Sterling A. Brown
|photo: Addison Scurlock, courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution
by Dan Vera
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
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
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.
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:
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
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.
BibliographySouthern 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)
Joanne Gabbin, Sterling A. Brown: Building the Black Aesthetic Tradition, 1985
Dan Vera is the author of the forthcoming Speaking Wiri Wiri (Red Hen Press, 2013) winner of the Letras Latinas/Red Hen Poetry Prize, and The Space Between Our Danger and Delight (Beothuk Books, 2008). His poetry has appeared in various journals including Notre Dame Review, Delaware Poetry Review, Gargoyle, Little Patuxent Review, Naugatuck River, the anthologies Divining Divas, and Full Moon On K Street: Poems About Washington, DC. He's the co-creator of the literary history site, DC Writers' Homes and on the board of Split This Rock Poetry. For more visit www.danvera.com.
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.
in Volume 13:4, Fall 2012.
To read more by Dan Vera:
Dan Vera: Evolving City Issue
Dan Vera: Split This Rock Issue
Kim Roberts and Dan Vera on DC Author's Houses: Forebears Issue
Dan Vera's Intro to the US Poets Laureate Issue (Fall 2009)
Dan Vera on Four Laureates: US Poets Laureate Issue
Dan Vera: Tenth Anniversary Issue
Dan Vera: Langston Hughes Tribute Issue
Dan Vera: Floricanto Issue
To read more by and about Sterling A. Brown:
E. Ethelbert Miller on Sterling A. Brown: Memorial Issue
Sterling A. Brown: DC Places Issue