John Edgar Tidwell, Steven C. Tracy, editors: After Winther: The Art and Life of Sterling A. Brown (Oxford University Press, 2009)

After Winter is an homage to the art and life of Sterling A. Brown as teacher (40 years alone at Howard University in Washington, D.C.), poet, folklorist, literary critic, cultural historian, blues scholar, jazz enthusiast, comic wit, fierce polemicist, raconteur, a truly major voice in African American literature in especially the first half of the Twentieth Century. 

Sterling A. Brown (1901-1989) from his first book of poems, Southern Road (Harcourt, Brace, 1932), was building his own brand of a black aesthetic with signature poems that over the years have become anthology favorites, such as Odyssey of Big Boy, When the Saints Go Ma’ching Home, Sister Lou, Strong Men, Memphis Blues, Ma Rainey (“a consummate dramatization of the sprit and power of the blues and their historic role as ritual in Black life,” according to critic Stephen E. Henderson), After Winter, the Slim Greer trickster poems, Sporting Beasley, Cabaret, and the title poem Southern Road: … Doubleshackled – hunh – / Guard behin’;/  Doubleshackled – hunh – guard behin’;/ Ball and chain, bebby,/ On my min’// White man tells me – hunh –/ Damn yo’ soul;/ White man tells me – hunh –/ Damn yo’ soul;/ Got no need, bebby,/ To be tole/ … 

James Weldon Johnson in his influential preface to the first edition of his anthology The Book of American Negro Poetry (1922) had written on the limitations of Negro dialect “as an instrument with but two full stops, humor and pathos”. But by the time he wrote the introduction to Southern Road, Johnson had had to revise himself. In the hands of Sterling Brown ‘dialect’ had become black speech, “the common, racy, living speech of the Negro.” 

A second volume of poetry, No Hiding Place (c. 1937), with its own classics such as Old Lem and Remembering Nat Turner, never found a publisher, but Brown’s younger kindred spirit, friend and editor, poet Michael S. Harper, included it in The Collected Poems (Harper and Row, 1980).

Sterling A. Brown’s examinations of and lifelong fight against stereotype in (mostly) white American fiction, drama and poetry (contented slave, wretched freeman, comic Negro, brute Negro – and his sexualized ‘cousin’, the Buck Negro, with his threat to ‘white womanhood’ –, tragic mulatto, local color Negro, exotic primitive), helped to put these misrepresentations of African American character and life to rest in serious literature.

(A summation and update on Brown’s research on stereotype can be found in Brown’s seminal essay, A Century of Negro Portraiture in American Literature, The Massachusetts Review, 7, Winter 1966, reprinted in Abraham Chapman’s anthology Black Voices, Mentor Books, 1968.)

Brown was editor of Negro Affairs at the Federal Writers Project, and a researcher for Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdahl’s An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy (1944). But Brown was unhappy with its findings, giving too short shrift to the ethos found in the lore, music, and religion of black folk, especially in the South; and in the posthumously published  A Negro Looks at the South (Oxford, 2007), edited by Tidwell and Mark A. Sanders, he signified upon the Myrdahl study and revised some of its important conclusions, according to its editors.

The massive landmark anthology The Negro Caravan (1941), with more than 1000 pages of African American writings from its folk foundations to 1940, and with terse critical and historical introductions by its editors, Brown, Arthur P. Davis, and Ulysses E. Lee, was a first of its kind.

THE BLACK ARTS MOVEMENT in the 1960’s and beyond saw a renewed interest in Sterling Brown and his art. Southern Road was reissued in 1974, prefaced by slave culture scholar Sterling Stuckey, Broadside Press published “The Last Ride of Wild Bill” and Eleven Narrative Poems (1975), The Collected Poems of Sterling A. Brown, as noted above, came out in 1980, and finally The Poetry of Sterling A. Brown: The Complete Folkways Readings, 1946-1973, read by the author (a superb reader), came out on CD in 1995.

In 1985 Joanne V. Gabbin published her bio-critical study Sterling A. Brown: Building the Black Aesthetic Tradition. After Brown’s death, Mark A. Sanders has edited A Son’s Return: Selected Essays of Sterling A. Brown (1996), published his own Afro-Modernist Aesthetics and the Poetry of Sterling A. Brown (1999), and co-edited Brown’s posthumously published travelogue A Negro Looks at the South, mentioned above.

And now we have this splendid collection of essays, After Winter: The Art and Life of Sterling A. Brown, with its remarkable list of contributors, among them: Kimberly W. Benston, John F. Callahan, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Michael S. Harper, Stephen E. Henderson, James Weldon Johnson, Alain LeRoy Locke, Robert G. O’Mealley, Charles H. Rowell, Mark A. Sanders, Robert B. Stepto, Ekwueme Michael Thelwell, Lorenzo Thomas, John S. Wright, and the editors.

A number of contributors touch upon Sterling A. Brown’s relationship to the poet Robert Frost (1874-1963), especially Frost’s stoicism, his belief in himself as an individual, and in American democracy, as expressed in the 1936 poem Divés’ Dive, a poem that Brown loved and loved to quote, according to critic John F. Callahan.

The six lines of this deceptively simple poem (think for example of the biblical parable of Rich Man Divés and Lazarus, or the Negro spiritual I Got a Home in That Rock – to say nothing of the Declaration of Independence and other complex, foundational documents of American democracy) run like this: “It is late at night and still I am loosing,/ But still I am steady and unaccusing. // As long as the Declaration guards/ My right to be equal in number of cards, // It is nothing to me who runs the Dive./ Let’s have a look at another five.//”

In the interview with John Edgar Tidwell and John S. Wright, “Steady and Unaccusing”: An Interview with Sterling A. Brown (conducted in 1980 but first published in Callaloo 21:4, 1998, and reprinted here) Brown confirms his sharing of the values and ethos found in Robert Frost’s poem. Up to a point. He takes issue with Frost’s fifth line: It is nothing to me who runs the Dive. Sterling Brown’s wry comment: “He is wrong there, of course.”