- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 3, 2001

Washington native Sterling Allen Brown, the city's first poet laureate, was a Renaissance man before the term became commonplace.

The Folger Shakespeare Library's Poetry Series will present an interdisciplinary celebration Monday night of Mr. Brown's multifaceted life. The event, which includes a seminar, supper, reading, reception, film and book sale, takes place in Mr. Brown's centenary year. In addition to being a writer, Mr. Brown was a member of the Howard University faculty from 1929 to 1969 and a critic. He died in 1989.

Discussing the man and his work will be Dolores Kendrick, current poet laureate of Washington; Bernice Johnson Reagon, the historian and founder of the a cappella group Sweet Honey in the Rock; poet-scholars Aldon Nielsen, Lorenzo Thomas and Elizabeth Alexander; filmmaker Haile Gerima; and Joanne Gabbin, a professor at James Madison University and author of a biography about Mr. Brown. WAMU-FM's Kojo Nnamdi will moderate.

Twenty D.C. public-high-school students have been invited to attend as "Sterling Brown Fellows" as the result of an award from the mayor's adviser for cultural affairs.

Known for bringing black vernacular into the poetic mainstream through his books of poetry, Mr. Brown very early in his life became a sympathetic scholar of black American folklore especially the poetry of the blues.

"When he died, he was considered the dean of African-American literature, a pioneer in terms of talking about African-American poetry and fiction," says Mrs. Gabbin from her office on the campus in Harrisonburg, Va. She cites what she calls his two groundbreaking studies, "The Negro in American Fiction" and "Negro Poetry and Drama," a critical study. Both were published in 1937. His first book of poetry, "Southern Road," appeared in 1932.

During the 1930s and 1940s, he was an editor with the Federal Writers' Project and a member of the 1944 Carnegie-Myrdal Study that produced "An American Dilemma," an early study of race relations in America.

Mr. Brown's area roots are strong. He was the son of a Howard professor (also named Sterling Brown) and attended Dunbar High School before earning an undergraduate degree at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., and, later, a master's degree in English from Howard. His father, a teacher of philosophy and religion, also was pastor of Lincoln Temple Congregational Church. The family home where he first lived is the site of Howard's Cramton Auditorium.

His first teaching job, at Virginia Seminary College in Lynchburg, Va., brought him into contact with many of the characters that people his poetry, Mrs. Gabbin says. "He is the one who looks at rural life unlike Langston Hughes, who dwelled on urban life especially people of southwestern Virginia. Calvin 'Big Boy' Davis, a blues singer, taught him many of the songs he came to like. He did the first study of poetry in the blues. He laid the foundation for many of the ways we understand the contribution of black people to American literature."

Mrs. Gabbin was introduced to his work while she was a doctoral student in American literature at the University of Chicago. "I was going through a difficult time, having lost my mother. I read a Brown poem called 'Sister Lou,' who is sitting at the bedside of someone who is dying, and it was so comforting. I said, I want to meet the man who wrote this."

The meeting, she says, "began a lifelong friendship," during which she started work on his biography. Originally her Ph.D. dissertation, the book was published under the title "Building the Black Aesthetic Tradition" and issued by Greenwood Press in 1985.

Information and reservations about Monday's event, "Renaissance Man: A Celebration of Sterling Brown Across the Arts," can be obtained by calling 202/544-7077. Tickets cost $10 for the reading and reception at 7:30 p.m. The Folger Shakespeare Library is at 201 E. Capitol St. SE.

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