Books by Sterling Brown
Southern Road /
The Negro Caravan /
The Collected Poems of Sterling Brown /
The Negro in American Fiction; Negro Poetry and Drama
Last Ride of Wild Bill and Eleven Narrative Poems
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Books about Sterling Brown
Sterling A. Brown: Building the Black Aesthetic Tradition (1994)
John Edgar Tidwell,
Sterling A. Brown's A Negro Looks at the South (2007)
Callaloo's Sterling A. Brown: Special Issue (1998)
Mark A. Sanders.
Afro-Modernist Aesthetics & the Poetry of Sterling Brown (1999)
Mark A. Sanders.
A Son's Return: Selected Essays of Sterling Brown (1996)
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Archival Search for Sterling Brown
Maria Syphax, Historical Revision, or a Communist
By Rudolph Lewis
1 and Part 2 and Part
3 and Part 4 )
the story of the Maria Syphax Case. The story spread like
wildfire, as if some well-known Negro had killed a white woman
or one who had molested a white male child. Through it all
Sterling A. Brown was cool, possibly twirling his Phi Beta Kappa
encircled by the uneasiness.
In large letters
"'George Washington's Adopted Son Had Race Daughter,'
Guidebook Says" read one newspaper (name missing) dated 14
* * * *
A heated debate rocked Capital Hill
Friday when representative Keefe (Re., Wis.), took issue
with a WPA guidebook which claims a kinship between
George Washington's family and Maria Syphax, Race maid
to Martha Washington.
The ire of several congressmen has been aroused by
the House debate which may rebound in the Senate with a
bitter fight over supplementary appropriations for the
The guidebook of Washington prepared by the Federal
Writers project, refers to George Washington Parke
Custis [1781-1857], step-grandson and later adopted son of George
Washington and father-in-law of Gen. Robert E. Lee, as
the father of Maria Syphax [1803-1886].
In a chapter captioned "The Negro in
Washington," the guidebook, in relating the
disposition of freed slaves states:
"They were settled in Arlington in a place known
as 'Freedman's Village' very near a tract left by George
Washington Parke Custis [1781-1857] to his colored daughter, Maria
* * * *
covered the major aspects of the story, mentioning that the work
on the Brown article was done by a group of writers under the
direction of Joseph Gaer. The article goes further and quotes
the authority on the Syphaxes, E. Delorus Preston, Jr. and his
essay "William Syphax, a Pioneer in Negro Education in the
District of Columbia." Preston was first to state in a
learned journal: "Maria Syphax was the daughter of George
Washington Parke Curtis." It was stated not as a mere
incidental, though it was indeed secondary to the story of the role
William Syphax (son of Maria) played in the development of Negro
education after the Civil War. Still it was stated with a
The newspaper story
Keefe, who cited, the Congressional Globe, as a
contradictory authority, calls the guidebook libelous and asks
that Congress penalize on the WPA federal writers project."
The Maria Syphax [1803-1886]story had become, for the Republicans, a wedge issue in an
appropriations battle and in an ideological struggle between the
Democratic and Republican parties on the role of government.
"Arraigns Writers Project," the State newspaper of
Columbia, South Carolina (15 April 1939) concluded "looks as if the Writers'
Project has something to answer." Without its own independent investigation,
this southern paper repeated the position of Congressman Franke B. Keefe of
Wisconsin on the Maria Syphax Case. This "official"
position (an "anti-communist " one) became the position:
[George Washington Parke] Custis
"the step-grandson of Martha Washington by
adoption." His daughter married Robert E. Lee.
Custis, though he "abhorred slavery,"
"when he came into his inheritance from his mother,
did receive a considerable number of slaves. This young
woman Maria Syphax [1803-1886] was the daughter of two old retainers
who and served his grandmother and George Washington for
many, many years. When she passed to him as part of his
inheritance, he manumitted her, and upon her marriage he
gave her a little 17-acre tract of land upon which she
lived at or near the present Arlington."
