Looking at Emmett Till

Reckoning with the brutal murder that was “an attempt to slay an entire generation”

for Qasima

A nightmare of being chased has plagued my sleep since I was a boy. The monster pursuing me assumes many shapes, but its face is too terrifying for the dream to reveal. Even now I sometimes startle myself awake, screaming, the dream’s power undiminished by time, the changing circumstances of my waking life.

I’ve come to believe the face in the dream I can’t bear to look upon is Emmett Till’s. Emmett Till’s face, crushed, chewed, mutilated, his gray face swollen, water dripping from holes punched in his skull. Warm, gray water on that August day in 1955 when they dragged his corpse from the Tallahatchie River. Emmett Till and I both fourteen the summer they murdered him. The nightmare an old acquaintance by then, as old as anything I can remember about myself.

Yet the fact that the nightmare predates by many years the afternoon in Pittsburgh I came across Emmett Till’s photograph in Jet magazine seems to matter not at all. The chilling dream resides in a space years can’t measure, the boundless sea of Great Time, nonlinear, ever abiding, enfolding past, present and future.

Illustration by Anna Hall

I certainly hadn’t been searching for Emmett Till’s picture in Jet. It found me. A blurred, grayish something resembling an aerial snapshot of a landscape cratered by bombs or ravaged by natural disaster. As soon as I realized the thing in the photo was a dead black boy’s face, I jerked my eyes away. But not quickly enough.

I attempted to read Jet’s story about the murder without getting snagged again by the picture. Refusing to look, lacking the power to look at Emmett Till’s face, shames me to this day. Dangerous and cowardly not to look. Turning away from his eyeless stare, I blinded myself. Denied myself denying him. He’d been fourteen, like me. How could I be alive and Emmett Till dead? Who had killed him? Why? Would I recognize him if I dared look? Could my own features be horribly altered like his? I needed answers, needed to confront what frightened me in the murdered black boy’s face. But Emmett Till just too dead, too gruesomely, absolutely dead to behold.

Years afterward during college I’d recall how it felt to discover Emmett Till’s picture when one of my summer jobs involved delivering towels and sheets to the city morgue, and the booze-breathed old coroner who got his kicks freaking out rookies lifted a kettle’s lid to prove, yes, indeed, there was a human skull inside from which he was attempting to boil the last shreds of meat.

Now when I freeze-frame a close-up shot of Emmett Till’s shattered face on my VCR, am I looking? The image on the screen still denies its flesh-and-blood origins. It’s a smashed, road-killed thing, not a boy’s face. I’m reminded of the so-called “nail fetishes,” West African wood sculptures, part mask, part free-standing head, that began appearing when slaving ships crisscrossed the Atlantic. Gouged, scarred, studded with nails, glass, cartridge shells, stones, drools of raffia, hunks of fur and bone, these horrific creatures police the boundary between human and spirit worlds. Designed to terrify and humble, they embody evil’s power to transcend mere human conceptions of its force, reveal the chaos always lurking within the ordinary, remind us the gods amuse themselves by snatching away our certainties.

Whether you resided in an African-American community like Homewood, where I spent half my early years, or in white areas like Shadyside, with a few houses on a couple of streets for black people—my turf when we didn’t live in my grandparents’ house in Homewood— everybody colored knew what was in Jet magazine. Jet’s articles as much a part of our barbershop, poolroom, ball field, corner, before-and after-church talk as the Courier, Pittsburgh’s once-a-week newspaper, aka the “Black Dispatch.” Everybody aware of Jet and the Courier even though not everybody approved or identified to the same degree with these publications, whose existence was rooted in an unblinking acknowledgment of the reality of racial segregation, a reality their contents celebrated as much as protested.

He’d been fourteen, like me. How could I be alive and Emmett Till dead? I needed to confront what frightened me in the murdered black boy’s face.

Jet would arrive at our house on Copeland Street, Shadyside, in batches, irregularly, when Aunt Catherine, who lived down the block and never missed an issue, finished with them and got around to dropping some off. Aunt Catherine was my father’s sister, and they were Harry Wideman’s kids and inherited his deep-brown, South Carolina skin, while my mother s side of the family was light, bright and almost white, like my other grandfather, Daddyjohn French, from Culpepper, Va.

