WORDS OF PROTEST, WORDS OF FREEDOM
POETRY OF THE AMERICAN CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT AND ERA
DUKE UNIVERSITY PRESS
Copyright © 2012 Duke University Press
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been worth the blood?" THE LYNCHING OF EMMETT TILL, 1955
Emmett Till, a fourteen-year-old from Chicago, was visiting relatives in Money, Mississippi, during the summer of 1955 when he made the mistake of flirting with Carolyn Bryant, a married white woman. Roy Bryant, Carolyn's husband, and J. W. Milam, her brother-in-law, later abducted Till at gunpoint, tortured and shot him, and dumped his body into the Tallahatchie River. Although the men were charged with murder, both were acquitted by an all-white male jury in Sumner, Mississippi. The two men later profited from the murder by confessing their crimes for pay to Look magazine. Till's murder, which predates Rosa Parks's refusal to give up her bus seat to a white man in Montgomery, Alabama, was for many the event that led to their initiation into the freedom movement.
Elegies written for Emmett Till approach his murder and memory from a variety of perspectives, but they all share a sense of remorse and anger, albeit at times implicit or contained. Rhoda Gaye Ascher's "Remembrance," published in 1969 in Freedomways, is an excellent example. While the poem's tone is decidedly somber, the third stanza reveals the speaker's frustration, especially at the perceived indifference of the white community. Ascher's poem emphasizes the lack of respect many white Mississippians held for Negro life, even the life of a murdered teenage boy.
Similarly Gwendolyn Brooks conveys her disgust of the murder and subsequent trial in a seemingly restrained, indirect manner in "A Bronzeville Mother Loiters in Mississippi. Meanwhile, a Mississippi Mother Burns Bacon." Brooks accomplishes this feat by focusing on the interior and domestic life of Carolyn Bryant instead of the death of Emmett Till. Furthermore the violence that occurs in the poem is initiated by Roy Bryant, one of the men responsible for Till's death, but is directed at his wife and children instead of Till.
Nicolás Guillén, the celebrated Cuban poet who in 1961 was named the National Poet of his country, wrote "Elegy for Emmett Till" in 1956, the year following the murder. Guillén directs his frustrations directly at the state of Mississippi and its citizens.
The Mississippians Guillén admonishes are the subject of satirical denial in John Beecher's "The Better Sort of People." Beecher, a distant nephew of the author and abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe, chooses for his narrator an educated, cultured citizen of the Magnolia State who is "against the kind of thing / the ignorant rednecks do" and insists "it was unnecessary / to beat that little Negro boy to death" (lines 19–22). The speaker represents "the better sort of people" of white Mississippi who disapprove of Till's fate at the hands of the lesser sort of murderous white Mississippians.
However, for many, there was little or no distinction between the two classes of Mississippians explored in Beecher's poem. Langston Hughes, for example, makes clear in "Mississippi—1955" that the entire state was viewed as a land of sorrow, pain, blood, and above all else, "terror" (6). Likewise Eve Merriam's blues-influenced poem "Money, Mississippi" describes the town and its inhabitants in a succession of refrains as dirty, bloody, rotten, filthy, and evil (8, 16, 24, 32, 40). Aimé Césaire's "On the State of the Union" does not dichotomize white Mississippians. His poem makes no behavioral or socioeconomic distinctions, but Césaire does employ a similar brand of condemnation.
Broken on the hard sea the dead waves float Downstream. The night cries are gone now. The Moon, Returned from her hiding, lights the faceless rafts Deserted by yesterday's children.
The water lives; its foams combine, tickling The childish face of death no chains can hold Like Grandpa's lather—now, the old days, son, were different— Downstream, delta lips are red, no future here.
The other boy will fish tomorrow, Snag his life on this young log; classify It; green wood, kindling, nigger—and childlike Go and tell his Pa it spoiled his fishing.
Take a rotting log from the circling river, Wear it, piercing your heart, in remembrance.
Rhoda Gaye Ascher, 1969
* * *
The Better Sort Of People
Our Negroes here are satisfied They don't complain about a thing except the weather maybe whenever it's too cold to fish for cat along the riverbank But when they get away from here up to Chicago or Detroit and stay away awhile and then come back with notions about the right to vote or going to school with white folks we sometimes have to get it through their heads who runs this country They're better off down here or why don't they stay up yonder? A lot of them keep coming back but somehow they've been spoiled and need the fear of God thrown into them again Mind you I'm against the kind of thing the ignorant rednecks do I think it was unnecessary to beat that little Negro boy to death and throw his body in the Tallahatchie He was uppity no doubt about it and whistled at a white woman He probably learned that in Chicago so we ought to make allowances A good horsewhipping should have been enough to put him back into his place and been sufficient warning to him that if he ever got fresh again he wouldn't live to see Chicago Those rednecks that abducted him I doubt if even they really meant to kill him when they started working on him They just got too enthusiastic Like I say the better sort of people down here in Mississippi we love our Negroes We wouldn't harm them for the world This violence you hear so much about is all the fault of low-down rednecks poor white trash
A Bronzeville mother loiters in Mississippi. Meanwhile, a Mississippi mother Burns Bacon.
From the first it had been like a Ballad. It had the beat inevitable. It had the blood. A wildness cut up, and tied in little bunches, Like the four-line stanzas of the ballads she had never quite Understood—the ballads they had set her to, in school.
Herself: the milk-white maid, the "maid mild" Of the ballad. Pursued By the Dark Villain. Rescued by the Fine Prince. The Happiness-Ever-After. That was worth anything. It was good to be a "maid mild." That made the breath go fast.
