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 life (thoughts and dreams) of Maria
Syphax (1803-1886) was not
at the heart of the Maria Syphax-Custis debate between Franke B.
Keefe and the Federal Writers' Project. Sterling Brown told Walter White,
cards on the table, "I mentioned miscegenation in
connection with the founding fathers."
"Miscegenation" is a curious coinage of the American
psychology -- the mixing of races as taboo.
Yet the evidence of its
occurrence was found in the finest Southern home, namely, Mount
Vernon. Indeed, in such venues, a
premium was placed on a fair-skinned female house slave. For the
Southern aristocrat had a "respect for blood." There
is among us, to use Thabo Mbeki's term, an "audible
silence" how this bit of chicanery came to be: there were a half-million
mulattos when the first shots were fired in South Carolina, the
most reactionary of states. And
there was a considerable number of them in these the best Southern
homes, as well as occurring in smaller estates.
So Maria was the object of discussion rather than the
subject. Again, Maria Carter Syphax became a field of play for
the mighty, though dead, ripe for political ideology, upon which
the powers worked their demagogic magic to once again exploit
her life mercilessly. Those 1866 congressman--those gentleman-- who pushed through
the Maria Syphax Bill were filled, however, with the sentiment of noble
This post-Civil War government, at great expense to the
nation, had liberated four million souls from the jaws of a
cruel and unjust system directed by greedy and pompous Southern
slaveholders. If one of these slaveholders, e.g., George
Washington Parke Custis, was gracious enough
to free and to grant land (held for forty years) to a former subject, how crass indeed, hypocritical, even, that a government
of liberation seize and hold the land of a much put upon, though
freed, Negro woman. Of course, as men of taste and breeding,
they skirted around the issue of whether Maria Carter Syphax (1803-1886)
indeed the daughter of George Washington Parke Custis
[1781-1857]. Those were times discretion was the measure
of a gentleman.
The sexual immorality of slave society was usually a topic
left to white female abolitionists, who, at times, also believed
that some of these slave women generated enticements, however
unintentional. To charge a gentleman of keeping a bawdy house is
a grave charge, for he who lives in the clouds. For less,
men have been called onto the field of battle, if not the field
So this be the cultural norm, Sterling Brown must be viewed then as a provocateur
when he suggests that, though George Washington may indeed have
been a wise and just, courageous and upright, gracious and kind, statesman and
Father of our Nation, Washington did not exercise sufficient
moral control over his adopted son to dissuade him from taking sexual
advantage (a kind of rape) of a defenseless female slave in his
own household at Mount Vernon.
To insinuate Washington was complicit in a crime against
humanity is rough fare.
America, disappointedly, has never had its Truth and
Reconciliation process, for the sins of our Fathers and their
sons. To reconcile, telling truth is necessary. Pardon cannot be
if one conceals truth. Uncovering publicly our sins is
of no small import. To uncover another's sin is even worse.
Sterling Brown pointed a black finger at the
sins of the Fathers. According to Sterling, "I stated, oh
quite casually, that George Washington Parke Custis had
a colored daughter." This surreptitious act
discovers the sins of the nation's first family, namely, that of
George Washington, the nation's first president. Despite Florence
Kerr's mask of innocence or cover-up, Sterling Brown wrote
much more than "a single phrase in a book of 1141
pages." His "single phrase" was a boulder
disguised as a grain of sand.
Beneath the official rhetoric, the nation
argued the virtues of Ham and Noah -- Ham shaming his father. Spreading the news
about his father's nakedness, his sexual improprieties.
Doubtless, blacks and whites, as they say, need to dialogue.
A willingness indeed exist on all sides. The lag or drag is the
how without annoyance, offense, or uneasiness. That's the cut
that continuously sustains avoidance. Sterling's aim was not to
discuss miscegenation, though a scholarly topic, he just wanted
to slip "casually" in his article "The Negro in
Washington," a "single phrase in a book of 1141
pages." Its full discussion was not one that the Federal
Writers' program was willing to undertake. The FWP was an
employment agency for writers and artists, not an agency
mandated and geared to challenge the mores and memory of
Americans. Sterling Brown understood that as well as anyone.