Skin color in my family, besides being tattletale proof segregation didn’t always work, was a pretty good predictor of a person’s attitude toward Jet magazine. My mother wouldn’t or couldn’t buy Jet. I’ve never asked her which. In pale Shadyside, Jet wasn’t on sale. You’d have to go a good distance to find it, and with neither car nor driver’s license and five kids to care for 24/7, my mother seldom ranged very far from home. Tight as money was then, I’m sure a luxury like subscribing to Jet never entered her mind. If by some miracle spare change became available and Brackman’s Pharmacy on Walnut Street had begun stocking Jet, my mother would have been too self-conscious to purchase a magazine about colored people from old, icy, freckle-fingered Brackman.

Although apartheid stipulates black and white as absolutely separate categories, people construct day by day through the choices they make and allow to be made for them what constitutes blackness and whiteness, what race means, and Mr. Brackman presided over one of the whitest businesses on Walnut Street. Clearly he didn’t want folks like us in his drugstore. His chilliness, disdain and begrudging service a nasty medicine you had to swallow while he doled out your prescriptions. White kids permitted to sit on the floor in a corner and browse through the comic-book bin, but he hurried me along if he thought I attempted to read before I bought. (I knew he believed I’d steal his comics if he turned his back, so in spite of his eagle eye, I did, with sweet, sweet satisfaction every chance I got, throwing them in a garbage can before I got home to avoid that other eagle eye, my mom’s.)

Though copies reached us by a circuitous and untimely route, my mother counted on Jet. Read it and giggled over its silliness, fussed at its shamelessness, envied and scoffed at the airs of the “sididdy folks” who paraded through it weekly. In my grandparents’ house in Homewood, when my mom got down with her sisters, Geraldine and Martha, I’d eavesdrop while they riffed on Jet’s contents, fascinated by how they mixed Homewood people and gossip into Jet’s features, improvising new stories, raps and sermons I’d never imagined when I’d read it alone.

By the time an issue of Jet reached me, after it had passed through the hands of Aunt Catherine, Uncle Horton, my mother, my father when he was around, the pages were curled, ink-smeared, soft and comfortable as Daddyjohn French’s tobacco-ripe flannel shirts. I could fan the pages, and the widest gaps opened automatically at the best stories.

With its spatters, spots, rings from the bottom of a coffee cup, smudges of chocolate candy or lipstick, pages with turned-down corners, pages ripped out, torn covers, Jet was an image of the black world as I understood it then: secondhand, beat-up, second-rate. Briar patch and rebuke.

But also often truer and better than the other world around me. Much better. Jet, with its incriminating, renegade, embarrassing, topsy-turvy, loud, proud focus on colored doings and faces expanded my sense of possibility. Compared to other magazines of the ‘50s— Life, Look, House & Garden, RedbookJet was like WAMO, the radio station that blasted rhythm-and-blues and gospel, an escape from the droning mediocrity of “Your Hit Parade,” a plunge into versions of my life unavailable elsewhere on the dial, grabbing me, shaking me up, reminding me life could move to a dance beat.

In 1955, the year Emmett Till was murdered, I, like him, had just graduated from junior high. I’m trying to remember if I, like him, carried pictures of white girls in my wallet. Can’t recall whether I owned a wallet in 1955. Certainly it wouldn’t have been a necessity since the little bits of cash I managed to get hold of passed rapidly through my hands. “Money burns a hole in your pocket, boy,” my mom said. Wanting to feel grown up, manly, I probably stuffed some sort of hand-me-down billfold in my hip pocket, and carrying around a white girl’s picture in it would have been ocular proof of sexual prowess, proof the color of my skin didn’t scare white chicks away or scare me away from them. A sign of power. Proof I could handle that other world, master its opportunities and dangers. Since actual romances across the color line tended to be rare and clandestine then, a photo served as evidence of things unseen. A ticket to status in my tiny clan of Shadyside brown boys, a trophy copped in another country I could flaunt in black Homewood. So I may have owned a wallet with pictures of white girlfriends/classmates in it, and if I’d traveled to Promised Land, S.C., with my grandfather Harry Wideman one of those summers he offered to take me down home where he’d been born and raised, who knows? Since I was a bit of a smart aleck, like Emmett Till, I might have flashed my snapshots. I liked to brag. Take on dares like him. Okay. Okay, Emmett Till. You so bad. You talking ‘bout all those white gals you got up in Chicago. Bet you won’t say boo to that white lady in the store.

