THE D.C. COUNCIL has done the right thing in declaring this day "Sterling A. Brown Day," although Mr. Brown has enough friends and admirers in town, and throughout the country who would gladly see the holiday go national and extended to a month. He is the last in a line of great writers who came to prominence in the Harlem Renaissance-Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Jean Toomer, Arna Bontemps, among others. At the age of 78 he is still as strong as the "Strong Men" of his famous poem; and if his is not the loudest voice raised in celebration today, it will surely be the wittiest, the richest, the most full of life.
Not that Mr. Brown would admit there ever was such a thing as the Harlem Renaissance. Start to say Harlem Renaissance to Mr. Brown, and between the Harlem and the Renaissance, he will pepper you with the names of a dozen first-rate Washington Artists who were just as important to that period of black cultural awakening as any of the New York crowd. Mr. Brown is as proud of his home town as Washington is of him. Before the Harvard M.A. and the Williams College Phi Beta Kappa key, there was Dunbar High School. And after several teaching stints elsewhere, he returned home to stay, becoming a professor and a fixture at Howard, where his father had taught religion.
All this sounds like a fancy background for a poet whose first major book, "Southern Road," gave literary life to such subjects as Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Blind Lemon Jefferson, and characters called Sister Lou and Sporting Beasley. Like the poets he most admired as a student-Robert Frost and Carl Sandburg-Mr. Brown has always seen literature as a popular art, not a puzzle. His own poems are stories, work songs and the blues-simple, but rich and various depictions of black American life."The sincere, sensitive artist," he once wrote, must be "willing to go beneath the cliches of popular belief to get at an underlying reality." His poems have done just that.
You have only to hear Mr. Brown read his poems aloud to get a sense of how the best oral poets of history created their effects. Yets, as countless readers know, even without his agile voice and eyes, the words have their own life. Happy day, Mr. Brown.