- Mamie Bradley’s Unbearable BurdenSexual and Aesthetic Politics in Bebe Moore Campbell’s Your Blues Ain’t Like Mine
“Unbearable” is my mother’s word. She uses it often but never lightly. [ . . . ] Unbearable doesn’t mean a weight that gets things over with, that crushes you once and for all, but a burden that exerts relentless pressure. . . . A burden touching, flawing everything. Unbearable is not that which can’t be borne, but what must be endured forever.—John Edgar Wideman
The quotation that serves as my epigraph comes from John Edgar Wideman’s stirring memoir Brothers and Keepers. As the award-winning author insists upon an alternative definition of “unbearable,” he notes that his more complex understanding of the word comes from his mother. While readers may be drawn to the text by an interest in the experiences of Wideman and his incarcerated sibling, Wideman spotlights his mother at a crucial moment which suggests that her wisdom enabled him to finish writing the book.1 If Wideman’s work proves to be undergirded by his mother’s insights, Bebe Moore Campbell’s Your Blues Ain’t Like Mine similarly articulates what its author learned from a mother. Campbell’s writing a novel based on the Emmett Till case suggests that her childhood had been transformed by the fact that a fourteen-year-old black boy could be brutally murdered for supposedly flirting with a white woman.2 Just as importantly, however, the novel gives voice to how profoundly Campbell had been touched by Till’s grieving mother. Indeed, Your Blues Ain’t Like Mine reveals that having watched Mamie Bradley from afar taught Campbell that an “unbearable” burden does not crush once and for all; it exerts relentless pressure.
Blacks who escape death at the hands of racists do not escape racial violence, and the Emmett Till case continues to illustrate this truth. As Karla Holloway puts it, “Emmett is remembered by still-aggrieved generations of black folk, grandparents, parents, and their children, each of whom recalls the personally felt terror of that loss” (7). Till’s mother, Mamie Bradley, was his most prominent survivor and if Americans can claim to understand the reverberating quality of racial violence, she enabled much of that insight. It was Bradley’s famous decision to “let the people see what they have done to my boy” that has made his tragedy hard to forget. Insisting upon an open-casket funeral, Bradley ensured that photographs of her son’s mutilated body as well as images of her grief and her long fight for justice would teach the world that the violence does not end with the victim’s death and burial. [End Page 1048]
Much excellent work has been done to identify the connections between the journalistic coverage of Till’s death and the Civil Rights movement, and no one underestimates the importance of his mother’s decision. But was that decision important for her or for the world? Did it help her to mourn and heal, or did it serve the many who felt connected to her pain without actually experiencing it? Historians have shown that many who came of age aware of the Till murder were saddened and enraged enough to participate in history-changing Civil Rights activism.3 While scholars have traced the links between the Till case and political movements, artists have worked to represent the thoughts and feelings of those who were thus inspired.4 Many black men, women, and children understood Till’s fate to be a symbol of their own vulnerability in the United States. Accordingly, artists interested in representing black experiences have highlighted the injustice not only of death but also of avoiding it, for survival simply allows one to live in a country that makes untimely death the norm for African Americans.5 In other words, blacks living in the United States in the 1950s understood that, as easily as they could suffer Till’s fate, they could be thrust into Bradley’s.
Not surprisingly, then, one of the legacies of Till’s murder and its aftermath has been the careful attention that Bradley has received from artists in awe of this...