Brown, Sterling Allen

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Sterling Allen Brown


Writer, folklorist, educator

Though he has often been called a writer of the Harlem Renaissance—a period of cultural development among U.S. blacks, centered in New York City's Harlem in the 1920s—poet and literary critic Sterling Brown rose to prominence during the early 1930s outside of New York's literary and intellectual circles. Other black writers and poets of the period sought inspiration from urban life and the exotic atmosphere of Harlem cabarets, whereas Brown embarked on a firsthand study of Southern blacks.

A graduate of the prestigious universities Williams and Harvard, Brown observed black dialect, music, and folktales with brilliant insight, attaining knowledge that emerged in a powerful poetic voice filled with rhythm and imagery cultivated from black oral and blues traditions. His critical works on black literature and drama published in the 1930s were the first in-depth studies of their kind, and they, like Brown's poetry of the same period, are among the most outstanding works by an African-American writer during the Depression era. His body of work remains a rich source for the study of African-American dialect and rural and folk culture.

Made Good Use of Elite Education

The youngest of six children, Sterling Allen Brown was born on May 1, 1901, on the campus of Howard University, in Washington, D.C. A Howard professor of religion and pastor of the Lincoln Temple Congregational Church, Brown's father, Reverend Sterling Nelson Brown, instilled in his son a sense of achievement and moral refinement. His stories of slavery in Tennessee and his subsequent struggle for a college education fueled his son's imagination. Brown's father was, as Arthur Fauset wrote in Sterling Brown: A UMUM Tribute, "characteristic of the race ‘men’ of his era. That indomitable drive to achieve, that quality of integrity and erudition possessed by him and his wife, were moulded into the character of their only son."

Raised on the Howard campus, near a section of the city known as "Foggy Bottom," Brown lived with his family on 11th Street, above the Lincoln Congregational Church. His contact with white youths was limited to a friendship with a boy whose father owned a nearby drugstore. In the rich intellectual environment of Howard, he met such noted black scholars as W.E.B. Du Bois and Howard professor of philosophy Alain Locke. At Dunbar High School, an institution noted for its prestigious instructors and graduates, Brown attended classes taught by abolitionist Frederick Douglass's grandson Haley Douglass and Jessie Redmon Fauset, the novelist and founding member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). At home, he received instruction in literature from his mother, Adelaide, a Fisk University graduate whose inspired reading of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Paul Lawrence Dunbar had a profound impact on Brown's later career as a writer and literary scholar.

In 1918, at the age of 17, Brown received an academic scholarship and entered Williams College. Williams was segregated, so Brown spent most of his time with a small coterie of black students. He served on the debate team and played for the Common Club Tennis Team.

Through the tutelage of instructor George Dutton, Brown discovered the works of Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Leo Tolstoy, Joseph Conrad, and Sinclair Lewis. He was impassioned by the words of these new literary figures and began to write poetry.

At the same time, Brown explored the rich world of African-American music. Unlike his father and most students at Williams, he did not view the blues and jazz as degenerate forms of artistic expression. In the dormitory at night, when everyone else was asleep, according to S. P. Fullinwinder in The Mind and Mood of Black America, Brown "found himself a secluded corner, before he dared to defy the current cannons of sensibility by listening to Mamie Smith sing the blues."

Unlike many other black thinkers and scholars, Brown did not experience an inner conflict between the influence of European culture and the artistic legitimacy of African-American music. As Fullinwinder explained, "His own success at breaking down the psychological barrier between himself and his people is probably due to the fact that, for him, the barrier never existed to begin with."

After graduating Phi Beta Kappa—as a member of the national honor society—from Williams, Brown entered Harvard University in 1922. Brown's instructors at Harvard included distinguished literary critic F. O. Matthiessen. There he was introduced to Louis Untermeyer's Modern American Poetry, which first exposed him to the work of the literary imagists, an Anglo-American poetic movement devoted to writing predicated on, as Henry May wrote in The End of American Innocence, "intensity, condensation, the use of images rather than abstractions, and the development of new cadences appropriate to the purpose of the particular poem." Poets Robert Frost and Edwin Arlington Robinson, however, had the most impact on Brown—their regional outlook and realistic view of the common man helped him to, as Sterling Stuckey wrote in his introduction to Southern Road, "take an uncondescending, that is to say a genuinely respectful, attitude toward the folk" he would later encounter in the South.

