Born into an educated, middle-class African American family, Sterling A. Brown was the last of six children and the only son of Adelaide Allen Brown and the Reverend Sterling Nelson Brown. His father had taught in the School of Religion at Howard University since 1892, and the year Brown was born, his father also became the pastor of Lincoln Temple Congregational Church. The person who encouraged Brown’s literary career and admiration for the cultural heritage of African Americans, however, was his mother, who had been born and reared in Tennessee and graduated from Fisk University. Brown also grew up listening to tales of his father’s childhood in Tennessee, as well as to accounts of his father’s friendships with noted leaders such as Frederick Douglass, Blanche K. Bruce, and Booker T. Washington.
Brown attended public schools in Washington, D.C., and was graduated from the well-known Dunbar High School, noted for its distinguished teachers and alumni; among the latter were many of the nation’s outstanding black professionals. Brown’s teachers at Dunbar included literary artists such as Angelina Weld Grimké and Jessie Redmon Fauset. Moreover, Brown grew up on the campus of Howard University, where there were many outstanding African American scholars, such as historian Kelly Miller and critic and philosopher Alain Locke.
Brown received his A.B. in 1922 from Williams College (Phi Beta Kappa) and his M.A. in 1923 from Harvard University. He then began a teaching career that took him to Virginia Seminary and College, Lincoln University in Missouri, and Fisk University before he settled at Howard University in 1929. He remained at Howard until his retirement in 1969 and died in Takoma Park, Maryland, on January 13, 1989.
The poetry of Sterling Brown is imbued with the folk spirit and culture of African Americans. For Brown, there was no wide abyss between his poetry and the spirit inherent in slave poetry; indeed, his works evidence a continuity of racial spirit from the slave experience to the African American present and reflect his deep understanding of the multitudinous aspects of the African American personality and soul.
The setting for Brown’s poetry is primarily the South, through which he traveled to listen to the folktales, songs, wisdom, sorrows, and frustrations of his people, and where the blues and ballads were nurtured. Brown respected traditional folk forms and employed them in the construction of his own poems; thus he may be called “the poet of the soul of his people.”
Brown’s first published collection of poems, Southern Road, was critically acclaimed by his peers and colleagues James Weldon Johnson and Alain Locke because of its rendering of the living speech of the African American, its use of the raw material of folk poetry, and its poetic portrayal of African American folk life and thought. Later critics such as Arthur P. Davis, Jean Wagner, and Houston Baker have continued to praise Brown’s poetry for its creative and vital use of folk motifs. Some of the characters in Brown’s poetry, such as Ma Rainey, Big Boy Davis, and Mrs. Bibby, are based on real people. Other characters such as Maumee Ruth, Sporting Beasley, and Sam Smiley seem real because of Brown’s dramatic and narrative talent. He was also highly skilled in the use of poetic techniques such as the refrain, alliteration, and onomatopoeia, and he employs several stanzaic forms with facility. Brown’s extraordinary gift for re-creating the nuances of folk speech and idiom adds vitality and authenticity to his verse.
Brown was successful in drawing upon rich folk expressions to vitalize the speech of his characters through the cadences of southern speech. Though...
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his poems cannot simply be called “dialect poetry,” Brown did imitate southern African American speech, using variant spellings and apostrophes to mark dropped consonants. He used grunts and onomatopoeiac sounds to give a natural rhythm to the speech of his characters. These techniques are readily seen in a poem that dramatizes the poignant story of a “po los boy” on a chain gang. This poem follows the traditional folk form of the work song to convey the convict’s personal tragedy.
Brown’s work may be described as working-class or rural poetry, influenced by poets such as Carl Sandburg and Robert Frost; he was able to draw upon the entire canon of English and American poetry as well as African American folk material. Thus he was fluent in the use of the sonnet form, stanzaic forms, free-verse forms, and ballad and blues forms.
In Southern Road, several themes express the essence of the southern African American’s folk spirit and culture. Recurring themes and subjects in Brown’s poetry include endurance, tragedy, and survival. The theme of endurance is best illustrated in one of his most anthologized poems, “Strong Men,” which tells the story of the unjust treatment of black men and women from the slave ship, to the tenant farm, and finally to the black ghetto. The refrain of “Strong Men” uses rhythmic beats, relentlessly repeating an affirmation of the black people’s ability and determination to keep pressing onward, toward freedom and justice. The central image comes from a line of a Carl Sandburg poem, “The strong men keep comin on.” In “Strong Men,” Brown praises the indomitable spirit of African Americans in the face of racist exploitation. With its assertive tone, the rhythm of this poem suggests a martial song.
Some of the endurance poems express a stoic, fatalistic acceptance of the tragic fate of the African American, as can be seen in “Old Man Buzzard,” “Memphis Blues,” and “Riverbank Blues.” Another important aspect of the endurance theme as portrayed by Brown is the poetic characters’ courage when they are confronted with tragedy and injustice. In the poem “Strange Legacies,” the speaker gives thanks to the legendary Jack Johnson and John Henry for their demonstration of courage.
Brown’s poems reflect his understanding of the often tragic destinies of African Americans in the United States. No poet before Brown had created such a comprehensive poetic dramatization of the lives of black men and women in America. Brown depicts black men and women as alone and powerless, struggling nevertheless to confront an environment that is hostile and unjust. In this tragic environment, African American struggles against the schemes of racist whites are seen in “The Last Ride of Wild Bill,” published in 1975 as the title poem of a collection. A black man falls victim to the hysteria of a lynch mob in “Frankie and Johnnie,” a poem that takes up a familiar folktale and twists it to reflect a personal tragedy that occurs as a result of an interracial relationship. Brown emphasizes that in this story the only tragic victim is the black man. The retarded white girl, Frankie, reports her sexual experience with the black man, Johnnie, to her father and succeeds in getting her black lover killed; she laughs uproariously during the lynching. “Southern Cop” narrates the mindless killing of a black man who is the victim of the panic of a rookie police officer.
