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Last Updated on January 12, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1020

Author: Marilyn Nelson (b. 1946)

First published: 2005

Type of work: Poetry

Type of plot: History; Social issues

Time of plot: 1950s to the early twenty-first century

Locale: United States

Principal personages

Emmett Till, a fourteen-year-old African American boy who was murdered by a white mob in 1955

The...

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Author: Marilyn Nelson (b. 1946)

First published: 2005

Type of work: Poetry

Type of plot: History; Social issues

Time of plot: 1950s to the early twenty-first century

Locale: United States

Principal personages

Emmett Till, a fourteen-year-old African American boy who was murdered by a white mob in 1955

The Story

Award-winning poet Marilyn Nelson's young-adult book A Wreath for Emmett Till consists of a poem inspired by the brutal murder of a young African American boy in 1955. Emmett Till was born in Chicago, Illinois, in 1941. During the summer of 1955, his mother, Mamie Till Mobley, sent her son to visit family in Mississippi. On August 24, Till reportedly whistled at a white woman at a country store. Four days later, the woman's husband and his half brother dragged Till from his great-uncle's house. The men made the fourteen-year-old carry a seventy-five-pound cotton gin fan to the banks of the Tallahatchie River, where the men stripped him, beat him nearly to death, gouged out one of his eyes, and shot him in the head. Till's decomposing body was found three days later floating in the river, the fan tied around his neck with barbed wire.Courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Back in Chicago, Till's mother made the painful decision to hold an open-casket funeral for her son, allowing thousands of mourners to bear witness to his mutilated body. The sheer brutality of Till's lynching, Nelson writes, helped galvanize the civil rights movement of the late 1950s and 1960s. Till's killers, meanwhile, were acquitted by an all-white, all-male jury. Nelson, who was nine years old when Till was murdered, tells his story in the author's note of the book; the text itself is composed of a heroic crown of sonnets—fifteen interlinked, fourteen-line poems set formally in a Petrarchan rhyme scheme—that begins by imagining a wreath to memorialize Till's life. Citing William Shakespeare and the ancient tradition of applying meaning to flowers, Nelson places heliotrope ("Justice shall be done"), daisies and white lilacs ("Innocence"), and mandrake ("Horror") in her wreath. In the subsequent sonnet she compares the racial memory of the country to a "haunted tree," using imagery that evokes other lynchings, in which African American men and women were hanged from the boughs of trees.

In the following sonnets, Nelson imagines Till's murder as one in a long and painful history of African American deaths, particularly through years of slavery, with Till's murder being especially heinous. She struggles to think of Till's mother, packing her son's suitcase and sitting him down for a talk before he visits his relatives, warning him that "Some white folks have blind souls." She imagines Mobley's reaction to seeing her son's body for the first time—"Surely you must have thought of suicide"—and contemplates her connection to the biblical Mary as the mother of a martyr. Nelson imagines an alternate history in which Till lived, though she concedes that even alternate paths might be haunted by their own monsters. She riffs on the word monster, comparing the specter of lynching to living in a horror movie, and struggles to accept that, according to the Bible, Jesus Christ's death redeems even the cruelest acts in human history. Nelson returns to the image of the wreath and imagines herself picking wildflowers. She contemplates the chilling duality of the United States—"thy nightmare history and thy grand dream." She includes bloodroot in the wreath and speaks of the necessity to remember Till's death no matter how painful the memory. Nelson imagines the horror of Till's last moments and reiterates that "we must bear witness to atrocity." She writes that it is necessary to speak of Till's death because forgetting would be a crime unto itself.

On the poem's last page, she arranges the first line of each preceding sonnet to form the last, which is also an acrostic that spells out "RIP EMMETT L. TILL."

Critical Evaluation

Nelson uses a number of allusions in A Wreath for Emmett Till to openly tackle an emotional and difficult subject, all of which she expounds upon in detail in an author's note at the end of the book to help young readers understand the depth of meaning in each sonnet. She begins with Shakespeare, specifically the dramatist's seventeenth-century play Hamlet. The character Ophelia goes mad after her father is murdered, and Nelson paraphrases one of her lines in the poem's first line: "Rosemary for remembrance." She also alludes to a 1913 poem by Paul Laurence Dunbar titled "The Haunted Oak," in which an oak tree remembers an innocent man who was lynched from its bough, and "Strange Fruit," a poem about lynching made famous as a song by blues singer Billie Holiday. For Mobley, Nelson evokes Mary's characterization as the "Mother of Sorrows." Christians believe that Mary was blessed "among women" for the pain she endured as the mother of a martyr.

Another sonnet contains allusions to poet Walt Whitman's 1865 elegy for Abraham Lincoln, Robert Frost's 1915 poem "Birches," Lorraine Hansberry's play A Raisin the Sun (1959), and the Hans Christian Andersen story The Snow Queen (1844).

Philippe Lardy, the book's illustrator, similarly reveals the intention behind his paintings, which serve as visual representations of the text and its emotional themes through techniques such as color and shapes, in an artist's note at the end of the book. His illustrations combine realism, such as Till's face, and symbolism, with Till's killers appearing as crows. On other pages, Till himself is represented as a tree. Lardy uses several other images that evoke the horror of Till's murder without literally depicting it. For example, thorns serve as an allusion to the barbed wire around Till's neck but also Christ's crown of thorns. Lardy's choice to make abstract the poem's words is in itself a reclaiming of Till's image; Till is most famous as the subject of graphic photographs of his death. Lardy's symbolism restores him to life.

Further Reading

  • Review of A Wreath for Emmett Till, by Marilyn Nelson. Kirkus, 1 Mar. 2005, www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/marilyn-nelson/a-wreath-for-emmett-till. Accessed 8 Dec. 2016.
  • Review of A Wreath for Emmett Till, by Marilyn Nelson. Publishers Weekly, 1 Apr. 2005, www.publishersweekly.com/978-0-618-39752-5. Accessed 8 Dec. 2016.
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