Of course, Representative Keefe of Wisconsin cannot any more
prove with certainty "Maria Syphax was the daughter of two
old retainers" than Professor Brown can prove with
certainty that G.W.P. Custis [1781-1857] had a "colored daughter Maria
Syphax [1803-1886]." The absolutism of both positions are untenable.
But isn't that indeed the peculiar nature of the discussion of
race in America?
The tone of the South Carolina paper definitely supports
opposition to the Federal Writers Project. But that southern
state has long been known for its conservatism and its
reactionary politics. There was nevertheless indeed a FWP in
South Carolina. An August 4, 1936 report on Negro employment --
issued by J.H. Harman, Asst. Editor for Negro Affairs (Houston,
Texas) -- concluded that of the 174 Negro writers, South
Carolina had 10, a number as large as employed in Florida and
New York City. New Jersey may have employed more
Negro writers than any state with its 25. Illinois had 11.
Georgia and Massachusetts had as few as 5. Despite its race politics,
the state opted for the government funding.
Director of Negro Affairs, Sterling Brown wears the mask of
naiveté in his formal defense of his "final writing,"
i.e., his sentence on the paternity of Maria Styphax. His arguments -- on April 10 to Henry Alberg on Congressman's Keefe's
Speech and on Maria
Syphax-George Washington Parke
Custis relationship are extremely well-organized and reek with a
delicate sophistication. Brown may have indeed been so
trained and so much a part of the Black World that he was unaware
that he an agent of propaganda and believed
sincerely he spoke as a critical, balanced, indifferent scholar.
Sterling Brown was indeed aware
of the political opposition to the FWP. There were indeed
Communists and communist sympathizers in the FWP. Brown was not
so naive to think otherwise that there were those ready and willing to expose and eliminate the FWP.
In a letter from Wilfred R. Bain (11 May 1936),
* * * *
. . . there are several sub-projects
within the New York FWP . the first to be established is
what is known as The Reporters, with headquarters at
111-8th Avenue; another as the New York Guide or
American Guide and still another as the Survey of
. . . . From what I can gather, it seems that The
Reporters is the 'pet' project of the whole set-up. most
of its workers are paid at the rate of $103.40 It is
know to be almost wholly composed of Communists and
their sympathizers. It was organized by Mr. Johns.
. . . . Another indication of favoritism is shown in
the following illustration: Messers Poston and Moon, who
were the promoters of the strike, which caused the
Amsterdam News to change hands before it was settled,
were discharged by the new owners. . . . another strike
against the paper was being planned. . . . the plans
were dropped, when Messers Poston and Moon received
employment as members of The Reporters, the 'pet' NY FWP
Although we are usually referred to when new Negro
applicants apply, the Negro set-up was not officially
informed that Messers Poston and Moon would be hired.
. . . Having satisfied himself, that the Negro group
is not in sympathy, and do not intend to be a part of
any Red revolutionary program, Mr. johns had decided to
relieve us of the privilege to approve or disapprove
new-comers to the project, and at the same time prevent
us from having the moral support of non-reds.
* * * *
A year or so later Ted Poston and Henry Lee Moon also wrote
Brown (29 June 1937; ), a joint letter, signed by both. They were
on a first name basis with "Sterling." Brown had
enlisted them, as he had Christian
in completing an assignment, in order to generate materials
for his planned book, "The Negro as an American."
Poston and Moon now needed his help. Their grade and pay with
"The Reporters" (the 'pet' FWP group) were reduced from Master
Writer ($110.77 per month) to Senior Newspaperman
Poston and Moon's complaint was that in completing
Brown's assignment they would be doing more work: "It
requires that we do our own research, writing and
editing." More work and less pay. By this means,
their improper hiring and sympathy for the communists and their
sympathizers Brown could satisfy Bain's complaint and his own
needs. In any event, Brown knew that red-baiting was afoot as
early as 1936, a year after the Federal Writers project began
its operations. And from Bain he knew also the machinations in
which Poston and Moon were involved.
