Brawley, Benjamin


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(1882–1939), educator, historian, and critic.

As was customary for many black intellectuals during his day, Benjamin Brawley received two college degrees—one from a black institution and one from a predominantly white school. As a graduate of Morehouse College in Atlanta, he was very much influenced by the city's black elite and notion of a “talented tenth.” As a graduate of the University of Chicago, he placed a great deal of emphasis upon the life of the mind. After receiving an MA degree from Harvard University, Brawley spent the remainder of his life as a college teacher, historian, and literary critic. Positions at Shaw University and More-house College ultimately led to his appointment at Howard University, where he served as the head of the English department.

Brawley was a prolific writer. His essays appeared in the leading journals of his day, and such books as A Social History of the American Negro (1921), Early Negro American Writers (1935), Paul Laurence Dunbar: Poet of His People (1936), and The Negro Genius (1937) as well as the many editions of The Negro in Literature and Art in the United States give a sense of both the range and the limitations of his scholarship.

Brawley's literary criticism has created tensions within some black communities. Just before his death, he was subjected to a great deal of censure for being too bourgeois. Among some of the younger critics, “Brawleyism” came to signify a type of genteel spirit in life and scholarship that some members of the Harlem Renaissance found objectionable. He, however, found them to be offensive because he thought the renaissance writers emphasized the underclass too much. As a result he took the writers of the Harlem Renaissance to task because he felt they stressed the unusual and the exotic. In his opinion their association with the latter represented “one of the most brazen examples of salesmanship in the United States.” He was intent upon defining African American life in terms of its success stories, its heroes, and its similarities to the dominant American culture.

As a critic Brawley searched for a means to relate African American literature to mainstream American and British literature. Yet he found much that was objectionable in modern literature. Like William Stanley Braithwaite, whose work he admired, Brawley thought free verse lacked meaning and significance because it did not have an identifiable traditional form. He also felt that verse should not generally deal with overt protest. This stance excluded a great deal of the poetry of the Harlem Renaissance. However, it must be said in Brawley's defense that he exhibited impeccable taste in writing and was an excellent stylist. Even though later scholarship has revealed material unavailable to him when he was writing, his studies of African American literature remain perceptive and comprehensive.

Saunders Redding, “Benjamin Griffith Brawley,” in DANB, eds. Rayford W. Logan and Michael R. Winston, 1982, pp. 60–61.Steven J. Leslie, “Benjamin Brawley,” in Encyclopedia of African American Culture and History, eds. Jack Saltzman, David Lionel Smith, and Cornel West, 1996, pp. 427–428.


Subjects: Literature — United States History.

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