- Recollections of Sterling Allen Brown: Wit and Wisdom *
I first met Sterling Brown in 1959 at a conference in New York City. Someone had pointed him out to me. He was even then a legendary figure in the literary and black cultural worlds. He was a tall and imposing figure in appearance, of a usually congenial temperament, at ease with himself and those around him, kindly disposed, except when unduly aggravated, toward the rest of humankind. I came to know him better during the 1960s when I lived in Washington, DC. In time I found him to be, with his intellectual brilliance, keen imagination, sharply edged humor, and his generous spirit, one of the most fascinating persons I’d ever come to know. 1
It was never long before one was struck by his swift, often devastating, sometimes scabrous wit. Among a people not too far removed from enactment of the 13th Amendment, the line between servility and common courtesy has sometimes become a sensitive one. Sterling estranged a colleague for years by defining his comportment as one of “whimsical deferentiality.” Once, with a small group clustered around him—and there was usually a small group clustered around him—Sterling had one of them read a brief passage from a news account of a well known community leader:
“The next thing I knew the fireman had called out a warning to my son and I—”
Sterling made his lesson plain. “A semi-educated man,” he said, “lives in mortal terror of the objective case.” At one point Sterling observed that the Constitution defined the black man as 3/5’s of a man. “We’ve been working on that 2/5’s ever since,” he said. “At the rate of 1/5th a century, we’re due!”
Sterling’s tall tales were also often scandalous. He was a respecter of neither persons nor pieties. One of our foremost leaders, he said, was unrestrained in his romantic pursuits: big ones, little ones, tall ones, short ones, fat ones, skinny ones, pretty ones, ugly ones—it didn’t matter. He’d run after women so ugly, Sterling said, you were glad when he caught ‘em.
Sterling was a great aficionado and serious student of jazz and a variety of forms of music in the black folk tradition, including the blues. He was an admirer of another Washingtonian, his friend, Duke Ellington. Sterling was constantly and unsuccessfully urging the Music Department at the University to award Duke an honorary degree. [End Page 852] The powers-that-be, however, were in exclusive thrall, it seems, to Western classical music, the 3 B’s and Latin chorale, and were not yet ready to acknowledge the superb quality and the greatness of Black American music. Sterling fumed and said he would arrange for a group of his students to serenade the chairman of the Music Department with a Latin chorale under his window at midnight (he explained he’d have had them sing that venerable Latin classic, Mater Mater Fornicata). After Yale and other prominent Universities awarded Duke an honorary degree, Howard fell in line. There is a wonderful photo of the Duke and his friend Sterling, the two smiling in full mortarboard regalia for the occasion.
Even Sterling’s friends weren’t spared his sharp humor. Duke, years later wrote an autobiographical volume he titled Music is My Mistress. When he saw the book, Sterling said that Duke was lying. He (Sterling) knew Duke’s mistresses, and not one of them was named “Music.” (This may appear a bit uncharitable, but no doubt Sterling knew Duke would appreciate it.)
One Washington afternoon will long stay with a number of us. Sterling was on a conference panel with a friend of his, another Howard University professor, Stephen Henderson, author of the insightful and critically praised volume, Understanding the New Black Poetry. The two were alternating in playing records of black folk music, the early blues and other vintage forms. The audience was probably upwards of 50 to 100 students and faculty from Howard and conference attendees from other schools. The recordings were of unknown or little known artists and some just plain folk...