An Archival Search for Sterling Brown

An Archival Search for Sterling Brown


ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes



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.



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 4:

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 )

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 obligation. 

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) was 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 of honor. 

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?

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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 Syphax.

A letter written to the Editor of the N.Y. Tribune, June 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 Congress.

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 White Masters of the World

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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

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery /

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The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg

The Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804  / January 1, 1804 — The Founding of Haiti 

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posted 29 June 2008




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