Sterling Brown Speaks 78 Years Later–Ferguson, No Isolated Case

quote-the-sincere-sensitive-artist-willing-to-go-beneath-the-cliches-of-popular-belief-to-get-at-an-sterling-brown-325378I have to avoid the comment sections lately (see word to the wise below), but these last ten days of US news have been very disturbing to say the least. Not too far in the past one of my own sons was questioned by police officers while he and his friends stood on a curb debating which house was the house of their mutual friend. Nobody had the guts to just go knock and find out. You know, kids can be socially awkward. And oddly enough, nobody had a cell phone on them at the time. They were however wearing hoodies, and the awkward teens looked suspicious to a lady who owned the car they were standing near.

I’m sorry to say that the thing that probably saved them from too much trouble was they all were white. Had they been black boys in hoodies in the Trayvon Martin days, in our tiny town in Central PA, a community with very few black residents, I am certain it would be a different story.

Did Michael Brown rob a store? Video evidence seems inconclusive. Did officer Darren Wilson know about the robbery before he stopped Brown and his friend? Reports vary. Was Wilson Assaulted? Evidence so far seems to say yes. Witness accounts conflict with each other. But since when were Swisher Sweets worth a man’s life? Did anyone see a gun in that store surveillance video? Brown was unarmed, and even if he did physically go after the officer . . . six bullets pumped into him? Really? How many bullets does it take to stop an unarmed 18-year-old?

Of course the problem is much bigger. Statistics seem inconsistent, but USA Today reports that between 2007 and 2012 police have killed two black men per week in this country. And let’s not forget stop-and-frisk policies that target minorities. Fortunately I don’t need to teach my sons extra tips on how to act when approached by authorities.

Is rioting and looting and violence a proper response? Of course not. But if you want to incite a riot it seems the best thing to do is dress up in riot gear.

Okay, enough from me. Let’s hear from a better poet. I shared this poem as part of my MLK Day post back in January, but it’s been on my mind all week. Sterling A. Brown first published this piece in 1936. How much have things changed?

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.

by Sterling Brown

Partisan Review, 3 (October, 1936), p. 220-21.
Published in the Collected Works of Sterling Brown in 1980.

Word to the Wise: If you plan on leaving argumentative comments on this post I assure you I will delete them. Discussion is fine, encouraged even, but ultimately I’m the author and editor of this blog and while your constitutional right to free speech protects you from governmental intervention, it doesn’t allow you to say whatever you want wherever you want. It doesn’t protect you from the consequences of being a hateful jerk, nor does it protect you from me in the comment section.

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23 thoughts on “Sterling Brown Speaks 78 Years Later–Ferguson, No Isolated Case

    • I really appreciate what you are saying here and the poem you chose is so appropriate.

      Ferguson has really been upsetting me, especially all of the anti-black and prejudicial sentiments I’ve been seeing spring up all over. I also am troubled by folks who are trying to hide behind the “he may or may not have robbed the store” argument to justify this killing. You really handled that issue beautifully.

      I have found some solace reading Ta Nehisi Coates over at The Atlantic. He has long been someone whose opinion and reporting I trust on the subject of race in American history, culture and in contemporary law enforcement. It is too bad that so many people don’t realize how dangerous police violence, the militarization of American society, and the stop and frisk (not to mention Stand Your Ground laws) are to all of us.

      Again, you handled this beautifully. Thank you for doing so.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. David – this is happening just miles away in my own state – St Louis has a sad history of racial strife – typical of many cities with white suburbs surrounding a predominantly black city. And this terrible tragedy plays out in almost every state in some small affront or horribly violent way. Until we find paths to understanding, are able to open our minds and hearts to each other – these heartbreaking stories will continue to be a part of our countries narrative. Thank you for this thoughtful post and the poem perfectly suited for a terrible event.
    K

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  2. David another well written post. It is good to hear an American’s take on Michael Brown instead of the British BBC who tell us how to think. MLK Days poem how apt for today. I was interviewed recently by the BBC regarding a peace march i took part in, there were no police presents on this march, why should there be it was a peaceful march. I encountered racism and physical abuse. I wrote on my blog about this incident. My blog went world wide. The BBC got in touch i gave them my true account of the march, the BBC cut my interview. I would rather read blogs than listen to the BBC who tells us how to think not how it is, or how it should be. George Orwell book 1984 very near the truth.

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  3. Thanks. I do not have a TV so thankfully miss a lot of the craziness –as print media is not quite involved with the same ratings. Am too tired to write about it all, just saying thanks–well thought-through and put together post. k.

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    • Thank you, K. I don’t even have cable TV, just the internet, and too many emails coming my way. Plus, it seems to be on every TV you walk past. I was going to let the poem speak for itself, but had to get a few things off my chest.

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  4. Reblogged this on The Dad Poet and commented:

    I’ve noticed this post from two years ago in August was getting a lot of traffic. And so I looked back to see . . . A poem from 80 years ago . . . How much has changed? And have we made any progress in the last two years, or . . . am I crazy thinking that all my comments this week, even about the horrors of internet comment sections are exactly the same as the ones I noted in this post? We’re way past due for some damn serious talk about fixing this.

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  5. It is commonly agreed that racism existed before the coinage of the word, but there is not a wide agreement on a single definition of what racism is and what it is not. Today, some scholars of racism prefer to use the concept in the plural “racisms” to emphasize its many different forms that do not easily fall under a single definition, and that different forms have characterized different historical periods and geographical areas. I have always believed that racism is rooted in fear, pride, and a puffed-up sense of self-worth. I remember learning about the word xenophobia in 10th grade social studies. I come from family that has historically used the n-word, which always made me cringe. Here’s the thing though: Even though I don’t believe I’ve said the n-word out loud more than a dozen times in 57 years, I have often thought it.(Thankfully, I have improved in this area leaps and bounds over the last 5 years.) In the 19th century, many scientists subscribed to the belief that the human population can be divided into races. Early race theorists generally held that some races were inferior to others, and that differential treatment of races was justified.These early theories guided pseudo-scientific research assumptions; the collective endeavors to adequately define and form hypotheses about racial differences are generally termed “scientific racism.” I guess this is supposed to make in not only appropriate but cautious and wise to judge whole groups of people by how a few of them behave. As its history indicates, popular use of the word racism is relatively recent. The word came into widespread usage in the Western world in the 1930s, when it was used to describe the social and political ideology of Nazism, which saw “race” as a naturally given political unit. It is very dangerous to believe that any one race or culture is (in its entirety) inherently evil, or that a particular group of people is superior to others. Of course, racism, as an ideology, exists in a society at both the individual and the institutional level. Racism can be said to describe a condition in society in which a dominant racial group profits from the oppression of others, whether they want such benefits or not. You will probably not be surprised to learn that employment candidates perceived as having “white-sounding names” were 50% more likely to receive callbacks for interviews than those whose names were merely perceived as “sounding black.” For me, as a so-called “privileged” white man, I have a hard time wondering how I would react to pervasive discrimination simply because my skin was a different color. We are all children of God.

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