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Sketch of FWP writer and poet Sterling A. Brown
Ink & Pen sketch of Sterling A. Brown for a symposium publication honoring his life's work, 1976. Credit: Black History Museum Collective

The United States vs. Sterling A. Brown – John Edgar Tidwell

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In this guest blog, Dr. John Edgar Tidwell, Emeritus Professor of English at the University of Kansas, focuses on the critical importance of Sterling A. Brown’s work as Editor on Negro Affairs for the Depression-era Federal Writers’ Project, and his efforts in the struggle against racial inequality by “authenticat[ing] the representations of Blacks in the American Guide Series travel guides.” The response to his work by authorities speaks volumes about the repressive political climate that sought to suppress any research and analysis of societal conflict and injustice such as Brown’s. Dr. Tidwell presented a version of these remarks at an AFC symposium in June 2023 to mark the publication of the anthology, Rewriting America: New Essays on the Federal Writers’ Project (2022), which critically examines the FWP on its 80th anniversary (see this blog post about the symposium). It is most appropriate to publish this blog today, since it was 45 years ago today, on November 16, 1978, that the Library of Congress celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Archive of Folk Song with a day-long symposium featuring, among others, Alan Lomax, song-collector and archivist for the Archive in its early years; David “Honeyboy” Edwards, master blues singer and later a Grammy recipient; and Sterling A. Brown, author, poet, and guiding figure in the FWP (images below).

One of the marvelous achievements of Rewriting America: New Essays on the Federal Writers’ Project (University of Massachusetts Press, 2022) is the insightful perspective it offers on the use of FWP research made by Margaret Walker, Ernest Gaines, Ralph Ellison, and Richard Wright in their creative writing. To this illustrious group, I’d like to add the poet-scholar Sterling A. Brown, even though his contribution figures in a different way. As Editor on Negro Affairs and later as Senior Editorial Assistant, Brown fought valiantly to authenticate the representations of Blacks in the American Guide Series travel guides and to redefine American culture and literature by demonstrating the centrality of Negro studies. Ideologically, Brown was wedded to what I call “an integrationist” perspective and what historian Jerry Hirsch has called “a participatory approach.” Brown began with the premise that African Americans did not blend or assimilate into American culture. Nor did African Americans give something or contribute to the whole of American culture. African Americans were an integral part of the whole. Thus, as American culture was being formed or defined, African Americans were part of this process, not outside of it. While Brown’s position was greeted warmly by some, others considered it to be outrageous and mounted vigorous opposition against him. Some of the most egregious resistance was proffered by federal, state, and even local governments as they intruded into his FWP work and attempted to connect his “left of center” political vision to communist or socialist belief.

Front matter and title information for the Washington, DC Guide Book, Federal Writers’ Project, 1937.

From the very beginning of his appointment as Editor on Negro Affairs in April 1936, Brown embarked upon a determined campaign of reorientation. He proposed new ways of seeing and knowing about the experiences of African Americans. If the purpose of the guide book, Washington: City and Capital (1937), was to present chamber of commerce boosterism or tourism in the style of the Baedeker books, Brown was committed to showing how the composite portrait of the city was incomplete without a full, unvarnished look at the shaping influence African Americans exerted on the District of Columbia. His essay for the volume, “The Negro in Washington,” provided that view. The honesty and candor he expressed in an unobtrusive, seemingly innocuous statement, however, incurred the wrath of several congressmen. His reference to Freedmen’s Village, which was very near a tract of land left by George Washington Parke Custis to his colored daughter, Maria Syphax, was to Rep. Frank Keefe, a Republican from Wisconsin, unmitigated apostasy. Why? Custis was a direct descendant of one of the so-called Founding Fathers. To assert that one of them fathered a child with a slave woman was more than casting aspersions. It was defaming the heritage of the nation; it revealed a loss of patriotism; it caused a loss of veneration of heroes and their achievements; and it was insidious propaganda. For him, this gesture was unpatriotic and opened the door for the “unholy trinity of communism, fascism, and Nazism.”

In response to Brown’s supposed brazenness, the research materials used to support his contentions “disappeared” from the Library of Congress. The campaign to defund the WPA found new so-called evidence to support its cause. And, in arguably its greatest gesture of government intrusion, the essay was severely bowdlerized in subsequent reprintings.

Further evidence of governmental intrusion can also be seen when Brown, as Editor on Negro Affairs, found himself in conflict with those writers of the various Southern guidebooks who sought to pass off stereotyped representations of African Americans as “authentic.” The tug-of-war proved to be more than a fight over representational issues; the site of conflict was an ideological struggle, with the operative question being: “What was the Southern way of life and who now would exercise the agency in preserving it?” In this conflict, Brown came face-to-face with the vestiges of a system of belief rooted in efforts of the antebellum South to define and protect the way it lived. He confronted a Southern strategy that implicitly reprised “the Lost Cause” narrative.