Shared Fascination with Folk Culture

After earning a master's degree from Harvard in 1923, Brown decided on a teaching career. He took a job teaching English at the Virginia Seminary and College in Lynchburg, Virginia, at the urging of his father and historian Carter G. Woodson. Exposed to the rural population of the South, he discovered the essence of what he described as a "people's poetry." At Virginia Seminary, Brown befriended Calvin "Big Boy" Davis, an itinerant musician and singer who would later serve as the catalyst for several of Brown's poetic works. "He was a treasure trove of stories, songs," wrote Brown, as quoted in Sterling Brown: A UMUM Tribute. "He was a wandering guitar player…. He knew blues, ballads, spirituals. He had a fine repertoire, and he'd sing, and although all of us were on starvation wages, we'd hand him a little money, buy him something to drink and that was the evening…. This wasn't my introduction, but this was my deepening awareness of the importance of music."

In 1926 Brown began a two-year teaching job at Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Missouri. Here, too, he spent time out of the classroom seeking out interesting individuals and local musicians. In an area bordering the campus known as the "Foot," he met "Preacher," a self-appointed prophet of doom. In Jefferson City he befriended a waiter called "Slim," a yarn-spinner who would become another important source for Brown's poetry. Affectionately known as "Prof" by his students, Brown emerged as a gifted educator, directing and often acting in plays by Eugene O'Neill.

At a Glance …

Born Sterling Allen Brown on May 1, 1901, in Washington, D.C.; died on January 13, 1989, in Washington, D.C.; son of Sterling Nelson (a pastor) and Adelaide Allen Brown; married Daisy Turnbull, 1927 (died 1979); children: John L. Dennis (adopted). Education: Williams College, BA, 1922; Harvard University, MA, 1923; Howard University, doctoral study, beginning 1931(?).

Career: Began writing poetry, early 1920s; Virginia Seminary and College, English instructor, 1923(?); Lincoln University, English instructor, 1926-28; poet and author, 1932-89; Fisk University, English instructor, 1928-29; Howard University, English instructor, 1929-69; University of Minnesota, visiting professor, 1945; New York University, visiting professor, 1949-50; University of Illinois, visiting professor, 1967-68.

Awards: Phi Beta Kappa national honor society, 1922(?); Opportunity magazine, second prize, for poem "Roland Hayes"; Opportunity, first prize, for poem "When de Saints Go Ma'ching Home," 1927; Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize, 1981; poet laureate of Washington, D.C., 1984.

After class, Brown would invite students to his home, where they listened to the blues and jazz and read poetry that was not part of the university's English curriculum. As one former student recalled in Sterling Brown, "In our in-home gatherings, some of us learned about poems of Robert Burns that don't appear in college textbooks…. And they were the sort that would have had Brown railroaded out of town if he had read them in class. In the early 1920s Brown was a rarity; professors were inclined to be stuffy rather than sparkling."

Brown next taught at Fisk University where, from 1928 to 1929, he further won the affection of students. Continuing his search for African-American culture, he would often make trips to Nashville, Tennessee, to watch blues singer Bessie Smith perform. He lived in an apartment on campus with his wife, Daisy Turnbull, whom he had married in 1927. One of Brown's Fisk colleagues recalled in Sterling Brown: "There was always a warmth in the greetings at the Brown's door. Daisy made us feel that we were expected. Sterling, with his pipe hanging loosely, had some quip to make…. His sardonic humor made the pomposity of some of his colleagues and the fancies and foibles of others tenderly amusing aspects of personality packages."

Emerged as Influential Poet and Writer

In 1925 Brown's poem "Roland Hayes," about the classical singer, became his first nationally published work, winning second prize in a contest sponsored by Opportunity magazine. Two years later, he won Opportunity's first prize for the poem "When de Saints Go Ma'ching Home," dedicated to Big Boy Davis. As the poem's narrator, Big Boy roams the landscape, his memory pouring forth images and characters from places where, as Brown concludes in the poem's last stanza, "we never could follow him."

Despite his growing profile as a poet and writer, Brown remained committed to his career as a teacher. He took a position at Howard University in 1929 and two years later, enrolled in the University's doctoral program. Brown's Southern Road, a collection of poems that had been published in various magazines between 1926 and 1929, including the prize-winning "When de Saints Go Ma'ching Home," was published in 1932. According to most critics, Southern Road ushered in a new era of black literary achievement.

