial stereotypes only skim. There he found qualities erased by racial stereotype: "tonic shrewdness, the ability to take it, and the double-edged humor built up of irony and shrewd observation." Structurally, he made use of, as he said, "the clipped line, the blues form, and the refrain poem." Those folk forms were complemented by his astute experiments with traditional forms, such as the sonnet, villanelle, and ballad. Brown's frequent allusions to Black folk heroes such as John Henry, Stackolee, and Casey Jones also raised ordinary experience to mythic proportions.

Recently, literary historians have acknowledged the persistence of Brown's folk-based aesthetic in his critical and editorial work, too. But despite its coherence, his approach has received little study. Beginning in 1931-1932, when he returned to Harvard for doctoral study, Brown focused his critical writing on examinations of representational issues. The result was "Plays of the Irish Character: A Study in Reinterpretation" (an unpublished 1932 course thesis), "Negro Character as Seen by White Authors" (1933), The Negro in American Fiction (1937), and Negro Poetry and Drama (1937). The connecting link in Brown’s editorial and research work for the Federal Writers' Project, the Carnegie-Myrdal Study, and The Negro Caravan (1941), the most comprehensive literary anthology of Black writing of its time, is also his folk-based aesthetic. Collectively, this work points to Brown's need to demonstrate the diversity as well as the complexity of African American life. Against the conclusion of Gunnar Myrdal's An American Dilemma (1944) that Black life was a "distorted development, or a pathological condition, of the general American condition," Brown presented evidence that African American folk humor functioned as a strategy for exerting control in an often hostile world. Or when the specious argument was made accusing African Americans of having contributed very little to American literature, Brown, with coeditors Arthur P. Davis and Ulysses Lee, presented The Negro Caravan as irrefutable proof of Black literary achievement.

Brown also attempts to correct the myopic lens used to view African Americans by writing a number of prose sketches that were to be collected and published as "A Negro Looks at the South." These pieces included "Out of Their Mouths," "Words on a Bus," "The Muted South," and several more. The shared reference to speech tells us much about Brown's view of language as a vehicle for determining cultural authenticity. That Brown admits to viewing these pieces as poems reveals more about his aesthetic, too. Each dialogue or conversation was a unit of speech and thus needed, as he said, "counterpoint, cadence, rhyming, timing, etc. for impact and truth." Therefore, if cuts had to be made, whole units of dialogue should be cut, not cuts within the unit.

The careful reconsideration of Black speech as a viable medium of artistic expression became for Brown the predominant means for reclaiming the humanity of African Americans. This pursuit, of course, had social implications. Brown and others shared the view that "art is a handmaiden to social policy." Although a staunch believer in the promises of the Constitution, Brown was aware that such provisions as the infamous "three-fifths compromise" began a lengthy list of stumbling blocks to achieving life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The American dream meant for Brown the addition of two-fifths more, making a whole number. The root word in "integration" is "integer," which means "whole or complete." As literary historians and cultural critics reexamine the value of the vernacular in their respective pursuits, Brown's daring efforts to make Black folk speech claim a rightful place for him and his people will be properly acknowledged.

From The Oxford Companion to African American Literature. Copyright © 1997 by Oxford University Press.

Robert Stepto

Brown, Sterling Allen (1 May 1901-13 Jan. 1989), professor of English, poet, and essayist, was born in Washington, D.C., the son of Sterling Nelson Brown, a minister and divinity school professor, and Adelaide Allen. After graduating as valedictorian from Dunbar High School in 1918, Brown matriculated at Williams College, where he studied French and English literature and won the Graves Prize for an essay on Molière and Shakespeare. He was graduated from Williams in 1922 with Phi Beta Kappa honors and a Clark fellowship for graduate studies in English at Harvard University. Once at Harvard, Brown studied with Bliss Perry and notably with George Lyman Kittredge, the distinguished scholar of Shakespeare and the ballad. Kittredge's example as a scholar of both formal and vernacular forms of literature doubtlessly encouraged Brown to contemplate a similar professorial career, though for Brown the focus would be less on the British Isles than on the United States and on African-American culture in particular. Brown received his M.A. in English from Harvard in 1923 and went south to his first teaching job at Virginia Seminary and College at Lynchburg.

Brown's three years at Virginia Seminary represent much more than the beginning of his teaching career, for it was there that he began to immerse himself in the folkways of rural black people, absorbing their stories, music, and idioms. In this regard, Brown is usefully likened to two of his most famous contemporaries, Zora Neale Hurston and Jean Toomer (with whom Brown attended high school). Like Hurston, Brown conducted a kind of iconoclastic ethnographic fieldwork among southern black people in the 1920s (she in Florida, he in Virginia) and subsequently produced a series of important essays on black folkways. Like Hurston and Toomer, Brown drew on his observations to produce a written vernacular literature that venerated black people of the rural South instead of championing the new order of black life being created in cities and the North. And like Toomer in particular, Brown's wanderings in the South represented not just a quest for literary material, but also an odyssey in search of roots more meaningful than what seemed to be provided by college in the North and black bourgeois culture in Washington. After Virginia Seminary, Brown taught briefly at Lincoln University in Missouri and Fisk University before beginning his forty-year career at Howard University in 1929.

Brown's first published poems, frequently "portraitures" of Virginia rural black folk such as Sister Lou and Big Boy Davis, appeared in the 1920s in Opportunity magazine and in celebrated anthologies including Countée Cullen's Caroling Dusk (1927) and James Weldon Johnson's The Book of American Negro Poetry (1922; 2d ed., 1931). When Brown's first book of poems, Southern Road was published in 1932, Johnson's introduction praised Brown for having, in effect, discovered how to write a black vernacular poetry that was not fraught with the limitations of the "dialect verse" of the Paul Laurence Dunbar era thirty years earlier. Johnson wrote that Brown "has made more than mere transcriptions of folk poetry, and he has done more than bring to it mere artistry; he has deepened its meanings and multiplied its implications." Johnson also showed his respect for Brown by inviting him to write the Outline for the Study of the Poetry of American Negroes (1931), a teacher's guide to accompany Johnson's poetry anthology.

