E. Ethelbert Miller on Sterling Brown


When I think of poets I often think about their voices. I like how poets sing words into the air. It's the ear which redirects the eye back to the page.

(May 1, 1901 - January 13, 1989)  
Sterling Brown in 1979.  
 (photo by Thomas Victor)

Sometime during my freshman year (1968) at Howard University I walked into an auditorium on campus and heard Sterling Brown read. It was my first poetry reading and I was quickly mesmerized by this tall, fair skinned, distinguished looking man. He kept the entire audience engaged with his telling of what he called "lies." These short tales were woven in between the poems he recited. They were funny as well as instructional. Brown's comments would have deeper meaning for me as I learned more about the blues, African American folklore and the South. My teacher and mentor Stephen Henderson was a real fan of Brown. When he undertook the directorship of the Institute for Arts & Humanities at Howard in 1973, he coaxed Brown out of retirement. Brown suddenly appeared on the college grounds like Jackie Robinson stealing second base or Duke Ellington returning home after a long tour overseas. As a young writer I felt like a rookie in a dugout every time I spoke to him. Brown was warm and gracious. He became the model of the writer I wanted to become. I loved the way it was impossible to talk about Howard and literature without mentioning his name.

In the late Seventies and early Eighties, Sterling Brown's office was around the corner from my own. His office should have been connected to the Smithsonian Museum. It was filled with paper, folders, books and record albums. One could stand in the doorway and believe it was the gateway or portal to the Black experience. Brown's office, however, could not compare to his home in the Brookland neighborhood. 1222 Kearney Street was an oasis for scholars and writers. My first trip to Brown's house was on May 10, 1973. I went there with my friend Steve Jones. Steve was doing some work for Margaret Burroughs, the founder of the DuSable Museum in Chicago. When Steve told me he planned to interview Brown, I decided to tag along with a video camera. I was working then at Howard's African American Resource Center. It was one of the first units at the University to have access to video equipment. Little did I know that the May 10th interview would be the first of several I would record of Brown. The transcriptions of the tapes would be helpful to Joann Gabbin while writing the first critical analysis of Sterling Brown's work.

I don't feel Brown's poetry had a direct influence on my own writing. Although I loved the narrative style in several of his poems, I think it was Ahmos Zu-Bolton and Lee Howard who really opened the windows for me. But I came to Brown's poetry through its humor and accessibility. Brown and Langston Hughes were my cornerstones as the Black Arts Movement introduced me to Amiri Baraka, Don L. Lee (Haki Madhubuti), Carolyn Rogers, Nikki Giovanni, Sonia Sanchez and Norman Jordan. Despite the celebratory emphasis on blackness that coincided with my youth, Sterling Brown insisted on being called a Negro. It was a matter of pride. The word Negro is linked forever to the struggle for freedom and equality in this country. Brown was of a generation of "Race Men" who transformed our American society. There would have been no Civil Rights Movement without men like Brown. When novelist and essayist James Baldwin undertook a trip down South to study the battle against segregation in the early Sixties, he first stopped in Washington, D.C. and met with the senior poet. Brown instructed Baldwin on how to walk the Southern road.

Some people called Sterling Brown the dean of Negro literature. To me he was "Mr. B" and "Old Lem." At the Fourth National Conference of Afro-American Writers in May 1978, a tape was played in which Brown could be heard talking about how a mere tad of a lad (me) had helped him more than anyone in his career. I don't think that's true. Sterling Brown was widely loved, especially by former students. I was never a student of Brown's, so I missed those classroom moments at Howard and his home. However my appreciation of the man deepens every year. Sterling Brown was my literary elder. I know see myself becoming one.

In 1984, Grace Cavalieri, James Early and I were instrumental in the awarding of Sterling Brown the first Poet Laureate of Washington, D.C. This was not difficult due to Mayor Marion Barry's knowledge and appreciation of Brown's work. Barry found personal meaning and comfort in Brown's signature poem "Strong Men." One warm day in 1988 Early, Edgar Tidwell and I drove over to Kearney Street to check on Brown. We all knew he had been ill. I believe a woman who was taking care of him opened the front door. Inside laying across a sofa was Sterling Brown. He had grown a long white beard which made him resemble Walt Whitman. He was a thin ghost outline of himself. I stood in the room feeling my head fill up with one of his poems:

I is got to see some people
.......I ain't never seen,
Gotta highball thru some country
.......Whah I never been.

