NYU Black Renaissance Noire Winter 2014 - Page 109

Between 1969 and 1984 my life was linked to Sterling Brown’s in several ways. His life in many ways shaped my own literary career and resulted in my decision to become a literary activist. Perhaps even the idea of becoming a poet might be linked to hearing Brown read his poems on campus around 1969. Growing up in the South Bronx, I had never attended a poetry reading or heard someone read poetry in public. What I recall about my first Brown reading was the fascinating “lies” he told in between poems. The “lies” were an introduction to his skill as a storyteller; listening to them, one became witness to Brown’s wit and wisdom. Brown introduced me to what one might define as a distillation of the black experience. My introduction to what Brown called his Southern Road occurred at a time when I had just left New York and my family’s West Indian roots. I became aware of Brown’s poetry at the same time I had started reading books like Black Power by Stokely Carmichael and Charles Hamilton, Soul on Ice by Eldridge Cleaver, The Wretched of the Earth and Black Skin White Masks by Frantz Fanon and the early poetry books of Sonia Sanchez, Don L. Lee, Norman Jordan and Amiri Baraka. I recall in 1969, Sterling Brown being mistaken for a white man during the evening activities of the “Towards A Black University Conference.” His entrance into the Howard gym for a cultural evening was met with opposition from black militant security guards. This incident (if nothing else) perhaps begged the question — if this was indeed a “Towards A Black University Conference,” in which direction were black people actually heading? In his own words, Brown saw himself as a minor poet and a major teacher. His legacy, some believe, can best be appreciated by looking at his students or the numerous intellectuals he influenced. I find it difficult to accept the idea of Brown as a minor poet and I believe it is important to continue to examine and write about his life. One might ask what did Brown consider to be his best poetry and whether others agree. In his own anthology, The Negro Caravan, (1941) co-edited with Arthur P. Davis and Ulysses Lee, we find the following poems included: “Long Gone,” “Slim in Hell,” “Southern Road,” “Old Lem,” “Break of Day,” and “Strong Men.” Did Brown select these poems or did his co-editors? In 1971, when Arthur P. Davis and Saunders Redding edited Cavalcade: Negro American Writing From 1760 to the Present, they included Brown’s poems: “Odyssey of Big Boy,” “Old Lem,” “Sister Lou,” “Memphis Blues,” “Slim in Atlanta,” and “Remembering Nat Turner.” How an author’s work is represented in anthologies plays a significant role in how a writer will be taught and remembered. However, anthologies capture not only the views and politics of the editor, but they also reflect the times during which they are edited and published. We see this happening to the poetry of Sterling Brown around the time I met him. BLACK RENAISSANCE NOIRE It took place ten days after his 83rd birthday and 15 years after I first met him on the campus of Howard University. Sterling A. Brown a native of Washington, D.C. had a long distinguished association with the university. When describing his relationship with Howard University he often said he was a man “hired, fired and rehired.” The Sterling Brown po V