African American Poetry (1870-1928): A Digital Anthology

Benjamin Griffith Brawley (Benjamin Brawley), Author Page

This profile of Benjamin Griffith Brawley was written by Kate Hennessey, Lehigh University, February, 2024. 

Poems and collections by Benjamin Griffith Brawley. 

Benjamin Griffith Brawley was born on April 22, 1882, in Columbia, South Carolina. He was born into a well-educated, middle class family to his father, Edward McKnight Brawley, who was born as a freeman in Charleston, South Carolina and became a minister and educator. His job caused the family to move around often, so Brawley was raised in both Nashville, Tennessee and Petersburg, Virginia. His mother, Margaret Saphronia Dickerson Brawley, also made sure to read Biblical stories and verse to Brawley as a child and his father taught him Latin and classical stories.


Brawley was an accomplished student at the Atlanta Baptist Seminary school (later Morehouse College) where he graduated with a BA in 1901. He also received a BA from the University of Chicago in 1906 and a MA from Harvard in 1908. Brawley went on to teach at Atlanta Baptist Seminary and became a dean there from 1912-1920. He also taught at Howard University, where he met his wife Hilda Damaris Prowd and married her in 1910. After working as a dean at Atlanta Baptist Seminary, Brawley visited the Republic of Liberia in Africa for an educational survey and briefly became a minister in Boston, but soon returned to teaching at Shaw University. In 1931 he returned to Howard University until his death on February 1, 1931, from a stroke. During his career as a teacher and literary scholar, Brawley was celebrated by students and critics alike for his excellence and scholarship that focused on the African American experience in both literature and history. 


While Brawley is most celebrated and remembered for his prose on literary history, he also published multiple collections of poetry. In 1902, Brawley published A Toast for Eggs for Breakfast through Atlanta Baptist Seminary. Three years later, Brawley released The Problem and Other Poems (1905) with the same publisher. 


Brawley’s interest in the intersection of creative writing and politics started very young and resulted in him and another student at the Seminary founding the student journal, The Athenaeum (later The Maroon Tiger). In this journal, at 17 years old, Brawley published the poem “A Prayer” in response to a lynching in Georgia. Brawley continued writing about the plight of African Americans by identifying “The Problem” in his collection title as the hypocrisy of men who signed and uphold the Declaration of Independence while also maintaining and profiting from slavery. For more powerful articulations of the experience of slavery see: “Freedom on the Free;” “The Slaver;” “The Law.” 


Perhaps most well-known for his teaching abilities, Brawley maintained the importance of Greek and Latin in his classroom pedagogy. His poem “The Education” pays homage to classical figures like Homer, Socrates, and Homer. In “The Peon’s Child,” Brawley critiques the lack of education that African American children have received because of forced child labor. 


In his biography of Brawley, John Parker describes him as a “Christian idealist,” which appears in his sense of optimism for the future of African Americans in poems such as: “My Creed” and “The Play.” Perhaps his most optimistic, “The Dawn” was published a year before his Poems collection and portrays a vision of a rebirth of mankind. 


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