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Apr 27, 2015

Sterling Brown's Border Crossings

In honor of Sterling Brown’s birthday The Fight and the Fiddle offers this excerpt from Dr. Joanne Gabbin’s paper on Brown, presented at the College Language Association’s annual conference, which was held in Dallas (April 2015).

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Sterling Brown

From the Halls of Academia to the Juke Joints of Missouri: Sterling Brown’s Border Crossings

by Dr. Joanne Gabbin

Born on May 1, 1901, in a house at Sixth and Fairmount in Washington, D.C., Sterling Brown was the last of six children and the only son born to Reverend Sterling Nelson Brown and Adelaide Allen Brown. Equipped with college educations from Fisk University, his parents in one mighty leap from slavery to freedom were able to raise their own children in the burgeoning black middle class of Washington, the city reputed to have “the most distinguished assemblage of Negroes in the world.” This status often came with narrow interpretations of culture, an entrenched sense of color consciousness, and a hysteria surrounding what must be the path of middle-class respectability. Brown rejected all of these notions as they applied to his life. Educated at Williams College and Harvard University, Brown said that he received his finest education from semi-literate farmers and migrant workers of the rural South. It is significant that, though he was the son of a Howard University minister and professor, he did not confine his referents to the boundaries of a preacher’s home; they included the blues moans and jazz of the barrel houses from Memphis to Missouri and the speech of the “low-down” folk.

After graduating from Harvard in 1923, Brown decided that he wanted to teach. At the suggestion of both his father and historian Carter G. Woodson, Brown went to Virginia Seminary in Lynchburg, where he taught English for the next three years. There Brown became intensely interested in writing poetry. For the first time, he said, “I found something to write about. I found a world of great interest and it was a world of people, and the poetry of the time—the poetry that I was reading—was a people’s poetry.” The black people of the rural communities surrounding Lynchburg, who were as steeped in the traditions of the spiritual, the blues, the aphorisms, old lies, and superstitions of folk life as they were in the purplish red clay of the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, taught the young professor something of folk humor, irony, fortitude, and shrewdness. He met Mrs. Bibby and Calvin Big Boy Davis, both of whom significantly figure in his later poetry that appeared first in Southern Road (1932). In Brown’s subsequent teaching posts at Lincoln University in Missouri (1926–1928) and Fisk University (1928–1929), he found himself wandering to the hotels and shoeshine parlors in Jefferson City, to the black business establishments in Nashville, and to the honky-tonks in The Black Belt. One of his students at Lincoln University remembers that “there were those who considered Prof. Brown a bit ‘tetched’ to be spending so much time with ‘those weird characters’ that frequented The Foot, an area that bordered the campus.” Brown conversed with a man named Revelations, a self-appointed prophet of doom, and he spent long hours listening to the tales and jokes told by a waiter named “Slim” in the Jefferson City Hotel. When Brown got to Fisk University in 1928, he joined the faculty with other erudite academics, including Charles S. Johnson, Horace Mann Bond, John Work, Edith St. Elmo Brady, and Aaron Douglas. But Brown could just as likely be found telling lies with Will Gilchrist at Gillie’s Bar as engaging in get-togethers with his distinguished faculty members. He carried this preference for the company of the folk with him to Howard University in 1929, when he began his long career there that would extend well into the 1970s.

Sterling Brown’s border crossings were often as social and psychological as they were geographical and literary, and they were peppered with dichotomies and complexities.

Brown’s genial, vivacious personality often made him the center of a larger social group made up of Howard professors, Washington professional people, and an array of nationally acclaimed celebrities , such as Willie “The Lion” Smith, Eubie Blake, Duke Ellington, Oscar Brown, Jr., Roscoe Lee Browne, and Jimmy Witherspoon. For decades, Brown’s home was a gathering place. During the fifties, scholars in black literature and culture, such as Robert Bone, Jean Wagner, Rosey Pool, Benjamin Botkin, and Alan Lomax, found their way to 1222 Kearney Street where tall tales and white lightning flowed. During the sixties, Brown was the respected advisor to the Nonviolent Action Group, or NAG, Howard’s version of SNCC (the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee begun at Shaw University). Stokely Carmichael, Courtland Cox, Charlie Cobb, and Mike Thadwell were among the students who sought guidance from “Prof.” The students would crowd into his basement lined with shelves of books and phonograph records where there would be rousing discussions on Marxism, Pan-Africanism, civil rights, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr. and nonviolent vs. direct action. Whatever the time, writers and scholars visiting Washington, D.C. made the Brown home a priority stop for a chance to sit at the feet of the venerated poet.

Nowhere is Sterling Brown’s legacy as builder of the black aesthetic tradition more evident than in his career as a critic. As interpreter, reviewer, and editor, Brown consistently raised the standards of criticism and encouraged writers to extend the possibilities of their art. In pioneer critical surveys The Negro in American Fiction and Negro Poetry and Drama (1937), he laid the foundations for the study of black images in American literature. Brown put into place an aesthetic philosophy which has the folk tradition as the basis of art. A valuable consequence of this approach is a model for the realistic depiction of life, one that does not encourage what Brown called “artistic aridity.” A second consequence is the rescue of dialect and the lowly as subject matter from complete and shamefaced disavowal. Also this aesthetic approach eschews assimilation, which Brown saw as a negative goal of black writing. His journey from the halls of academia to the juke joints of Missouri and back again taught him about the richness of his cultural tradition to provide the foundation for African Americans to approach American society as creators and innovators.

Read more in Gabbin's first book, Sterling A. Brown: Building the Black Aesthetic Tradition (1985), available from most booksellers.