Literary society delves into poet's roots to build up Howard connection

April 29, 1994|By Patrick Hickerson | Patrick Hickerson,Contributing Writer

The Howard County Poetry and Literature Society hopes its Sunday reading of poems by Sterling A. Brown will cause the public to link the late African-American poet with Howard County.

Like Charles Carroll of Carrollton, Mr. Brown and his family made Howard County their summer home. Their farm was along Whiskey Bottom Road.

Ellen Kennedy, president and executive director of the society (HoCoPoLitSo), said that the idea of linking Mr. Brown, who died in 1989, to the county began after his reading for the society in 1980.

"I had this nagging question that arose at Sterling's reading, which was when he began to talk about Howard County," said Ms. Kennedy. "And then his 'Collected Poems' came out a few months later, and I ordered some copies and I got them signed."

Mr. Brown wrote in one copy for the Howard County Library that "I feel close to Howard County since I spent the summers of my early boyhood and young manhood on a farm on Whiskey Bottom Road. . . . So it was good to 'come home again.' "

Ms. Kennedy said, "It has a poem, 'After Winter,' which is a poem that he identifies as being inspired by the life they had in the summers and perhaps weekends at the farm.

"That's where he made a garden and grew 'Butter beans fo'

Clara/Sugar corn fo' Grace/An' fo de little feller/Runnin' space.' And Sterling was the little fella."

Mr. Brown, the son of a Howard University professor and former slave, was born in Washington in 1901. He graduated from Dunbar High School, Williams College and Harvard, where he earned his master's degree.

For 40 years he taught English at Howard University for students including Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison, poet Lucille Clifton, actor Ossie Davis and black nationalist Kwame Toure (formerly Stokely Carmichael).

His first collection of poetry, "Southern Road," published in 1932, was well received for its use of contemporary dialect.

After his second book of poetry was rejected by his publisher, he didn't release another collection of poems until 1975.

In the 1930s, he wrote the essay "Negro Characters as Seen by White Authors" and two books, "The Negro in American Fiction" and "Negro Poetry and Drama." For 13 years, he worked for the Federal Writers Project.

By 1980, the release of "Collected Poems" started a resurgence of interest in his work. Since the poems in the compilation were selected by Michael S. Harper, HoCoPoLitSo asked him to read Mr. Brown's poems in the program Sunday.

"He said 'Well, now that Sterling's dead, I'm the best person to read his work,' " said Ms. Kennedy.

Mr. Harper, a professor of English at Brown University, said, "I remember him as a man with enormous wit, always teaching and a sense of humor."

County Executive Charles I. Ecker and the County Council have declared May 1, Mr. Brown's birthday, as "Sterling A. Brown Day."

The society received an eight-month, $11,806.90 grant from the Maryland Humanities Council for the program, which included research into the poet's relationship to Howard County.

Joetta Cramm, author of "A Pictorial History of Howard County," has been examining county records, interviewing and conducting fieldwork to determine where the Brown farm was and who owned it.

Through court records, Ms. Cramm found that the property -- about 100 acres -- was owned by the Brown family from 1911 to 1958. Mr. Brown's father paid $2,500 for it. The family sold it for $65,000.

She said the parcel was at the intersection of Whiskey Bottom Road and Old Scaggsville Road. Today, the roads do not connect.

"It's all grown over with trees, or it's townhouses; part of it is new [Route] 216," Ms. Cramm said.

The location of the house is less certain.

"After the 1940s, they really didn't visit the property that much," she said.

John Dennis, Mr. Brown's son, told Ms. Cramm that the family house burned down in the 1950s, so she began looking for a foundation. "We found evidence of an old building. But whether that was Mr. Brown's house or All Saints church is unclear," she said.

Howard University nursing professor Alice Cornelison, co-editor of "A History of Blacks in Howard County, Maryland," will also present the results of her research.

Under the grant, she investigated Mr. Brown's life as a youth and his family background through sources in Washington.

History professor Larry Madaras of Howard Community College helped in the research.

Timothy Jenkins, Mr. Brown's executor, former student and friend, will speak about the poet and introduce Mr. Harper.

Patrons will have the opportunity to buy some of Mr. Brown's works, including cassette recordings of him reading his poems.

"There's only one of 'Ma Rainey,' and his voice is so young because it was done in the '40s," said Ms. Kennedy.

Maryland poet Roland Flint will be host, and Mr. Harper will be a guest during a Sterling Brown edition of the society's cable television series, "The Writing Life," that is slated to air in June on Cable 8.

The Howard County Poetry and Literature Society will present the reading of Sterling Brown's works by Michael S. Harper at 4 p.m. Sunday at Slayton House in Columbia. Tickets are $7 and may be purchased in advance by calling 730-7524. A reception and sale of books and tapes will follow the reading.

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