Two years before Emmett Till was beaten and murdered, when both Emmett Till and I were twelve, a stroke killed my mother’s father, John French. I lapsed into a kind of semi-coma, feverish, silent, sleeping away whole days, a little death to cope with losing my grandfather, my family believed. Grieving for Daddyjohn was only part of the reason I retreated into myself. Yes, I missed him. Everybody was right about that, but I couldn’t confide to anyone that the instant he died, there was no room for him in my heart. Once death closed his eyes, I wanted him gone, utterly, absolutely gone. I erected a shell to keep him out, to protect myself from the touch of his ghostly hands, the smells and sounds of him still lurking in the rooms of the Homewood house where we’d lived for a year with my mother’s parents and her sisters after my father left our house on Copeland Street.

Losing my grandfather stunned me. He’d been my best friend. I couldn’t understand how he’d changed from Daddyjohn to some invisible, frightening presence I had no name for. He’d stopped moving, speaking, breathing. For two interminable days, his body lay inside a coffin on a spindly-legged, metal stand beside the piano in the living room, the dark, polished wood of one oblong box echoing the other. Until we had to sell the piano a few years later, I couldn’t enter the room or touch the piano unless someone else was with me. Sitting on the spinning stool, banging away for hours on the keys had been one of my favorite solitary pastimes, as unthinkable suddenly as romping with my dead grandfather, chanting the nonsense rimes he’d taught me— “Froggy went a-courting, and he did ride/Uh-huh, uh-huh.”

Stunned by how empty, how threatening the spaces of my grandfather’s house had become, I fought during the daylight hours to keep him away, hid under the covers of my bed at night. Stunned by guilt. By my betrayal of him, my inability to remember, to honor the love that had bound us. Love suddenly changed to fear of everything about him. Fear that love might license him to trespass from the grave.

I’d never understood the dead. Shied away from talk of death, thoughts of the dead. The transformation of my grandfather the instant he became one of the dead confirmed my dread. If I couldn’t trust Daddyjohn, what horrors would the rest of the dead inflict upon me? Given the nightmare’s witness, am I still running, still afraid?

Emmett Till’s murder was an attempt to slay an entire generation. Push us backward to the bad old days when our lives seemed not to belong to us. When white power and racism seemed unchallengeable forces of nature, when inferiority and subserviency appeared to be our birthright, when black lives seemed cheap and expendable, when the grossest insults to pride and person, up to and including murder, had to be endured. No redress, no retaliation, no justice expected. Emmett Till’s dead body, like the body of James Byrd just yesterday in Texas, reminded us that the bad old days are never farther away than the thickness of skin, skin some people still claim the prerogative to burn or cut or shoot full of holes if it’s dark skin. It’s no accident that Emmett Till’s dead face appears inhuman. The point of inflicting the agony of his last moments, killing and mutilating him, is to prove he’s not human.

And it almost works. Comes close to working every time. Demonized by hot-blooded or cold-blooded statistics of crime, addiction, disease, cartooned, minstrelized, criminalized, eroticized, commodifìed in stereotypical representations, the black body kidnapped and displayed by the media loses all vestiges of humanity. We are set back on our collective heels by the overwhelming evidence, the constant warning that beneath black skin something other, something brutal lurks. A so-called “lost generation” of young black men dying in the streets today points backward, the way Emmett Till’s rotting corpse points backward, history and prophecy at once: This is the way things have always been, will always be, the way they’re supposed to be.

The circle of racism, its perverse logic remain unbroken. Boys like Emmett Till are born violating the rules, aren’t they? Therefore they forfeit any rights law-abiding citizens are bound to respect. The bad places—ghettos, prisons, morgue slabs—where most of them wind up confirm the badness of the boys. Besides, does it hurt any less if the mugger’s a product of nurture, not nature? Keeping him off your streets, confining him in a world apart is what matters, isn’t it?

But what if the disproportionate numbers of African-American males in prison or caught in the net of economic marginality are not a consequence of inborn, black deviancy? What if incarceration and poverty are latter-day, final solutions of the problem of slavery? What if the dismal lives of so many young black people indicate an intentional, systematic closing off of access to the mainstream, justified by a mythology of race that the closing off simultaneously engenders and preserves?

Emmett Till’s murder was an attempt to slay an entire generation.

