- Emmett Till in Literary Memory and Imagination
A mid the overwhelming tragedy and sheer brutality of the lynching of fourteen-year-old Emmett Till on August 28, 1955, the details stand out. His nickname was Bobo. He spoke with a stutter. He made his abductors and soon-to-be murderers wait because he would not wear shoes without socks. The all-white, all-male jury who acquitted his murderers drank Cokes to pass an hour before returning its predetermined verdict. A sign greeting visitors to Sumner, Mississippi, where the trial was held, boasted “A Good Place to Raise a Boy.”
Literary responses to the Till lynching put these details to work, using them to represent the haunting combination of violence, pathos, crassness, and irony that attends the most famous racial killing in a country that has witnessed thousands. The essays collected in Emmett Till in Literary Memory and Imagination—edited by Harriet Pollack, associate professor of English at Bucknell University, and Christopher Metress, professor of English at Samford University—“suggest the presence of an ‘Emmett Till narrative’ in post-1955 literature” (7) and argue for the importance of “its remembrance and retelling in our recovery from cultural trauma” (14). This collection establishes a literary canon of that narrative. The corpus of Till literature includes many accomplished writers working in various genres: ballad (Gwendolyn Brooks), elegy (Aimé Césaire, Nicolás Guillén), lyric (Langston Hughes, Audre Lorde), novel (Lewis Nordan, Bebe Moore Campbell), autobiography (Ann [End Page 289] Moody), drama (James Baldwin), and, as Sharon Montieth’s essay on the earliest responses to the Till case demonstrates, melodrama (William Bradford Huie and Vin Packer). Metress, who previously published his impressive archival work in Emmett Till: A Documentary Narrative (U of Virginia P, 2002), concludes this collection with an annotated bibliography of literary texts dealing with the Till case. It includes over 140 entries.
The definition of “literary” works in the bibliography is more capacious than the one that governs the editors’ selection of essays. Whereas in the bibliography one finds songs, musical scores, and movie and television scripts, the essays themselves discuss almost exclusively poems, plays, and novels. Given the presence of literary works about Till by writers of the stature of Baldwin, Brooks, and Hughes, that decision is not surprising. Given the significance of Till’s age at the time of his death, however, it is surprising that there is little mention of the young adult works that represent the case. These include Chris Crowe’s Mississippi Trial, 1955 (2002) and Getting Away with Murder: The True Story of the Emmett Till Case (2003) and Marilyn Nelson’s intricate heroic crown of sonnets, A Wreath for Emmett Till (2005), which features illustrations by Philippe Lardy. The importance of visual representation to the Till case, beginning with Jet magazine’s publication of the photograph of Till’s swollen, disfigured corpse in its September 15, 1955 issue, also goes largely unrecognized in this collection, which does not include any photographs. This omission is also surprising given the attention received by two documentary films—Keith Beauchamp’s The Untold Story of Emmett Till (2005) and Stanley Nelson’s The Murder of Emmett Till (2003). Myisha Priest’s essay on Langston Hughes’s representations of the black body in his children’s work The Sweet Flypaper of Life, and its possible connection to Hughes’s earlier poem about Till, “Mississippi—1955,” is the exception to these rules.
The essays are well conceived and well organized by the editors. Many of them—Brian Norman on Baldwin, Sylvie Kandé on Césaire and Guillén, and Kathaleen Amende on Moody—situate the Till murder within the lives and careers of the authors in question. This makes sense, as members of a generation would come to mark the passage of time by remembering how old they were when Till died: Muhammad Ali, whose memories of the Till murder Metress cites in his essay, was thirteen; John Edgar Wideman, whose creative nonfiction memoir “Looking at Emmett Till” (2002) is mentioned...