Sterling A. Brown was one of the few black writers of his generation who did not want to be part of the Harlem Renaissance. He was very proud that he had never shaken hands with Carl Van Vechten, who, he said, had done more than bad liquor to corrupt the Negro. The Harlem Renaissance was a publishers’ gimmick, he said. It didn’t last long enough to be called a renaissance, and very few Harlemites were in it. Black writers, he said, only went to Harlem for parties. Harlem was “the show-window, the cashier’s till.” While the young Niggerati were hovering around the tables of white patrons in Small’s Paradise, Sterling himself was down in Lynchburg, Virginia, talking to a guitar player, Big Boy Davis, one of the rural characters whose ethos engaged Sterling’s melancholy and rebellious sensibility, from which came a folk poetry of lasting originality.
Sterling was born in Washington, DC, in 1901, the youngest of six and the only boy. He died last month in a nursing home near Washington. His father, Dr. Sterling N. Brown, born a slave in Tennessee in 1858, had graduated from Fisk and Oberlin to become pastor of the Lincoln Memorial Temple Congregational Church, a professor of religion at Howard University, and an author of modest Bible studies. He was very much a “race man” in the style of the period. His friends included Frederick Douglass, Paul Laurence Dunbar, and James Mercer Langston. The younger Sterling attended Washington (later called Dunbar) High School, where among his classmates was the basketball star Jean Toomer, whose family belonged to Sterling’s father’s church. Sterling entered Williams in 1918, discovered realism and that his colleagues in Phi Beta Kappa didn’t dance, and after graduating in 1922 went up to Harvard for a master’s degree in English.
Whenever Sterling opened his mouth he taught. In 1923 he began teaching at the Virginia Theological Seminary and College, where he met his wife, Daisy, on a tennis court; he taught at Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Missouri, and at Fisk, before he settled in at Howard University in 1929. There he reigned, with some interruptions, until 1975. “I have been hired, fired, rehired, retired, and hired again,” he liked to say. Sterling’s work is hardly known today, and it has survived mostly through the devotion of generations of black writers, many of whom were his students, or considered themselves such. He spent his life talking—about folklore, stride piano, the shrewdness of the blues, A.E. Housman, Lena Horne, you name it. They used to say that every black in the United States knew every other black, and Sterling was one of those who had stories about everyone, from Jelly Roll Morton to a raconteur barber in Nashville. He was a connoisseur of black history and a guardian of its integrity. Volatile, ironic, and hopelessly genuine, he was in thrall to what he called the “mulch” of black culture. But black culture was also a text that he studied as…
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