The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Emmett Till” is an elegy in four parts that shows American racism at its ugliest in the pre-Civil Rights era. Wanda Coleman’s title is the name of a fourteen-year-old black boy who was murdered and has since become a popular historical figure in fiction and poetry. The facts surrounding his death have been recorded by journalists and historians: Till was visiting a great-uncle in Money, Mississippi, in 1955. According to testimony, he whistled at the wife of a local store owner. She was white. One of the biggest taboos in the pre-Civil Rights South was a black male showing interest in a white female. The fact that Till was a boy did not matter; this kind of behavior required that white men teach “a lesson” to the youthful offender. This lesson evokes several stereotypes that were the crux of considerable racial tension. One was that black people were always thinking about sex; the other was that white women, who were more virtuous than anyone else, had to be protected at any cost. Hearing about the incident secondhand, the white woman’s husband and brother-in-law took Till away from his great-uncle’s residence. Three days later, a local fisherman saw feet sticking up from the Tallahatchie River. Those feet were attached to the mutilated body of Till. His murder and the subsequent trial were widely publicized, and some historians have credited his murder with inducing the birth struggles of the Civil Rights movement. Because of the brutality of his...

(The entire section is 561 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Coleman’s masterful use of imagery creates the powerful effect of this poem. The most visible images involve water and religion. The poem begins with the “river jordan,” which functioned in the Bible as, among other things, a safe passageway for the Israelites to get to the Promised Land; many African Americans also saw such a spiritual crossing as better than their material existence. This is followed by the haunting refrains of the rivers in alphabetical order, beginning with “the alabama” and ending with “the yellowstone.” The river’s destruction of Till’s flesh is attributed to the men who dragged him from home and are thus responsible for “blood river born.” As nurturer, the river “come[s] forth to carry the dead child home.” The narrator invests the river with maternal instincts: “river mother carries him” and “from the mulky arm of the tallahatchie.” Even mythology is utilized, as Till’s body becomes “waftage” in “that grotesque swim up the styx.” Finally, just as the Israelites were carried by the Jordan, Till “was carried forth to that promised land” by the river. Though the overwhelming use of water is positive in its ability to cleanse, nourish, and nurture, two references evoke negative images. These occur in part 2, as the narrator relates that Till’s offense makes a white man “pass water mad/ make a whole tributary of intolerance.”

Coleman’s religious imagery is also...

(The entire section is 531 words.)