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Sterling A(llen) Brown 1901–

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Black American poet, essayist, and critic.

Brown is an important figure of the Black Renaissance. His poetic reputation rests largely on two collections, Southern Road and The Collected Poems of Sterling A. Brown, published in 1932 and 1980, respectively. For his themes and style, Brown draws upon the black folk tradition: he weaves elements of ballads, folk songs, spirituals, work songs, and the blues into narrative poems which relate the black man's struggle to endure with humor and grace. A member of the English faculty at Howard University since 1929, Brown has played a significant role in black literary criticism as a teacher, editor, and reviewer.

(See also CLC, Vol. 1 and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 85-88.)

James Weldon Johnson

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[Sterling A. Brown] has been instrumental in bringing about the more propitious era in which the Negro artist now finds himself, and in doing that he has achieved a place in the list of young American poets. Mr. Brown's work is not only fine, it is also unique. He began writing just after the Negro poets had generally discarded conventionalized dialect, with its minstrel traditions of Negro life (traditions that had but slight relation, often no relation at all, to actual Negro life) with its artificial and false sentiment, its exaggerated geniality and optimism. He infused his poetry with genuine characteristic flavor by adopting as his medium the common, racy, living speech of the Negro in certain phases of real life. For his raw material he dug down into the deep mine of Negro folk poetry. He found the unfailing sources from which sprang the Negro folk epics and ballads such as "Stagolee," "John Henry," "Casey Jones," "Long Gone John" and others. (p. xxxvi)

[But he] 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. He has actually absorbed the spirit of his material, made it his own; and without diluting its primitive frankness and raciness, truly re-expressed it with artistry and magnified power. In a word, he has taken this raw material and worked it into original and authentic poetry. In such poems as "Odyssey of Big Boy" and "Long Gone" he makes us feel the urge that drives the Negro wandering worker from place to place, from job to job, from woman to woman. There is that not much known characteristic, Negro stoicism, in "Memphis Blues" and there is Negro stoicism and black tragedy, too, in "Southern Road." Through the "Slim Greer" series he gives free play to a delicious ironical humor that is genuinely Negro. Many of these poems admit of no classification or brand, as, for example, the gorgeous "Sporting Beasley." True, this poem is Negro, but, intrinsically, it is Sterling-Brownian. In such poems as "Slim Greer," "Mr. Samuel and Sam" and "Sporting Beasley" Mr. Brown discloses the possession of a quality that could to advantage be more common among Negro poets—the ability to laugh, to laugh at white folks as well as at black folks.

Mr. Brown has included in ["Southern Road"] some excellent poems written in literary English and form. I feel, however, it is in his poems whose sources are the folk life that he makes, beyond question, a distinctive contribution to American Poetry. (pp. xxxvi-xxxvii)

James Weldon Johnson, in his introduction to Southern Road: Poems by Sterling A. Brown (copyright 1932 by Harcourt, Brace and Company; reprinted by permission of the author), Harcourt, 1932 (and reprinted by Beacon Press, 1974, pp. xxxv-xxxvii).

William Rose BenéT

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 268


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Brown, Sterling