African Americans as individuals remain aliens in the
imaginary landscape of most Americans, those whom Thomas Merton
described as ones whose "deep springs" are
"poisoned by self-worship, dread, and hate." We --
blacks and whites -- live
in two different Americas, two histories, two visions of America,
a chasm between us, urges that
continuously stir the poison.
We love the home run, the no-hitter, the no come-back. We
love to win. No room for give and take in matters of the soul.
Was this "single phrase in a book of 1141 pages"
Sterling Brown's no-hitter, his home run against the forces of
narrow mindedness and the whitewashers of history?
* * * *
When Maria Syphax (1803-1886) was born George
Washington Parke Custis (1781-1857) was about twenty-two -- a
man more possessed by his hormones than by discretion. Both
George and Martha had just passed away, respectively,
1799 and 1802. That Custis was both then the lord of Mt. Vernon
and Arlington was understated in the FWP account.
Brown however suggested that Custis was not a
George Washington: he sent Alsberg a description
of Custis' early years. President Smith wrote
Washington of Custis,
after he was ejected from Princeton College in Philadelphia,
"I have discovered an almost unconquerable disposition to
indolence in everything that did not tend to his amusements; and
have exhorted him in the most tender and parental manner often,
to devote his time to more useful pursuits."
Custis was then enrolled in St. John's of
Annapolis. But "indolence" seems to have been a
disease that Custis was not ready to dismiss easily . There, in
Annapolis, Custis was "devoting much time and paying
much attention to a certain young lady."
Warning his sixteen-year-old son, George
Washington wrote Custis "this is not a
time for a boy of your age to enter into engagements which
might end in sorrow and repentance."
In that higher learning was not able to win
Custis, his father thus
encouraged him to join the army. Major General Charles Cotesworth Pinckney
"took upon his staff young Custis," then about
eighteen, in 1799, and commissioned a colonel. What Custis
achieved in the military, I suspect, was slight. Having passed
on to a better world, Washington (1799) and Mrs. Washington
(1802) were understandingly not present for the birth (1803) of
their "colored granddaughter," Maria Carter, later
A letter written to the Editor of the N.Y.
19, 1859, "A Citizen,"
pointed out, "The
children Custis had by his slave women numbered
fifteen." Whether Custis began his delightful chores among
the household staff before
his mother (Martha) and father (George) died is uncertain. This Tribune
report as others purportedly stated cast shadows of sexual immorality
over Custis. But this stuff of rumors and gossip -- oral
tales put to a writing -- cannot be sustained by facts.
E. Delorus Preston, Jr. spoke
also of Custis fondness for the slave ladies, directly, in his
William Syphax article. Custis, according to Preston, showed
"an interest out of all proportion" to "his
female servants" to "those motives actuated by humanitarian
impulses." Custis, not only freed Maria and her two
children, but also, according to Preston, "freed Louisa, the daughter of his servant Judith,
on the 5th of April, 1803; John, the son of Judith; the children
of Olney, in 1818."
In an obituary The National Intelligencer (1857) George Washington
Parke Custis and his life invited much kinder and nobler
thoughts than either those of Sterling Brown or E. Delorus Preston,
Jr. with their smutty charges of indolence and moral looseness
with the female slaves of Mt. Vernon and Arlington:
Mr. Custis was distinguished by an original genius for eloquence, poetry,
and the fine arts; by a knowledge of history,
particularly the history of this country; for great
powers of conversation, for an ever-ready and generous
hospitality, for kindness to the poor, for patriotism,
for constancy of friendship, and for more than a filial
devotion to the memory and character of Washington
Not too much unlike Brown, Mr. Custis was also an elitist --
artist, poet, playwright, and historian. Both Brown and Custis
were promoters -- Brown, the folk culture and a full and
meaningful historical interpretation of the relationship of the
races; Custis, his father George Washington, and his legend, as
the Father of the Nation.