Nearly five hundred years ago, European ships began transporting captive Africans to the New World. Economic exploitation of the recently “discovered” Americas provided impetus for this slave trade. Buying and selling African bodies, treating them as property, commodities, livestock produced enormous profit and imprinted a model for ignoring the moral and ethical implications of financially successful global commerce we continue to apply today. The traffic in human bodies was also fueled by a dream, a Utopian dream of escape from the poverty, disease, class and religious warfare of Europe, a dream of transforming through European enterprise and African slave labor the wilderness across the sea into a garden of wealth and prosperity, with the European colonist cast as the New Adam exercising divinely sanctioned dominion over all he surveyed.

Racism and genocide were the underside of this Edenic dream, persist today in the determined unwillingness of the heirs of the dream to surrender advantages gained when owning slaves was legal.

During its heyday slavery’s enormous profit and enormous evil sparked continuous debate. Could a true Christian own slaves? Do Africans possess souls? Because it licensed and naturalized the subjugation of “inferior” Africans by “superior” Europeans, the invention of the concept of “race”—dividing humankind into a hierarchy of groups, each possessing distinct, unchangeable traits that define the groups as eternally separate and unequal—was crucial to the slaveholder’s temporary victory in these debates. Over time, as slavery gradually was abolished, a systematic network of attitudes and practices based on the concept of race evolved across all fields and activities of New World societies with a uniquely pervasive, saturating force. The primary purpose of this racialized thinking was, under the guise of different vocabularies, to rationalize and maintain in public and private spheres the power European slave owners once held over their African slaves.

Emmett Till was murdered because he violated taboos governing race relations in 1955 in Money, a rural Mississippi town, but his killers were also exercising and revalidating prerogatives in place since their ancestors imported Emmett Till’s ancestors to these shores. At some level everybody in Money understood this. Our horror, our refusal to look too closely at Emmett Till reside in the same deep, incriminating knowledge.

Perhaps an apartheid mentality reigns in this country because most Americans consciously hold racist attitudes or wish ill on their neighbors of African descent. I don’t think so. Emmett Till dies again and again because his murder, the conditions that ensure and perpetuate it have not been honestly examined. Denial is more acceptable to the majority of Americans than placing themselves, their inherited dominance, at risk.

Any serious attempt to achieve economic, social and political equal opportunity in this nation must begin not simply with opening doors to selected minorities. That impulse, that trope, that ideology has failed. The majority must decide to relinquish significant measures of power and privilege if lasting transformations of self and society are to occur. There have always been open doors of sorts for minorities (emancipation, emigration, education, economic success in sports or business, passing as white). What’s missing is an unambiguous, abiding determination declared in public and private by a majority of the majority to surrender privileges that are the living legacy of slavery. Begin now. Today. Give up walls, doors, keys, the dungeons, the booty, the immunity, the false identity apartheid preserves.

A first step is acknowledging that the dangerous lies of slavery continue to be told as long as we conceive of ourselves in terms of race, as black or white.

Emmett Till and the young victims of drug and territory wars raging in African-American neighborhoods today are signs of a deeply flawed society failing its children. Why do we perceive the bodies of dead black boys, imprisoned black men, homeless black people, addicted black people as black problems? Why do we support cynical politicians who cite these black problems as evidence for more brutal policing of the racial divide?

In 1955, one year after the Supreme Courts Brown v. Board of Education school-desegregation decision, a great struggle for civil rights commenced. The lynching of Emmett Till should have clarified exactly what was at stake: life or death. As long as racialized thinking continues to legitimize one group’s life-and-death power over another, the battered face of Emmett Till will poison the middle ground of compromise between so-called “whites” and so-called “blacks.” His face unmourned, unburied, unloved, haunting the netherworld where incompatible versions of democracy clash.

It was hard to bury Emmett Till, hard, hard to bury Carole Robertson, Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair and Cynthia Wesley, the four girls killed by a bomb in a Birmingham, Ala., church. So hard an entire nation began to register the convulsions of black mourning. The deaths of our children in the civil-rights campaigns changed us. The oratory of great men like Martin Luther King Jr. pushed us to realize our grief should be collective, should stir us to unify, to clarify our thinking, roll back the rock of fear. Emmett Tills mangled face could belong to anybody’s son who transgressed racial laws; anyone’s little girl could be crushed in the rubble of a bombed church. We read the terrorist threat inscribed upon Emmett Till’s flesh and were shaken but refused to comply with the terrorists’ demands.