Appearing during the wane of the Harlem Renaissance and the beginning of the Great Depression, Brown's volume featured symbolic folk heroes born during slavery and lone bluesmen, roustabouts, and convicts whose experiences transcended their race and region. In his assessment of the book's initial impact, Jean Wagner wrote in Black Poets of the United States, "If Sterling Brown succeeded in salvaging from despair what remained of man after the storm had subsided, it was essentially because he had drawn from past experience an unshakable faith in the eternal potentials of his race."

Brown's work in Southern Road represented a marked and conscious effort to break with an older African-American literary tradition. Brown and his younger contemporaries, like Richard Wright, did not, as James O. Young wrote in Black Writers of the Thirties, "see the need for proving the negro's humanity, they assumed it." In his few poems that address urban life, Brown avoids the celebration of Harlem nightlife and its vogue; instead, he reveals a more ominous side of city life.

An experimental poem, "Cabaret" revolves around the jazz musician and his exploitative white employers who, along with their jewel-studded friends, look on the entertainer solely as a means of amusement. But as Wagner observed in Black Poets, "the customers and performers…are only…elements in the counterpoint, for the poem, by opposing myth to reality and superiors to inferiors, also evokes the older polarity of masters and slaves. This is the historic dimension that endows the poem with its full depth of meaning."

Through well-crafted verse steeped in folkloric images, music, and authentic dialect, Brown shows the diversity of rural African Americans. Brown's characters live within a picturesque yet segregated and harsh land. The book's title poem portrays a convict laborer's travail, as told in the rhythm of the African-American worksong. Brown's repetitive use of the utterance "hunh"—the grunt of the worker's hammer as it falls—is used to punctuate certain lines, creating a haunting, chant-like rhythm. As Charles H. Rowell wrote in The Harlem Renaissance Re-examined, the poem "is a lyrical expression of powerlessness and despondency—one picture of ‘the tragedy of the southern Negro.’" Together with the numerous other voices comprising the volume, the convict's lament, becomes, as Rowell explained, "a picture of the tragic condition of Southern black life."

Brown's poems in Southern Road also echo an ironic humor. His Slim Greer pieces, based on an acquaintance in Jefferson City, are modern "tall tales." When faced with racism and oppression, the character of Greer relies on cleverness and wit to disarm his white persecutors. Greer's ability to combat psychic pain with mirth reflects Brown's admiration for a people whose stubborn will to overcome and nobility of character emerged in powerful forms of creative expression.

Examined and Guarded Against Stereotypes

In 1937 Brown published the works The Negro in American Fiction and Negro Poetry and Drama, which were then the most extensive and in-depth studies of their kind. In The Negro in American Fiction, a survey of literature from the seventeenth century to the 1930s, Brown studied the image of blacks as presented by American authors. Examining various periods and locales, he identified stereotypes of what he called "The Contented Slave," "The Brute Negro," "The Wretched Freeman," "The Tragic Mulatto," "The Comic Negro," and "The Exotic Primitive." At the same time, he parallels the stereotypical portrayal of blacks in American fiction with caricatures created by writers of other cultures, the depiction by English writers of the "undesirable" Irish "Paddy," for example.

Brown served from 1936 to 1940 as Editor of Negro Affairs for the Work Projects Administration's (WPA) Federal Writer's Project—one of the few important positions bestowed on an African American as part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal, which was designed to put the country back to work, among other goals, during the Depression. Overseeing a small staff of assistants, he supervised editorial operations concerning the contributions of black writers. As editor, he often protested the racist imagery of blacks found in WPA-sponsored state guidebooks. During his stay with the Federal Writers Project, he initiated the publication of the study The Negro in Virginia and the voluminous tour guidebook Washington, City and Capital.

In 1941 Brown, in collaboration with Arthur P. Davis and Ulysses Lee, compiled and edited The Negro Caravan, a comprehensive anthology of African-American essays, poetry, short stories, folklore, and drama. The editors amassed works from various eras and regions to demonstrate how the expression of black writers, despite their like-minded rejection of popular stereotypes and a common racial cause, represented no single literary form or "one unique cultural pattern." Their intent was to present a "truthful mosaic of negro characters" that would help represent the true black experience in America.

