Reference Entry

Brawley, Benjamin

Jean Ballard Terepka

in Encyclopedia of African American History, 1896 to the Present: From the Age of Segregation to the Twenty-first Century

Published in print January 2009 | ISBN: 9780195167795
Brawley, Benjamin

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educator, social historian, and literary critic. The son of a prominent Baptist minister, Benjamin Griffith Brawley demonstrated a precocious zeal for formal learning and had already studied Greek, Latin, Victor Hugo, and Shakespeare when he entered Atlanta Baptist College (subsequently Morehouse College) at the age of thirteen. After a brief stint teaching in a one-room schoolhouse in Florida, Brawley returned to Morehouse as an English instructor and simultaneously pursued further academic training in white universities, as did many early-twentieth-century African American intellectuals. He earned a second bachelor's degree from the University of Chicago (1906) and a master's degree from Harvard University (1908). Brawley held significant academic positions at Morehouse College (1902–1910, 1912–1920), Shaw University (1923–1931), and Howard University (1910–1912, 1931–1939). He wrote prolifically about African American history and artistic and literary accomplishments from the colonial era to his own time. Brawley's long academic career was interrupted only once, in 1920–1922, when he traveled to Liberia to examine and report on that country's society and then lived briefly in Boston, where he was ordained a Baptist minister.As a narrator of the historical past, Brawley focused on the triumphs of the African American over the violent humiliations of slavery and the degradations of the Jim Crow era; he described universally praiseworthy accomplishments of African American heroes and heroines. Writing for a white audience in 1918, Brawley asserted in Your Negro Neighbor, “The Negro daily suffers indignities as make the very words Liberty and Democracy a travesty,” and concluded, “We call upon our country for a new consecration—to law, to order, to justice” (n.p.). His A Social History of the American Negro (1921) and The Negro in Literature and Art in the United States (1918) presented accounts of African American gifts and achievements designed to be inspiring to whites and African Americans alike. Strongly influenced by W. E. B. Du Bois's notion of the Talented Tenth and impressed by the standards and mores of the black intellectual elite of which he became a part by his early twenties, Brawley reiterated his understanding of the New Negro's opportunities and responsibilities in many books and articles; his fundamental views did not change even as younger African American critics and writers began to reject them.Adhering to increasingly outdated anthropological notions of race character, Brawley identified the particular gifts of African Americans as lying in the creative arts. He exhorted poets and novelists to reveal the nobility of the Negro race by striving to achieve the beauty and elegance of Dante, Shakespeare, and Milton. Brawley decried the development of experimental free verse and the exploration of themes and stories of the urban lower classes.By the late 1920s Brawley was increasingly perceived by innovative writers and intellectuals of the Harlem Renaissance as trenchantly conservative. “Brawleyism” came to stand for rigidly genteel pedantry. Brawley, in turn disturbed by the works of the “new realists,” excoriated their pernicious low literary standards and coarse sensationalism. In addition he lamented the culturally skewed focus on Harlem that celebrated lurid jazz and gin parties and elevated the life of the cabaret to a “fetish” while ignoring the steady and productive lives of other African Americans in other places.Brawley's difficult estrangement from intellectual leaders of the Harlem Renaissance was clear in his 1928 refusal to accept the second place Harmon Award for excellence in education. Believing that most previous winners had produced only mediocre work, he chose not to be associated with the prize.Though contentiousness characterized Brawley's dealings with many Harlem writers in the last fifteen years of his life, respect for his academic leadership and scholarship in the African American educational community was deep. With John Hope and Samuel Howard Archer, Brawley oversaw the development and expansion of a rigorous classical humanist education at Morehouse College. Academic colleagues and students appraised his teaching career positively and noted that in all situations he conducted himself according to principles of Christian idealism and justice. Brawley's career sheds useful light on the tensions between the generation of African American intellectuals trained primarily in the late-nineteenth-century southern historically black colleges and universities, on the one hand, and the younger generation of artists, writers, and activists working in the rapidly changing urban environment of Harlem between the world wars, on the other.

Reference Entry.  870 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: History

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