Sterling Brown: maker of community in academia.
My initial assignment was to go to Moorland-Spingarn and familiarize myself with the library and its contents. I was to locate a person of interest in the processed collections for my semester project. After about an hour of reading, I settled on three possibilities: Anna Julia Cooper, Georgia Douglas Johnson, and Ophelia Settle Egypt. The last resonated in my mind for many days; after all, there was an unpublished manuscript. I must admit to having just finished Our Nig by Harriet Wilson, with Henry Louis Gates's introduction, and I was envisioning myself as the editor of an unpublished manuscript by some obscure author whose genealogy, a hobby of mine, I would excavate. Egypt's unpublished manuscript fit nicely into this dream. At the time, I had no idea who Ophelia Settle Egypt was, or why her papers were in the Moorland-Spingarn Manuscript Division. Now, I know that she was a highly respected social worker in Washington, remembered mostly for her work in establishing sorely needed Planned Parenthood offices for Washington's young women. But her most important work, from my perspective, was her sociological studies done with Charles Spurgeon Johnson at Fisk University, which resulted in an unpublished manuscript of ex-slave interviews that predates the Works Progress Administration interviews. Along with becoming acquainted with Mrs. Egypt, I was introduced to Sterling Allen Brown, the maker of community in academia.
I knew that Sterling A. Brown was a great poet and critic of black American literature. But that was the extent of my knowledge. As I continued my archeological quest through Egypt's papers, I stumbled across a typescript entitled "A Tribute to Sterling Brown." Mrs. Egypt saved her carbon copies and, later, photostatic copies of all her writings. This discovery, of course, piqued my curiosity. So I read it - and was thrilled! It was the most wonderful tribute I had ever read. I remember thinking that I must share this with someone - so I'll share it with you now.
When I think of Sterling Brown, I think of Daisy too; for they are always together. They were together when we first met at Fisk University on a crisp autumn evening in 1928. He had come to teach in the English Department and I to work with Charles S. Johnson who organized the Social Science Department that year.
Sterling and Daisy lived in a cozy apartment in the Spence House near the edge of the campus. Their place was our favorite rendezvous. There, after work, we always found stimulating conversation about books, politics, race, our jobs, our feeling about people, Fisk, and anything else that occurred to us. Often, Sterling played records from his precious collection which included gems by Bert Williams and Bessie Smith. Or he read poetry or told tall tales. It was Sterling who made such folk heroes as "John Henry" and "Stackalee" come alive and walk the earth like "natural men."
And Sterling walked the campus like a natural man. There was never anything artificial about him. None of that "mightier than thou attitude" worn like a garment by so many college professors much less scholarly than he. He was in tune with his students and they loved him. So did Gilly, the neighborhood barber, whose talent as [a] story teller and entertainer sometimes interfered with his skillful barbering. This happened once when he became so involved in his story telling that he cut off all of his favorite customer's hair.
The next morning when Sterling entered the classroom, the students rose silently and walked out. They failed to recognize the strange bald headed man and they were not about to have him take their beloved teacher's place. That incident is only one of the many illustrations of students' appreciation of his unique contribution as a teacher, not only at Fisk, but wherever he went.
Sterling even applied his teaching skills to the segregated street car situation in Nashville, Tennessee. At that time, the signs in street cars ordered Negroes to seat from the back and whites to seat from the front. That left a neutral ground in the center to be used by the race needing it first. However, only members of the same race could share a seat. Usually, we boycotted the street cars but occasionally, when our anger at racial injustice boiled over, we would go for a ride with Sterling and Daisy. We sat in the back behind Daisy, leaving her in the neutral seats. Eventually, only the seat beside her was vacant. While she sat staring out the window, invariably, a white passenger would sit down beside her. Glancing at him, after he was comfortably seated, she would say softly, "I'm sorry but you can't sit here." Puzzled, he would examine her fair face closely, and ask why. The game would continue until everyone in the car was listening. Then just loud enough for everyone to hear, Daisy would deliver her punch line, "You really must move. You are breaking the law. I'm a Negro.["] Her seatmate would jump up as if he had been fired from a cannon. All white faces would turn red while all the black passengers would roar with laughter. The object of the lesson was to show how ridiculous the law was. . . . one white woman did defy the law and refuse[d] to move. She said to Daisy, "Honey, you're just as white as I am, so if you don't mind, I don't either."
When I arrived . . . at Howard in 1939 . . . Sterling and I were fellow faculty members. . . . sometimes I saw him talking with a student at the end of a class session, or in his book-filled office. Students loved him at Howard just as they had at Fisk. . . .
