Sterling A. Brown

Dan Vera

Dan Vera on Sterling A. Brown

by Dan Vera

Poetic Ancestors, Issue 13:4, Spring 2012

Photo: Addison Scurlock, Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institutions

Photo: Addison Scurlock, Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institutions

Every writer is influenced by other writers.  We are influenced by what we read and how those writings expand our understanding of the possible.  Sterling Brown serves as a model for writers seeking an example of writing deeply grounded in place with attention to sound and detail.  It is difficult to think of another writer more rooted and influenced by and dedicated to the District of Columbia.  Brown was born in Washington, DC, where his father was an influential minister and professor at Howard University.  His mother was a local schoolteacher.  The house Brown grew up in was located at the site of the current Chemistry Building at Howard.  It’s a fitting place for his birth as he would become intimately associated with Howard, where he taught for forty years until his retirement in 1969.

He is best remembered now for his poetry and its masterly command of dialect and voice, the way in which he brought jazz and the blues into the creating of literature.  But as a writer I am also intrigued and edified by how Sterling Brown’s life and commitments straddled so many of the movements of his time, from his work with the Federal Writers Project to his inclusion in the mis-named Harlem Renaissance – mis-named because the “renaissance” took place in more than just Harlem and included cultural figures who never lived above 110th street or who got their start in Washington, DC, like Brown, Alain Locke, Duke Ellington, Langston Hughes, and Zora Neale Hurston.

In Brown, you have a writer who would spend the rest of his career supporting the work of poets, essayists and novelists in his surroundings, who later, after the “renaissance,” made sure the canon was built to include these voices, to preserve the movement, and to foster the next generation of writerly discovery.

He is also remembered as the Dean of Afro-American literary studies and for having taught some of the first courses on African American literature. His students included Amiri Baraka, Kwame Toure, Toni Morrison, and even the arch-conservative writer Thomas Sowell, whose young aspirations as a creative writer were brutally cut short by a withering critique he received from Professor Brown. He sponsored generations of aspiring writers through his courses but also through salons at the Brookland home he shared with his wife Daisy.  In his honor, writers in Brookland held for many years an annual “Sterling Brown Invitational” reading and heard from past students who remembered the literary salons in the Browns’ Kearney Street home as seminal moments in their own artistic development.

To say that Brown was an adored and respected figure at Howard University would be an understatement. Toward the end of his career there, he played an important role in the student demonstrations that shut down the university campus.  The protestors were demanding radical changes, including a more culturally diverse faculty and curriculum. But they also wanted the nation’s preeminent Black university to divest itself of the name of its white founder, Otis Howard.  The consensus choice among students was to rename the institution “Sterling Brown University.” Imagine for a moment such a thing occurring on a college campus today with a contemporary professor so beloved that he would inspire a campus-wide call for honorific denomination.

Fortunately for subsequent generations, Brown left a hefty and illuminating record of his opinions on the history of the city in the form of essays and poems.  Perhaps his most acknowledged work in this area is his 1937 essay for the Federal Writers Project titled “The Negro in Washington.” In this essay Brown provides a thorough accounting of Negro culture and status in all its forms.  This accounting is placed on a clear historical analysis of the changing and ever-present role of Black people in the nation’s capital. The city in many ways is both more diverse and less diverse than it was in 1937. But as a Latino writer who calls the disenfranchised capital city home almost seventy-five years after Brown wrote this essay, I am astounded by how much has changed and how much has remained the same.

From the preservation of the color-line in the District grave consequences arise. Educationally, segregation means the maintenance of a dual system—expensive not only in dollars and cents but also in its indoctrination of white children with a belief in their superiority and of Negro children with a belief in their inferiority, both equally false. Politically, it is believed by many that the determination to keep the Negro “in his place” has lessened the agitation for suffrage in the District. Economically, the presence of a large number of unemployed constitutes a critical relief problem; the low rate of pay received by Negro workers lowers the standard of living and threatens the trade-union movement. Socially, the effects of Negro ghettoes are far-reaching. One cannot segregate disease and crime. In this border city, Southern in so many respects, there is a denial of democracy, at times hypocritical and at times flagrant. Social compulsion forces many who would naturally be on the side of civic fairness into hopelessness and indifference. Washington has made steps in the direction of justice, but many steps remain to be taken for the sake of the underprivileged and for the sake of a greater Washington.

