Sterling Plumpp

(b. 1940)

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(b. 1940), poet, educator, editor, and critic.

Writing “tales of who I am” (Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, vol. 21, 1995), Sterling Plumpp struggles to create the homeland of the spirit that accidents of birth—racial and economic—and what might be called accidents of destiny—the deaths of loved ones, the historical changes that have swept the African American and world community since his birth—have denied him. Yet his poems have far more than autobiographical resonance, not only because of the allusive, lyrical language in which he writes his best work, but because his quest for identity resonates with the surrounding struggle for freedom of the African American community during the civil rights movement and its aftermath, and, especially in poems chronicling his experiences in Africa, with the struggle during the same years of colonized peoples for national sovereignty.

Sterling Plumpp was born to unmarried parents on 30 January 1940 in Clinton, Mississippi. His maternal grandparents raised him on the cotton plantation where his grandfather, Victor Emmanuel Plumpp, labored as a sharecropper. At age seven, a year before he started school, he joined his grandfather, an older brother, and other relatives in the fields picking cotton, but no amount of work was sufficient to raise the family out of debt. Listening to his grandparents' nightly prayers, Plumpp learned that one “could use words to petition for a different reality.”

The full power of religion struck him in 1951 in a local evangelical church, when the force of a singer's voice prompted him to march to the altar to signify a conversion that soon, however, had to compete with budding adolescent interests. One of the abrupt psychological blows the South could deliver came in 1954, when news of Emmett Till's murder for flirting with a white woman traumatized Plumpp and others of his generation. At sixteen, Plumpp converted to Catholicism, and, throughout high school, cast about for a way to escape the dangers of Jim Crow. Success took the form of an academic scholarship to St. Benedict's College in Atchison, Kansas.

There he had a new kind of conversion experience when he discovered Greek literature and James Baldwin, whose “Sonny's Blues” inspired Plumpp to become a writer. After two years, yearning to write and feeling cut off from black culture, Plumpp left St. Benedict's and traveled north to Chicago.

He found work there in the main post office, read and tried to write in his off hours, and eventually enrolled at Roosevelt University, where he majored in psychology. After completing his bachelor's degree, he enrolled in a graduate program in clinical psychology, but continued to read widely—everything from Amiri Baraka to Jean-Paul Sartre, and, of course, Baldwin, whose The Fire Next Time (1963) struck Plumpp like a thunderbolt—and immersed himself in music. During a “nightmarish” 1964–1965 interlude in the U.S. army, such books were his window to the outside world.

He published his first book, Portable Soul, in 1969, offering poems that drew on the language of the Black Power movement, but also began to construct the vocabulary for Plumpp's tales of identity. Publication led to a job teaching African American studies at the Chicago campus of the University of Illinois, where Plumpp became a full professor teaching both literature and creative writing.


Subjects: Literature.

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