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Wed, 05.01.1901

Sterling A. Brown, innovative teacher and poet

Sterling A. Brown

Sterling Allen Brown was born on this date in 1901. He was an African American English professor and literary critic whose poetry was rooted in folklore sources and Black dialect.

He was born in Washington, D. C., the son of a professor at Howard University. His father, Reverend Sterling Nelson Brown, born a slave but after the Civil War, attended Fisk University and Oberlin College.  He became a pastor, and later a professor of religion at Howard. His mother was also a graduate of Fisk University.

After graduating from Dunbar High School, he received an academic scholarship to Williams College, where he studied traditional literature.  He also explored blues and jazz music (still considered to be socially illegitimate). Brown graduated Williams in 1922 Phi Beta Kappa, and with a scholarship entered graduate school and received his Master's degree from Harvard University in 1923.  While teaching, he also began collecting folk songs and stories from Blacks.  The people he met also served as the subject of the poetry he wrote.  In 1929, Brown began a 40-year teaching career at Howard, and in 1932 his first volume of poetry, "Southern Road," was published. Musical forms, especially ballads, work songs, spirituals, and blues, were primary influences on his work.

in 1937 he was put in charge of the Federal Writers Project (FWP) Slave Narratives Project, from which position he insisted on the hiring of African American interviewers.  He also oversaw some of the FWP's state guides, particularly Florida's, where he collaborated with Zora Neale Hurston and Stetson Kennedy in getting the story of the Rosewood "race riot" reinserted in a text which had been excised by the Florida state (white) officials.

At a time when white writers had distorted Black dialect into a stereotype, he boldly used authentic dialect and phonetic spelling in his poems. Though "Southern Road" was widely praised, Brown found no publisher for his second collection, "No Hiding Place"; it eventually was incorporated into his "Collected Poems" (1980).

As critic, essayist, and "Opportunity" magazine columnist, he supported realistic writing and harshly attacked literature that distorted Black life. In 1937, he published the pioneering studies "Negro Poetry and Drama" and "The Negro in American Fiction." In 1941, he was coeditor of "The Negro Caravan," an anthology of African American writing.  Sterling A. Brown died Jan. 17, 1989. Most of his major work was written by the mid-1940s; two decades later, students inspired a widespread revival of interest in his work, much of which was subsequently reprinted.

Reference:
The African American Atlas
Black History & Culture an Illustrated Reference
by Molefi K. Asanta and Mark T. Mattson
Macmillam USA, Simon & Schuster, New York
ISBN 0-02-864984-2

Peter Rachleff
Professor of History
Macalester College, St. Paul, Minnesota

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