Sterling Allen Brown

Sterling [A.] Brown, Oct. 7 #119: [cellulose acetate photonegative and contact print, 1944]. Scurlock Studio (Washington, D.C.) (photographers). Black-and-white film negatives (Series 4), Scurlock Studio Records, 1905-1994. Smithsonian Institution.

African American, Federal Writers’ Project, Literature

Sterling Allen Brown


Sterling Allen Brown was a renowned poet who documented and championed African American traditional culture in his writings. As Editor of the Negro Affairs for the Federal Writer’s Project (FWP), he set the standards of how Black culture should be presented in realistic ways in FWP publications.

Born on the campus of Howard University, he spent his early childhood on a small farm in Howard County, Maryland, and grew up on the Howard University campus, where his theologian and social activist father, the Rev. Sterling N. Brown, taught. His mother, Grace Adelaide Allen Brown, taught for 50 years in the D.C. public schools. Brown graduated valedictorian from DC’s Dunbar High School (1918) and as its top graduate, won a scholarship to attend Williams College in Massachusetts. At Williams, he graduated in 1922 as a Phi Beta Kappa, with highest honors in English. Awarded another scholarship at Harvard University, he earned an MA in English (1923). He returned to Harvard for further study in 1931-1932.  

Beginning in 1923, Brown taught at several historically Black colleges, first, Virginia Seminary and College, and over the next several years, Lincoln University (Missouri) and Fisk University.  While in these communities, Brown deepened his exposure to and understanding of traditional African American culture. He began collecting and studying African American folk songs, folk stories, traditional ways of speaking, and folklife, which formed the lifelong foundation for his literary writings, criticism, and ethnographic work. In 1929, Brown returned to Howard University to teach for the next 40 years.

Most known for his incorporation of blues form, aesthetics, and folk language in his poetry, Brown was among the first to assert the validity of African American traditional culture as fundamental to the Black aesthetic. Influenced by the perspectives of Benjamin A. Botkin, who emphasized folklore as the living traditions of people, Brown devoted his career to researching and presenting the diverse regional expressivities of urban and rural lives of Black folk and their adaptations to their changing environments and circumstances in his poetry and essays. Grounding his writings in his fieldwork throughout the South, he pioneered new and creative forms of ethnographic presentation in the 1920s. In the late 1930s, he also collaborated with Lewis Wade Jones to collect traditions in African American barbershops in Tennessee.

From 1936 to 1940, he served as Editor of Negro Affairs for the Federal Writers’ Project Administration (FWP), while still teaching at Howard. In this job, he advocated for the inclusion of African American culture in the state guides and challenged state programs to correct the absence, marginalization, and biased representations of Black people’s history and culture in their state’s edition of the American guides. He also confronted the distorted portrayals of Black people in white scholarship and literature of the day. 

Sterling A. Brown was honored as the first Poet Laureate of the District of Columbia, earned multiple honorary doctorates, was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, and held several visiting professorships at leading institutions. 

Among his publications important for literary ethnographic work in folklore:

A Negro Looks at the South (2007 – posthumous)

Phyllis M. May-Machunda

(coming soon)