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Sterling A. Brown's "Southern Cop"

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.

Introduction and Text of "Southern Cop"

Sterling A. Brown's widely anthologized poem, "Southern Cop," features the following scene: a rookie cop named Ty Kendricks has shot a black* man who was running out of an alley. The poem does not report why the man was running nor why the police officer happened to be at the scene. However, the report clearly opines that the black man's reason for running was not because of any guilt on his part. Remember that one is innocent until proven guilty applies to all citizens.

(*Poet Sterling A. Brown (1901-1989) employed the term, "Negro." Brown was writing several decades before 1988, the year that Rev. Jesse Jackson persuaded Americans to adopt the term, "African American.”)

The speaker of the poem purports to represent the outraged citizenry, whose emotional reaction is so powerful that the speaker deems that he must turn to verbal irony in order to convey that outrage.

The outraged speaker assumes that his African American audience is as offended as he is. But he also assumes that a racist audience will take him seriously, even though taking him at face value would demonstrate the utter bankruptcy of his ludicrous exhortations: the very idea that just because Ty Kendricks was a rookie, who still had to prove himself, and that the citizenry should decorate him for shooting an innocent man shouts idiocy of the grandest proportion.

The idea is absolutely preposterous, yet the speaker does not suggest the course of action society should take in dealing with Ty Kendricks, the rookie cop, who likely made a mistake. What does this cop deserve? Who is to decide? An angry, disorderly mob?

The speaker's emotion becomes magnified with each stanza from the first line of the first stanza that would appear not to be ironic at all but quite literal to the first line of the last stanza that is undoubtedly filled with irony. The reader is at least half-way through the poem before beginning to detect that irony is being deployed. Nevertheless, to understand all of the intricacies of the poem the reader must become aware of the irony or the poem has no value.

Southern Cop

Let us forgive Ty Kendricks.
The place was Darktown. He was young.
His nerves were jittery. The day was hot.
The Negro ran out of the alley.
And so Ty shot.

Let us understand Ty Kendricks.
The Negro must have been dangerous.
Because he ran;
And here was a rookie with a chance
To prove himself a man.

Let us condone Ty Kendricks
If we cannot decorate.
When he found what the Negro was running for,
It was too late;
And all we can say for the Negro is
It was unfortunate.

Let us pity Ty Kendricks.
He has been through enough,
Standing there, his big gun smoking,
Rabbit-scared, alone,
Having to hear the wenches wail
And the dying Negro moan.

"Southern Cop" rendered in song

Commentary

This irony-filled drama portrays a bundle of anger, authority, rage, and racism. The attitude of the speaker weighs in at least as heavily as the actual event that the speaker is decrying.

Stanza 1: Forgiveness Is Good

Let us forgive Ty Kendricks.
The place was Darktown. He was young.
His nerves were jittery. The day was hot.
The Negro ran out of the alley.
And so Ty shot

The first stanza opens with the speaker seemingly quite controlled saying, "Let us forgive Ty Kendricks." The invocation of the Christian value of forgiveness offers no clue that the speaker would not, in fact, forgive this rookie cop. Of course, we all should forgive our trespassers as they forgive us.

However, in this particular scenario, what are we commanded to forgive? We are urged to forgive a rookie cop who shot an African American man because he was running out of an alley. We do not know why the man was running, nor what evidence the cop has for shooting—we are just asked to forgive the rookie.

Stanza 2: Understanding Is Also a Good Thing

Let us understand Ty Kendricks.
The Negro must have been dangerous.
Because he ran;
And here was a rookie with a chance
To prove himself a man.

Now we are commanded to "understand" the rookie cop. Of course, we should try to understand both the perpetrators of crime and the enforcers of law. Otherwise, justice cannot prevail without our understanding. But then we are apprised of what we are being commanded to forgive and to understand: the African American was surely dangerous/guilty because he was running. Not only that, the rookie Ty Kendricks now has the opportunity to show himself to be a man.

Because running does not equal guilt, and the notion of proving manhood by shooting someone is ludicrous, it now becomes clear that the speaker is engaging in irony to portray his true message. This speaker does not want us to forgive nor understand Ty Kendricks, the rookie cop.

What does the speaker hope to accomplish with his use of irony? He intends to brand Ty Kendricks a racist and elicit sympathy for the African American man shot by this cop.

Stanza 3: Condoning the Killing of an Innocent Man

Let us condone Ty Kendricks
If we cannot decorate.
When he found what the Negro was running for,
It was too late;
And all we can say for the Negro is
It was unfortunate.

Condoning this apparently despicable act of a rookie cop shooting an innocent victim becomes an almost laughable request. But because the speaker is engaging in irony, he does not intend his listeners to "condone" but instead to condemn the rookie cop.

The cop’s reaction of shooting the black man became just another "unfortunate" event by the time the cop learned the reason for the running black man. But what is the efficacy of forgiving, condoning, and decorating a cop for a bad shoot?

The ironic use of the terms means that the speaker is asking his listeners to hold grudge, to condemn, and likely to fire the rookie cop from his job. The speaker uses irony to place further emphasis on the despicable act of killing a possibly innocent man simply because he was running.

Stanza 4: Pity Them Both and Their Families

Let us pity Ty Kendricks.
He has been through enough,
Standing there, his big gun smoking,
Rabbit-scared, alone,
Having to hear the wenches wail
And the dying Negro moan.

Finally, the speaker returns to some semblance of humanity, asking his reader to "pity" this poor rookie cop. Of course, we should pity him. Taking the life of a fellow human being constitutes a serious, deeply spiritual offense against Creation and the Creator, even though that Creator has arranged Creation to require such offense at times. Even man’s law allows for self-defense.

But notice that the speaker is still in his own racist venue, as he applies his final acerbic barb of irony: he does not want his listeners/ readers to pity that rookie cop; instead, he wants his readers to pity only the family of the deceased "Negro": they stood there crying and moaning the loss of their loved one.

The speaker asks us to pity the rookie only because that rookie has to listen to that crying and moaning. By stating ironically that the pity should apply to Ty Kendricks and contrasting his situation with that of the black man and his family, the speaker is asserting that any loss suffered by Ty Kendrick cannot compare with the loss suffer by the black man and his family.

Brief Bio of Sterling A. Brown

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Questions & Answers

Question: You may want to update "A word on current events"?

Answer: You are correct! Thank you so much for the suggestion. Here is my update: Continuing Conflict Between Law Enforcement and the Citizenry

The truth about every event needs to be told, not just a concoction that will mollify the politically correct identity on display at the moment. A continuing conflict [https://www.themarshallproject.org/records/2082-wa... ]between law enforcement and citizens is likely to always present itself. It is unfortunate that facts are often discarded for legend-making fabrication. For example, the reality surrounding the events that motivated "Hands up, don't shoot!" [ https://dailycaller.com/2016/12/06/sheriff-clarke-... ] has been proven to be other than was wide-spread reported, and its continued employment along with the inability of our leaders to accurately assess each shooting has spawned a continuing war on cops [https://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2017/jul/19/w... ] —an unfortunate consequence of the Obama administration's fecklessness in keeping appropriate law and order that has spilled into subsequent administrations and will likely continue as long as disproportionate emphasis remains on identity politics and political correctness.

© 2015 Linda Sue Grimes

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