Archival Search for Sterling Brown, Part 2

Archival Search for Sterling Brown, Part 2


ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes



The idea of creating books on the Negro, with a Negro perspective (or sensitivity),

seems to have been a goal that grew gradually after the employment of Negro writers.

We get some sense of this from the 1936 Brown letter to Roscoe E. Lewis:




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

Joanne,Gabbin. Sterling A. Brown: Building the Black Aesthetic Tradition (1994)

John Edgar Tidwell, Sterling A. Brown’s A Negro Looks at the South (2007)

Charles Rowell. 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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Part 2:

An Archival Search for Sterling Brown

Maria Syphax, Historical Revision, or a Communist Plot

By Rudolph Lewis


(Part 1 and Part 2 and Part 3 and Part 4 ))

Before I began my Sterling Brown search, I had three pieces of correspondence between Brown and Marcus Bruce Christian. The first made a Request for Historical Material on New Orleans and the cooperation of Christian, one of the Dillard Projects most knowledgeable Negro editors. The second letter detailed the Assignment, specifying the Louisiana folk material that most interested Brown. The third letter was one of thanks for the history material . All three letters were written between September and December 1937, which suggests the material was in the Dillard office or at Christian’s finger tips, but needed an editor to put it into some usable order and provide documentation.

I was not able to find the material Christian sent Brown, neither at the National Archives, which would have ordinarily kept the files of a government agency, nor at The Library of Congress, where materials from the project were eventually sent and organized. Individuals from the Writers’ Project argued that the intent of the Writers’ Project was to develop research materials that could be usable by the general public. Seemingly, the Louisiana material from the project had indeed been used, but not returned. 

This emptiness of the Louisiana files and the seemingly loss of the Christian materials sent Brown led me to Brown’s papers at Howard University’s Spingarn-Moorland Archives. I then stumbled onto the Syphax Case, which was eventually brought to the floor of the Congress and the Senate (see file titled: “W.P.A. Guidebook Arouses Fuss” ). Sterling Brown, matter-of-factly, stated as an “incidental” that George Washington Parke Custis (1781-1857) had a colored daughter Maria Syphax (1803-1886), to which Franke B. Keefe, Congressman from Wisconsin, wrote to Brown a letter requesting the evidence for his conclusion and to which Keefe disagreed vehemently in public that there were facts to sustain such a conclusion.

Like Franke B. Keefe, many Republicans were against Franklin D. Roosevelt and his policies which allowed government intrusion into America’s economy. The primary task of the writers’ project was the employment of writers. According to the figures of Congressman Keefe the project had “cost the taxpayers of the Nation since the summer of 1935 through February 28, 1939, $15,016,632.”

Initially, the Negro writer, of which many were ignorant, was overlooked in the state organizations of the Federal Writers’ Project. When opposition rose, the FWP attempted immediately to correct the oversight and Negro writers were employed in the states. Some states however created separate divisions to accommodate them. Several of these state Negro divisions saw eventually as their primary task the production of state histories of the Negro — The Negro in Virginia, The Negro in Illinois, and there was one planned for the Negro in Louisiana. This manuscript was last worked on by Marcus Christian but was never published.

Arna Bontemps, I believe, was in charge of the Negro project in Illinois and Roscoe E. Lewis was responsible for the Virginia Negro project and the publication of its book. The idea of creating books on the Negro, with a Negro perspective (or sensitivity), seems to have been a goal that grew gradually after the employment of Negro writers. We get some sense of this from the 1936 Brown letter to Roscoe E. Lewis:

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September 4, 1936 

To: Roscoe E. Lewis

I recommended your appointment, Alsberg asked me volunteer or hired, I told him hired — so far it seems they will ask for you part-time from Hampton, and give you a staff of five or six.

One last thing: Alsberg wants some guarantee that the product of this new project should not be cast [against] the Virginia broom sedge, but that it stands a reasonable chance for publication. I told him that I had not known of such an eventuality, that my [greatest] concern had been to get Negro material collected and Negro workers employed.

I am to talk to him today about this publishing end. In the meanwhile, find out for me the director of the Hampton Press, and any other publishing houses in the state.

[People who qualify to Virginia project]

Ernest A. Finney, South Hill

Mrs. Evelyn Latham, Richmond

Miss Thelma Dunston, Portsmouth

Milton L. Randolph, Richmond

David R. Haggard. Norfolk


[Sterling A. Brown]


Federal Writers Project

(Black Division)

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Beyond employment of Negro writers and the collection of Negro materials, Brown nor other black writers  had seemingly given no thought to publishing books from collected material. The idea seems to have arisen with the FWP director, Henry Alsberg, seemingly as a bureaucratic means to substantiate the work and the cost of this WPA program, and the addition of Negro writers. 

