After an elite education from Dunbar High School to Williams College to Harvard, Sterling Allen Brown went south to teach at Virginia Theological Seminary and College. There, he immersed himself in the lives and language of Black Southerners. A world away from his middle class and educated upbringing, Brown developed a deep and profound love for their folktales and blues music—and his own poetic voice alongside it.
Brown’s vibrant poetry, as scholar Darren J. McManus wrote, “hid none of the hardships that many Negroes suffered while also praising the humor, stoicism, and wisdom” of the Black Southerners.
As a master teacher, Sterling A. Brown also affirmed the full complexity and humanity of his students. Lucille Clifton, the great poet, who was one of Brown’s students said, “He taught me that the words, the lives of people are worthy of attention, that the art of literature is the story of being human…I learned I could exist. I learned you could be who you were, not who you were expected to be.”
Toni Morrison, Stokely Carmichael, Ossie Davis, and Amiri Baraka were also among the thousands of students he impacted during his 40 years at Howard University.
In his own words, he said, “my legacy is my students.”