In its various manifestations, “Lost Cause” embraced a “negationist ideology,” one that denied the Civil War was fought over slavery and, instead, emphasized it as an heroic and just response to efforts to undermine a way of life. Here, secession functioned as a defense against the North’s supposed violation of the states’ rights of the South—rights they claimed were permitted by the U.S. Constitution. It also spoke of slavery as a kindly institution, where corn shucking, Saturday night dances, and other frivolities made the slaves happy, and where they learned the meaning of morality and civilization. This view reiterated what, in other contexts, was called the plantation tradition, where the South was an idyllic, picturesque region, unspoiled by industrialization and remembered nostalgically. In the Civil War, the master was benevolent, doting, and he served heroically, honorably, representing the best of the chivalric tradition in the fight for a noble cause. These and other features form the basis of the Southern response to Brown’s critique of their guidebooks.

Scan of a page from a newsletter featuring three photos: Alan Lomax speaking to a crowd, Sterling Brown reading from a book, and Honeyboy Edwards playing guitar.
Alan Lomax, Sterling Brown , & David “Honeyboy” Edwards, Library of Congress symposium, 11/16/1978; Library of Congress Information Bulletin, p. 755, December 15, 1978.

For instance, Mary Granger, a Georgia FWP director, compiled Black racial material in a supposed effort “to preserve customs, habits, superstitions, beliefs, songs, and typical expressions of a generation closely linked to its native African origins.” Granger’s proposal, however, is little more than a nostalgic recall of the plantation tradition, foregrounding the slaves’ supposed primitivism. Black racial “authenticity” for her was “unrestrained enjoyment,” “the thin veneer of civilization” loosened by feasting and dancing, and “barbaric [dance]steps.” Instead of a vestigial African legacy, she merely reprised the “Lost Cause” narrative to reassert relations of white domination and Black subordination.

In a third example of governmental intrusion, the Federal Bureau of Investigation kept Brown under surveillance intermittently from 1941-1953. Even though the House Un-American Activities Committee listed Brown in several files, he managed to escape their scrutiny. But there was no escaping the gaze of the FBI. With its mission to ferret out subversive federal employees who advocated the overthrow of the U.S. government “by force or violence,” this agency set upon a course to determine whether Brown was a communist party member or socialist. Its excessive zeal resulted in several self-inflicted flaws, including simple errors, misinformation, gullibility, and self-delusion. Their reliance on unnamed confidential informants led them to accept unsubstantiated claims as fact. And their reliance on Brown’s membership in supposed “subversive” organizations seemed proof of his radicalism. To clinch their case, they interviewed him twice: once in 1942 and again in 1953.

In a persona that was supremely confident, he made a presentation that was nothing short of a rhetorical tour-de-force. To the ultimate question —“Are you or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?” —Brown wrapped the agent and his stenographer around his proverbial finger. “No,” he said in denying he observed any political policies. “Membership in an organization,” he explained, did not connote involvement. “My time was crowded with teaching and writing.” When asked if he knew of the political affiliations of different organizations, Brown simply denied knowing their connections to the Party. Like Br’er Rabbit in the briar patch, he took the interviewer down to Virginia Seminary and College in the mid-1920s to explain how the paucity of library sources encouraged him to subscribe to all kinds of books and journals, including the communist publication New Masses. Because the agent gave him, in a highly unusual gesture, the opportunity to edit the transcription for accuracy and clarity, Brown exercised some authorial control over his representation in the text. This control was lost in the second interview, conducted in 1953.

Head and shoulders portrait of Sterling Brown smoking a pipe
Sterling Allen Brown. Courtesy of the Sterling A. Brown Papers, Williams College Archives & Special Collections.

The crucial problem with the second interview derives from the way it was preserved. This one survived as an agent’s report, one replete with all the complications of an “as-told-to” narrative. It lacked Brown’s rhetorical power, his voice, his authorial control, and more. The report read like a summary of the interview because of the third person or reportorial strategy used. In this form, then, it better illustrates how governmental interrogation became governmental intervention.

What Brown intended as the ultimate refutation of governmental intrusion and proof of African Americans’ centrality in definitions of American literature and culture were five projects he proposed: “Portrait of the Negro as American,” “Go Down, Moses: The Struggle Against Slavery,” “A Book on Negro Folk Literature,” “A Book of Narratives by Ex-Slaves,” and “A Selective Bibliography on the Negro.” Time ran out on Brown as well as the FWP and these projects were left unfinished. In her compelling book Long Past Slavery: Representing Race in the Federal Writers’ Project (2016), Catherine Stewart raises a provocative question: “What happened to Brown and the promise of black cultural authority within the FWP?” She cogently locates an extension of his aims, as stated in “Portrait of the Negro as American,” in his massive, co-edited anthology The Negro Caravan: Writings by American Negroes (1941). I would argue that his Writers’ Project sense and sensibility went further. I suggest he extended his project goals, in addition to Negro Caravan, into his research for the sociologist Gunnar Myrdal’s famous study, An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy (1944) and his own posthumously-published A Negro Looks at the South (2007). For Myrdal’s study, Brown set about the impossible task of writing a summarizing memorandum titled “The Negro in American Culture.” With money from the Rosenwald Fund, he traveled throughout the South, compiling personal observations to pair with written studies of Black life and culture. It is this work that became foundational in subsequent scholarship and creative writing in African American literary and cultural studies.

Related Resources

The Library of Congress has online resources relating to Sterling A. Brown, including two recordings of him reading his poetry here at the Library. Find a brief biography and links to the recordings at this link.

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