Sterling's remarkable success as a teacher and speaker is based, not only in his knowledge and skill, but in his love of people - all kinds of people - and his willingness to give of himself unstintingly, whether he is teaching a class, helping a struggling author to improve his writing, listening to a beggar on the street, or speaking to a group of highly sophisticated or just plain, ordinary people. He gives himself totally to that person or that group for that allotted time. (18-20)
Egypt's text was published in 1982 in a booklet entitled Sterling A. Brown: A UMUM Tribute, edited by the Black History Museum Committee, which I eventually found in one of the many boxes of the Egypt Collection. The booklet contains many tributes to Professor Brown from persons including Leopold Senghor, Stephen Henderson, Arthur Fauset, Eugenia Collier, and Amiri Baraka. From Egypt's tribute, I became acquainted with Sterling Allen Brown in a way completely different from my notion of him as a black poet. Her tribute had implications that needed to be explored. My thoughts were fast and jumbled. There was a relationship to my project. Part of my challenge was making certain that I articulated how the unpublished manuscript I was working on fit into the discipline of literature, since it was a sociological and historical undertaking. In other words, I had to make sure that I established the interdisciplinary nature of the work. It occurred to me that finding this tribute was too ironic to be ignored. I was studying Egypt, a Washingtonian, an undergraduate English major at Howard who later worked as a sociologist at Fisk and returned to Howard to teach students in the nascent Department of Social Work. In the process of that study, I had located her reminiscences of another Washingtonian, Sterling Allen Brown, born on Howard's campus in 1901, faculty member at Fisk, poet, teacher of Negro literature, history, music, and life - who later returned to Howard to teach. What better representation of the mingling of disciplines - a community. Egypt's tribute, and the others that I would later find, supports Brown's natural tendency to make a community. He embraced and created a community wherever he was.
Egypt's tribute is so full that I thought Professor Brown was at Fisk for years. In reality, he was there for only a year. Referring to Brown's influence, Dr. Arthur Fauset observed that, "although Sterling stayed at both [Lincoln and Fisk] for a relatively short time, when he decided to leave many eyes moistened. That is indicative of the kind of impact that this man can have on an individual in the shortest possible time" (5). Brown's year at his parents' alma mater made a lasting impression on what was to him family, for that's all a community is - a large family.
Egypt's testament is witnessed to by Lewis W. Jones, a graduate student at Fisk during Sterling's year. His tribute, "Sterling A. Brown: The Fisk Year - 1928-29," also attests to Brown's sense of community. Jones's story highlights Brown's gathering of faculty, students, and local folk artists on Saturday nights: "Brown's pre-occupation with folk culture led him to search out the local folk artists, whom he paid to come to his house on Saturday nights to play for a small coterie (52). Jones tells of tagging along with his professor on these cultural expeditions, as well as book collecting ventures in Nashville. Brown's impact on the young graduate student resonates in Jones's words years later:
. . . at Fisk, I had access to Sterling Brown's library and discussions with him. For the student, me, this was an unusual boon because Sterling knew so much about the authors and had insights from a masterful analysis of the writing. (53)
Lewis Jones is only one of many students whom Brown taught, and made a part of his academic community. That year, obviously, was one of influence and love to those that Sterling Brown touched.
But Brown's community did not end at Fisk. He created and nurtured it wherever he went. In 1929 Prof, as my professor Jenifer Jordan refers to him, came home. Numerous articles and tributes verify that Sterling Brown's community thrived here at Howard. Hollie I. West's interviews of his former students in the 1972 article "Sterling Brown, the Mentor of Thousands," provides some testimony about his Howard family. Dr. Kenneth B. Clark says that Brown "opened my eyes to a lot of things - the awe, the wonder, the fascination of human creativity" (qtd. in West 19), and West notes that "visitors to Brown's home were as likely to find him playing host to Leadbelly [Huddie Ledbetter - the folk singer] as Ralph Bunche" (19). The Browns' home was the nucleus of Sterling's academic community, and his nurturing of his family was an ongoing process.
William F. Ryan's article "Of Sterling Quality" focuses on Brown's Howard years and the continuation of his academic community. Ryan notes that, after the Institute for the Arts and Humanities' April 1973 writers' conference, "a gathering of poets young and old assembled at the Brown household . . ." (49). The group most likely included Gwendolyn Brooks, Amiri Baraka, and then Don L. Lee, now Haki Madhubuti, all of whom were participants in the conference. Even though Brown had retired, the Browns' home remained "a gathering place for students and old friends" (West 20). In the March 1983 issue of Profiles, Jeanne-Marie Miller, then Assistant Director of the Institute, captions a photograph at the Brown home as follows: "Former students of Dr. Brown have often gathered in the basement of his home . . . to engage in conversation with their beloved English professor and to enjoy listening to some of the precious jazz recordings that he has collected over the years" (10). The photo pictures Fletcher Robinson, M.D.; Gaston Neal, poet; Adrienne Manns, former Hilltop editor; Michael Winston, then Director of the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center; freelance writer Charles Cobb; and Courtland Cox, Special Assistant to the Deputy, D.C. Mayor for Economic Development.
