American Literature Sterling Brown
John Edgar Tidwell
  • LAST REVIEWED: 14 January 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 September 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0046


Sterling A. Brown (b. 1901–d. 1989) was born into the rather privileged life of black upper-middle class Washington, DC. Despite the growing effects of de jure and de facto racism, Brown used a very accomplished educational background as preparation for a distinguished career as poet, literary and cultural critic, folklorist, anthologist, raconteur, and teacher. In 1932, he published Southern Road, his first collection of poems, to wide acclaim. A second collection, titled “No Hiding Place,” failed to find a publishing home, partly because the Depression years were not “poetic times,” but also because his politics had drifted closer to the radical Left. Nevertheless, his reputation continued to grow. As a critic and book reviewer, he used his folk-based aesthetic to counter the misrepresentation of African Americans in literature and popular culture. The cogency of “Negro Character as Seen by White Authors” (1933), Negro Poetry and Drama (1937), and The Negro in American Fiction (1937) established his authority in this area and led to invitations to use his expertise as editor of Negro Affairs for the Federal Writers’ Project and researcher for the Carnegie-Myrdal Study, which produced An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and American Democracy (1944). The 1940s also found him collecting evidence that asserted and demonstrated the multi-faceted character of Southern black life, published posthumously as A Negro Looks at the South (2007). In the 1950s and for most of the early 1960s, he seemed to fall from scholarly favor. But, sustained by his long professorial career at Howard University, he became an informal adviser to the students who had begun embracing either the modern day Civil Rights Movement or the insurgency of Black Power. This intergenerational connection paved the way for his recovery as poet and cultural critic and for his reemergence to the chorus of hagiography he enjoyed in the 1970s and into the 1980s. In addition to being the subject of discussion at academic symposia and conferences, Brown saw his poetry collected by the eminent poet Michael S. Harper, published in the 1980 National Poetry Series, and awarded the Lenore Marshall Prize for Poetry in 1981. Brown’s place in the canons of American and African American literature and culture has certainly been assured. Scholars have shifted their emphases from well-deserved hagiography to rigorous inquiries into the contemporary relevance of his aesthetic and historical ideas. In recovering Brown, they have begun asking different, more difficult questions about the efficacy of his pioneering work for the 21st century, using new theoretical and critical approaches.

Selected Primary Works

Brown’s writerly voice was multigeneric and multivalent. Despite his influential career as teacher and as public intellectual, his undying pursuit was to define himself as a writer. Something of the breadth of his quest is suggested in the following representation of the works he published. As an indication of its enduring literary historical significance, some portion of Brown’s work has been continuously in print since the mid-1920s.

  • Brown, Sterling A. Negro Poetry and Drama and The Negro in American Fiction. New York: Atheneum, 1972.

    The combined publication of these two important critical studies by Brown recovers what was, in 1937, an innovative critical act. Brown was the first writer of color to trace and historicize the representation of African American characters in traditional American literature.

  • Brown, Sterling A. The Collected Poems of Sterling A. Brown. New York: Harper & Row, 1980.

    In addition to Brown’s well-received first collection, Southern Road (1932), and his second published volume, The Last Ride of Wild Bill (1975), this book presents for the first time his No Hiding Place.

  • Brown, Sterling A. A Negro Looks at the South. Edited by John Edgar Tidwell and Mark A. Sanders. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

    A multigeneric text, this far-reaching study uses oral history, documentary, reportage, autobiography, vernacular philosophy, ethnography, and literary sketches to dispel a mistaken notion that persisted in the 1940s, when the parts of this book were written, that African Americans, as a whole, were one undifferentiated group.

  • Brown, Sterling A., Arthur P. Davis, and Ulysses Lee, eds. The Negro Caravan: Writings by American Negroes. New York: Dryden, 1941.

    This anthology famously broadened the canon of African American letters by including genres generally considered “unliterary”: folk literature, speeches, pamphlets, letters, and essays.

  • Sanders, Mark A., ed. A Son’s Return: Selected Essays of Sterling A. Brown. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1996.

    This volume features the most significant of Brown’s published essays, including his seminal study “Negro Character as Seen by White Authors” (1933).

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