Last reviewed: June 2018
May 1, 1901
January 13, 1989
Takoma Park, Maryland
At a time when critics were celebrating the urban, educated “New Negro,” Sterling Allen Brown had the courage to publish Southern Road, a collection of poetry written in dialect that glorifies the rural southern African American. Perhaps it was Brown’s own genteel upbringing that gave him the psychological distance to explore his parents’ experiences growing up in Tennessee, from which he created a unified body of work and structure of meaning in African American poetry.
Adelaide Allen Brown and the Reverend Sterling Nelson Brown, pastor of Lincoln Temple Congregational Church, were middle-class, well-educated African Americans. Sterling Brown was the last of their six children and their only son. The Reverend Brown had taught in the School of Religion at Howard University since 1892, and he often spoke of friendships with such black intellectual leaders as Frederick Douglass, Blanche K. Bruce, and Booker T. Washington. He also told his children stories of his childhood in Tennessee, which nurtured in his son an appreciation for rural African American culture. Adelaide Allen Brown, a graduate of Fisk University, encouraged her son’s admiration for African American literature and his aspirations as a writer.
After he received his bachelor’s degree in 1922 from William College and his master’s degree in 1923 from Harvard University, Brown taught at Virginia Seminary and College, Lincoln University in Missouri, and Fisk University. In 1929, he began teaching at Howard University, where he remained until retiring in 1969.
Following the publication of his 1931 study of African American poetry, Outline for the Study of the Poetry of American Negroes, and the 1932 volume of his own poems, Southern Road, Brown continued scholarly work on African American fiction and drama with two volumes in 1937: The Negro in American Fiction and Negro Poetry and Drama. Beginning in 1936, Brown also edited the Federal Writers’ Project studies by and about African Americans. Brown supervised the interviewing that led to the publication of seventeen volumes of more than two thousand slave narratives. He insisted on including African American materials in state guidebooks, and he supervised Roscoe Lewis’s The Negro in Virginia (1940), a model of documentary research and narrative drama.
Brown composed in dialect, inspired by the spirit of the blues, which he once defined as “strength . . . stoicism . . . fortitude . . . humor . . . directness . . . frankness.” His subjects were always distinctively African American, usually rural and southern, and ordinary. He called his poetry “portraitures,” but his snapshots of southern people were equally powerful landscape painting, for a sense of place was essential to his work.
Brown developed his poetry from African American oral literature, much of which he collected in The Negro Caravan, a 1,082-page literary history of African Americans. Brown’s introductory essay to that collection of folk literature, spirituals, work songs, sermons, and blues is still considered indispensable. From such raw material emerged Brown’s own synthetic style, elements of which are drawn from blues, ballads, spirituals, work songs, black music, and mythology. Brown had great belief in the raw material and in the aesthetic integrity of his sources. He occasionally included blues lines in his work, and many of his poems derive their rhythm from African American oral forms. The poem “Southern Road” uses the structure of a work song:
Brown also relied on the Anglo-American tradition. He was inspired in his use of the ballad by Walt Whitman and Edward Arlington Robinson, in his use of dialect by Robert Burns, and in tone by A. E. Housman and Robert Frost. The literary critic Henry Louis Gates, Jr., writes that Brown’s subject matter and everyday speech are fundamentally related to New Poetry and to the work of Amy Lowell, Vachel Lindsay, Edgar Lee Masters, Carl Sandburg, and the Imagists.
Brown drew from virtually the entire canon of English and American poetry, and he was fluent in a variety of poetic forms. With those traditions as his foundation, Brown used his African American materials to build a body of work celebrating the African American aesthetic and elevating those who gave it voice. Brown once said, I didn’t want to attack a stereotype by idealizing. I wanted to deepen it. I wanted to understand my people. I wanted to understand what it meant to be a Negro, what the qualities of life were. With their imagination, they combine two great loves: the love of words and the love of life. Poetry results.
I didn’t want to attack a stereotype by idealizing. I wanted to deepen it. I wanted to understand my people. I wanted to understand what it meant to be a Negro, what the qualities of life were. With their imagination, they combine two great loves: the love of words and the love of life. Poetry results.