The photograph and the caption illustrate that the most important element of the community was the professor's students. The former students West interviewed articulate Brown's commitment to his students. "It was his ability to relate to students that stood out," says Charles Campbell, Assistant Professor at D.C. Teachers College, and Brown showed his love for his students in various ways: "He has given money to students in need and frequently has taken groups of them out to dinner to mark special occasions" (qtd. in West 19). Jeanne-Marie Miller, another former student, has commented that "he wanted us to know about urban folk culture. One of the things that he would do from time to time was bring personalities to the class like Willie 'the Lion' Smith, a colorful character from New York" (qtd. in Ryan 48). Arthur P. Davis, answering the question "What kind of teacher was Brown?" notes,
He had charisma that lasted with students. There was his . . . je ne sais quoi, a part of his personality that took the students, and they seemingly never, never forgot him. (Ryan 45)
These comments reveal the extent to which Brown would go to open the minds of his students. At the same time, he was incorporating aspects of the community that were usually kept external into the hallowed halls of academia. As Dr. Kenneth B. Clark states so succintly, "He tied literature in with life, music, justice, [and] the struggle for existence" (qtd. in West 19).
Now I know something new about Sterling Allen Brown, and I was right when I thought that there were implications that needed exploring about the communities he built. It wasn't coincidence or irony at all that Egypt and Brown knew each other and worked together despite different academic approaches. Brown understood that we could not survive as a people if we did not work as a whole. No discipline is more important or more worthy than another; each is relevant to the other. We are all supposed to work together for the common good.
I was required to read and dissect Gerald Graff's essay "Epilogue: The Scholar in Society" last semester, and I was pleased to note that others agree with my personal philosophy, that we educated folk are wasting time and resources if our work is not relevant to or comprehensible by the larger society. In other words, we are not some special group set apart from the "common" people.
Sterling Brown made the connection. He embraced both academe and those outside the university walls. In embracing the educated and the folk he illustrated the interdisciplinary nature of the life of black folk in America. He showed us that one doesn't exist without the other and that each has something necessary to the other's existence. For Prof there was no distinction between the street person and the educated person. Each had a voice, and each voice was worth hearing, articulating, and remembering. By embracing the community Sterling Brown stood as a bulwark against the splintering that has always plagued our people. He merged two parts to create one. In essence he created community. And he did it despite the historical moment that dictated a different philosophical viewpoint. Professor Brown brought together entities that should never be separated.
My questions for Howard and all of academe are: What have we done with the legacy of community that Sterling Brown left academia? Are we nurturing it? Or have we walled ourselves back in and forgotten those that Sterling would embrace, and what he created? Each of us must answer for ourselves. But keep this in mind. Miss Brooks tells us that we don't need another hero; we need lots of "Littles." Who are "Littles"? She says that they are "people who are not the masters of the world . . . they are ordinary people" (qtd. in Milloy B1). In agreement, I say that they are Sterling Brown's community. They are Calvin "Big Boy" Davis, Willie "the Lion" Smith, you, and me.
Black History Month Committee, ed. Sterling Brown: A UNUM Tribute. Washington: Black History Month UMUM Publishers, 1982.
Egypt, Ophelia Settle. "Memories of Sterling Brown Walking The Campus Like a Natural Man." Black 18-21.
Jones, Lewis W. "Sterling A. Brown: the Fisk Year - 1928-29." Black 50-54.
Miller, Jeanne-Marie A. "Sterling Allen Brown (1901-)." Profiles 3 (1983): 1-17.
Milloy, Courtland. "Well Versed in the Tasks That Remain." Washington Post 12 Feb. 1997: B5.
Ryan, William F. "Of Sterling Quality." American Visions Apr. 1987: 43-49.
West, Hollie I. "Sterling Brown: The Mentor of Thousands." Oracle Winter 1972: 19-24.
Joyce A.A. Camper wishes to express her appreciation to E. Ethelbert Miller, Director of the African American Resource Center at Howard University, whose records were invaluable in preparing this paper.
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|Author:||Camper, Joyce A.A.|
|Publication:||African American Review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 1997|
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