Sterling A. Brown: A Man Who Stuck Through The Tough Times
Hari Demirev

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(Zachery)

Sterling A. Brown was born on May 1, 1901 in Washington D.C. (Poets.org). His father was a former slave, but his mother was an educated woman who had graduated from Fisk University and Oberlin College (Resiwig). He went to Williams College and graduated in 1922, continuing his studies at Harvard University. While he was at these universities he explored jazz and blues music, which at the time were considered to be illegitimate and were mostly scorned by society. In 1923 he graduated from Harvard University with a master’s in English (Tidwell). Brown first taught at Virginia Seminary and College in 1923, after he graduated from college. He stayed at this job for three years, and during this time he met his future wife and caretaker of his two adopted children, Daisy Turnbull. After this job, Brown taught at Lincoln University for two years and then settled at Howard University for forty years. During this time, he took a break to work on his doctorate at Harvard (Resiwig). During these several teaching jobs, Brown taught African American literature and folklore (This Date in Black History - May 1).

In 1932 Brown published his first book of poems, Southern Road (Tidwell). During the rest of the 1930s, Brown wrote a column for Opportunity and also reviewed various plays, films, and novels. During these years he also contributed greatly to The Negro in Virginia. Mid 1935 came, and in 1935 Brown’s second book of poetry, No Hiding Place, was rejected by publishers. This event in his life greatly depressed Brown and he made no further attempts to publish his poetry, though occasionally some of his works would appear in magazines and journals. In 1937 Brown successfully published The Negro in American Fiction and Negro Poetry and Drama. In 1955 Brown wrote The New Negro in Literature, which argued that the Harlem Renaissance should have been given a different name. Shortly after this in 1969, Brown retired from Howard University. In 1975, his book of poetry The Last Ride of Wild Bill and Eleven Narrative Poems was published (Resiwig). Brown’s wife, Daisy Brown, died in 1979 and he went to live with his sisters. He suffered from severe Leukemia and died on January 13, 1989 (Tidwell).

Brown’s life was very influential to many people. His various works about African Americans in literature and other cultural fields showed African Americans that their race could make a change and a difference in the world. Sterling A. Brown fits into the Harlem Renaissance in a big way because he had immense racial pride. He used his position as a powerful poet to show people what kind of poetry African Americans can create, and how original it is. He was very important to the Harlem Renaissance as well as to empowering African Americans around the world.

Poetry Analysis

Riverbank Blues

By Sterling A. Brown


A man git his feet set in a sticky mudbank,
A man git dis yellow water in his blood,
No need for hopin', no need for doin',
Muddy streams keep him fixed for good.

Little Muddy, Big Muddy, Moreau and Osage,
Little Mary's, Big Mary's, Cedar Creek,
Flood deir muddy water roundabout a man's roots,
Keep him soaked and stranded and git him weak.

Lazy sun shinin' on a little cabin,
Lazy moon glistenin' over river trees;
Ole river whisperin', lappin' 'gainst de long roots:
"Plenty of rest and peace in these . . ."

Big mules, black loam, apple and peach trees,
But seems lak de river washes us down
Past de rich farms, away from de fat lands,
Dumps us in some ornery riverbank town.

Went down to the river, sot me down an' listened,
Heard de water talkin' quiet, quiet lak an' slow:
"Ain' no need fo' hurry, take yo' time, take yo'
time . . ." Heard it sayin'--"Baby, hyeahs de way life go . . ."

Dat is what it tole me as I watched it slowly rollin',
But somp'n way inside me rared up an' say,
"Better be movin' . . . better be travelin' . . .
Riverbank'll git you ef you stay . . ."

Towns are sinkin' deeper, deeper in de riverbank,
Takin' on de ways of deir sulky Ole Man--
Takin' on his creepy ways, takin' on his evil ways,
"Bes' git way, a long way . . . whiles you can. "Man got his
sea too lak de Mississippi Ain't got so long for a whole lot longer way,
Man better move some, better not git rooted Muddy water fool you, ef you stay . . ."

Analysis

Sterling A. Brown’s poem, “Riverbank Blues”, sends a very strong message about life that applied to many African American people at the time of the Harlem Renaissance, but can really apply to anyone. Brown emphasizes the message that sometimes people get stuck at a spot in life and don’t want to go any further. People get lazy, and settle for something that isn’t what they really want. There may be something good where they have stopped, but they know that they can achieve so much more. Opportunities come and pass them by, and often people don’t take them because they are lazy or have no hope left in them. Other people may try to convince one that where they are in life is a good place to be, but that is just holding one back. One has to listen to his or her inner self and urge him or herself to keep on going in search of something better. Though sometimes it may be tempting to just sit down and stop trying, one has to keep going, because you’re a “fool you, ef you stay” (Brown 30).

Brown talks about getting stuck in a “sticky mudbank” (1) and by this he means that sometimes one gets stuck in a place in life and can’t get out of it without some hard work. One may end up thinking that there is “No need for hopin’, no need for doin’” (3) and decide that there is no point in trying to get out of a bad situation in life. When Brown says “Muddy streams keep him fixed for good” (4) he means that sometimes if a situation is hard to get out of, people may just decide to remain in it. “Little Muddy, Big Muddy, Moreau and Osage, Little Mary's, Big Mary's, Cedar Creek” (5) are examples of rivers, in this case, that may wind themselves “roundabout a man's roots,” (7) and distract a person from their true cause and goal. “Big mules, black loam, apple and peach trees” (13) are symbols of the good things that may appear when we get stuck in life, but often people refuse to hang on to these things. Brown emphasizes this point when he says, “de river washes us down” (14).

Brown personifies the river when he says, “Heard de water talkin' quiet” (18). He says that it can tell one to “take yo' time” (19) and stop trying to get somewhere in life. Brown is trying to get across in the poem that one has to be dedicated and tell him or herself to just keep on going, “Better be movin' . . . better be travelin'” (23). If one does choose to remain at a low point in life just because it is hard, one is a fool. “better not git rooted Muddy water fool you, ef you stay” (30) Brown says.

Throughout the poem Brown uses various symbols to show that sometimes you can get stuck at a spot in life. For this he uses the river as a symbol. There are many things that may seem appealing at this point, and these are symbolized by the fruit trees, cabin, etc. The Brown continues to say that if one gets stuck at this type of point in life, one is a complete fool. The overall message is that even though life may seem hard at times and you may just want to stop, you have to tell yourself to keep going.

Works Cited


Poets.org. Sterling A. Brown - Poets.org. n.d. 15 March 2012. <http://www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/203>.
Resiwig, Anne. PAL: Sterling Brown. 2 November 2011. 15 March 2012. <http://www.csustan.edu/english/reuben/pal/chap9/brown_sterling.html>.
This Date in Black History - May 1. n.d. 15 March 2012. <http://www.anothershadeofcolor.com/Black_History/05_May/01_May.htm>.
Tidwell, John Edgar. Sterling A. Brown's Life and Career. n.d. 15 March 2012. <http://www.english.illinois.edu/maps/poets/a_f/brown/life.htm>.
Zachery, Imogene. Howard University: Sterling A. Brown. n.d. http://www.howard.edu/library/reference/guides/SterlingBrown.htm. 19 March 2012.