I don't know which way I'm travelin'--
.......Far or near,
All I knows fo' certain is
.......I cain't stay here.

("Long Gone")


In 2001, I coordinated the Sterling A. Brown Centennial Committee and helped place a plaque in the front of Brown's home, now occupied by the Washington Post editor and writer Marcia Davis.

Whenever I visit Marcia I think about Sterling Brown and his wife Daisy. Their spirits continue to linger near the bookcases in the living room. When Marcia plays jazz in the house you know it better be followed by the blues or someone will be whispering behind her back.

O Ma Rianey,
Sing yo' song;
Now you's back
Whah you belong,
Git way inside us,
Keep us strong....

("Ma Rainey")


Thank you, Sterling. Throughout our city the young poets keep coming on. They keep getting stronger. They hear you.

They don't come by ones
They don't come by twos
But they come by tens.

("Old Lem")

LONG TRACK BLUES by Sterling A. Brown

Went down to the yards
To see the signal lights come on;
Looked down the track
Where my lovin' babe done gone.

Red light in my block,
Green light down the line;
Lawdy, let yo' green light
Shine down on that babe o' mine.

Heard a train callin'
Blowin' long ways down the track;
Ain't no train due here,
Baby what can you bring back?

Brakeman tell me
Got a powerful ways to go;
He don't know my feelin's
Baby, when he's talkin' so.

Lanterns a-swingin',
An' a long freight leaves the yard;
Leaves me here, baby,
But my heart it rides de rod.

Sparks a flyin',
Wheels rumblin' wid a mighty roar;
Then the red tail light,
And the place gets dark once more.

Dog in the freight room
Howlin' like he los' his mind;
Might howl myself,
If I was the howlin' kind.

Norfolk and Western,
Bobay, and the C. & O.;
How come they treat
A hardluck feller so?

Red light in my block,
Green light down the line;
Lawdy, let yo' green light
Shine down on that babe o' mine.

Suggested Reading

The Collected Poems of Sterling A. Brown, Selected by Michael S. Harper (TriQuarterly Books, 1989)
Southern Road, Sterling Allen Brown (Beacon Press, 1974)
Last Ride of Wild Bill and Eleven Narrative Poems by Sterling Allen Brown (Broadside Press, 1976)
The Negro Caravan, edited by Sterling Allen Brown (Ayer Co Pub, 1969)
The Negro in American Fiction, Sterling Allen Brown (Ayer Co Pub, 1969)


"In Sterling's House," Marcia Davis, Callaloo, Vol, 21, No. 4, 1998.
Joann V. Gabbin, Sterling A. Brown: Building a Black Aesthetic Tradition (University Press of Virginia, reprint 1994)
James Weldon Johnson, Ed. Book of American Negro Poetry. (Harcourt, 1931)
Mark A. Sanders, ed., A Son's Return: Selected Essays of Sterling A. Brown (Northeastern University Press, 1996)
Mark A. Sanders, Afro-Modernist Aesthetics & The Poetry of Sterling A. Brown (University of Georgia Press, 1999)
Amritjit Singh, ed., The Harlem Renaissance: Revaluations. (Garland Publishing, 1989)
"Oh, Didn't He Ramble: Sterling A. Brown," John Edgar Tidwell, Black American Literature Forum, 23.1 (1989).
Jean Wagner, Black Poets of the United States (University of Illinois Press, 1973)

Academy of American Poets web site: http://www.poets.org/LIT/poet/sbrowfst.htm
The Modern American Poetry web site: http://www.english.uiuc.edu/maps/poets/a_f/brown/brown.htm
DC Public Library's web exhibit on the Black Renaissance: http://www.dclibrary.org/blkren/bios/brownsa.html
John Edgar Tidwell's "Classroom Issues and Strategies" web page on teaching Sterling Brown to college students: http://www.georgetown.edu/faculty/bassr/heath/syllabuild/iguide/browns.html

 

Acknowledgments

Thanks to Jack Dennis, Sterling Brown's son, for permission to reprint "Long Track Blues."