Martin Luther King Jr. understood the killing of our children was an effort to murder the nation’s future. We mourned the young martyrs, and a dedicated few risked life and limb fighting with ferocity and dignity in the courts, churches and streets to stop the killing. Young people served as shock troops in the movement for social justice, battling on the front lines, the hottest, most dangerous spots in Alabama and Mississippi. And though they had most to gain or lose (their precious lives, their time on this earth), they also carried on their shoulders the hopes of older generations and generations unborn.

Now there seems to be in our rituals of mourning for our dying children no sense of communal, general loss, no larger, empowering vision. We don’t connect our immediate trials—drugs, gang violence, empty schools, empty minds, empty homes, empty values—to the ongoing, historical struggle to liberate ourselves from the oppressive legacies of slavery and apartheid. Funerals for our young are lonely occurrences. Daily it seems, in some ghetto or another somewhere in America, a small black congregation will gather together to try to repair the hole in a brother’s or mother’s soul with the balm of gospel singing, prayer, the laying on of dark hands on darkened spirits.

How many a week, how many repetitions of the same, sad, isolated ceremony, the hush afterward when the true dimensions of loss and futility begin to set in? A sense of futility, of powerlessness dogs the survivors, who are burdened not only by the sudden death of a loved one but also by the knowledge that it’s going to happen again today or tomorrow and that it’s supposed to happen in a world where black lives are expendable, can disappear, click, in a fingerpop, quick like that, without a trace, as if the son or sister was hardly here at all. Hey, maybe black people really ain’t worth shit, just like you’ve been hearing your whole life.

Curtis Jones, a cousin who accompanied Emmett Till on the trip from Chicago, Ill., to Money, Miss., in August 1955, relates how close Emmett Till came to missing their train, reminding us how close Emmett Till’s story came to not happening or being another story altogether, and that in turn should remind us how any story, sad or happy, is always precariously close to being other than it is. Doesn’t take much to alter a familiar scene into chaos. Difficult as it is to remember what does occur, we must also try to keep alive what doesn’t—the missed trains, squandered opportunities, warnings not heeded. We carry forward these fictions because what might have been is part of what gives shape to our stories. We depend on memory’s capacity to hold many lives, not just the one we appear to be leading at the moment. Memory is space for storing lives we didn’t lead, room where they remain alive, room for mourning them, forgiving them. Memory, like all stories we tell, a tissue of remembering, forgetting, of what if and once upon a time, burying our dead so the dead may rise.

As long as racialized thinking continues to legitimize one group’s life-and-death power over another, the battered face of Emmett Till will poison the middle ground of compromise.

Curtis Jones goes on to tell us about everybody piling into Grandpa Wright’s automobile and trundling down the dusty road to church. How he and his cousin Emmett Till took the car into Money that afternoon while Moses Wright preached.

A bunch of boys loafing outside Bryant’s General Store on Money’s main drag. Sho ’nuff country town. Wooden storefronts with wooden porches. Wooden sidewalks. Overhanging wooden signs. With its smatter of brown boys out front, its frieze of tire-sized Coca-Cola signs running around the eaves of its porch, Bryant’s the only game in town, Emmett Till guessed.

Climbing out of Moses Wright’s old Dodge, he sports the broad smile I recall from another photo, the one of him leaning, elbow atop a TV set, clean as a string bean in his white dress shirt and tie, his chest thrust out mannishly, baby fat in his cheeks, a softish, still-forming boy whose energy, intelligence and expectations of life are evident in the pose he’s striking for the camera, just enough in-your-face swagger that you can’t help smiling back at the wary eagerness to please of his smile.

To Emmett Till, the boys in Money’s streets are a cluster of down-home country cousins. He sees a stage beckoning on which he can perform. Steps up on the sidewalk with his cousin Curtis, to whom he is Bo or Bobo, greets his audience. Like a magician pulling a rabbit from his hat, Emmett Till pulls a white girl from his wallet. Silences everybody. Mesmerizes them with tales of what they’re missing, living down here in the Mississippi woods. If he’d been selling magic beans, all of them would have dug into their overalls and extracted their last, hot penny to buy some. They watch his fingers slip into his shirt pocket. Hold their breath waiting for the next trick.

