Emmett Till

by Wanda Coleman

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The Poem

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“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 death, especially for such a minor offense, African American writers tell and retell Till’s story as a symbol for the tragic stories of many nameless African American males.

In the first of the four parts, the third-person narrator provides the setting and atmosphere that permeated the “hate-inspired” Jim Crow South. The narrator also describes the natural movement of the river and its part in Till’s transcendence. Because of their role, the waters of the river are “sanctified” for the final journey, as the bloated body of the dead child is carried home. The narrator charges the water with a sacred duty even as it erodes stone and Till’s flesh, a testament to its dual nature as nurturer and destroyer. The second part of the poem relates Till’s transgression: the whistle at the store owner’s wife. The narrator even speculates about his motivation: She was desirable, and, as any red-blooded, all-American boy would, Till reacted. This “rape by eye” was enough to make two white men angry enough to kill, while the black community, impotent with rage and ineffective slogans, watched. Part 3 gives the details of the men taking Emmett away from his great-uncle’s home and to the water. The narrator does not describe the murder but refers to it as “the deed.” In part 4, a black preacher eulogizes Till by recapping the time, place, and events of his murder. “Weighted down” but “too light,” Till’s body rises, Christlike, on the third day.

The refrains in parts 1 through 3, alphabetical lists of rivers in the United States, exemplify the pastoral elegy’s use of nature. The absence of a river refrain in part 4 makes the narrator’s mention of “the tallahatchie,” the river that held Till’s body in its “mulky arm,” even more emphatic. This part focuses on “murder” and Till’s resurrection to a higher existence.

Forms and Devices

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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...

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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 powerful. In addition to the narrator’s reference to the Jordan, Till’s mother, a modern-day Mary, is “the black madonna/ bereft of babe.” Like Christ, Till was also “crucified” and “crown[ed]” before he “crossed over into campground.” Finally, Till is “baptized” and “on that third day/ he rose” to complete the Christian cycle of sin, redemption, and resurrection. Thus, another martyr is created from the “nidus” (breeding ground) of racism.

Claiming not to see herself in “terms of a tradition,” Coleman admits, in a 1990 interview in Black American Literature Forum (BALF), that she draws from the black tradition and the culture of the black church. In part 4, for example, the voice of the black community emerges in the traditional verbal pattern of “call-response,” which is most often found between a preacher and the congregation. All of the preacher’s statements (calls) are punctuated by the congregation’s responses: “lord!” or “lord! lord!” Also, Coleman acknowledges the African American church as the race’s strongest institution, which often nurtured its members in times of racial conflict.

Also worth noting is Coleman’s use of multiple voices. The primary narrator is objective, describing the scenes from a distance, but the poem also contains the voice of a bulletin/commentator that reveals the impact of the murder: “killing of 14-year-old/ stirs nation. there will be a public wake.” Moreover, consistent with conventions of the pastoral elegy, the rage of the black community comes through in the language of the people: “but she be a white woman. but he be/ a black boy,” and “cuz she was white woman virtue and he/ be a black boy lust.” The second quotation differs from the first in that individuals are no longer involved; they have become symbols of racial conflict.