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Sterling A. Brown

Sterling Brown was born in Washington, D.C., on May 1, 1901. He was educated at Dunbar High School and received a bachelor’s degree from Williams College. He studied the work of Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot, but was more interested in the works of Amy Lowell, Edgar Lee Masters, Robert Frost and Carl Sandburg. In 1923, he earned a master’s degree from Harvard University and was employed as a teacher at the Virginia Seminary and College in Lynchburg until 1926. Three years later, Brown began teaching at Howard University and in 1932 his first book, Southern Road, was published.

His poetry was influenced by jazz, the blues, work songs and spirituals and, like Langston Hughes, Jean Toomer, Countee Cullen, and other black poets of the period, his writing expresses his concerns about race in America. Southern Road was well received by critics and Brown became part of the artistic tradition of the Harlem Renaissance, but with the arrival of the Depression, Brown could not find a publisher for his second book of verse. He turned to writing essays and focused on his career as a teacher at Howard, where he taught until his retirement in 1969. He finally published his second book of poetry, The Last Ride of Wild Bill, in 1975. Brown is known for his frank, unsentimental portraits of black people and their experiences, and the incorporation of African American folklore and contemporary idiom into his verse. He died in 1989 in Takoma Park, Maryland. (poets.org)

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I’ve posted a poem by Sterling A. Brown before. It was called Thoughts of Death. So he is not a new poet to me. But interestingly he was referred to in an episode of the TV series Timeless this season. (LOVE that show. Still waiting to see if they cancelled it!) It gave me a little context to smoosh around his life. I found this poem to be very moving. And more than a little confrontive. It’s based on a short poem by Carl Sandburg called Upstream.

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Strong Men

The strong men keep coming on.
“““““““““`— Sandburg

They dragged you from homeland,
They chained you in coffles,2
They huddled you spoon-fashion in filthy hatches,
They sold you to give a few gentlemen ease.

They broke you in like oxen,
They scourged you,
They branded you,
They made your women breeders,
They swelled your numbers with bastards. . . .
They taught you the religion they disgraced.

You sang:
“““`Keep a-inchin’ along
“““`Lak a po’ inch worm. . . .

You sang:
“““`Bye and bye
“““`I’m gonna lay down dis heaby load. . . .

You sang:
“““`Walk togedder, chillen,
“““`Dontcha git weary. . . .
““““““The strong men keep a-comin’ on
““““““The strong men git stronger.

They point with pride to the roads you built for them,
They ride in comfort over the rails you laid for them.
They put hammers in your hand
And said ⎯ Drive so much before sundown.

You sang:
“““`Ain’t no hammah
“““`In dis lan’,
“““`Strikes lak mine, bebby,
“““`Strikes lak mine.

They cooped you in their kitchens,
They penned you in their factories,
They gave you the jobs that they were too good for,
They tried to guarantee happiness to themselves
By shunting dirt and misery to you.

You sang:
“““`Me an’ muh baby gonna shine, shine
“““`Me an’ muh baby gonna shine.
“““““The strong men keep a-comin’ on
“““““The strong men git stronger. . . .

They bought off some of your leaders
You stumbled, as blind men will . . .
They coaxed you, unwontedly soft-voiced. . . .
You followed a way.
Then laughed as usual.
They heard the laugh and wondered;
Uncomfortable,
Unadmitting a deeper terror. . . .
““““`The strong men keep a-comin’ on
““““`Gittin’ stronger. . . .

What, from the slums
Where they have hemmed you,
What, from the tiny huts
They could not keep from you ⎯
What reaches them
Making them ill at ease, fearful?
Today they shout prohibition at you
“Thou shalt not this”
“Thou shalt not that”
“Reserved for whites only”
You laugh.

One thing they cannot prohibit ⎯
“““““The strong men . . . coming on
“““““The strong men gittin’ stronger.
“““““Strong men. . . .
“““““Stronger. . . .

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Picture Source: IndieFeed: Performance Poetry