Brown was born May 1, 1901 in Washington D.C. He earned his Bachelor of Arts degree, Phi Beta Kappa, from Williams College in 1922 and his Master of Arts degree from Harvard University in 1923. Brown began his teaching career at several universities before moving to Howard University in 1929 where he taught until his retirement in 1969.
Brown published his first book of poetry, “Southern Road,” in 1933. Although that work was praised at the time, he was unable to find a publisher for his second volume and did not publish any new poetry until 1975. His poetic work was influenced in content, form, and cadence by African American music and often dealt with race and class in the United States. Brown’s 1937 works “The Negro in American Fiction” and “Negro Poetry and Drama” are considered foundation texts for the study of African American literary history. In 1984, the District of Columbia named Brown its first poet laureate, a position he held until his death.