Emmett Till’s on a roll, can’t help rubbing it in a little. What he’s saying about himself sounds real good, so good he wants to hear more. All he wants really is for these brown faces to love him. As much as he’s loved by the dark faces and light faces in the junior-high graduation pictures from Chicago he’s showing around.

He winks at the half-dozen or so boys gathered round him. Nods. Smiles like the cat swallowed the canary. Points to the prettiest girl, the fairest, longest-haired one of all you can easily see, even though the faces in the class picture are tiny and gray. Emmett Till says she is the prettiest, anyway, so why not? Why not believe he’s courted and won her, and ain’t you-all lucky he come down here bringing you-all the good news?

Though Emmett Till remains the center of attention, the other kids giggle, scratch their naps, stroke their chins, turn their heads this way and that around the circle, commence little conversations of eye-cutting and teeth-sucking and slack-jawed awe. Somebody pops a finger against somebody’s shaved skull. Somebody’s hip bumps somebody else. A tall boy whistles a blues line, and you notice someone’s been humming softly the whole time. Emmett Till’s the preacher, and it’s Sunday morning, and the sermon is righteous. On the other hand, everybody’s ready for a hymn or a responsive reading, even a collection plate circulating, so they can participate, stretch their bones, hear their own voices.

You sure is something, boy. You say you bad, Emmett Till. Got all them white gals up North, you say. Bet you won’t say boo to the white lady in the store.

Curtis Jones is playing checkers with old Uncle Edmund on a barrel set in the shade around the corner from the main drag. One of the boys who sauntered into the store with Emmett Till to buy candy comes running. He did it. Emmett Till did it. That cousin of yours crazy, boy. Said, “Bye-bye, Baby,” to Miss Bryant.

The old man gets up so fast he knocks over the crate he’s been sitting on. Lord have mercy. I know the boy didn’t do nothing like that. Huh-uh. No. No, he didn’t. You-all better get out here. That lady come out that store blow you-all’s brains off.

Several months later, after an all-white jury in the town of Sumner, Miss., had deliberated an hour—Would have been less if we hadn’t took time for lunch—and found Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam not guilty of murdering Emmett Till, the two men were paid $4,000 by a journalist, William Bradford Huie, to tell the story of abducting, beating and shooting Emmett Till.

To get rid of his body, they barbwired a fifty-pound cotton-gin fan to Emmett Till’s neck and threw him in the Tallahatchie River. The journalist, in a videotaped interview, said, “It seems to a rational mind today—it seems impossible that they could have killed him.”

The reporter muses for a moment, then remembers, “But J.W. Milam looked up at me, and he says, ‘Well, when he told me about this white girl he had, my friend, well, that’s what this war’s about down here now, that’s what we got to fight to protect, and I just looked at him and say, Boy, you ain’t never gone to see the sun come up again.’”

To the very end, Emmett Till didn’t believe the crackers would kill him. He was fourteen, from Chicago. He’d hurt no one. These strange, funny-talking white men were a nightmare he’d awaken from sooner or later. Milam found the boy’s lack of fear shocking. Called it “belligerence.” Here was this nigger should be shitting his drawers. Instead he was making J.W. Milam uncomfortable. Brave or foolhardy or ignorant or blessed to be already in another place, a place these sick, sick men could never touch, whatever enabled Emmett Till to stand his ground, to be himself until the first deadly blow landed, be himself even after it landed, I hope Emmett Till understood that Milam or Bryant, whoever struck first with the intent to kill, was the one who flinched, not him.

When such thoughts come to me, I pile them like sandbags along the levees that protect my sleep. I should know better than to waste my time.

In another dream we emerge at dawn from the tree line. Breeze into Money. Rat-tat. Rat-tat-tat. Waste the whole motherfucking ville. Nothing to it. Little hick town ’bout same today as when they lynched poor brother Emmett Till.

Some the bitches come rubbing up against us after we lined ‘em up by the ditch. Thinking maybe if they fuck us they won’t die. We let ‘em try. You know. Wasn’t bad pussy, neither. But when the time come, you know, they got to go just like the rest. Rat-tat-tat. Uh-huh.

Money gone. Burnt a hole in its pocket.

I asked a lover, a woman whose whiteness made her a flesh-and-blood embodiment of the nightmare J.W. Milam discovered in Emmett Till’s wallet, what she thinks of when she hears “Emmett Till.”

“A black kid whistling at a white woman somewhere down South and being killed for it, is what I think,” she said.

