John Edgar Wideman
John Edgar Wideman (1941- ) was born in Washington, D.C., but raised in Pittsburgh. He was an excellent student and athlete in the all black section of town called Homewood. He was later awarded a Benjamin Franklin scholarship by the University of Pennsylvania, and won All-Ivy League status as a forward in basketball. He graduated from the university in 1963 and won a Rhodes scholarship—the second African American to do so—where he studied philosophy at Oxford University. He later spent a year as a Kent Fellow at the University of Iowa’s writer’s workshop, and is the only writer to be awarded the PEN/Faulkner Award twice for fiction (1984 and 1990. In 1998 he won a Rea Award for a short story. He is currently professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. He is the author of several books, of which the first, A Glance Away, was a novel written in 1967.
The essay that follows, “The Killing of Black Boys,” originally appeared in Essence magazine in November 1997. It was reprinted in Christopher Metress, ed. The Lynching of Emmett Till: A Documentary Narrative (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2002), 278-288. In describing the essay, Metress calls the essay “one of the most complex meditations on Emmett Till,” where Wideman “confesses that Till’s face—‘crushed, chewed, mutilated, gray and swollen’—has long haunted his sleep” (278). As the title implies, Wideman sees parallels in his own life and in the lives of other blacks who still experience death by violent means.
The Killing of Black Boys
I am a man. A first-time grandfather recently. Yet a nightmare from my childhood still haunts my sleep. A monster chases me .Some creature whose shape and face are to terrible for the nightmare to reveal. I can’t escape. Run headlong down an unfamiliar street, duck into an alley, dart along shortcuts, dash in and out of all the hiding places in my old neighborhood. The monster still lumbers behind me and also sits, patient and hideous, waiting to seize me when I turn the next corner.
Trapped by the dream, I try to scream my way out. There is no way out, but I scream anyway. One scream or many. Screaming for mercy. Screaming for the worst to happen, anything, just so the nightmare ends. Muscles of my throat constrict. I can’t breathe. One last choked yell as the face of death looms closer.
I die. Awaken again to whimpers and panting, the rabid, lonely thump of my heart, noises that survive one world’s extinction, another world’s’ birth, and I lie in my warm bed shivering, listening to myself, wondering how my wife slept though all the tumult.
Sometimes she doesn’t. A scream can startle her awake. Her fear, the first thing I see when I open my eyes.
Though the nightmare is as old as anything I can remember about myself, I’ve come to believe the face in the dream I can’t hear to look upon is Emmett Till’s. Emmett Till’s face crushed, chewed, mutilated, gray and swollen, water dripping from holes punched into his skull. Warm gray water on that August day in 1955 when they dragged his corpse from the Tallahatchie River.
Both of us 14 the summer they murdered Emmett Till. My nightmare, an old acquaintance by then. The fact that the nightmare predates by many years the afternoon in Pittsburgh I came across Emmett Till’s photograph in Jet magazine confounds me and seems to matter not at all, part of the mystery I must abide to heal myself.
I certainly hadn’t been searching for Emmett Till’s face when it found me. I peeked quickly, focused my eyes just enough to ascertain something awful on the page, a mottled, grayish something resembling an aerial shot of a landscape cratered by bombs or ravaged by natural disaster—something I registered with a sort of simultaneous glance at and glance away.
Refusing to look, lacking the power to look, to this day, shames me. That afternoon in Pittsburgh I think I sensed vaguely why a wrecked boy’s face was displayed in the pages of a magazine. Guessed it would be dangerous not to look. Emmett Till had died instead of me and I needed to know how, why. Not returning his eyeless stare blinded me. In a faint, skittish fashion, I initiated all of this. Understood obscurely how the murdered boy’s picture raised issues of responsibility, accountability. But Emmett Till was also just too dead, too horribly, unalterably dead to look at. I sensed that too.
Like Emmett Till, in 1955 I had just graduated from junior high. I’m trying to remember if, like Emmett Till, I 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 because the little bit 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, wanting to radiate at least a show of what seemed to represent manliness, I probably stuffed some sort of hand-me-down billfold in my hip pocket. The same urge may have prompted me to carry around a White girl’s picture. No doubt about it, possessing a White girl’s photo was a merit badge for a Black boy. A sign of power. Your footprint in “their” world. Proof you could handle its opportunities and dangers. Any actual romance with a White girl would have to be underground, clandestine, so a photo served as prime evidence of things unseen. A ticket to status in my clan of brown boys in White Shadyside, a trophy copped in another country I could flaunt in Black Homewood. So I may have owned a wallet with pictures of White girlfriends or classmates in it, and if I’d traveled to Promised land, South Carolina, with my grandfather Harry Wideman one of those summers he offered t take me down home to his briar patch, who knows? I was a bit of a smart aleck like Emmett Till. I liked to brag. Take on dares like him.
