The spirit of poet Sterling A. Brown lived on in his poetry, his jokes and his relationships with his students during a two-day symposium at the Library.
"Sterling A. Brown: American Poet and Cultural Worker" was held Oct. 23 and 24 by the Library's Poetry and Literature Center in conjunction with the University of Virginia literary journal Callaloo, whose editors published a special issue focusing on Brown. The National Endowment for the Humanities was also a cosponsor.
Brown (1901-89) was a poet who wrote in black vernacular at a time when Harlem Renaissance writers looked down on such things as an embarrassing vestige of the rural South. But Brown thundered back: "Are we to acquiesce to the woman who wants 'Swing Low, Sweet Chariot' to be changed to 'Descend, Welcome Vehicle?' There are no hiding places," recalled Brown's biographer, John Edgar Tidwell, who is an associate professor of English at Miami University of Ohio.
"His efforts to preserve and restore the vernacular of the black South anticipated African American literary studies," said Charles Rowell, editor of Callaloo. Brown laid the groundwork for those staples of African American literary studies, The Norton Anthology of African American Literature and Call and Response.
The symposium included a blues performance of Brown's series of Slim Greer poems by poet Kenneth Carroll and the Emory Diggs Quartet; a tribute by poets, including former Poet Laureate Rita Dove, reading Brown's poetry; a documentary film about Sterling Brown's life; a luncheon address by National Endowment for the Humanities chief William Ferris; readings by Washington poets at a local bookstore; and a poetry, jazz and blues reception hosted by poet E. Ethelbert Miller at HR-57, a District nightclub.
People were also invited to brunch at Sterling Brown's bookcase-lined former home near Howard University, now owned by Marcia Davis, a senior editor at Emerge magazine. D.C. Mayor Marion Barry signed a proclamation naming Oct. 23 and 24, 1998, 'Sterling Brown Days.'
The proclamation was presented to Brown's son, John Dennis, who recalled that his father often claimed, "I'm not Sterling A. Brown, I'm S.A. Greer." Brown wrote a series of poems about Slim Greer and describes him as the "Talkinges' guy/An' biggest liar, / With always a new lie/On the fire."
Other participants included Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky and poets Lucille Clifton, Toi Derricotte, Michael S. Harper, Yusef Komunyakaa and Sonia Sanchez; filmmaker Haile Gerima; scholars Kimberly Benston, Joanne V. Gabbin and Mark A. Sanders; and singer Melanie Lynn Sullivan.
According to Mr. Tidwell, Brown was "a poet, literary and cultural critic, anthologist, master teacher and raconteur who captured and preserved a thoughtful aesthetic and cultural legacy that sustains us today."
Brown was educated in the Washington, D.C., public schools in the early 1900s, then attended Williams College (1918-1922, A.B. degree, Phi Beta Kappa) and Harvard University (1922-1923, M.A. degree).
At Virginia Seminary and College (1923-1926), Brown began a distinguished teaching career, with stops at Lincoln University (1926-1928) and Fisk University (1928-1929) before arriving at Howard University in 1929, where he stayed for 40 years. He later said he was "hired, fired, rehired, retired and rehired," according to panelist Kimberly Benston, a professor of English and director of the faculty seminar in the humanities at Haverford College.
With Arthur P. Davis and Ulysses Lee, Brown edited The Negro Caravan (1941), the literary anthology that served as a comprehensive statement of African American literary production for the next 35 years. As a result of recent archival discoveries, the significance of Brown's participation in the Federal Writers' Project (1936-1940) and the Carnegie-Myrdal Study (1939-1940) is only now understood. "People did not understand the African American experience until they heard it discussed by Sterling Brown," Mr. Tidwell said.
Brown was recalled fondly by former students, many of whom said he wrote more on their papers than they had written in the first place, earning him the nickname of "the red ink man."
Ms. Clifton said in her keynote speech: "I walked into his class and he didn't know me, but he seemed to like me. He was the first very light-skinned man who spoke to me in a way that validated me. He invited us to his house. He played Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit." He suggested I go to the art gallery. This was all possible for me because this man had validated me. ... He taught me that the words, the lives of the people are worthy of attention, that the art of literature is the story of being human, of what it feels like to be a me, or a you, or a Sterling Brown. ... I learned I could exist. I learned you could be who you were, not who you were expected to be."
Said Mr. Harper, who teaches writing at Brown University: "What Sterling Brown taught me was how to read a blues lyric with pride."
So many panelists mentioned his teaching and other memorable aspects of his character, such as storytelling, that Mr. Benston likened the symposium to a blues improv piece with repetitions on a theme.
For example, one panelist repeated a story Brown had told and described his poker-faced expression, while another analyzed what storytelling meant for an African American academic, and a third described how the language of the story reflected the teller's culture.
"The difference between white academic life and black academic life was the telling of stories, lies, tall tales as social commentary, said Joanne V. Gabbin, a professor of English and the director of the honors program at James Madison University, who recalled Brown ending one story with: "I loved him like a brother. Like Cain loved Abel."
Said John Callahan, a professor of humanities at Lewis and Clark College, "He used folk tradition ... dialect that ... is capable of expressing what the people are."