contemporary of Langston hughes and a protégé of James Weldon johnson, Sterling A. Brown is one of the most important and influential African-American poets of the 20th century. Although Browns first collection of poetry, Southern Road (1932), was published around the time of the harlem renaissance, he resisted being labeled a Harlem Renaissance poet, writing at one point that "[t]he New Negro is not ... a group of writers centered in Harlem during the second half of the twenties. . . . [M]uch of the best [Negro] writing was not about Harlem" (qtd. in Stuckey 15). For although Brown did write on occasion about urban life and Harlem, in Southern Road and later writings, his predominant themes have to do with the folk and folk ways of the black South.
Brown was born in Washington, D.C. His father, a distinguished minister and professor of religion at Howard University, had been a slave in Tennessee. Brown received a scholarship to Williams College, from which he graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1922, and received his masters degree from Harvard in 1923. A professor, scholar, and literary critic as well as a poet, Brown wrote the first scholarly survey of black poetry, Negro Poetry and Drama (1938), and was coeditor of The Negro Caravan (1941), an early anthology of African-American literature. He was named poet laureate of the District of Columbia in 1984.
Browns major contributions to American poetry include his adaptations of the blues, spirituals, and work-song rhythms, innovations in the use of black dialect, and an abiding interest in social realism. In his first published poem, "When de Saints Go Ma'ching Home" (1927), the speaker recollects a sidewalk entertainer who finishes his repertoire with his own variation of the well-known spiritual, enumerating his friends and their troubles as he sees them in "[a] gorgeous procession to 'de Beulah Land.'" Throughout the poem, Brown riffs on the spiritual, expanding its meaning to include particular individuals who have suffered in real-life ways. In the title poem of Southern Road, Brown adapts the rhythm of the work song to his line—"Swing dat hammer—hunh— / Steady, bo"'—to initiate a poem that details the speaker's daily life on the chain gang even as it gives, through rhythm and lineation, the sound and sense of the speaker's toil.
In these and numerous other poems, Brown layers his portrayals of folk life with memorable characters and penetrating rhythms, leaving a body of work that challenges accepted notions of what it meant to be an African American writing poetry in the midst of the Harlem Renaissance.
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