* * * *
Before I go farther, allow me this apology. These archival documents I have collected should probably be
in better hands than my own. I am not a Sterling Brown scholar.
I know very little of his biography. I was told once Sterling was born on Whiskey Bottom Road in Prince George
County, not too far from College Park. Official documents say he
was born and raised in Washington. So what do I know. I do like "Strong Men," its
insistent rhythms. Certainly, in his poetry, one senses
Brown's exquisite knowledge of southern manners and ways. Quite possibly
his work and coming into contact with so much folk material
his eyes and ears and body became attuned to the wonders and riches of
Negro folk culture.
In a note to Henry Alsberg (?) on 1 September 1937, Brown
wrote "I had a very interesting sojourn in Georgia getting
to the coastal section among the Geechees (Gullahs?) for the
first time." One senses that Brown more so than, let us
say, Langston Hughes, became exceedingly steeped in Negro folklore and
probably also in its edifying uses. Of course this too was a
position argued by Du Bois and The Souls of Black Folk (1903).
Negro folklore was not only entertaining, but had its own
enhancing soul and spirit and history. And it also had its own
peculiar perspective, that frequently ran against the ground of
what usually went for American culture.
So one might say that Brown carried that spirit into the
writing of "The Negro in Washington." (Again, I am a
poor scholar in this matter. I have not read the essay in its
entirety.) I am familiar with the few lines quoted by
Representative Keefe in the Congressional
Record. In addition Also, I have not read Keefe's full speech on
the floor of the Congress. Still my presentation of these
documents might be indeed of some scholarly value. It might be
an intellectual in which to discover the "true Negro."
In any event,
the Maria Syphax Case is a little known American story, attached to other stories) that, for me, still resonates after
over a half century. Maybe someone more resourceful will take up
the gauntlet to further flesh out this tale. Will we ever know
what Sterling was thinking when he chose to toss a bit of dirt
into the smooth running wheels of government policies.
With a $2600 annual salary as an Asst.
Professor of English at Howard University, Sterling Brown was
near the top of the Negro heap, especially for Negro writers. Moon and
Poston were making just over a thousand a year, and some still less. Brown knew
everyone in the Negro World there was to know and in the white,
also, especially editors. In folders, there were notes to Lillian Smith,
editor of the North Georgia Review in 1939; Malcolm
Cowley, editor of The New Republic; Randolph Edmonds,
editor of The Arts Quarterly, Dillard University;
President Albert W. Dent of Dillard and Grand Basileus of the
Omega Psi Phi Fraternity.
But he also knew those connected with The Harriet Tubman
Publishing Company, Inc., and its editor-in-chief Roscoe
Conkling Bruce; and its associate editors, William S.
Braithwaite, Elmer A. Carter, Georgia Douglass Johnson, Kelly
Miller, Arthur A. Schomberg, and Mary Chase Terrell.
Brown's more personal letters in which the
Maria Syphax Case is mentioned provide a contrast to the memos
to Henry Alsberg. They also reveal yet another view of Brown and
his attitude toward the rancor he has stirred by his remark on
the paternity of Maria Syphax (1803-1886).
the 20 April 1939 letter to which he signs his name as
"The Flying Dutchman." One should note also that, with his 1-year NAACP membership, Brown was also on a first
name basis with Walter White, the head of the NAACP. One still
wonders whether Brown was calling for a real public discussion
about miscegenation and especially that which took place during
slavery. Wouldn't we also have to talk about the rape of black
women? The paternal abuse of the trust of his servants?
In a 21 April 1939 letter, Brown to
a Mr. Dabney, we again see a much more relaxed and jocular
"Flying Dutchman." One must assume his state of
mind is one in which he has been pushed near the edge. Sterling
I have been very busy as you may have
heard. In Washington, City and Capital, one of
the guides of the Federal Writers' Project I stated, oh
quite casually, that George Washington Parke Custis
a colored daughter. I am therefore accused of being a
very bad Negro, in fact, a R E D. Alas!
