Sterling Brown: Maker of Community in Academia

Article excerpt

Discovery is manna from heaven for the researcher, and any little tidbit simply increases the appetite for more. Remember, God had to tell the Israelites not to take more than they could eat. But He didn't say that to me, at least not about this, so I was off on my own greedy little hunt. Is it any wonder then that I was digging through boxes of the Ophelia Settle Egypt Collection housed in Moorland-Spingarn's Manuscript Division? I had already come across the most fascinating correspondence of her many friends and was eagerly searching for more. I was well on my way to that unpublished manuscript that made her my chosen subject early in the semester, and each juicy morsel increased my voracious appetite. But, forgive me, I'm in medias res.

My initial assignment was to go to Moorland-Spingarn and familiarize myself with the library and its contents. I was to locate a person of interest in the processed collections for my semester project. After about an hour of reading, I settled on three possibilities: Anna Julia Cooper, Georgia Douglas Johnson, and Ophelia Settle Egypt. The last resonated in my mind for many days; after all, there was an unpublished manuscript. I must admit to having just finished Our Nig by Harriet Wilson, with Henry Louis Gates's introduction, and I was envisioning myself as the editor of an unpublished manuscript by some obscure author whose genealogy, a hobby of mine, I would excavate. Egypt's unpublished manuscript fit nicely into this dream. At the time, I had no idea who Ophelia Settle Egypt was, or why her papers were in the Moorland-Spingarn Manuscript Division. Now, I know that she was a highly respected social worker in Washington, remembered mostly for her work in establishing sorely needed Planned Parenthood offices for Washington's young women. But her most important work, from my perspective, was her sociological studies done with Charles Spurgeon Johnson at Fisk University, which resulted in an unpublished manuscript of ex-slave interviews that predates the Works Progress Administration interviews. Along with becoming acquainted with Mrs. Egypt, I was introduced to Sterling Allen Brown, the maker of community in academia.

I knew that Sterling A. Brown was a great poet and critic of black American literature. But that was the extent of my knowledge. As I continued my archeological quest through Egypt's papers, I stumbled across a typescript entitled "A Tribute to Sterling Brown." Mrs. Egypt saved her carbon copies and, later, photostatic copies of all her writings. This discovery, of course, piqued my curiosity. So I read it - and was thrilled! It was the most wonderful tribute I had ever read. I remember thinking that I must share this with someone - so I'll share it with you now.

When I think of Sterling Brown, I think of Daisy too; for they are always together. They were together when we first met at Fisk University on a crisp autumn evening in 1928. He had come to teach in the English Department and I to work with Charles S. Johnson who organized the Social Science Department that year.

Sterling and Daisy lived in a cozy apartment in the Spence House near the edge of the campus. Their place was our favorite rendezvous. There, after work, we always found stimulating conversation about books, politics, race, our jobs, our feeling about people, Fisk, and anything else that occurred to us. Often, Sterling played records from his precious collection which included gems by Bert Williams and Bessie Smith. Or he read poetry or told tall tales. It was Sterling who made such folk heroes as "John Henry" and "Stackalee" come alive and walk the earth like "natural men."

And Sterling walked the campus like a natural man. There was never anything artificial about him. None of that "mightier than thou attitude" worn like a garment by so many college professors much less scholarly than he. He was in tune with his students and they loved him. So did Gilly, the neighborhood barber, whose talent as [a] story teller and entertainer sometimes interfered with his skillful barbering. …