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Honoring Emmett Till Means Never Looking Away From the Horror of White Supremacy

Emmett Till’s murder exemplifies both anti-Black racism and the spirit of those who refuse to suffer it in silence.

A mural featuring a portrait of civil rights martyr Emmett Till looks out from an abandoned building front as volunteers gather nearby with family members of Tamiko Talbert-Fleming after passing out flyers in the Chicago Lawn neighborhood seeking information about her murder on January 19, 2022, in Chicago, Illinois.

James Baldwin once said Black history is emboldening because “it testifies to nothing less than the perpetual achievement of the impossible.”

His use of the phrase “perpetual achievement” speaks to the processes of political and psychological endurance that have enabled our struggle to continue regardless of the hell that Black people have had to face within the context of an anti-Black world — a world that has conspired to make our very survival “impossible.”

In this way Baldwin invites us to reflect on what it means to be a people of deep vision, pride, dignity and resilience. On what it means to be a people who have engaged in forms of striving and surviving that speak to a spiritual indefatigability.

It is an idea that is also expressed in Maya Angelou’s poem, “And Still I Rise”:

“You may write me down in history

With your bitter, twisted lies,

You may trod me in the very dirt

But still, like dust, I’ll rise”

It is against the backdrop of Black endurance that I want the world, and especially the United States, not to forget the horrors of anti-Black hatred and lynching, and not to confuse “Black endurance” with an exaggerated sense of “superhuman” physical and moral strength. Black people have had their bodies crushed, flayed, burned, broken, dismembered, raped, held in contempt and rendered abject.

It is within this context that I turned to philosopher A. Todd Franklin, who is professor of philosophy and Africana studies at Hamilton College, to reflect on 14-year-old Emmett Till who was brutally murdered by two white men in Money, Mississippi, in 1955 after being falsely accused by a white woman of having “grabbed and verbally harassed her in a grocery store.”

George Yancy: We must tell our entire history. Could you talk about why remembering the murder of Emmett Till is so important during Black History Month?

A. Todd Franklin: I can think of no better way to begin a reflection on the significance of calling for remembrance than by calling attention to James Baldwin, who above all else saw himself as one who was called to bear witness to the trials, tribulations, tragedies, and triumphs of Black people within a nation historically determined to deny their humanity and destroy all hope of their full and equal regard within society. Add to that Maya Angelou’s voice of defiance as she tells all the world that even still, I as a person, and we as a people, have the wherewithal to rise, and you have what I would consider the perfect context for pointing out the importance of taking Black History Month as an opportunity to remember the murder of Emmett Till.

Thank you, George — both for framing the importance of remembering the horrors of anti-Black hatred more broadly and for giving me an opportunity to speak to the importance of remembering this specific horror more particularly.

Bluntly put, it’s important to remember the heinous murder of Emmett Till because it speaks to and exemplifies both the depravity of anti-Black racism and the indominable spirit of those who rise up against it first and foremost by refusing to suffer it in silence.

In what ways have you integrated the tragic story of Emmett Till within the context of your classrooms? Philosophically and pedagogically, what is the aim? And what has the impact been on your students? For me, this integration of Till’s tragic story is your way of refusing to suffer in silence.

One of my primary goals as an educator is to foster critical consciousness in ways that compel students to recognize their agency and to use it to reckon with the realities of race within the social world.

In order to do so, I strive to force students to grapple with issues of race phenomenologically. Plainly put, I try to create a space in which students encounter others sharing stories of the lived experience of race in ways that force them to contend with the ways in which they too experience and play a role in the social realities of race.

Nothing in all my years of doing so has proven more poignant and powerful than taking them through the story of Emmett Till. Primarily, I use Stanley Nelson Jr.’s documentary, The Murder of Emmett Till. Nelson masterfully weaves together interviews and archival footage that introduce the audience to an array of figures and perspectives both directly and indirectly involved in and impacted by the murder of Emmett Till. In doing so, the documentary makes space for students to reflect upon how they themselves relate to the event and to think seriously about being as such. Ultimately, the documentary serves as a visceral focal element that allows me to provoke each student to see themselves as in some way personally connected to what transpired and what followed.

For most of my Black students and those who are situated similarly, what hits home is the juxtaposition of Black embodiment as a form of undue danger and Black agency, both that of others and potentially their own, as a potent force for demanding that society take steps to address their predicament.

For most of my white students, and those who are mostly regarded as white, what proves striking is the way in which the story of the murder of Emmett Till is in part the story of whites callously closing ranks when it comes to race and how whites today, themselves included, are faced with the challenge of actively breaking ranks with white supremacy or otherwise being complicit in the vicious and vile ways in which it continues to find expression.

