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Sterling Allen Brown, an African American poet, teacher, and critic, was a towering figure in the literary world, particularly in the context of African American literature and folklore. His life and works offer an invaluable perspective on the Black experience in America, racial complexities, and the richness of African American culture. His poetic oeuvre spans several themes and approaches, giving a voice to the disenfranchised while also serving as a testament to the resilience and richness of African American life.

Literary Background and Early Influences

Born in 1901 in Washington D.C., Brown was exposed to a vibrant intellectual environment from a young age. He was educated at Williams College and Harvard University. His father, Sterling N. Brown, was a former slave who had gone on to graduate from Howard University, becoming a prominent figure in the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

Brown was heavily influenced by the Harlem Renaissance, a movement that celebrated African American culture and produced a wealth of literature, music, and art. However, he was also critical of some elements within this movement, particularly its tendency to romanticize Black life. Brown was interested in representing the complexity and diversity of African American experiences, which led him to explore folklore and vernacular language as authentic expressions of Black culture.

Themes in Poetic Oeuvre

*The Folk Element. Brown is perhaps best known for his engagement with African American folklore and dialect. His works often incorporate the rhythms and idioms of spirituals, blues, and work songs.

*Social Justice. Racial injustice, segregation, and the fight for equality are recurring themes in his work. Poems like "Strong Men" underline the resistance and fortitude displayed by African Americans throughout history.

*Nature. Brown's poems often illustrate the landscapes of the American South, treating nature as both a sanctuary and a witness to racial atrocities.

*Heritage and Identity. Brown's works explore the complexities of African American identity, often drawing from historical and cultural figures, such as Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, as symbols of pride and resistance.

Influence and Honors

Sterling A. Brown had a significant influence not only as a poet but also as an academic. He taught at Howard University for 40 years and was instrumental in shaping the study of African American literature and folklore. His work laid the groundwork for later Black Arts Movement poets and contemporary poets who delve into African American vernacular, folklore, and social issues. Brown received numerous honors, including the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize and a tribute by the Folger Shakespeare Library.


Sterling Allen Brown's contribution to American poetry is substantial and multifaceted. By giving voice to the everyday experiences of African Americans and incorporating the richness of Black culture and folklore into his work, he created a lasting legacy that continues to be studied and celebrated. Through his poetry, teaching, and criticism, Brown has broadened the scope of American literature, providing a more comprehensive and nuanced understanding of the complexities of race, culture, and identity in the United States.

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