Almost since the settlement of the United States, blacks have contributed greatly to the development of American poetry, oral tradition, and lyricism. Some of the first notable female lyrics written in this country came from a slave woman, Phyllis Wheatly. Even earlier, Lucy Tracy, another slave woman, wrote a long narrative poem about an Indian raid in 1746, Bars Fight. These achievements were followed later by writers such as Paul Dunbar, Arna Bontemps, Langston Hughes, Margaret Walker, W. E. B. DuBois, Gwendolyn Brooks, and many, many more. Despite this volume of creative expression, black poetry is little known by the general public in the United States.
It should not be very surprising, then, that Sterling Allen Brown is one of those literary figures who most often appears by proxy: his work is shadowed forth in numerous but often unrecognized echoes and influences in the works of more visible contemporary authors. Thus, until now, his main satisfaction must have been private, not public, since his influence is as pervasive as it is anonymous. Still, Brown’s case, of relatively small public recognition of his poetic talents, does seem a bit odd in the face of his other achievements.
Born to a prominent family in Washington, D.C., in 1901, Brown attended Dunbar High School with author Jean Toomer, Williams College for his B.A. (1925), and then Harvard University for his A.M. (1930). Elected to Phi Beta Kappa in 1921 and given a Guggenheim Fellowship for creative writing in 1938, his life has not been without honors nor has it been scholastically unproductive. He has published an Outline for the Study of the Poetry of American Negroes (1931), The Negro in American Fiction (1938), Negro Poetry and Drama (1938), and edited the important Afro-American anthology The Negro Caravan (1941). To this one must add not only his numerous short stories, reviews, and critical articles but also a fantastically successful teaching career. He began instructing others at Virginia Seminary and College but from there went on to Fisk University, Lincoln University, Atlanta University, and, for the last fifty years, Howard University. These accomplishments are remarkable enough to make one wonder why his poetry, his very good poetry, has not received more critical attention.
While Brown had published poems in prominent literary journals, a firm reputation can only be built upon published book-length collections, and he has had, until very recently, only one, Southern Road (1932). Since this first collection won extensive critical acclaim, the failure of his publisher to publish his second manuscript No Hiding Place cannot be explained simply by the coming of World War II, especially since they additionally failed to put out a second edition of the first book.
Only in 1915 did Professor Brown begin to receive the attention he deserved. In 1975, Dudley Randall finally got Brown’s manuscript for “The Last Ride of Wild Bill” into print together with some of his Slim Greer tall tales, and the “Ballad of Joe Meek.” This act was to help join together three generations of black poetry and make Brown’s influence more explicit. It also, in effect, opened the door for the present volume.
Thus, while the publication of The Collected Poems of Sterling A. Brown is notable because it reflects Michael S. Harper’s choice for the National Poetry Series, it is more important because it exposes some of the essential roots of black poetry. Brown was one of the first to create the almost militant consciousness in poetic characters which was to become the mainstay of much modern black poetry. He was also one of the first to incorporate fully black folklore and jazz without allowing his poetic portraits to become caricatures.
As Brown realized in his introduction to The Negro in American Fiction, literary treatments of race tend to follow their historical antecedents. Thus, his poetry has to do double duty: to supply a true and vital image of blacks and Afro-American traditions and yet to fend off if not destroy those misconceptions which try to typecast all such efforts. Thus, Brown’s poetry is at once an affirmation of black values and a denial of both white fictions and the social realities through which white prejudices are exercised.
In the long overdue republication of Southern Road (it has been out of print since 1932), which constitutes nearly half the poetry of The Collected Poems, the reader discovers this commitment to black roots. Throughout this collection, one senses its major cultural influence. Perhaps better than any other American poet, Brown gives a feeling for black folk poetry as it sprang from slave songs, popular ballads, and church spirituals. From these eclectic sources, he synthesizes a form which confronts past and present social inequality in a manner which is both lyrical and realistic.
From these same folklore roots, he also draws an image of the black hero, John Henry. The character is perfect for Brown since it suggests that while blacks may have escaped from literal slavery they have not been emancipated from burdens of economics. In John Henry, then, is found an image of tragedy but also of strength, pride, and spirit.
Appropriate to this reliance on folk content is Brown’s equal usage of black dialects. These speech patterns, just as much as the images of black identity, form a...
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