John Edgar Tidwell: On Sterling A. Brown's Life and Career

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.

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Criticism Overview
Title John Edgar Tidwell: On Sterling A. Brown's Life and Career Type of Content Biographical
Criticism Author John Edgar Tidwell Criticism Target Sterling A. Brown
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 04 Jun 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication The Oxford Companion to African American Literature
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