Friday, February 6, 2015
STERLING BROWN: OUR NATIONAL TREASURE
Michael Harper dedicates Every Shut Eye Ain’t Asleep, an anthology of poetry by African Americans since 1945, to Sterling Brown—“poet, folksayist, scholar-teacher, pioneering wordsmith in a dynamic American lexicon, especially the laconic meditations and metaphysics extant in folkspeech as the underbelly of the nation’ s lexicon.” Sterling Brown’s first book of poetry, Southern Road, 1932, was introduced by Sterling’s mentor, James Weldon Johnson with whom he quarreled about “dialect being limited to pathos and humor.” Joanne Gabbin, in her book on Sterling refers to Richard Wright’s term, “The Forms of Things Unknown,” the anonymous folk utterances, spirituals, blues, work songs and folklore created and passed on by African Americans in our country. I know from my own experiences in villages where my people come from that the contours of the secret, hidden world can be glimpsed in folk expressions.
One September evening in 1981, Sterling came to share his thoughts and poems with my undergraduate students at American University. If there is a pillar holding up this world, I think of Sterling. I’d give a lot to hear his wisdom on our Congress in these days!
Sterling: “My approach is largely portraiture of people. I’m more concerned with revealing qualities of their life than revealing qualities of my own life. I wrote one poem that is autobiographic or semi-autobiographic: “After Winter.” [Sterling’s father, Sterling Nelson Brown, born in 1858 before Emancipation, worked as a molder in a brickyard, saved enough to buy a small farm for his parents and to go to Fisk. He later graduated from Oberlin Theological Seminary. Sterling Senior was friends with Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Du Bois and taught at Howard University for some 30 years. He was a man of great moral courage, and stunning accomplishment in his own right. Sterling’s mother, Grace Adelaide Brown, taught in the D.C. schools for over 50 years ] Sterling was educated at Dunbar High School, Williams College and did graduate work at Harvard. He taught at Virginia Theological Seminary and College and then for close to 60 years at Howard University. Here he encountered Kelly Miller, father of poet and dramatist May Miller, and Alain Locke, W.E.B. Du Bois. He attributed to his mother his love for poetry. “She read Longfellow, Roberts Burns, and she read Dunbar,” he writes.
Sterling Brown captures another side to his father. In summers during his boyhood, his family lived on a farm in Howard County at Whiskey Bottom Road.
“I was greatly influenced not only by Housman and Frost, Edward Arlington Robinson. In college I learned about Keats, Shelley, Wordsworth, Shakespeare, Milton. I wanted my poetry to be simple, sensuous, what you could see, hear taste, touch, poetry that conveyed feeling. But one day on the Boston Commons I read Untermeyer’s Modern American Poets, found Sandburg, To get to the language of the people, away from an artificial literary language, what Whitman wanted to do when he heard America singing. Robinson went to a small town off the coast of Maine, from the ordinary, getting something extraordinary, Sandburg in Chicago, Frost in the farmers of New England. Handling of my own people, felt it had been stereotyped, actuality hadn’t been shown, I did know there was a field to be cultivated. Virginia Seminarian College was poor in money but rich in humanities.”
Sterling said “I learned the arts and sciences at Williams and Harvard but I learned the humanities in Lynchburg at Virginia Seminary. Students were older than I, but coal miners in the summer, worked the farms and in hotels. They showed me certain qualities of life. I was sent there by Carter G. Woodson, (his high school teacher, father of Black History Month,) and my father. My father told me to learn something about my people, learn something about myself.”
In opposition to James Weldon Johnson, on the limitations of folk speech, Sterling told us: “Folk speech is not limited: it is capable of tragedy, irony. The spirituals were not only pathos…’ Go down Moses, way down in Egypt land, let my people go,’ or ‘I don’t know what my mother wants to stay here for. This old world aint been no friend to her.’ I found it in the blues. I found the pithy, epigrammatic, the ironic quality as Zora Neale Hurston said, ‘Hitting a straight lid with a crooked stick.’ I found the blues rich in this. ‘Got a handful of Gimme and a mouthful of Much Obliged.’. Whole lot packed into that. Found it in the folk tales, found a great deal. Found a language here. Made use of the folk expressions. Students at Virginia Seminary brought me a wandering guitar player, had coal dust on his lungs, but too weak for recording, Big Boy Davis taught me a great deal.
“In my class I was teaching Emerson, Thoreau, transcendentalism. Over in the corner one of the students was fast asleep snoring. I didn’t want anybody snoring in my class and I rebuked him. That Saturday, friends took me out to Coolwell, Virginia. Opening in the woods, wonderful house, squared logs, foothills of the Blue Ridge. This was the home of my sleeping student. He was farming a hundred-acre farm, working Friday afternoon until Monday morning and then he’d come to my class on transcendentalism. From then on he could sleep in my class, but he didn’t want to anymore. I’d go out and cut wood with him.
“All the neighbors would come to talk to the Professor Brown, ask me questions that I couldn’t answer! Got to talk one night about Brother Moore, a trifling man , his horses got out, his cows got lost. Folks kept saying, He means good. Sister Biffie took her pipe out of her mouth one night and said: ‘He may mean good, but he do so doggone poor.’ That I used ever since in my talk on Sentimentality. Wanted to give credit to the Blues; Handy was the first. Ma Rainey, I heard in Nashville Tenn. She was no beauty until she opened her mouth. Bessie Smith was a better singer but Ma Rainey was more for the audience. I got a chance to talk to her.”
Sterling always ended his readings with “Strong Man” Sterling Brown influenced three generations of writers and thinkers and his influence continues and will beyond this day.
Sixteen Poems of Sterling Brown is available as a recording at Smithsonian Folkways.