Sterling Allen Brown 1901-1989
American poet, folklorist, editor, critic, and essayist.
The following entry provides information on Brown's life and works from 1934 through 1999.
An important American poet and critic, Brown was one of the first writers to infuse his poetry with black folklore. In his first collection, Southern Road (1932), he wove elements of ballads, spirituals, work songs, and the blues into narrative poems generally written in a southern black dialect. Although Brown published little poetry after this collection, many critics believe that his work was significant in the development of black writing.
Brown was born in Washington, D.C., on May 1, 1901. His father, Sterling Nelson Brown, taught in the department of religion at Howard University and was pastor of Washington's historic Lincoln Temple Congregational Church. Among the minister's associates were black leaders Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington, senators B. K. Bruce and John R. Lynch, sociologist W. E. B. Du Bois, and cultural critic Alain Locke. Brown was inspired by his acquaintance with these men to study black history and the importance of black life in America. After he graduated from Williams College in 1922, Brown enrolled at Harvard University and received a master's degree in English in 1923. After graduation Brown taught in the rural South—despite his contemporaries' attempts to dissuade him. It was during this time he gathered the material for Southern Road, which was published in 1932. He accepted a teaching position at Howard University, where he would remain for forty years. Despite the success of Southern Road, his publisher rejected what would have been his second published volume of poetry, No Hiding Place, and declined to issue a second printing of Southern Road. These decisions had a devastating effect on Brown's reputation as a poet; because no new poems appeared, many of his admirers assumed that he had stopped writing. Brown subsequently turned his attention to teaching and to writing criticism, producing several major works on African-American studies. In 1971 Howard University granted Brown an honorary degree. A republication of Southern Road and a new volume of poetry, The Last Ride of Wild Bill and Eleven Narrative Poems (1975), followed. He died on January 13, 1989.
Southern Road is Brown's best-known and most highly acclaimed volume of poetry. Viewed as a breakthrough for black poetry, it incorporates the dialect, music, folklore, and rhythms of rural African Americans in the South. In the poems in the collection, Brown focuses on farmers, preachers, prisoners, prostitutes, and itinerant workers who are at home in their surroundings and preoccupied with the business of survival. The volume includes poems such as “Sam Smiley,” in which a World War I veteran returns home to find his woman in prison for having killed the baby she conceived by a rich white man in Sam's absence. Sam is lynched for murdering the man. In poems “Memphis Blues” and “Ma Rainey,” he celebrates the strength and stoicism of the African American people. Brown looked humorously at race relations in other poems, particularly in a series featuring the character Slim Greer. In the poem “Slim in Atlanta,” the protagonist discovers that blacks are forbidden to laugh in public, and are lining up to laugh in the security of a telephone booth. Slim finds the situation so absurd that he jumps to the front of the line, seizes the telephone booth, and proceeds to laugh for four hours, much to the dismay of the three hundred blacks in line. Brown's later collection, The Last Ride of Wild Bill, focuses on tales of black heroism. In the title poem, Wild Bill defiantly battles a corrupt chief of police who is out to eliminate Bill's numbers business. Although Wild Bill eventually loses to the lawman, he is viewed as an enduring and courageous figure who refuses to be pushed around by the white man.
Southern Road was a critical success, prompting James Weldon Johnson to change his mind about dialect poetry. Johnson, who had previously said that dialect verse could only depict humor and pathos, now saw a greater depth with Brown's poetry, which he praised in the introduction to Southern Road. Although critics often cite Brown as one of the most neglected poets of the twentieth century, they have also undertaken to correct that notion. In recent years several critical studies of Brown's poetry and career have appeared, and many critics note that he has now received the attention he lacked in his lifetime. Several commentators have praised his work as important to the development of African American poetry and perceive Brown to be a seminal figure in African American letters.