Brown’s poems show black people not only as victims of whites but also as victims of the whole environment that surrounds them, including natural forces of flood and fire as well as social evils such as poverty and ignorance. Rural African Americans’ vulnerability to natural disasters is revealed in “Old King Cotton,” “New St. Louis Blues,” and “Foreclosure.” In these poems, if a tornado does not come, the Mississippi River rises and takes the peasant’s arable land and his few animals, and even kills his children. These poems portray despairing people who are capable only of asking futile questions in the face of an implacable and pitiless nature. The central character of “Low Down” is sunk in poverty and loneliness. His wife has left and his son is in prison; he is convinced that bad luck is his fate and that in the workings of life someone has loaded the dice against him. In “Johnny Thomas,” the title character is the victim of poverty, abuse by his parents and society, and ignorance. (He attempts to enroll in a one-room school, but the teacher throws him out.) Johnny ends up on a chain gang, where he is killed. The poem that most strongly expresses African American despair of the entire race is “Southern Road,” a convict song marked by a rhythmic, staccato beat and by a blues line punctuated by the convict’s groaning over his accursed fate:
My ole man died—hunh—Cussin’ me;Old lady rocks, bebby,huh misery.
The African American’s ability to survive in a hostile world by mustering humor, religious faith, and the expectation of a utopian afterlife is portrayed in poems depicting the comical adventures of Slim Greer and in one of Brown’s popular poems, “Sister Lou.” The series of Slim Greer poems, “Slim Greer,” “Slim Lands a Job,” “Slim in Atlanta,” and “Slim in Hell,” reveals Brown’s knowledge of the life of the ordinary black people and his ability to laugh at the weaknesses and foolishness of African Americans and whites alike. With their rich exaggerations, these poems fall into the tall-tale tradition of folk stories. They show Slim in Arkansas passing for white although he is quite dark and Slim in Atlanta laughing in a “telefoam booth” because of a law that keeps African Americans from laughing in the open.
In “Slim Lands a Job,” the poet mocks the ridiculous demands that southern employers make on their black employees. Slim applies for a job in a restaurant. The owner is complaining about the laziness of his black employees when a black waiter enters the room carrying a tray on his head, trays in each hand, silver in his mouth, and soup plates in his vest, while simultaneously pulling a red wagon filled with other paraphernalia. When the owner points to this waiter as one who is lazy, Slim makes a quick exit. In “Slim in Hell,” Slim discovers that Hell and the South are very much alike; when he reports this discovery to Saint Peter, the saint reprimands him, asking where he thought Hell was if not the South.
In “Sister Lou,” one of his well-known poems, Brown depicts the simple religious faith that keeps some African Americans going. After recounting all the sorrows in Sister Lou’s life, the poem pictures Heaven as a place where Sister Lou will have a chance to allow others to carry her packages, to speak personally to God without fear, to rest, and most of all to take her time. In “Cabaret,” however, Brown shows the everyday reality that belies the promises God made to his people: The black folk huddle, mute and forlorn, in Mississippi, unable to understand why the Good Lord treats them this way. Moreover, in poems such as “Maumee Ruth,” religion is seen as an opiate that feeds people’s illusions. Maumee Ruth lies on her deathbed, ignorant of the depraved life led by her son and daughter in the city, and needing the religious lies preached to her in order to attain a peaceful death.
Sterling Brown’s poems embrace themes of suffering, oppression, and tragedy yet always celebrate the vision and beauty of African American people and culture. One such deeply moving piece is “Remembering Nat Turner,” a poem in which the speaker visits the scene of Turner’s slave rebellion, only to hear an elderly white woman’s garbled recollections of the event; moreover, the marker intended to call attention to Turner’s heroic exploits, a rotting signpost, has been used by black tenants for kindling. A stoic fatalism can be seen in the poem “Memphis Blues,” which nevertheless praises the ability of African Americans to survive in a hostile environment because of their courage and willingness to start over when all seems lost: “Guess we’ll give it one more try.” In the words of Sterling Brown, “The strong men keep a-comin’ on/ Gittin’ stronger. . . .”
Davis, Arthur P. “Sterling Brown.” In From the Dark Tower: Afro-American Writers (1900 to 1960). Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1974. A comprehensive study by the dean of African American critics. Davis knew Brown personally and taught with him at Howard University. Includes an extensive bibliography.
Huggins, Nathan. Harlem Renaissance. New York: Oxford University Press, 1971. An overall discussion of the Harlem Renaissance authors that views them in terms of their general historical and literary significance. Brown’s work is considered alongside that of his literary contemporaries, and an overview of his major themes and concerns is given.
Redding, J. Saunders. To Make a Poet Black. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1939. This pioneering study gives an effective overview of the intellectual and literary influences on African American poets of the time. Although it includes only a few pages on Brown himself, it is essential background reading.
Redmond, Eugene B. Drumvoices: The Mission of Afro-American Poetry, a Critical History. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Press, 1976. Redmond treats the historical importance of the poet as well as his themes, images, language, and his use of the African American folk traditions and dialect. Redmond also discusses Brown’s role as a critic.
Wagner, Jean. “Sterling Brown.” In Black Poets of the United States: From Paul Laurence Dunbar to Langston Hughes. Translated by Kenneth Douglas. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1973. A comprehensive and insightful study of the poetry of Brown.