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Sterling Brown


Sterling Brown

Sterling Allen Brown
Born 1 May 1901
Washington D.C.
Died 13 January 1989
Nationality American
Education Masters Dergree
Alma mater Dunbar High School, Williams College, Harvard University
Employer Howard University
Known for Poetry
Spouse(s) Daisy Turnbull

Sterling Allen Brown (May 1, 1901 – January 13, 1989) was an African-American professor, author of works on folklore, poet and literary critic. He studied chiefly black culture of the Southern United States and was a full professor at Howard University for most of his career. He also had visiting professor stints at several other institutions, including Vassar College, New York University (NYU), Atlanta University, and Yale University.

Early life and education

Sterling A. Brown was born on the campus of Howard University in Washington D.C., where his father, Sterling N. Brown, a former slave, was a prominent minister and professor at Howard University Divinity School.[1][2] His mother Grace Adelaide Brown, who had been the valedictorian of her class at Fisk University,[3] taught in D.C. public schools for over fifty years. Both his parents grew up in Tennessee and often shared stories with Brown, their sixth child and only son; Brown heard his father’s stories about famous leaders such as Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington.[1] His early childhood was spent on a farm on Whiskey Bottom Road in Howard County, Maryland. Brown was educated at Waterford Oaks Elementary and Dunbar High School, where he graduated as the top student. He received a scholarship to attend Williams College in Massachusetts. Graduating from Williams Phi Beta Kappa in 1922, he continued his studies at Harvard University, receiving an MA a year later.[4] That same year of 1923, Brown was hired as an English lecturer at Virginia Theological Seminary and College in Lynchburg, Virginia, a position he would hold for the next three years. He never pursued a doctorate degree, but several colleges he attended gave him honorary doctorates.[1]

Marriage and family

In 1927 Brown married Daisy Turnbull. They adopted two children.His wife Daisy inspired Brown’s poems, “Long Track blues” and “Against That Day.” (Thompson-Taylor 2).[5]

Academic career

Brown began his teaching career with positions at several universities, including Lincoln University and Fisk University, before returning to Howard in 1929. He was a professor there for forty years. Brown’s poetry used the south for its setting and showed slave experiences of the African American people. Brown often imitated southern African American speech using “variant spellings and apostrophes to mark dropped consonants.”(Thompson-Taylor 2).[6] He taught and wrote about African-American literature and folklore. He was a pioneer in the appreciation of this genre.He had an “Active, imaginative mind” when writing and “Had a natural gift for dialogue, description and narration.” (Fleming 7).[7]

Brown was known for introducing his students to concepts then popular in jazz, which along with blues, spirituals and other forms of black music formed an integral component of his poetry.

In addition to his career at Howard University, Brown served as a visiting professor at Vassar College, New York University (NYU), Atlanta University, and Yale University.

Some of his notable students include Toni Morrison, Kwame Ture (Stokely Carmichael), Kwame Nkrumah, Thomas Sowell, Ossie Davis, and Amiri Baraka (aka LeRoi Jones).

In 1969 Brown retired from his faculty position at Howard and turned full time to poetry.

Literary career

In 1932 Brown published his first book of poetry Southern Road. It was a collection of poetry with rural themes and treated the simple lives of poor, black, country folk with poignancy and dignity. It also used authentic dialect and structures. Despite the success of this book, he struggled to find a publisher for the followup, No Hiding Place.

His poetic work was influenced in content, form and cadence by African-American music, including work songs, blues and jazz. Like that of Jean Toomer, Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes and other black writers of the period, his work often dealt with race and class in the United States. He was deeply interested in a folk-based culture, which he considered most authentic. Brown is considered part of the Harlem Renaissance artistic tradition, although he spent the majority of his life in the Brookland neighborhood of Northeast Washington, D.C.


  • "Harvard has ruined more niggers than bad liquor."
    • Brown's warning to Thomas Sowell, as quoted in Sowell's A Personal Odyssey (2000, p. 117).


In 1979, the District of Columbia declared May 1, his birthday, Sterling A. Brown Day.[8]

His Collected Poems won the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize in the early 1980s for the best collection of poetry published that year.[9]

In 1984 the District of Columbia named him its first poet laureate, a position he held until his death from leukemia at the age of 88.[9]

The Friends of Libraries USA in 1997 named Founders Hall at Howard University a Literary Landmark, the first so designated in Washington, DC.[8]


  • Southern Road, Harcourt, Brace and company, 1932 (original poetry)
  • Negro Poetry (literary criticism)
  • 'The Negro in American Fiction,' Bronze booklet - no. 6 (1937), published by The Associates in Negro Folk Education (Washington, D.C.)
  • Negro poetry and drama: and the Negro in American fiction, Atheneum, 1972 (criticism)
  • The Negro Caravan, 1941, co-editor with Arthur P. Davis and Ulysses Lee (anthology of African-American literature)
  • The Last Ride of Wild Bill (poetry)
  • (1st edition 1980)
  • The Poetry of Sterling Brown, recorded 1946-1973, released on Smithsonian Folkways, 1995


External links

  • A Literary Tribute to Sterling A. Brown
  • Sterling A. Brown at Modern America Poetry
  • Sterling A. Brown at The Academy of American Poets
  • Smithsonian Folkways

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