       —Sterling Brown, “The Negro in Washington” (1937)

It’s important to note that Brown was writing of the Black population’s “profound influence” in Washington at a time when the Black population constituted “more than one-fourth of the city’s total” and not the present aspect of half the city’s total population.  The essay in its entirety provides such an illuminating amount of historical context to the foundations upon which our present city rests that it should be required reading for every citizen in the Washington region.  Brown has done the serious work of mining the historical underpinnings of our great city.

The other example of Brown’s writing that inspires me as a work of humility, honesty and self-knowledge is his 1979 letter to the editor of The Washington Star. This bittersweet paean to his neighborhood’s past was recovered by a fellow poet and Brooklander Michael Gushue for one of our annual Brown invitationals.  Brown was writing to the now defunct local newspaper in response to a column decrying the “ghetto” of Brookland:

I am afraid that my family and I do not share the nostalgia expressed by Jeremiah O’Leary in his essay on Northeast Washington’s Brookland (March 17). We have resided in Brookland since 1935, just a year before O’Leary’s anguished courtship of an Irish colleen on 20th Street NE. We do not agree that Brookland’s “day was done when the first bomb fell on Pearl Harbor.” Coming back in 1945, according to O’Leary, the young Irish veterans “were men of the world, and the families went on the move to greener pastures.”

Well, Brookland’s day is not done. The exodus of the Irish and the WASPS cannot be blamed on Pearl Harbor. I am afraid that my family was one of the dire causes of white flight. Moving from our previous home when it was purchased by Howard University, my mother bought two lots in Brookland and built one home for herself and two daughters, and one for my wife, myself and our adopted son. When the homes were completed, “For Sale” signs in the neighborhood seemed to sprout overnight.

“I never knew a black person in that long-ago time, and precious few other exotic species,” O’Leary wrote.

Well, I have been a reader of The Star for over 70 years, and I have read many O’Leary articles and understood most, but begorra, and may the saints preserve us, what in the bloody wurruld does he mean by “exotic” and “species?” Jaysus almighty! My Brookland white friend—(for some of my best friends are of that exotic breed) does not rebuke me so much for exiling whites as for destroying the hill where our family’s houses were constructed; it was the favorite crap-shooting and card-playing area in the neighborhood.

A less friendly white—I believe he was Irish from his pronunciation—for several weeks drove past in his rickety car, yelling “Naygur, Naygur” at us, louder than the rattling of his jalopy. The word was frequently painted on our steps near the street. Once it was spelled “NIGER,” though my only connection with that country that I know of is my friendship with our former ambassador there, W. Mercer Cook. But what is a single G among friends?

The report of Brookland’s death is grossly exaggerated. My dear Mr. O’Leary, I feel no nostalgia. I feel no bitterness at the venalities of the past. I am beyond my three score years and 10, over half of them spent in Brookland; I am retired, but these pastures are green enough for me. Deeper than your nostalgia is this prophecy, made by an ancient to a stripling: “Brookland is doing well, and Brookland will rise again.”

The letter represents the recollections of Brown’s experiences living in Brookland, a place that did not welcome him but still became his home.  I have had the opportunity to explore his letters and essays in the Spingarn archives at Howard and in it he remarks on his great love of this quiet Northeast Washington neighborhood.

Perhaps most importantly for me, I come to Sterling Brown by way of neighborhood. When I moved to this city and settled in Brookland, I discovered his home on Kearney Street; that simple home with the plaque at its base reading “The Poet’s House.” The very idea that a writer had lived a few blocks from where I now lived was inspirational to a newcomer attempting to ground himself in this city as a writer.

When one thinks of Washington, “writer” is not the first profession one thinks of. If you are asked at a social event for your line of work, the response of “writer” is met with a blank look and a polite nod. If it’s not a discussion stopper, it’s a conversational cul-de-sac. Because in a “company town” where the “company” is the federal government, the role and life of the writer (especially one uninvolved in journalism) can be a transgressive or revolutionary proposition.

