Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
“As a writer I feel I best serve my readership when I rehumanize the dehumanized, when I illuminate what is in darkness, when I give blood and bone to statistics that are too easily dismissed,” says Coleman in BALF. The world’s final view of Till was his grotesquely disfigured face and bloated body, so the narrator reminds readers that “(once it was human)” as she tells Till’s story and illuminates racism “from the deep dank murk of consciousness.” According to Stephen Henderson in Understanding the New Black Poetry (1973), much black poetry deals with the theme of liberation from either physical or political bondage. This poem is a variation on a historically popular theme: the preference for death over slavery. Here, set free by death, Till is “sovereign at last.” Thus, Coleman’s theme emphasizes the liberated spirit and the enduring legacy of Till, which can be seen in her dominant images.
Coleman’s irreverent parodies of “America, the Beautiful” and “The Star-Spangled Banner” reveal the brutality of a Jim Crow system in a democratic society and the hypocrisy of America, which fostered this hostile climate for African Americans. Coleman juxtaposes the ideal with the reality. For example, the beauty of America is revealed by the “purple mountain” majesties and the “amber” waves of grain, but the ugliness is revealed by the narrator’s insistent questioning of what people can see: “oh say do you see the men off/ the bank dredging in that/ strange jetsam,” and “oh say Emmett Till can you see Emmett Till/ crossed over into campground.” This ugliness, this dehumanization “in a supposedly great nation like this one” is what Coleman, in the BALF interview, refers to as “gangrenous,” as “cancer” in need of excising.
First, however, someone must “talk seriously” about American racism, “the only major untouched area” in literature, Coleman concludes. Thus, “spirit uplifted,” Till represents the collective spirit of African Americans in this country. His rising symbolizes the race’s refusal to stay down. The Tallahatchie, for example, could be any river, as evidenced by the alphabetical listing of American rivers, and Emmett Till could be any black person who has died violently at the hands of whites for some perceived offense and without due process. In this poem, his death becomes a symbol of the lack of both democracy and Christianity in a supposedly democratic and Christian society.