Fortunately, most of my students emerge from the experience eager to play an active role in denouncing and eradicating the subtle and not so subtle forms of white supremacy that continue to plague our society and place many in peril.

How were you personally impacted once you found out about the killing of Emmett Till? How did that knowledge shape how you began to see yourself as a young Black male?

In many ways, it’s my own personal story that served as the basis for what I just described as my pedagogy. For many of my students, seeing the documentary serves as their first introduction to the murder of Emmett Till. For me, it was an old Jet magazine that I discovered when I was no more than 10 years old. At the time of the murder, Jet covered the event and its aftermath extensively; and in doing so, it published a host of images of Emmett as a happy young boy with his mother and of the horrific and grotesque state of his corpse as it lay on display just prior to and during his funeral. Like Emmett, I was a young Black boy who was his mother’s only child — and seeing someone who looked just like me and who was socially positioned just like me scared the hell out of me. It was right then and there that racism became real to me and much of my adult life has been devoted to addressing the ways in which racism proves so pernicious.

Discovering that picture of Emmett Till in Jet is telling. What you shared made me think of the poet Patricia Smith’s powerful poem, “That Chile Emmett in That Casket,” where that picture functions as what I would call a “mnemonic archive,” a site of remembering, mourning and a powerful warning for young Black people vis-à-vis anti-Black racism. In one of my co-edited books, Our Black Sons Matter: Mothers Talk about Fears, Sorrows and Hopes, mothers of Black sons discuss the pain and sorrow that they endure in the face of so many young Black boys and adult Black men who have been murdered in the U.S. by the state or by proxies of the state who see themselves as “protectors” of all things white, gated and “pure.” These mothers understood the emotional gravitas of what it would mean to lose their own sons. I’m thinking here of Emmett Till’s dear mother, Mamie Till. Discuss how you understand Mamie Till’s insistence that the world bear witness to the disfiguration of her precious son’s Black face. At this moment in history, what do you think Black people should take away from her insistence?

Years ago, I gave a talk on campus and the title of it was “Let the People See.” The posters I used to announce it were plain and simple: a black-and white image of me against a blue background with large black letters that said, “Let the People See” and smaller ones that indicated the date, time and location. Colleagues and students were baffled by the poster and clamored for me to tell them more about the talk — in reply, I told them that the only way that they would get a sense of what I had to say would be by showing up to see and hear me speak.

I deliberately scheduled the talk for one of my mother’s visits from out of town. In addition, I also made sure that my son would be there too. Well, as the day and time finally arrived, I stepped into a standing room-only auditorium and gave a little context for the occasion. More specifically, I told the audience that my talk was a deeply personal way of marking the occasion of my son’s 14th year, and with that, I touched a button on an A/V console and projected a screen-sized image of the horribly disfigured face of Emmett Till.

Standing against the backdrop of this image, I told the audience that as horrific and traumatic as seeing it might be, that placing it on display was the least I could do to pay homage to Mrs. Mamie Till and the countless other Black mothers forced to endure this and similar sights of their young sons. Moreover, I shared with the audience how Emmett’s mother courageously opened the casket containing her 14-year-old son’s remains and called upon the nation and the world to see the heinous handywork of white supremacy in action.

Turning off the image, I began to tell the audience how for me and many like me it’s an image that never goes way. I told them how as a young child it was an image that made me ever fearful for my own life, and how as a father it’s one that makes me ever fearful for the life of my son.

However, following in the footsteps of Mamie Till, I went on to talk about the importance of never turning away from the task of calling out the deeds and challenging the dangers of white supremacist figures and forces — a disposition exemplified by mothers like Mamie Till and instilled in me by my own. To wit, I turned to talk about how the horror and grief of the callous killing of a Black child in 1955 was compounded by the fact that it was done without consequence; and how more than 55 years later, the anti-Black sentiments born of white supremacy continue to result in the callous killing of young Black males with social and legal impunity.

At the time, I called on all who were present to step up and answer the call to see and address the existential threat of white supremacy. Moreover, at the time, I called on all who were present to see and respond to the visual evidence of anti-Black racism and hatred. Today, however, I think that Mamie Till would consider it vitally important for not only Black people but all people to insist that the nation and the world see and respond as well to the less obvious ways in which Black people and others suffer hatred and harm in virtue of their race.

In short, at this moment in history, I see the legacy of Mrs. Mamie Till as a legacy that calls on Black people and others to insist that we see and address not only the shocking expressions of racism and hatred that threaten the lives of those beyond the pale, but also the ones that are more subtle.

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