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.
Those of us who survived understood in our bones that Emmett Till’s murder was an attempt to slay an entire generation Push us backward to the bad old days when the lives of Black people seemed to belong to Whites. When the power and racist ideology seemed unchallengeable forces of nature.
Emmett Till’s dead body reminded us that the bad old days are never farther away than the thickness of skin, dark skin that some pale-skinned people claim the prerogative to strip away, burn or cut or shoot full of holes. It is not an accident that the hacked, dead face of Emmett Till looks inhuman. The point of killing and mutilating him, inflicting the agony of his last moments, was to prove he was not human.
And it almost worked. Comes close to working every time. Disfigured by drugs, crime, disease, homelessness, pathological poverty, drenched in hot-blooded or cold-blooded statistics, the brutalized black body displayed in the media loses all vestiges of humanity. We are set back on out collective heels by the evidence, the warning, the prophecy that beneath Black skin something other, something less than human lurks. A so-called lost generation f young Black men dying in the streets today points backward, the way Emmett Till’s battered 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, is unbroken. Emmett Till violates the rules. Young Black men are born breaking the rules and thus forfeit all rights White people are bound to respect. Ugly consequences are inevitable. Why not jail Blacks, lynch them? Why not construct walls to separate them from decent citizens?
An apartheid mentality reigns in this country, not because most Americans consciously embrace racist attitudes or wish ill on their neighbors of African descent. Emmett Till dies again and again because his murder and the conditions that ensure and perpetuate it are more acceptable to the majority than placing themselves, their dominant position, at risk. Any serious attempt to achieve true economic, social and political equality must begin not with opening doors to selected minorities, but with the majority’s willingness to relinquish a significant measure of power and privilege. There have always been open doors, of sorts—emancipation, emigration, education, economic success in sports or business. What’s been missing is an unambiguous private and public decision by a majority to dismantle the wall, to give up the doors and keys, the identity and protection that comes with the wall.
Like the body of Emmett Till, the Black victims of drug and territory wars raging today are not taken as signs of a fatally flawed society failing its children. Once more the bodies of dead Black men, imprisoned Black men, jobless Black men, addicted Black men are being used to justify increasingly brutal policing of the racial divide.
In 1955, one year after the Supreme Court’s Brown v Board of Education school-desegregation decision, as the last great campaign to secure civil rights for Black people commenced in the southern United States, the murder of Emmett Till clarified exactly what was at stake: life or death. And as long as race continues to legitimize one group’s life-and-death power over another, the stolen face of Emmett Till will haunt the unresolved middle ground between so-called Whites and so-called Blacks, his face unburied, unmourned, unloved in the netherworld where incompatible versions of reality clash.
It was hard to bury Emmett Till, hard to bury Carole Robertson, Addie Mae Collins, Denice McNair and Cynthia Wesley, the four girls killed by a bomb in a Birmingham, Alabama, 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. Grief was collective; began to unify us, clarify our thinking, roll back the rock of our fear. Emmett Till’s mangled face could belong to anybody’s Black son who transgressed racial laws; anyone’s little girl could be crushed in the rubble of a bombed church. We read the terrorist message inscribed upon Emmett Till’s flesh and were shaken, but refused to comply with the terms it set forth.
Because we knew the killing of children was an effort to murder our future, we mourned our young martyrs but also fought with ferocity and dignity in the courts, churches and streets to protect them. Young people, after all, were the shock troops of the movement for social justice, on the front lines, the hottest, most dangerous spots in Alabama and Mississippi. And though they had the most to gain and the most to lose, they also carried on their shoulders the hopes of older generations and generations unborn.
Now in our rituals of mourning for our lost children, there seems to be no sense of a communal, general loss, no comprehension of larger forces or of the relationship of our immediate trials—drugs, gang violence, empty schools, empty minds, empty homes, empty values—to the ongoing struggle to liberate ourselves from the oppressive legacies of slavery and apartheid. Funerals for our young are daily, lonely occurrences. In some urban ghetto or another somewhere in American, at least once a day a small Black congregation will gather together to try and repair the hole in a brother 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 ceremony must there be? The hush afterward when the true dimensions of loss and futility begin to set in. A sense of isolation and powerlessness dogs the survivors who are burdened not only by the sudden death of a loved one but also with the knowledge it’s going to happen again, today or tomorrow, and it’s supposed to happen in a world where Black lives are expendable, can disappear, click, just like that, without a trace, so it seems almost as if the son or sister were hardly here at all and maybe Black people really ain’t worth shit just like you’ve been hearing your whole sorry life.
Curtis Jones, a cousin who accompanied Emmett Till on the trip from Chicago to Leflore County, Mississippi, 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 turn 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; it’s room where they all remain alive, room for mourning them, forgiving them. Memory is like all stories we tell, a tissue of remembering and forgetting, of what if and once upon a time, burying our dead so the dead may rise.
