After Winter: The Art and Life of Sterling Brown
Valedictorian of the class of 1918 at Washington D.C.'s elite Dunbar High School, Phi Beta Kappa from Williams College, and then an MA at Harvard in 1923, Sterling Brown had all the academic credentials and the poetic talent to become a leading member of the Harlem Renaissance. Instead he went south, both geographically and culturally. Less concerned with the New Negro he wanted to find the authentic folk base of the Negro people. Inspired by the effort of William Butler Yeats to make the voice of the Irish poet the voice of his people, Brown listened with curiosity and a growing sense of admiration to "the low down folk" while teaching at Virginia Seminary in Lynchburg, Virginia, and Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Missouri. He discovered extraordinary strength, dignity, and ironic self awareness in those who did everyday labor.
His first book of poems, Southern Road (1932), offered a clear alternative to the sophisticated cultural high jinx then being celebrated in Harlem. The opening poem, "Odyssey of Big Boy," is classic blues, with no cultural condescension, but implicit celebration of the honest acceptance of the choices made and their consequences. "When de Saints Go Ma'ching Home" and "Ma Rainey" speak directly to the communal power of the blues. "Cabaret" is a Brechtian comment on how commercialization causes the artist to avoid facing the music of such disasters as the 1927 Mississippi flood. Essays [End Page 297] by Stephen Henderson and David Anderson in After Winter spell out in impressive detail Brown's achievement.
After Brown moved to Howard University, his energies were drawn into a wide range of professional activities that left only minimum time for writing poetry. Working with Alain Locke, he published several significant essays. In 1936 he became editor for Negro Affairs of the Federal Writers Project. He became an influential researcher for the Carnegie-Myrdal study that culminated in An American Dilemma. With Arthur P. Davis and Ulysses Lee, he edited The Negro Caravan, a breakthrough collection. And he carried on a love-hate relationship with the administration of Howard University that made him one of its most recognized and revered teachers for generations.
In the 1960's Brown became mentor to the activists on Howard's campus. Sipping Wild Turkey whiskey, listening to blues records in his home, Stokely Carmichael, Ekwueme Michael Thelwell, and others learned to respect the toughness and wisdom of the black workers in the South. Fannie Lou Hamer walked in the tradition of Ma Rainey. Brown taught them respect for black folk that fueled the Black Arts Movement.
After Winter is a rich collection of documents that explore Brown's extraordinary poetic and professional achievement. Occasionally the heavy academic language induces an image of the Prof rolling his eyes in wondrous amusement, but there are so many delightful stories and revealing quotations from Brown himself, along with deep recognition of Brown's achievement, one cannot but be grateful for John Edgar Tidwell and Steven C. Tracy's ambitious editorial work.