Sterling Brown

Sterling Brown Biography

Editor, Literary Critic, Poet, Educator (1901–1989)
African-American poet Sterling Brown is best known for writing poetry distinctly rooted in folklore and authentic black dialect. His works, including Southern Road (1932), have been widely praised for their authenticity and phonetic spelling.

Who Is Sterling Brown?

Born on May 1, 1901, in Washington, D.C., African-American poet Sterling Brown is best known for his writing rooted in folklore and authentic black dialect. After graduating from Williams College in 1922 and receiving a master's degree from Harvard University in 1923, Brown began working as a professor. Over the next few years, he began collecting folk songs and stories, and then published Southern Road in 1932. Later works include Negro Poetry and Drama (1937), The Negro in American Fiction (1937) and The Negro Caravan (1941). Brown died in Takoma Park, Maryland, on January 13, 1989.

Early Life

Poet, author and professor Sterling Allen Brown was born on Howard University's campus in Washington, D.C., on May 1, 1901. He was the sixth child of schoolteacher Adelaide Allen and her husband, distinguished theologian and divinity school professor Sterling Nelson Brown, a former slave. Brown, their only son, followed in his father's academic footsteps, attending Williams College on a scholarship, and distinguished himself by winning the Graves Prize for his essay "The Comic Spirit in Shakespeare and Moliere" and graduating cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa in 1922.

The following year Brown earned his master's in English at Harvard University and embarked on a teaching career, heading courses at Virginia Seminary in Lynchburg, Lincoln University in Missouri and Fisk University in Nashville.

'The Dean of American Negro Poets'

His family, and Brown in particular, was criticized as pretentious for being solidly in the black middle class at the beginning of the 20th century, but while writers of the Harlem Renaissance were rising to prominence writing about that glittering urban landscape in the 1920s and '30s, Brown turned his attention to Southern culture, exploring authentic black folklore and literature.

Brown credited poets such as Edgar Lee Masters, Robert Frost and Carl Sandburg with opening his eyes to "the extraordinary in ordinary life." Brown focused on the authentic black voice in language and lore, seeking to free it from long-imposed stereotypes that evolved from plantation and minstrel traditions.

In doing so, Brown became known as the "The Dean of American Negro Poets" for his pioneering work in uncovering the humanity that breathed beneath the surface of racial stereotypes.

Southern Road, his first book of poetry, published in 1932, brought rural folk to life with poignant integrity in the rhythms of ballads, blues and jazz. In tandem with his poetry, Brown was writing essays on the black American diaspora: "Negro Character as Seen by White Authors" (1933), "The Negro in American Fiction" (1937) and "Negro Poetry and Drama" (1937). Brown also contributed poetry to Benjamin A. Botkin's series of regional miscellanies, Folk-Say.

The Negro Caravan, an anthology published in 1941 and coedited by Brown, helped establish the contribution of African-American writers to American literature as a whole.

Death and Legacy

Brown wrote little in the ensuing 30 years, but student interest sparked a revival of his work—his students included playwright Ossie Davis, political activist Stokely Carmichael and Nobel Prize–winning author Toni Morrison.

In 1979, the District of Columbia declared his birthday, May 1, Sterling A. Brown Day. "I've been rediscovered, reinstituted, regenerated and recovered," he told The Washington Post. The Collected Poems of Sterling Brown, published in 1980, won the Lenore Marshall Prize, and Brown was named Poet Laureate of the District of Columbia in 1984, prompting the Post to note that it was a designation "[he had] held informally for most of his 83 years."

Sterling Brown died of leukemia at age 88 on January 13, 1989, in Takoma Park, Maryland.

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