The telephone in Sterling Brown's house rang with abandon yesterday.

It was Sterling Brown Day in the District, officially declared by Mayor Marion Barry. It was Brown's 78th birthday. All day long, WPFW-FM interspersed its programming with poetry readings, music and talk by and about Brown. The mayor hosted a reception for him last night at the Museum of African Art.

All this in honor of a man who taught English at Howard University for more than 40 years. Poet, raconteur and Literary critic, Brown is the dean of contemporary Afro-American poets.

"I'm so damn swell-headed I'm afraid I'm going to have a stroke," said Brown, sitting in a favorite chair in his 45-year-old Brookland home that is as comfortable as the scuffed house slippers he wore.

"I love it. If it wasn't for Daisy [his wife] and my two sisters, I'd be down at the District Building lying on a grill with a bottle of muscatel by my side."

Brown roused his 6 foot, 190-lb. frame to fetch a pipe. He wore an impish grin and a cavalier attitude on his big day.

There are no known precedents for the District mayor proclaiming a day for a poet. Brown took it in stride.

"I know the mayor," he smiled, his face becoming a playground of images. "I knew him when he was a militant, when the police were arresting him every day. I knew all those guys in the Howard chapter of SNCC - Courtland Cox, Charlie Cobb, Stokely (Carmichael). I was their adviser.

"I remember when they said they didn't want to be integrated into a burning building. And I asked them, 'What building isn't burning?'"

Brown has done his part to smother the flames.

Last night, the mayor led the tribute at the reception attended by about 330 people. Old friends and students took the floor to speak of the effect Brown had on their lives and work.

Following the tribute Brown said, "I love you all for coming out. I was told to talk two minutes, but I can't say good morning in two minutes. I can't even talk to my wife for just two minutes when she's not speaking to me." Then he read several poems, including "Long Track Blues," which he wrote for his wife:

I went down to the yards

to see the signal lights come on

I went down to the yards

to see the signal lights come on

Looked down the tracks

Where my lovin' babe done gone

Red light in my block

Green light down the line

Red light in my block

Green light down the line

Lawdy, let your green light

shine down on that babe of mine.

and from "Old Limb":

They got the judges

They got the lawyers

They got the jury-rolls

They got the law

They don't come by ones

They got the sheriffs

They got the deputies

They don't come by twos

They got the shotguns

They got the rope

We git the justice

In the end

And they come by tens.

After an education at Williams and Harvard, Brown taught at several black colleges and ended up at Howard, where he stayed more than 40 years. In that time he helped shape some of the most influential American minds of recent times.

His students included actor Ossie Davis and Kenneth B. Clark, the psychologist whose research was used in the Supreme Court's 1954 decision overturning publc school segregation.

Clark said: "He opened my eyes to a lot of things - the awe, the wonder, the fascination of human creativity."

But it's his poetry that has had the most effect. In the late 1960s and early '70s, when black poetry was experiencing a rebirth of spirit and power, many young poets looked to Brown for influence and guidance.

"He likes to see himself as a teacher," said Michael Harper, a poet who surfaced in the 1960s, "but I think he's a wordmaster."

Brown's poetry, steeped in black folk verse, was especially attractive to writers who wanted to reinforce their blackness. He had the ability to take the simply and emotionally direct language of the poor and make it viable verse for everyone.

In "Strong Men," he wrote:

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?


One thing they cannot prohibit-

The strong men. . . coming on

The strong men gittin' stronger.

Strong men. . .

Stronger. . .

In the 1970s, after years of neglect, Brown's career has taken an upturn.

"I've been rediscovered, reinstituted, regenerated and recovered," he said. "I was hired at Howard, I was fired at Howard, rehired and retired.

"I'm very happy now and I'm not frustrated. This will be the biggest birthday celebration I've ever had, and at my age, I'll take anything I can get." CAPTION: Picture, Sterling Brown, by Gerald Martineau - The Washington Post