The Poets Sterling Brown (1901-1989)


About the Poet

Immersed in the ballads and lore of African-Americans, Sterling Allen Brown devoted his life to surmounting black stereotypes. He was a master teacher as well as a master poet of the ballad, sonnet, free verse, and blues form in the years following the urban-centered Harlem Renaissance. Brown elevated rural themes and championed black heroes like Stagolee, Big Boy, John Henry, and Casey Jones. Both an author and literary historian, Brown preserved natural black dialect and religious and secular folk culture, as demonstrated by Slim Greer, his ballad hero, and by essays on the jazz of Earl "Fatha" Hines, Fats Waller, and Louis Armstrong. For his Afro-centrism, Brown earned the praise of his peers, in particular, James Weldon Johnson.

Brown was born on May 1, 1901, in Washington, D.C., the son of a former slave, the Reverend Sterling Nelson Brown, who was a religion professor at Howard University's divinity school. His mother, Fisk graduate Adelaide Allen, encouraged him to love classic verse, as well as the writings of Paul Laurence Dunbar.

By 1922, Brown had become a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts. During graduate studies at Harvard on a Clark fellowship, he spurned the scholarly elitism of T. S. Eliot and emulated the populism of Edwin Arlington Robinson, Robert Frost, Edgar Lee Masters, and Carl Sandburg, as well as the folk inspiration of Afro-American work songs, blues, and spirituals.

After marrying Daisy Turnbull, Brown made the most of the Harlem scene by hobnobbing with black artists. Poet/editor Countée Cullen included him in the anthology Caroling Dusk: An Anthology of Verse by Negro Poets (1927); James Weldon Johnson did likewise in The Book of American Negro Poetry (1930), as did Benjamin A. Botkin, editor of Folk-Say (1930). Brown initiated "The Literary Scene: Chronicle and Comment," a column for Opportunity, which helped steer audiences to authentic black literature.

An exacting writer, editor, and critic, Brown thought of himself primarily as a professor of English. He taught at Virginia Seminary and College and at Lincoln, Fisk, and Howard universities. Among his most promising students were actor/playwright Ossie Davis, activist Stokely Carmichael, and Nobel Prize-winning Toni Morrison; similarly, Brown's Afro-centrism influenced poet Amiri Baraka and folklorist Zora Neale Hurston.

Brown took serious interest in black representation in the arts, as demonstrated by his eloquent artistic commentary and film reviews in Opportunity and by a notable first collection, Southern Road (1932). An energized first-person collection, it took its title from the richly humorous, compassionate material he acquired while teaching in the Jim Crow South. To Brown's dismay, a second collection, No Hiding Place, found no publisher because the Depression ended easy access to white publishing houses, which had once courted black poets.

Brown, a pragmatist above all, turned from poetry to prose. Simultaneous with a Guggenheim Fellowship, he served the Federal Writers' Project for three years as editor of Negro affairs and contributor to American Stuff: An Anthology of Prose and Verse (1937) and Washington City and Capital (1937), both published by the U.S. Government Printing Office. In 1939, he joined the staff of the Carnegie-Myrdal Study of the Negro in American Life. In addition to issuing literary criticism, he collaborated with Arthur P. Davis and Ulysses Lee on a comprehensive Afro-centric anthology, The Negro Caravan (1941).

The poet's writings added to the wealth of post-Harlem Renaissance fervor in numerous anthologies and journals. Four prose masterworks — Negro Poetry and Drama and The Negro in American Fiction, published in 1937 and reissued in 1969, and The Negro Newcomers in Detroit and The Negro in Washington, written with George E. Haynes in 1970 — display his scholarship and articulate analyses. In 1973, Folkway Records released Sixteen Poems by Sterling Brown, a disc recording. Late volumes of verse include The Last Ride of Wild Bill and Eleven Narrative Poems (1975) and The Collected Poems of Sterling A. Brown (1980), winner of the Lenore Marshall Poetry prize.

Brown earned a reputation for refinement, pedagogical skill, an easy, unpretentious manner, and commitment to his race. In his scholarly essays, he defied the Fugitive Agrarian set at Vanderbilt and warned of a trend toward glorifying the slave-era South. To combat false memories that glossed over slavery, he urged black authors to discredit short-sightedness and to create literature from a stringently truth-seeking perspective. Shortly before his death in 1989, he was named Poet Laureate of the District of Columbia.

Chief Works

"Ma Rainey," a four-part literary portrait published in 1932, characterizes the delight of fans who flock to hear vaudeville singer Gertrude Malissa Rainey, mistress of "Backwater Blues." One of the rural and small-town South's favorites, she pours out bright humor to the beat of Long Boy's piano accompaniment. Her engaging humor dispels the audience's "aches an' miseries." The poem opens on two-beat lines of irregular iambics rhyming alternate lines with town/aroun', Bluff/stuff, and mules/fools. Section II slows the pace with seven-beat lines as the viewers take seats and focus on her "gold-toofed smiles." Revving up short lines in Part III, the speaker appreciates the singer's ability to strengthen spots "way inside us" and to assuage the hurt of "hard luck" on "de lonesome road." Candidly stage-struck at Ma's emotive power, the final segment cites one of her songs and an anonymous listener's gratitude that "she jes' gits hold of us dataway."

From the same collection, "Slim in Hell" captures another memorable character from the black experience. A folk figure who escapes death, Slim Greer roams outside heaven to spy on hell. The freedom goes to his head. Like a rambunctious "Lucky Lindy," the nickname of pilot hero Charles Lindbergh, Slim sails back to earth. In part two, no longer winged, he receives the devil's permission to observe the wicked doings in hell. Amid Memphis gamblers and New Orleans high-timers, Slim recognizes sinful ministers, booze runners, and white imps who stoke hell's furnace with their black counterparts. The devil, transformed into a redneck sheriff, terrorizes Slim, who clips on his wings and flees back to heaven.

A blatant satire overwhelms the finale. On reporting to St. Peter, Slim is confused by the state of hell, which is a ringer for Dixie. Annoyed with Slim's naïveté, St. Peter returns him to earth because he's "a leetle too dumb" for heaven. The poet's control of tone, pacing, and humor allies the folksy ballad stanza with the fool tale, a popular form dating to ancient times. Composed in jouncy sermon rhythms, vivid scenes of the afterlife epitomize earth-bound evils to prove that human misbehavior condemns the racist, drinker, gambler, and womanizer.

In 1939, Brown made a turnabout from his light hearted narratives with a spiteful vendetta entitled "Bitter Fruit of the Tree." Speaking of family suffering borne by grandmother, grandfather, and father, the central voice recites the familiar injunction to avoid bitterness. Carefully couched in pseudo-courtesy, the admonition rings hollow when balanced against hateful hardships: loss of relatives to slavery, violence, and oppression and the ongoing exploitation of sharecroppers. No longer the jaunty composer of ballad stanzas, Brown grinds deep the black resentment with explosive p sounds and hurtful b sounds.

Discussion and Research Topics

1. Characterize Brown's "Sister Lou" in terms of the humanism displayed in "Ma Rainey," "Break of Day," "Puttin' on Dog," and "Slim in Hell." Determine how the poet blends graciousness and delight in individuals with realism.

2. Contrast Brown's command of idiom and piquant humor in "Mister Samuel and Sam," "Break of Day," and "Master and Man" with the poetic vignettes of Edwin Arlington Robinson, Mari Evans, Maya Angelou, Sonya Sanchez, Edgar Lee Masters, and Langston Hughes.

3. Discuss how Brown evokes the speaker's bitterness in "Bitter Fruit of the Tree." What does the "tree" in the poem's title symbolize?