I thought I would take a break in between my binging of the Friday the 13th franchise to share a poem that knocked me on my butt.
Chris Hayes, a political pundit on MSNBC, who has his own show All In with Chris Hayes (I don’t watch cable news), Tweeted last night, “If he’d lived, Emmett Till today would be about the same age as Joe Biden. The past is close.” [the emphasis is mine]
If you’re not familiar, Emmett Till was brutally lynched at the age of 14 on Aug. 28, 1955. We just passed the 65-year anniversary of that lynching in Mississippi. The story goes that he was accused of offending a white woman in her family’s grocery store, Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market. He was there to buy candy with a friend. Roy Bryant, 24, and his wife, Carolyn Bryant, 21, owned the store.
Roy Bryant and his 36-year-old half-brother, John Williams “J.W.” Milam (yes, Milam; this is worthy of more than a parenthetical aside, and I’ve discussed it at great length before, but I’ve dug into this before, and I don’t believe I’m on the same family tree as J.W. Milam) would catch up to Emmett Till, brutally beat him, shoot him, and dump him in the river.
Emmett Till’s mother, Mamie Till, famously insisted upon an open casket funeral to show the world what Roy Bryant and Milam had done to her boy. It’s a hard image to view, but we need to look in my opinion. This is not something we can afford to look away from, even in 2020. This was a pivotal moment in our history. Time magazine has considered it one of the 100 most influential photographs of all time for a reason.
“For almost a century, African Americans were lynched with regularity and impunity. Now, thanks to a mother’s determination to expose the barbarousness of the crime, the public could no longer pretend to ignore what they couldn’t see.” – Time magazine
By September 1955, an all-white jury found Roy Bryant and Milam not guilty of Emmett Till’s kidnapping and murder. A year later, thanks to double jeopardy, the two men publicly admitted in 1956 interview with Look magazine that they had killed Emmett Till. There are no words I can write to give any further weight or justice to the injustice of that. It’s simply awful and tragic.
Two grown men kidnapped, terrorized, brutally beat, killed and dumped in the river like garbage a 14-year-old kid for nothing. Nothing. And got away with it. The act itself is bad enough, but what it says about our system in 1955 that they got away with it speaks even more to how far as a country we still had to go.
But back to Chris Hayes’ point. People seem to think that what happened to Emmett Till was long ago. That the past is the past, and there’s no point in dwelling on that awful past. But let’s get a frame of reference going here:
- If Emmett Till had not been brutally and unjustly murdered, he would be 79-years-old today. Joe Biden, who could be our next president, is 77-years-old, and will turn 78-years-old this November.
- Emmett Till’s mother, Mamie, died in 2003. That’s more than within my lifetime.
- Roy Bryant, one of the killers, had the fortune of living until 1994, nearly 40 years after getting away with murder (to be clear, I’m not implying he should have received the death penalty, as I’m against the death penalty, but I’m putting the death of Emmett Till into perspective).
- Carolyn Bryant, the woman who lied about what Emmett Till did to her, is still alive at the age of 86.
- As for J.W. Milam, cancer took him in 1980 at the age of 61. But for many people alive today, 1980 isn’t that long ago.
The past is not the past. The past is here, rippling its effects across all of us. There are two problems people have with understanding this point:
- First, people only conceptualize racism individually. They can’t think of it in terms of systems and institutions. Therefore, since most people don’t think of themselves as racist, they don’t see racism as a systemic problem. And because of that …
- They also don’t see the long-lasting effects of systemic problems. People think once we ended slavery or once Jim Crow was ended or once the unjust practice of lynching people, like Emmett Till, was ended, that everything was good again; there were no lingering effects. But it doesn’t work like that.
But back to the human point: If Emmett Till wasn’t brutally murdered, he very well could be alive today, having enjoyed a long life. Instead, he barely got a chance at life before it was snuffed out and a society (a system) let it happen.
Now that I’ve done an enormous amount of setup, let’s get to the poem, which plays on this theme of “the past is close,” by modern poet Eve L. Ewing, “I saw Emmett Till this week at the grocery store.”
Since it’s rather long, read the full poem here. Here is an excerpt:
I knew him from his hat, one of those
fine porkpie numbers they used to sell
on Roosevelt Road. it had lost its feather but
he had carefully folded a dollar bill
and slid it between the ribbon and the felt
and it stood at attention. he wore his money.
If you read the poem in full, you’ll notice the allusions to Emmett Till: the re-framing of “whistling softly” as he’s grocery shopping; the porkpie hat, which he wore; the candy bar in his hand, and obviously, it taking place in Chicago, where he was born.
But beyond those little details, the poem is heartbreaking on every conceivable level to me. Because this should be the scene: Emmett Till at a grocery store, still alive, mindful of the plums, going through a normal day, having a normal (not life-threatening) conversation with someone, and even the insinuation of the usual (normal!) ups and downs of life with “oh he sighed and put the candy on the belt/it goes, it goes.”
There’s also the point, as highlighted in the excerpt, that Till is able to wear his money without fear of angering a white person. Again, in the days of Emmett Till, the mere thought of showing any sort of status as a black person, could be cause to be accosted by vengeful and envious white people.
That “it goes, it goes,” is the most heartbreaking and tear-jerking ending line I’ve read to a poem in quite some time, perhaps ever. Because that’s life: it goes, it goes, but only if you’re alive to live it. And he’s not. Because it was taken from him.
Yes, we have come a long way in a short amount of time since the days of 1955. In that 65 years, we elected a black president twice. Interracial marriage and relationships are also commonplace and accepted in better numbers, a complete reversal from even 50 years ago. Progress is good, and progress is important to point out for context, but progress is not inevitable, and to achieve progress, we need to understand the past. To understand the past, we need to understand how it informs the present.
The past is close, never closed.
I’ve put a lot on the table here. What do you think about the Emmett Till story and the poem I’ve shared?