Robert Stepto: On Sterling A. Brown's Life and Career

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.

Bibliography

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. 

American National Biography Online Feb. 2000. Copyright (c) 2000 American Council of Learned Societies. Published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved.

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Criticism Overview
Title Robert Stepto: On Sterling A. Brown's Life and Career Type of Content Biographical
Criticism Author Robert Stepto Criticism Target Sterling A. Brown
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 04 Jun 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication American National Biography Online
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