Sterling A. Brown's "Southern Cop"

Updated on June 1, 2018
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

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

Sterling A. Brown

Source

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 "Negro" who was running out of an alley. The poem does not affirm why the African American man was running nor why the police officer happened to be at the scene.

(NOTE: Sterling A. Brown, who lived from 1901 to 1989, uses the term "Negro," not "African American," because Brown was writing several decades before 1988, when "Rev. Jesse Jackson convinced America’s black population to adopt the term 'African-American'.”)

However, the report clearly opines that the African American 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.

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 the likes of rookie cop, Ty Kendricks. What does this cop deserve? Who is to decide? A 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.

Commentary

This piece portrays a bundle of anger, authority, rage, and racism. The attitude of the speaker weighs more heavily than the actual characters in the poem.

Stanza 1: Of Course, 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. OK. We can forgive him. Now what?

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. Well, 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 enlightened about what we are being asked, nay, 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.

The reader surely smells a rat at this point: please, running equals guilt? shooting a potentially innocent man equals manhood? OK, so what is the evidence of guilt of the running man or that the cop needed to demonstrate that he was a man? We all know that running does not equal guilt, and proving manhood by shooting someone is ludicrous.

At this point it surely occurs to the reader that the speaker of the poem is using the literary device of 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.

Gathering hatred for a group despite facts on the ground has become an age-old tradition in politics. And racism because of its despicable reality has been used by charlatans to garner sympathy as well as votes in presidential elections. Think Al Sharpton—Tawana Brawley, etc.

Stanza 3: Seriously, Condone 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. Oh, well, we cannot give the cop a medal, which racists would support, but at least we can accept his action, we can say yes! Under his breath the speaker mouths, "Kill them all!" For his side, all the whites, cops, Republicans after 1964, etc. For the racist side, all "blacks" — "African Americans." The black man was running, he was guilty, he deserves to die!

However, it 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? Moot questions because by now the reader knows that the speaker is not asking for those things; he just wants to vent that a man, a member of his own race, has been shot without a credible cause and a white rookie cop is the shooter.

Stanza 4: Of Course, 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: he does not want his listeners/ readers to pity that rookie cop; 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. He asks us to pity the rookie only because that rookie has to listen to that crying and moaning. The speaker lacks the insight to realize that the rookie will have to face much deeper awareness than momentarily listening to that poor family.

The Complex Nature of Forgiveness, Etc.

The complex nature of forgiving, understanding, condoning, and even pitying is part of humanity’s daily existence. Add to that the possibility of racism, and things can spiral out of control. The reality of this poem is that both Ty Kendricks and the black man and his family deserver our sympathy and prayers. No black man should have to die because he was running; no cop should have to be damned for life for a possible mistake. Both Kendricks and the "Negro" deserve our sympathy.

UPDATE: A Word on Current Events

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. Remember that the reality surrounding the event that motivated "Hands up, don't shoot!" has proven that cry shamefully false. And its continued employment along with the inability of our leaders to accurately assess each shooting has spawned a current war on cops—another abomination fostered by the Obama administration's willful fecklessness in keeping appropriate law and order.

Brief Bio of Sterling A. Brown

Questions & Answers

    © 2015 Linda Sue Grimes

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