Curtis Jones goes on to tell us about everybody piling into Mose 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 Mose 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 Black boys out front, its frieze of tire-size Coca cola signs running around the eaves of its porch, Bryant’s was probably the only game in town, Emmett Till guessed.
Climbing out of Mose Wright’s old Ford, 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 styilized checkerboard-stripe 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 so you can’t help smiling back at the wary eagerness-to-please of his smile.
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 Black faces and White 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. Points to the prettiest girl, the Whitest, 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 youall lucky he came down here bringing youall 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 someone’s been humming softly the whole time. Emmett Till’s the preacher and it’s Sunday morning and the sermon is righteous. Everybody’s ready for a hymn or a responsive reading, even a collection plate is circulating so they can participate stretch a little, 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 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 Youall better get out here. That lady come out that store blow youalls’ brains off.
Several months later, after an all-White jury in the town of Sumner, Mississippi, 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 used barbed wire to lash a 100-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 u 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 all 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 14, 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 he.
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.
I ask my wife, Judy, who is 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 says.
“He didn’t whistle,” I reply. I’ve heard the whistling 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 caused the shit to hit the fan.
She wants t know where I heard the cousin’s version, and I launch into a riff on my sources—Voices of Freedom, and oral history of the Civil Rights Movement, Henry Hampton’s vide documentary Eyes on the Prize, a book Representations of Black Masculinity in Contemporary American Art organized around when what I’d intended to elicit was Judy’s spontaneous witness. What her memory carried forward, what it lost.
She’s busy with something of her own—a law-school exam—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 upstairs isn’t getting me any closer to Emmett Till or a cure. Neither will man-in-the-street, woman-in-the-kitchen interviews. Only one other voice is required for the story I’m constructing to overcome a bad dream, and they shut him up a long time ago, didn’t they?
Here’s what happened. Four nights after the candy-buying and Bye-bye, Baby scene in Money, at 2:00 A.M. on August 28, 1955, Roy Bryant with a pistol in one had and a flashlight in the other appears at Mose Wright’s door. “This is Mr. Bryant,” he calls into the darkness. Then demands to know if Mose 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 pickup truck and asks someone inside, “This is the right nigger?” And somebody says, “Yes he is.”
Next time Mose 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 Mose 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? When the Rodney King verdict was announced? Where were you when Emmett Till floated up to the surface of the Tallahatchie River for Bye-bye, Babying a White woman?
How many places can I be in at once? A Black boy asleep in my bed. A White man in the darkness outside a tar-paper cabin announcing the terror of my name, gripping a flashlight that yesterday was a flaming torch brandished in the fists of a white-sheet ghost, a heavy-duty flashlight stuffed with thick D batteries that will soon become a club for bashing Emmett Till’s skull. An old Back man in the shanty crammed with bodies, instantly alert when I hear 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 words the other in his charge must her, Emmett Till must hear, no matter what terrible things happen next.
Get my two grandsons and a nephew in here.
Black boy inside the cabin, a boy my age whose name I don’t know yet, who will never know mine, rubbing 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 he was born, about the old days in the Deep South when they cut off nigger’s nuts and lynched niggers and roasted niggers over fires like marshmallows.
Black man in my bed, a woman whose presence sometimes is a strange and unaccountable to me as mine must be to her, as snow would be falling softly through the bedroom ceiling, accumulating in drifts on the down comforter. Miracles and cheap trick of being many places, many people at once. Conjuring with words what I need, what I’m missing, what’s lost. The nightmare dissolving as I decide she’s real, as I pretend this loving moment together might last and last.
The name Emmett is spoiled for me. In any of its spellings. How could Black parents name a son Emmett? As big a kick as I get watching Emmett 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 of fast enough. Inches behind them, 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 Worhol-like strips of images, the same face, Emmett Till’s face, replicated 12,24,48,96 times on a wall-size 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 Till. Malcolm Till. Medgar Till. Nat Till. Gabriel 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: I’m marching with many, many men, a multitude of Black men of all colors, 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 he 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. 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 at one time in one place, 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 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 is 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. And immensity and 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 talking, 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 t hen this vision fades, too. I am there and not there. Not in Washington, D. C., marching with a million other Black men. My son Dan, my new granddaughter Qasima’s father, marched. He was a witness, and the arc of his witness included me, as mine includes 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 shallow, a stain, a wound in the million faces of the marchers the faces of their 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 h is erased features marks a place I ignore at my peril. The sight of a grievous wound. A wound unhealed because untended. Beneath our nation’s pieties, our lies and self-delusions, our denials and distortions of history, our professed certainties about race, lies chaos. The whirlwind that swept Emmett Till away and brings him back.