In its initial goals, the FWP was of such critical import that Alain Locke, professor of Philosophy at Howard, was willing to lend his name and reputation to its continued  congressional support:

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To: Honorable Frederick Taylor, Chairman

Subcommittee of the House on Appropriations

Washington, D.C.

May 10, 1939

From: Alain Locke

Howard University

The Writers’ Project [there were Arts and theater projects] under the direction of Henry Alsbery has not only given employment to about 200 well-trained Negroes, but has prepared historical, folklore, and literary materials of the greatest importance both to Negroes and the documentation of regional American culture. Future generations, in additional to ourselves, will benefit through such work, and its inspirational value on a handicapped group is not to be underestimated.

I can and willingly will, if your committee so desires, testify in some detail on the above matters; but whether called or not, request this letter be included in your investigation records.

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A Guggenheim Fellow (1937), Sterling Brown must have kept his Howard colleague well-informed of the progress of the Negro relationship to the FWP and its rising financial woes with Congress. Locke wrote his letter a month after Brown had attempted to defend himself to Alsberg against the charges made by Franke B. Keefe on the floor of Congress. 

We will turn to those two memos for a review momentarily. In the first memo to Alsberg, Brown defends himself against what he views as the specifics of Keefe’s charges. In the second memo Brown attempts to provide the proof that Maria Syphax (1803-1886) was indeed the colored daughter of George Washington Parke Custis (1781-1857). 

Neither memo is thoroughly convincing. The government’s position presently (2004) is that which was stated by Keefe, that is, Maria Syphax was the “daughter of two old retainers who had served his [Custis’] grandmother [Martha Washington] and George Washington for many, many years.” 

*   *   *   *   *’s 25 Best Selling Books

For July 1st through August 31st 2011  


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#16 – The Future Has a Past: Stories by J. California Cooper

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#18 – Purple Panties: An Anthology by Sidney Molare

#19 – Stackin’ Paper by Joy King

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#25 – I Dreamt I Was in Heaven – The Rampage of the Rufus Buck Gang by Leonce Gaiter


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#10 – John Henrik Clarke and the Power of Africana History  by Ahati N. N. Toure

#11 – Fail Up: 20 Lessons on Building Success from Failure by Tavis Smiley

#12 –The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander

#13 – The Black Male Handbook: A Blueprint for Life by Kevin Powell

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*   *   *   *   *

Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America

By Melissa V. Harris-Perry

According to the author, this society has historically exerted considerable pressure on black females to fit into one of a handful of stereotypes, primarily, the Mammy, the Matriarch or the Jezebel.  The selfless Mammy’s behavior is marked by a slavish devotion to white folks’ domestic concerns, often at the expense of those of her own family’s needs. By contrast, the relatively-hedonistic Jezebel is a sexually-insatiable temptress. And the Matriarch is generally thought of as an emasculating figure who denigrates black men, ala the characters Sapphire and Aunt Esther on the television shows Amos and Andy and Sanford and Son, respectively.     

Professor Perry points out how the propagation of these harmful myths have served the mainstream culture well. For instance, the Mammy suggests that it is almost second nature for black females to feel a maternal instinct towards Caucasian babies.

As for the source of the Jezebel, black women had no control over their own bodies during slavery given that they were being auctioned off and bred to maximize profits. Nonetheless, it was in the interest of plantation owners to propagate the lie that sisters were sluts inclined to mate indiscriminately.


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Weep Not, Child

By Ngugi wa Thiong’o

This is a powerful, moving story that details the effects of the infamous Mau Mau war, the African nationalist revolt against colonial oppression in Kenya, on the lives of ordinary men and women, and on one family in particular. Two brothers, Njoroge and Kamau, stand on a rubbish heap and look into their futures. Njoroge is excited; his family has decided that he will attend school, while Kamau will train to be a carpenter. Together they will serve their country—the teacher and the craftsman. But this is Kenya and the times are against them. In the forests, the Mau Mau is waging war against the white government, and the two brothers and their family need to decide where their loyalties lie. For the practical Kamau the choice is simple, but for Njoroge the scholar, the dream of progress through learning is a hard one to give up.—Penguin 

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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

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posted 29 June 2008 




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