In a memo
to Alsberg concerning Keefe's charges made on the
congressional floor, Brown divides his argument into five parts.
His denial of being a communist is taken on first; his lack of a
prompt written response to Mr. Keefe he acknowledges as "procrastination due to a heavy schedule."
But the very heart of Brown's argument is found in his number 3:
I certainly intended no slander. A white father's
caring for his Negro children was, according to my
research on the subject, not unknown but somewhat
unusual in those days. In my opinion it merits
commendation and was certainly written of in a spirit
opposite to "viciousness."
I certainly did not intend the sentence to
"destroy the character and reputation of . . . the
family and household of George and Martha Washington and
Robert E. Lee."
I am affixing a statement setting forth what I
considered proof of the relationship.
The most favorable interpretation of the
"incidental" sentence would not suggest that the
author intended it to relate a "commendation" to the
wondrous acts of George Washington Parke Custis. The charges of
an intent to "destroy the character and reputation" of
the Washingtons, Custises, and Lees are excessive, but it seems
that one can make a reasonable argument that the
"incidental" remark of the relations of Custis and the
Syphaxes was indeed intended to tarnish the name of Washington
and generate a revision of official history.
In the 2nd
memo to Alsberg, Brown finally admits, "Genealogy, of course, is proverbially a field where
certainty is difficult. . . . documentary proof of parentage
[is] difficult to obtain" in the South. Much of Brown
evidence is circumstantial, facts interpreted in a shadowy and
incriminating light. Brown wrote further:
Oral tradition among the descendants has it that
Maria Syphax was a favorite of the Lees and well as of
Custis, that she was married in the parlor of the
mansion, that her marriage to Charles Syphax, a darker
Negro, was frowned upon by Custis. They think that the
dislike for Charles persisted and was the chief cause
why Custis would not set him free.
Another possible reason that Charles might not have
been set free was he would be required to leave the state of
Virginia, and thus his wife and children. It is quite possible
that Maria Syphax was freed in word only in that such
manumission papers were never found. The Custis-Syphax was
indeed a special one in all of its facets.
The core of Brown's
argument is the view that oral history can be factual history,
as valid proof as official documents or histories. His position
is reflective of class divisions indeed, at odds with each other
over the centuries-- the perspective of the ruler (conqueror)
and the ruled (conquered). Did the Marxist dialectic go into
Sterling Brown's analysis? Maybe it did, unconsciously. But it
is indeed clear that Brown was antagonistic toward the status
quo of race relations and would place all of his weight on the
notion that "notoriety of tradition is admissible as
evidence." None before now decided to debate
the conclusion of the Cutsis paternity in private or in public,
according to Brown. But no one had tried to make it an official
statement of the government, either.
But one could also point
to Custis for testimony. His made clear indeed what children he
felt to be his own and to whom his wealth would devolve:
I give and bequeath to my dearly beloved daughter and only
child, Mary Ann Randolph Lee, my Arlington House estate, in the
county of Alexandria and State of Virginia, eleven hundred
acres, more or less, and my mill on Four-Mile Run, in the county
of Alexandria, and the lands of mine adjacent to said mill, in
the counties of Alexandria and Fairfax, in the State of
Virginia, the use and benefit of all just mentioned during the
term of her natural life, together with my horses and carriages,
furniture, pictures, and plate, during the term of her natural
life. [my italics]
In short, Custis denied publicly that Maria Carter Syphax was
his child: his "only child" was Mary Ann Randolph Lee.
The Syphaxes, except for Charles by Robert E. Lee, were given
nothing official by Cutsis himself. That was left to the 1866
It is regrettable that Sterling Brown, it seems, did not
further delve into the peculiar story of Mary Syphax and
meditate on it and the problematic of American miscegenation.
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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.
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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