Old Lem

By Sterling A. Brown 1901–1989
I talked to old Lem
and old Lem said:
          “They weigh the cotton
          They store the corn
                We only good enough
                To work the rows;
          They run the commissary
          They keep the books
                We gotta be grateful
                For being cheated;
          Whippersnapper clerks
          Call us out of our name
                We got to say mister
                To spindling boys
          They make our figgers
          Turn somersets
          We buck in the middle
                Say, “Thankyuh, sah.”
                They don’t come by ones
                They don’t come by twos
                But they come by tens.

          “They got the judges
          They got the lawyers
          They got the jury-rolls
          They got the law
                They don’t come by ones
          They got the sheriffs
          They got the deputies
                       They don’t come by twos
          They got the shotguns
          They got the rope
                We git the justice
                In the end
                       And they come by tens.

          “Their fists stay closed
          Their eyes look straight
                Our hands stay open
                Our eyes must fall
                       They don’t come by ones
          They got the manhood
          They got the courage
                       They don’t come by twos
                We got to slink around
                Hangtailed hounds.
          They burn us when we dogs
          They burn us when we men
                       They come by tens . . .

          “I had a buddy
          Six foot of man
          Muscled up perfect
          Game to the heart
                       They don’t come by ones
          Outworked and outfought
          Any man or two men
                       They don’t come by twos
          He spoke out of turn
          At the commissary
          They gave him a day
          To git out the county
          He didn’t take it.
          He said ‘Come and get me.’
          They came and got him
                       And they came by tens.
          He stayed in the county—
          He lays there dead.

                       They don’t come by ones
                       They don’t come by twos
                       But they come by tens.”

Sterling Brown, “Old Lem” from The Collected Poems of Sterling A. Brown, selected by Michael S. Harper. Copyright © 1980 by Sterling A. Brown. Used by permission of Harper and Row.

Source: The Collected Poems of Sterling A. Brown (Harper & Row, 1980)

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Poet Sterling A. Brown 1901–1989

POET’S REGION U.S., Mid-Atlantic

Subjects Social Commentaries, History & Politics, Race & Ethnicity

Biography

Born in Washington, D.C. into the family of an eminent minister, Sterling A. Brown (1901—1989) was educated at Williams College and Harvard, where he gave early signs of his brilliance. Inspired by such American masters of the vernacular as Edgar Lee Masters and Carl Sandburg, Brown did extensive fieldwork in the folkways of rural African Americans, then drew a vibrant portrait of their life by filling traditional poetic forms . . .

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Poems by Sterling A. Brown

Poem Categorization

SUBJECT Social Commentaries, History & Politics, Race & Ethnicity

POET’S REGION U.S., Mid-Atlantic

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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