After Sterling

For a long time now, I’ve been working on a poem that draws upon the African-American poet, Sterling Brown’s, association with North Laurel, in southeastern Howard County, Maryland– the community where I live.  Brown’s family had a farm off Whiskey Bottom Road, just up the road from my subdivision.  His poem, After Winter, is set on the farm, which he visited as a boy.  In Brown’s day, the area that became North Laurel was rural.  The land on which my subdivision encompassed an African-American community which had origins as a Freedman’s town.  The school that served the community was located near the intersection of what are now Whiskey Bottom and Stephens Roads.  It eventually was used as a residence, and not long after a group of us finally got the County to recognize its existence and put in on a register of historic buildings, it was torn down by a developer to make way for new houses.

For much of its recent history, North Laurel was predominantly blue collar and lower income, with a large concentration of apartments.  More recently (since the late 1980s), housing for middle- and upper-income families has been built, all of which has served to change the demographics of the community.  It’s a racially and ethnically diverse community, with all levels of income and educational attainment.  The past few years have seen commercial development, with office buildings rising in the vicinity of where the Brown’s farm would have been located.  And, as part of that development, the developer (the Rouse Corporation) and the County named the road leading to the office buildings Sterling Drive.  I am not sure, though, how many people in North Laurel even know about Sterling Brown and his connection to the community, and thus don’t realize the meaning of the name.

Here’s my poem (which is draft #9 and perhaps not the last draft).  The poem’s reference to butter beans, radishes and lettuce, eggplants and beets is from After Winter.


AFTER STERLING

(with acknowledgment to Sterling Brown’s After Winter)

Grass grows where plows once cut.
Buildings rise from the fields where you ran.
But, here in these North Laurel woods
I imagine there are butter beans,
radishes and lettuce, eggplants and beets
to remind us of you, Sterling Brown,
and the words that you found
in the fields and the streets
giving dignity and voice to hardworking folks.

The rural place you knew is gone.
Harmony Lane (or what remains)
no longer leads to the Freedman’s town,
its small frame houses lost
to rising values of land.
The old schoolhouse was torn down
to make way for more homes.
In this county, history lives
to the north and the west.
Down here, our memories
have been bulldozed and paved,
the past left only in the names of roads,
including the one they named after you.

There is still much here that you’d recognize.
People still make their way
through life’s weariness and joy,
the defeats that grind some down,
determination and will that push some to rise.
Race and class still divide
(though in more subtle form),
push some to the margins,
and keep us all from being whole.

Sterling, I ask you now: where is our poet
to bring us words from the streets?
Who will sing the stories
that get down deep in our souls?

I hear your answer as I walk through these woods:
We are the poets.
We sing the calls that demand a response.
And I will say what you always knew—
That a poet is more than a name on the road
that leads to where the butter beans grew.

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