“He didn’t whistle,” I reply. I’ve heard the wolf-whistle story all my life and another that has him not moving aside for a white woman walking down the sidewalk. Both are part of the myth, but neither’s probably true. The story Till’s cousin Curtis Jones tells is different. And for what it’s worth, his cousin was there. Something Emmett Till said to a white woman inside a store is what started it.

She wants to know where I heard the cousin’s version, and I launch into a riff on my sources—“Voices of Freedom,” an oral history of the civil rights movement; Henry Hampton’s video documentary, “Eyes on the Prize;” a book, “Representations of Black Masculinity in Contemporary American Art,” organized around a museum exhibit of black male images. Then I realize I’m doing all the talking, when what I’d intended to elicit was her spontaneous witness. What her memory carried forward, what it lost.

She’s busy with something of her own, and we just happened to cross paths a moment in the kitchen, and she’s gone before I get what I wanted. Gone before I know what I wanted. Except standing there next to the refrigerator, in the silence released by its hum, I feel utterly defeated. All the stuff spread out on my desk isn’t getting me any closer to Emmett Till or a cure. Neither will man-in-the-street, woman-in-the-kitchen interviews. Other people’s facts and opinions don’t matter. Only one other person’s voice required for this story I’m constructing to overcome a bad dream, and they shut him up a long time ago, didn’t they?

Here is what happened. Four nights after the candy-buying and “Bye-bye, Baby” scene in Money, at 2 a.m. on August 21, 1955, Roy Bryant, with a pistol in one hand and a flashlight in the other, appears at Moses Wright’s door. “This is Mr. Bryant,” he calls into the darkness. Then demands to know if Moses Wright has two niggers from Chicago inside. He says he wants the nigger done all that talk.

When Emmett Till is delivered, Bryant marches him to a car and asks someone inside, “This the right nigger?” and somebody says, “Yes, he is.”

Next time Moses Wright sees Emmett Till is three days later when the sheriff summons him to identify a corpse. The body’s naked and too badly damaged to tell who it is until Moses Wright notices the initialed ring on his nephew’s finger.

Where were you when JFK was shot? Where were you when a man landed on the moon? When Martin Luther King Jr. was shot? Malcolm shot? When the Rodney King verdict announced? Where were you when Emmett Till floated up to the surface of the Tallahatchie River for Bye-bye Babying a white woman?

A white man in the darkness outside a tarpaper cabin announcing the terror of his name, gripping a flashlight in his fist, a heavy-duty flashlight stuffed with thick, D batteries that will become a club for bashing Emmett Till’s skull.

An old black man in the shanty crammed with bodies, instantly alert when he hears, “You got those niggers from Chicago in there with you?” An old man figuring the deadly odds, how many lives bought if one handed over. Calculating the rage of his ancient enemy, weighing the risk of saying what he wants the others in his charge to hear, Emmett Till to hear, no matter what terrible things happen next.

“Got my two grandsons and a nephew in here.”

A black boy inside the cabin, a boy my age whose name I don’t know yet, who will never know mine. He rubs his eyes, not sure he’s awake or dreaming a scary dream, one of the tales buried deep, deep he’s been hearing since before we were born about the old days in the Deep South when they cut off niggers’ nuts and lynched niggers and roasted niggers over fires like marshmallows.

A man in my own, warm bed, lying beside a beautiful woman rubbing my shoulder, a pale, blond woman whose presence sometimes is as strange and unaccountable to me as mine must be to her, as snow falling softly through the bedroom ceiling would be, accumulating in white drifts on the down comforter.

Why am I telling Emmett Till’s story this way, attempting the miracle or cheap trick of being many people, many places at once? Will words change what happened, what’s missing, what’s lost? Will my nightmare dissolve if I cling to the woman almost asleep now next to me, end if I believe this loving moment together might last and last?

The name Emmett is spoiled for me. In any of its spellings. As big a kick as I get from watching Emmitt Smith rush the football for the Dallas Cowboys, there is also the moment after a bone-shattering collision and he’s sprawled lifeless on the turf or the moment after he’s stumbled or fumbled and slumps to the bench and lifts his helmet and I see a black mother’s son, a small, dark, round face, a boy’s big, wide, scared eyes. All those yards gained, all that wealth, but like O.J. he’ll never run far enough or fast enough. Inches behind him the worst thing the people who hate him can imagine hounds him like a shadow.

