Born on 30 January 1940, poet Sterling D. Plumpp grew up on a tenant farm in Clinton, Mississippi. His family moved to Jackson in 1954. As a child, Plumpp tended cotton and corn and anticipated a future in the fields. However, his aunt used her bootlegging money to send Plumpp to Jackson’s Holy Ghost High School in Jackson. With the help of a scholarship, he attended St. Benedict’s College in Atchison, Kansas, for two years. He began to read James Baldwin’s works, which prompted him to experiment with writing. In 1962 Plumpp hitchhiked to Chicago to study psychology at Roosevelt University. Following the example of other Mississippi writers, Plumpp worked in a Chicago post office while writing poetry. He was drafted and served in the US Army from 1964 to 1965. He then returned to Roosevelt University, earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees in psychology.
In 1969 Plumpp published his first book of poetry, Portable Soul, which reflects the upheavals of the time. He followed with more books of poetry as well as prose and essays. Most of his writings are grounded in Mississippi or elsewhere in the South, and he examines the African American experience through psychology, perseverance, and adaptation in a changing world. He is best known for his blues and jazz poetry, as in Blues: The Story Always Untold (1989), Horn Man (1995), and Home/Bass: Poems (2013). His works fuse blues and jazz rhythms with poetic insight, bringing to life the vernacular landscape of African American poetry. Plumpp also edited Somehow We Survive: An Anthology of South African Writing (1982), as an antiapartheid gesture. His Johannesburg and Other Poems (1993) compares the African American and South African realities.
Plumpp taught English and African American studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago from 1971 until his retirement in December 2001. He has subsequently traveled in South Africa and Mississippi, conducting workshops and teaching part-time. He has also worked as an editor for Third World Press and the Institute for Positive Education, served as poet in residence at Evanston School in Illinois, directed the Young Writer’s Workshop for Urban Gateways, and been a visiting professor at Chicago State University. He has tirelessly supported and encouraged aspiring writers.
Plumpp’s poems and his prose work, Black Rituals (1972), have won three Illinois Arts Council Literary Awards. The Mojo Hands Call, I Must Go (1982) received the 1983 Carl Sandburg Literary Award. Plumpp also earned the 1999 Richard Wright Literary Excellence Award. Other notable works by Plumpp include Half Black, Half Blacker (1970), Muslim Men (1972), Steps to Break the Circle (1974), Clinton (1976), and Ornate with Smoke (1997).
- Dorothy Abbott, ed., Mississippi Writers: Reflections of Childhood and Youth (1988)
- Poetry Foundation website, www.poetryfoundation.org
- History Makers website, www.thehistorymakers.com
- Sterling Plumpp Collection, Department of Archives and Special Collections, J. D. Williams Library, University of Mississippi
- John Zheng, ed., Conversations with Sterling Plumpp (2016)