. . . . I'd like to talk to you about my being
in the Congressional Record for stating what, except for
a few books such as yours, has been left out of the
"I stated, oh quite casually" is a different kind
of language than an "incidental reference" and the
sarcasm of "being a very bad Negro" is also a
different tone than that which we find in Brown's two Alsberg
memos, one defending himself against the charges of Congressman's
Keefe; and the other, a defense of his assertion that Maria
Syphax was the colored daughter of Custis.
In the 20 April 1939 letter
to Walter White Brown exhibits a bit of unexpected
I suppose you read of my being
"red-baited" I mentioned miscegenation in
connection with the founding fathers. Well, I'm sitting tight.
That's one aspect of American history of which I welcome a
His welcoming a "thorough-going investigation"
suggests that at times he views this situation with the
Republican congressman as a personal matter, rather than one in
which he has brought unneeded difficulties to the FWP, which was
in the midst of a battle for congressional refunding.
His self-reference as the "Flying Dutchman" may
give us some hint of his state of mind. The romantic legend
speaks of the Dutch captain who blindly (self-blinded by his
reverie) sailed into a storm and whose ship sank disastrously on
the rocks. Sinking and near his own death, the captain utters a
curse (a kind of empty bravura, possibly, that he will round the
Cape of Good Hope if it takes him until doomsday. There have
been, however, "sightings" of the ship and its captain
in a storm.
What significance for Sterling Brown was the mask of the
tragic Dutch captain? Was this Brown's cute way of referring to
himself as a "crazy nigger." What a contrast the
language of the two personal letters and that of the
We will resume this discussion up in Part 4, and attach
further documents that we hope will add further to the richness
of this exposition.
* * *
* * *
The Price of Civilization
Reawakening American Virtue and Prosperity
By Jeffrey D. Sachs
The Price of Civilization is a book that is essential reading for every American. In a forceful, impassioned, and personal voice, he offers not only a searing and incisive diagnosis of our country’s economic ills but also an urgent call for Americans to restore the virtues of fairness, honesty, and foresight as the foundations of national prosperity. Sachs finds that both political parties—and many leading economists—have missed the big picture, offering shortsighted solutions such as stimulus spending or tax cuts to address complex economic problems that require deeper solutions. Sachs argues that we have profoundly underestimated globalization’s long-term effects on our country, which create deep and largely unmet challenges with regard to jobs, incomes, poverty, and the environment. America’s single biggest economic failure, Sachs argues, is its inability to come to grips with the new global economic realities. Sachs describes a political system that has lost its ethical moorings, in which ever-rising campaign contributions and lobbying outlays overpower the voice of the citizenry. . . . Sachs offers a plan to turn the crisis around. He argues persuasively that the problem is not America’s abiding values, which remain generous and pragmatic, but the ease with which political spin and consumerism run circles around those values. He bids the reader to reclaim the virtues of good citizenship and mindfulness toward the economy and one another.
* * *
Sex at the Margins
Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry
By Laura María Agustín
This book explodes several myths: that selling sex is completely different from any other kind of work, that migrants who sell sex are passive victims and that the multitude of people out to save them are without self-interest. Laura Agustín makes a passionate case against these stereotypes, arguing that the label 'trafficked' does not accurately describe migrants' lives and that the 'rescue industry' serves to disempower them. Based on extensive research amongst both migrants who sell sex and social helpers, Sex at the Margins provides a radically different analysis. Frequently, says Agustin, migrants make rational choices to travel and work in the sex industry, and although they are treated like a marginalised group they form part of the dynamic global economy. Both powerful and controversial, this book is essential reading for all those who want to understand the increasingly important relationship between sex markets, migration and the desire for social justice. "Sex at the Margins rips apart distinctions between migrants, service work and sexual labour and reveals the utter complexity of the contemporary sex industry. This book is set to be a trailblazer in the study of sexuality."—Lisa Adkins, University of London
posted 29 June 2008