Among the work's many selections were Brown's poems "Long Gone," "Slim in Hell," "Ole Lem," "Break of Day," and "Strong Men." Brown also contributed to Swedish social economist Gunnar Myrdal's classic 1944 study of African Americans, An American Dilemma. Along with such scholars as Ralphe Bunche, Horace Cayton, Melville J. Herskovits, and Charles S. Johnson, Brown provided Myrdal with criticism and advice in the compilation of his more than one-thousand-page study of black American life.

Steadfast Dedication to Study of African-American Culture

While undertaking short-term teaching positions at the University of Minnesota in 1945, New York University from 1949 to 1950, and the University of Illinois from 1967 until 1968, Brown retained his position at Howard until his retirement in 1969. There he continued to expose students to African-American literature and music. Because Howard had forbidden the teaching of black American folk music, Brown held his own classes on blues and jazz music. Among his students at Howard were poet and writer Amiri Baraka, activist Stokely Carmicheal, and actor Ossie Davis. "His teaching had a very liberating effect on me," commented Davis, as quoted in Sterling Brown. "He was a scholar, but Sterling was homey, Negro, grits and gravy."

In 1975 a small Detroit-based press, concerned that Brown's volume Southern Road had been out of print for several years, published The Last Ride of Wild Bill, which offered readers many of the poet's finest verse along with a new piece, "The Last Ride Of Wild Bill." A year later, a group of noted black writers and intellectuals from the Black History Museum Committee paid homage to Brown by publishing the compendium Sterling Brown: A UMUM Tribute. Among the book's contributors were several former students including Baraka and Leopold S. Senghor, president of the West African nation of Senegal. Brown greeted the republication of his work with glee, saying in 1979, according to the Washington Post, "I've been rediscovered, reinstituted, regenerated and recovered."

Brown's passion for the culture and music of his people is brilliantly captured in his writing. And it is through his poetry that he became most well known. His poetic subjects, like black folk heroes of the past, remain timeless symbols of a still universal struggle to preserve humanity. Describing the universality of Brown's poetry, James O. Young wrote in Black Writers of the Thirties, "Brown's genius is such that he sculpts simple, plain speech into poetry, as he unveils the value ensemble of a people. The reader will discover, almost in a flash, that he has entered a world as wonderously complex as life itself." In recognition of Brown's talent and influence as a poet, Washington, D.C., honored him as the city's poet laureate in 1984.

As poet, folklorist, and teacher, Brown's influence extended far and wide. His legacy lies in rebellion, the refusal to accept the stereotypical and romanticized image of blacks as put forth by both African-American and white writers. When black scholars and intellectuals dismissed blues and jazz as substandard folk art, Brown emerged as an outspoken champion of these unique forms. Reflecting on his experiences in the South, Brown explained in The Harlem Renaissance, "I learned the strength of my people. I learned the fortitude. I learned the humor. I learned the tragedy." After Brown's death of leukemia on January 13, 1989, his work remained as a champion of African-American culture.

Selected writings


Nonfiction Outline for the Study of Poetry of American Negroes, Harcourt Brace, 1931.

The Negro in American Fiction, Associates in Negro Folk Education, 1937.

Negro Poetry and Drama, Associates in Negro Folk Education, 1937.

Southern Road, Beacon Press, 1974.

The Last Ride of Wild Bill, Broadside Press, 1975.

The Collected Poems of Sterling A. Brown, Harper & Row, 1980.



Dark Symphony: Negro Literature in America, edited by James A. Emanuel and Theodore L. Gross, Free Press, 1968.

Fullinwinder, S. P., The Mind and Mood of Black America, Dorsey Press, 1969.

The Harlem Renaissance: Revaluations, edited by William S. Shiver and Stanley Brodwin, with an introduction by Amritjit Singh, Garland, 1989.

Kramer, Victor A., The Harlem Renaissance Reexamined, AMS Press, 1987.

May, Henry, The End of American Innocence: A Study of the First Years of Our Own Time, Quadrangle Books, 1959.

Myrdal, Gunnar, with Richard Sterner and Arnold Rose, An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy, 1944.

Sterling Brown: A UMUM Tribute, edited by the Black History Museum Committee, 1976.

Wagner, Jean, Black Poets of the United States: From Paul Lawrence Dunbar to Langston Hughes, translated by Kenneth Douglas, University of Illinois Press, 1973.

Young, James O., Black Writers of the Thirties, Louisiana State University Press, 1973.


New York Times, January 17, 1989, p. 11.

Washington Post, January 16, 1989, p. B6.