Sometimes I think the only way to end this would be with Andy Warhol-like strips of images, the same face, Emmett Till’s face, replicated 12, 24, 48, 96 times on a wall-sized canvas. Like giant postage stamps end to end, top to bottom, each version of the face exactly like the other but different names printed below each one. Martin Luther Till. Malcolm Till. Medgar Till. Nat Till. Gabriel Till. Michael Till. Huey Till. Bigger Till. Nelson Till. Mumia Till. Colin Till. Jesse Till. Your daddy, your mama, your sister, brother, aunt, cousin, uncle, niece, nephew Till…

Instead of the nightmare one night, this is what I dream.

We have yet to look upon Emmett Till’s face. No epiphany has freed us. The nightmare is not cured.

I’m marching with many, many men, a multitude, a million men of all colors in Washington, D.C., marching past the bier on which the body of Emmett Till rests. The casket, as his mother demanded, is open. I want the world to see what they did to my baby. One by one from an endless line, the men detach themselves, pause, peer down into the satin-lined box. Pinned inside its upright lid a snapshot of Emmett Till, young, smiling, whole, a jaunty Stetson cocked high across his brow. In the casket Emmett Till is dressed in a dark suit, jacket wings spread to expose a snowy shroud pulled up to his chin. Then the awful face, patched together with string and wire, awaits each mourner.

My turn is coming soon. I’m grateful. Will not shy away this time. Will look hard this time. The line of my brothers and fathers and sons stretches ahead of me, behind me. I am drawn by them, pushed by them, steadied as we move each other along. We are a horizon girding the earth, holding the sky down. So many of us in one place at one time it scares me. More than a million of us marching through this city of monumental buildings and dark alleys. Not very long ago, we were singing, but now we march silently, more shuffle than brisk step as we approach the bier, wait our turn. Singing’s over, but it holds silently in the air, tangible as weather, as the bright sun disintegrating marble buildings, emptying alleys of shadows, warming us on a perfect October day we had no right to expect but would have been profoundly disappointed had it fallen out otherwise.

What I say when I lean over and speak one last time to Emmett Till is I love you. I’m sorry. I won’t allow it to happen ever again. And my voice will be small and quiet when I say the words, not nearly as humble as it should be, fearful almost to pledge any good after so much bad. My small voice and short turn, and then the next man and the next, close together, leading, following one another so the murmur of our voices beside the bier never stops. An immensity, a continuous, muted shout and chant and benediction, a river gliding past the stillness of Emmett Till. Past this city, this hour, this place. River sound of blood I’m almost close enough to hear coursing in the veins of the next man.

In the dream we do not say, Forgive us. We are taking, not asking for something today. There is no time left to ask for things, even things as precious as forgiveness, only time to take one step, then the next and the next, alone in this great body of men, each one standing on his own feet, moving, our shadows linked, a coolness, a shield stretching nearly unbroken across the last bed where Emmett Till sleeps.

Where we bow and hope and pray he frees us. Ourselves seen, sinking, then rising as in a mirror, then stepping away.

And then. And then this vision fades, too. I am there and not there. Not in Washington, D.C., marching with a million other men. My son Dan, my new granddaughter Qasima’s father, marched. He was a witness, and the arc of his witness includes me as mine, his. So, yes, I was there in a sense but not there to view the face of Emmett Till because Emmett Till was not there, either, not in an open casket displayed to the glory of the heavens, the glories of this republic, not there except as a shadow, a stain, a wound in the million faces of the marchers, the faces of their absent fathers, sons, and brothers.

We have yet to look upon Emmett Till’s face. No apocalyptic encounter, no ritual unveiling, no epiphany has freed us. The nightmare is not cured.

I cannot wish away Emmett Till’s face. The horrific death mask of his erased features marks a site I ignore at my peril. The site of a grievous wound. A wound unhealed because untended. Beneath our nation’s pieties, our self-delusions, our denials and distortions of history, our professed black-and-white certainties about race, lies chaos. The whirlwind that swept Emmett Till away and brings him back.

About the Author

John Edgar Wideman

John Edgar Wideman’s life is as dramatic as any of his widely acclaimed Faulknerian novels. Born in Pittsburgh to a working-class family, he became the second African-American Rhodes Scholar and a college basketball star, as talented on the court as he was brilliant in the classroom.

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