Black History 365, National Poetry Month edition: Sterling A. Brown

Since there are so many facets of the history that people of African descent have made in this country, I’ve decided to continue my “Black History 365″ series from my poetry blog here on my AfrocentriqueAZ blog. In honor of National Poetry Month, I’ll be posting a new Black poet every day this month. Every Wednesday for the months after that I will post other Black history figures (I’ll go back to my “first Black” series). 

Today’s poet is Sterling A. Brown

Sterling Allen Brown

Sterling Allen Brown

 

From Famous Poets and Poems and Wikipedia:

Sterling Allen Brown (May 1, 1901 – January 13, 1989) was an African-American professor, author of works on folklore, poet and literary critic. He studied chiefly black culture of the Southern United States and was a full professor at Howard University for most of his career. He also had visiting professor stints at several other institutions, including Vassar College, New York University (NYU), Atlanta University, and Yale University.

Sterling A. Brown was born on the campus of Howard University in Washington D.C., where his father, Sterling N. Brown, a former slave, was a prominent minister and professor at Howard University Divinity School. His mother Grace Adelaide Brown, who had been the valedictorian of her class at Fisk University, taught in D.C. public schools for over fifty years. Both his parents grew up in Tennessee and often shared stories with Brown, their sixth child and only son; Brown heard his father’s stories about famous leaders such as Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington. His early childhood was spent on a farm on Whiskey Bottom Road in Howard County, Maryland. Brown was educated at Waterford Oaks Elementary and Dunbar High School, where he graduated as the top student. He received a scholarship to attend Williams College in Massachusetts. Graduating from Williams Phi Beta Kappa in 1922, he continued his studies at Harvard University, receiving an MA a year later. That same year of 1923, Brown was hired as an English lecturer at Virginia Theological Seminary and College in Lynchburg, Virginia, a position he would hold for the next three years. He never pursued a doctorate degree, but several colleges he attended gave him honorary doctorates.

Brown began his teaching career with positions at several universities, including Lincoln University and Fisk University, before returning to Howard in 1929. He was a professor there for forty years. Brown’s poetry used the south for its setting and showed slave experiences of the African American people. Brown often imitated southern African American speech using “variant spellings and apostrophes to mark dropped consonants.”(Thompson-Taylor 2). He taught and wrote about African-American literature and folklore. He was a pioneer in the appreciation of this genre.He had an “Active, imaginative mind” when writing and “Had a natural gift for dialogue, description and narration.” (Fleming 7).

Brown was known for introducing his students to concepts then popular in jazz, which along with blues, spirituals and other forms of black music formed an integral component of his poetry.

In addition to his career at Howard University, Brown served as a visiting professor at Vassar College, New York University (NYU), Atlanta University, and Yale University.

Some of his notable students include Toni Morrison, Kwame Ture (Stokely Carmichael), Kwame Nkrumah, Thomas Sowell, Ossie Davis, and Amiri Baraka (aka LeRoi Jones).

In 1969 Brown retired from his faculty position at Howard and turned full-time to poetry.

In 1932 Brown published his first book of poetry Southern Road. It was a collection of poetry with rural themes and treated the simple lives of poor, black, country folk with poignancy and dignity. It also used authentic dialect and structures. Despite the success of this book, he struggled to find a publisher for the followup, No Hiding Place.

His poetic work was influenced in content, form and cadence by African-American music, including work songs, blues and jazz. Like that of Jean Toomer, Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes and other black writers of the period, his work often dealt with race and class in the United States. He was deeply interested in a folk-based culture, which he considered most authentic. Brown is considered part of the Harlem Renaissance artistic tradition, although he spent the majority of his life in the Brookland neighborhood of Northeast Washington, D.C.

 

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