The 1930s were productive and exciting years for Brown. In addition to settling into teaching at Howard and publishing Southern Road, he wrote a regular column for Opportunity ("The Literary Scene: Chronicle and Comment"), reviewing plays and films as well as novels, biographies, and scholarship by black and white Americans alike. From 1936 to 1939 Brown was the Editor on Negro Affairs for the Federal Writers' Project. In that capacity he oversaw virtually everything written about African Americans and wrote large sections of The Negro in Virginia (1940), a work that led to his being named a researcher on the Carnegie-Myrdal Study of the Negro, which generated the data for Gunnar Myrdal's classic study, An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy (1944). In 1937 Brown was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, which afforded him the opportunity to complete The Negro in American Fiction and Negro Poetry and Drama, both published in 1937. The Negro Caravan: Writings by American Negroes (1941), a massive anthology of African-American writing, edited by Brown with Ulysses Lee and Arthur P. Davis, continues to be the model for bringing song, folktale, mother wit, and written literature together in a comprehensive collection.

From the 1940s into the 1960s Brown was no longer an active poet, in part because his second book, "No Hidin' Place," was rejected by his publisher. Even though many of his poems were published in the Crisis, the New Republic, and the Nation, Brown found little solace and turned instead to teaching and writing essays. In the 1950s Brown published such major essays as "Negro Folk Expression," "The Blues," and "Negro Folk Expression: Spirituals, Seculars, Ballads and Work Songs," all in the Atlanta journal Phylon. Also in this period Brown wrote "The New Negro in Literature (1925-1955)" (1955). In this essay he argued that the Harlem Renaissance was in fact a New Negro Renaissance, not a Harlem Renaissance, because few of the significant participants, including himself, lived in Harlem or wrote about it. He concluded that the Harlem Renaissance was the publishing industry's hype, an idea that gained renewed attention when publishers once again hyped the Harlem Renaissance in the 1970s.

The 1970s and 1980s were a period of recognition and perhaps of subtle vindication for Sterling Brown. While enduring what was for him the melancholy of retirement from Howard in 1969, he found himself suddenly in the limelight as a rediscovered poet and as a pioneering teacher and founder of the new field of Afro-American studies. Numerous invitations followed for poetry readings, lectures, tributes, and for fourteen honorary degrees. In 1974 Southern Road was reissued. In 1975 Brown's ballad poems were collected and published under the title The Last Ride of Wild Bill and Eleven Narrative Poems. In 1980 Brown's Collected Poems, edited by Michael S. Harper, were published in the National Poetry Series. Brown was named Poet Laureate of the District of Columbia in 1984.

Brown had married Daisy Turnbull in 1927, possibly in Lynchburg, where they had met. They had one child. Brown was very close to his two sisters, who lived next door in Washington. They cared for him after Daisy's death in 1979 until Brown entered a health center in Takoma Park, Maryland, where he died.

Brown returned to Williams College for the first time in fifty-one years on 22 September 1973 to give an autobiographical address and again in June 1974 to receive an honorary degree. The address, "A Son's Return: 'Oh Didn't He Ramble' " (Berkshire Review 10 [Summer 1974]: 9-30; repr. in Harper and Stepto, eds., Chant of Saints [1979]), offers much of Brown's philosophy for living a productive American life. At one point he declares, "I am an integrationist . . . because I know what segregation really was. And by integration, I do not mean assimilation. I believe what the word means--an integer is a whole number. I want to be in the best American traditions. I want to be accepted as a whole man. My standards are not white. My standards are not black. My standards are human." Brown largely achieved these goals and standards. His poetry, for example, along with that of Langston Hughes, forever put to rest the question of whether a black vernacular-based written art could be resilient, substantial, and read through the generations. Despite his various careers, Brown saw himself primarily as a teacher, and it was as a professor at Howard that he felt he had made his mark, training hundreds of students, pioneering those changes in the curriculum that would lead to increasing appreciation and scrutiny of vernacular American and African-American art forms. In short, Brown was one of the scholar-teachers whose work before 1950 enabled the creation and development of American studies and African-American studies programs in colleges and universities in the decades to follow.


Brown's papers are housed at Howard University, chiefly in the Moorland-Spingard Collection. Joanne Gabbin, Sterling A. Brown: Building the Black Aesthetic Tradition (1985), is the sole book-length study of his work to date. Robert G. O'Meally's "Annotated Bibliography of the Works of Sterling Brown" appears in Brown's Collected Poems (1980) and in Callaloo 14/15 (1982): 90-105, an issue with a special section devoted to Brown. Robert Stepto assesses Brown in " 'When de Saints go Ma'chin' Home:' Sterling Brown's Blueprint for a New Negro Poetry," Kunapipi 4, no. 1 (1982): 94-105, and in "Sterling Brown: Outsider in the Renaissance," in Harlem Renaissance Revaluations, ed. Amritjit Singh et al. (1989). See also Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Figures in Black: Words, Signs, and the "Racial" Self (1987). A later discussion is in Gayl Jones, Liberating Voices: Oral Tradition in African American Literature (1991). An obituary is in the New York Times, 17 Jan. 1989.

Source:; American National Biography Online Feb. 2000. Access Date: Thu Mar 22 11:47:10 2001 Copyright (c) 2000 American Council of Learned Societies. Published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved.

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