Facing Emmett

In my junior year at Vanderbilt University, I took the course, The U.S. in Latin American Literature. It challenged my classmates and me to grasp the Latin American perspective on 20th-century U.S. military and political involvement in Spanish-speaking countries of the Western Hemisphere through investigating U.S. political documents in English and analyzing short stories, essays, and poems in Spanish.

For my semester research project, I chose the Afro-Cuban poet whose work threaded through my undergraduate career from a freshman class presentation to a sophomore art song composition to a senior year honors paper: Nicolás Guillén. My topic was the U.S. civil rights movement in three poems by Guillén, including “Elegía a Emmett Till.” I supplemented my talk with a slideshow of photographs in video format to keep myself within the assigned time limit. This, my first foray into the craft of editing video, presented one ethical and artistic dilemma: how long to show the image of the open casket of Emmett Till.

I first learned of Emmett Till in middle school; his true story gave context to our reading of Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird. I did not see the image then, but I remember the horror of the crime and that his funeral was attended by thousands because it represented what could be done to any young black man at that time.

A few weeks ago, I started re-reading my favorite book, Richard Powers’ The Time of Our Singing. Amidst telling the fictional tale of an African-American soprano and a Jewish physicist who meet at the 1939 Marian Anderson concert at the Lincoln Memorial, Powers traces the stories of their marriage and their three children, who are contemporaries of Emmett Till. With clarity and sensitivity, the author details the harmless interracial interaction and its brutal aftermath. I had not remembered this segment of this chapter from my first encounter with the book, but now I live on the other side of the shooting of Michael Brown. Has so little changed in 60 years? Although I can earn a PhD and apply to teach at almost any college in the country, a young black man’s wrongful death still exposes chronic racism in my country.

In my undergraduate class presentation, I showed the image of Emmett Till for no more than three seconds. I wanted to be truthful but not voyeuristic. I warned my audience that it was gruesome. The image appeared and quickly faded to black as a couple of my classmates gasped. It may have left an afterimage as I resumed speaking.

I do not want to see the image again, but I need to be reminded that it happened and that it still happens. I lament that I continue facing Emmett today.


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