Her bacon burned. She Hastened to hide it in the step-on can, and Drew more strips from the meat case. The eggs and sour-milk biscuits Did well. She set out a jar Of her new quince preserve.
... But there was something about the matter of the Dark Villain. He should have been older, perhaps. The hacking down of a villain was more fun to think about When his menace possessed undisputed breadth, undisputed height, And a harsh kind of vice. And best of all, when his history was cluttered With the bones of many eaten knights and princesses.
The fun was disturbed, then all but nullified When the Dark Villain was a blackish child Of fourteen, with eyes still too young to be dirty, And a mouth too young to have lost every reminder Of its infant softness. That boy must have been surprised! For These were grown-ups. Grown-ups were supposed to be wise. And the Fine Prince—and that other—so tall, so broad, so Grown! Perhaps the boy had never guessed That the trouble with grown-ups was that under the magnificent shell of adulthood, just under, Waited the baby full of tantrums.
It occurred to her that there may have been something Ridiculous in the picture of the Fine Prince Rushing (rich with breadth and height and Mature solidness whose lack, in the Dark Villain, was impressing her, Confronting her more and more as this first day after the trial And acquittal wore on) rushing With his heavy companion to hack down (unhorsed) That little foe. So much had happened, she could not remember now what that foe had done Against her, or if anything had been done. The one thing in the world that she did know and knew With terrifying clarity was that her composition Had disintegrated. That, although the pattern prevailed, The breaks were everywhere. That she could think Of no thread capable of the necessary Sew-work.
She made the babies sit in their places at the table. Then, before calling Him, she hurried To the mirror with her comb and lipstick. It was necessary To be more beautiful than ever. The beautiful wife. For sometimes she fancied he looked at her as though Measuring her. As if he considered, Had she been worth It? Had she been worth the blood, the cramped cries, the little stuttering bravado, The gradual dulling of those Negro eyes, The sudden, overwhelming little-boyness in that barn? Whatever she might feel or half-feel, the lipstick necessity was something apart. He must never conclude That she had not been worth it.
He sat down, the Fine Prince, and Began buttering a biscuit. He looked at his hands. He twisted in his chair, he scratched his nose. He glanced again, almost secretly, at his hands. More papers were in from the North, he mumbled. More meddling headlines. With their pepper-words, "bestiality," and "barbarism," and "Shocking." The half-sneers he had mastered for the trial worked across His sweet and pretty face.
What he'd like to do, he explained, was kill them all. The time lost. The unwanted fame. Still, it had been fun to show those intruders A thing or two. To show that snappy-eyed mother, That sassy, Northern, brown-black—
Nothing could stop Mississippi. He knew that. Big Fella Knew that. And, what was so good, Mississippi knew that. Nothing and nothing could stop Mississippi. They could send in their petitions, and scar Their newspapers with bleeding headlines. Their governors Could appeal to Washington ...
"What I want," the older baby said, "is 'lasses on my jam." Whereupon the younger baby Picked up the molasses pitcher and threw The molasses in his brother's face. Instantly The Fine Prince leaned across the table and slapped The small and smiling criminal. She did not speak. When the Hand Came down and away, and she could look at her child, At her baby-child, She could think only of blood. Surely her baby's cheek Had disappeared, and in its place, surely, Hung a heaviness, a lengthening red, a red that had no end. She shook her head. It was not true, of course. It was not true at all. The Child's face was as always, the Color of the paste in her paste-jar.
She left the table, to the tune of the children's lamentations, which were shriller Than ever. She Looked out of a window. She said not a word. That Was one of the new Somethings— The fear, Tying her as with iron.
Suddenly she felt his hands upon her. He had followed her To the window. The children were whimpering now. Such bits of tots. And she, their mother, Could not protect them. She looked at her shoulders, still Gripped in the claim of his hands. She tried, but could not resist the idea That a red ooze was seeping, spreading darkly, thickly, slowly, Over her white shoulders, her own shoulders, And over all of Earth and Mars.
He whispered something to her, did the Fine Prince, something About love, something about love and night and intention.
She heard no hoof-beat of the horse and saw no flash of the shining steel.
He pulled her face around to meet His, and there it was, close close, For the first time in all those days and nights. His mouth, wet and red, So very, very, very red, Closed over hers.
Then a sickness heaved within her. The courtroom Coca-Cola, The courtroom beer and hate and sweat and drone, Pushed like a wall against her. She wanted to bear it. But his mouth would not go away and neither would the 130 Decapitated exclamation points in that Other Woman's eyes.
She did not scream. She stood there. But a hatred of him burst into glorious flower, And its perfume enclasped them—big, 135 Bigger than all magnolias.
The last bleak news of the ballad. The rest of the rugged music. The last quatrain.
Gwendolyn Brooks, 1960
* * *
The Last Quatrain Of The Ballad Of Emmett Till AFTER THE MURDER, AFTER THE BURIAL
Emmett's mother is a pretty-faced thing; the tint of pulled taffy. She sits in a red room, drinking black coffee. She kisses her killed boy. And she is sorry. Chaos in windy grays through a red prairie
Gwendolyn Brooks, 1960
ON THE STATE OF THE UNION
I imagine this message in Congress on the State of the Union: situation tragic, left underground only 75 years of iron 50 years worth of sulphur and 20 of bauxite in the heart what? 5 Nothing, zero, mine without ore, cavern in which nothing prowls, of blood not a drop left.
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