Literary Giant Sterling Brown Remembered

D.C. native Sterling A. Brown, often called the “Father of African-American Literature” and the “Dean of American Negro Poets,” will be the focus of a conversation about his lasting contributions, his life and his work at a symposium sponsored by a Brookland community group dedicated to improving the quality of life for Ward 5 residents.

The event will take place at Busboys and Poets in Northeast [625 Monroe St.] from 6:30 to 9 p.m. with moderator Timothy Jenkins leading the discussion.

Premier Community Development Corporation [PCDC], a non-profit organization founded in 1995 and currently led by Executive Director Stephanie Rones, will honor Brown, with other unsung luminaries receiving their just due on an annual basis.

Brown, born in the District in 1901, attended Dunbar High School, going on to complete his education at Williams College in 1922 and then Harvard University in 1923 where he earned a master’s degree in English.

He’s best known for writing essays and poetry distinctly rooted in folklore and authentic black dialect. The professor, activist, intellectual and artist, collected folk songs and stories, publishing works that included: “Southern Road” (1932); “Negro Poetry and Drama” (1937); “The Negro in American Fiction” (1937); and “The Negro Caravan” (1941).

Reflecting on his works, Brown once said, “I wanted to understand my people. I wanted to understand what it meant to be a Negro – what the qualities of life were. With their imagination, they combine two great loves: the love of words and the love of life. Poetry results.”

Rones, born, raised and still an ardent activist in and resident of her beloved Brookland community where Brown also spent his formative years, said the goal of the symposium remains a simple one: “to reclaim our heritage.”

“This community has produced giants – men and women recognized around the world – but many of those who live in this ward don’t know about them,” she said. So, we’re going back and reclaiming people like Sterling Brown as our own. The things he wrote about, including his poems and essays, addressed a lot of contemporary issues.”

She added that PCDC will recognize other “giants” from their community as part of a five-year program including: Lois Mallou Jones, a celebrated painter; Martin Puryear, sculptor; Nobel Peace Prize winner and diplomat Ralph Bunche; and Robert Weaver, the first U.S. Secretary of Housing & Development.

Rones noted that Ward 5 has become one of the most gentrified communities in the U.S. With that in mind, her organization continues to seek ways to ensure that their longtime residents have a place to live and that their history remains intact.

More Facts about Brown

Sterling, the sixth child and only son of schoolteacher Adelaide Allen and her husband, distinguished theologian and divinity school professor Sterling Nelson Brown, a former slave, followed in his father’s academic footsteps, attending Williams College on a scholarship. There he distinguished himself by winning the Graves Prize for his essay “The Comic Spirit in Shakespeare and Moliere” and graduated cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa in 1922. He went on to teach at Virginia Seminary in Lynchburg, Lincoln University in Missouri and Fisk University in Nashville.

While he wrote very little in his later years, student interest sparked a revival of his work – his students included playwright Ossie Davis, political activist Stokely Carmichael and Nobel Prize–winning author Toni Morrison.

In 1979, the District declared his birthday, May 1, Sterling A. Brown Day.

“I’ve been rediscovered, reinstituted, regenerated and recovered,” he told The Washington Post.

“The Collected Poems of Sterling Brown,” published in 1980, won the Lenore Marshall Prize leading to Brown being named Poet Laureate of the District of Columbia in 1984.

He died in Takoma Park, Maryland, on January 13, 1989.

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Dr. Benamin F. Chavis Jr.

Dr. Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr. is presently the CEO and president of the National Newspaper Publishers Association and the President of Education Online Services Corporation (EOServe Corp), the world's leading provider of online higher education for historically Black colleges and universities across America, as well as other academic institutions of higher learning throughout the world.

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