We make our work where we live. Whether we write of our environs, we make our work where we live. The streets we cross and drive, the parks we frequent, the corner stores, the neighborly exchanges: these make up the fabric of our daily lives. To think that a poet like Sterling Brown walked these same streets added a luster to what I once thought an unremarkable part of the city.

When I document the city’s history and current struggles through my research and my writing, I can now see it in lineage with other writers who took notice, who paid attention and found the lived experience of this city more important than its officious, governmental quarters – that image in the national imagination that only sees this great city in terms of its monumental core and federal buildings.  It may not be necessary to have the knowledge of antecedent writers living where you live, but it does allow one the rare understanding that doing what one does, writing in place, in this specific place, if not an average activity, is not an alien avocation.

 

Bibliography
Southern Road, 1932 (poems)
The Negro in American Fiction, 1937 (nonfiction)
Negro Poetry and Drama, 1937 (nonfiction)
The Negro Caravan: Writings by American Negroes, 1941 (anthology)
The Last Ride of Wild Bill and Eleven Narrative Poems, 1975 (poems)
Collected Poems, ed. Michael S. Harper, 1980 (poems)

See also:
Joanne Gabbin, Sterling A. Brown: Building the Black Aesthetic Tradition, 1985

To read more by and about Sterling A. Brown
E. Ethelbert Miller on Sterling A. Brown: Memorial Issue
Sterling A. Brown: DC Places Issue

 

An earlier version of this essay was first presented at the 2011 Associated Writers and Writing Programs Annual Conference in Washington, DC, in a panel entitled “Four by Four: Beltway Poetry Quarterly Celebrates the Poetic Lineage of the Capitol City.”  The panel was moderated by Holly Bass, and the presenters, in addition to Vera, were Regie Cabico, Brian Gilmore, and Kim Roberts.

Sterling A. Brown (May 1, 1901 - January 13, 1989) was renowned as a teacher, joining the faculty of Howard University in 1929. He published two volumes of poems: Southern Road (1932), and The Last Ride of Wild Bill (1975), and his Collected Poems, edited by Michael S. Harper, was published posthumously (1980). In addition, he edited landmark anthologies such as The Negro Caravan (1941), and Negro Poetry and Drama (1937), and served as Editor on Negro Affairs for the Federal Writers Project during the Great Depression. His honors include a Guggenheim Fellowship, and honorary degrees from the University of Massachusetts, Howard University, Northwestern University, Williams College, Boston University, Brown University, and Lewis and Clark College. He served as the first Poet Laureate of Washington, DC. To read more by Sterling A. Brown: E. Ethelbert Miller on Sterling A. Brown: Memorial Issue Sterling A. Brown: DC Places Issue

Dan Vera is the co-editor of the anthology Imaniman: Poets Writing in the Anzaldúan Borderlands (Aunt Lute Books, 2016), and author of two poetry collections: Speaking Wiri Wiri (Red Hen Press, 2013), and The Space Between Our Danger and Delight (Beothuk Books, 2008). A CantoMundo and Macondo writing fellow, he’s the winner of the Oscar Wilde Award for Poetry and the Letras Latinas/Red Hen Poetry Prize. He’s received grants and fellowships from the DC Commission of the Arts & Humanities, the Humanities Council of Washington, DC, the Ragdale Foundation, and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. His poetry has been featured in college and university curricula and included in such anthologies as Ghost Fishing: An Eco-Justice Anthology, Queer South, Divining Divas, and Full Moon On K Street: Poems About Washington, DC. He is the former Board Chair for Split This Rock, and co-creator of the literary history website, DC Writers' Homes. For more visit http://www.danvera.com. To read more by Dan Vera: Dan Vera: Winter 2006; Dan Vera: Evolving City Issue; Dan Vera: Split This Rock Issue; Dan Vera's Introduction to the US Poets Laureate Issue,Fall 2009; Dan Vera: Langston Hughes Tribute Issue; Dan Vera: Floricanto Issue.