for Emmett Till
In the mirror this river made of you
waxes a mother’s wish: I want the whole world
to see what they did to my boy. In the casket,
you whistle, stuttering. You reek under glass. So
this is what a river will do, carve and swell
just like a woman, singing a glossy blues.
Lord knows, your face—it sorrows across my page.
In August, 1955, 14-year-old Chicago native Emmett Till – White Sox fan and devotee of Minnie Minosa, happy-go-lucky kid with a slight stutter after a childhood bout with polio – was taken from his bed in the middle of the night while visiting his great-uncle in Money, Mississippi because he whistled at a 21-year-old beauty queen as he left a grocery. He was, of course, black, and she, white. His naked, disfigured body was found three days later floating in the Tallahatchie River, identified by the ring he wore; it was all he had of his father, killed in WWII when Emmett was 3 years old.
When his mother allowed the trip to Mississippi with his great-uncle, she had concerns: “Emmett was born and raised in Chicago, so he didn’t know how to be humble to white people. I warned him before he came down here; I told him to be very careful how he spoke…I explained to Emmett that if he met a white woman, he should step off the street, lower his head, and not look up. And he thought that was the silliest thing he’d ever heard.” But she let him go.
When his body was returned to his mother in Chicago for burial, she couldn’t recognize the grotesquely swollen and beaten face and body, the gouged-out eye, the crushed forehead, the bullet hole over the right ear, as her son. She checked the body carefully to make sure it was Emmett: “That was my darkest moment, when I realized that that huge box had the remains of my son.”
The funeral was scheduled for September 3. His mother requested an open casket viewing the day before: “Let the people see what they did to my boy.” Thousands came to the viewing, delaying the funeral three days. Jet magazine printed close-up photos of Emmett in the casket.
The two men who had taken Emmett from his bed in his great-uncle’s home were, surprisingly, indicted and stood trial. Voter registration laws had been carefully arranged to prevent black citizens from voting – and Lamar Smith, a voter registration activist, had been murdered in broad daylight two months before, his murderer never even charged – so the jury was all white. Not surprisingly, the two men were acquitted.
Now read the poem again. Maybe even out loud. Think about what a mirror does – it reflects us. We look in a mirror, and see our beauty, our flaws, ourselves.
So much of the poem’s language and imagery comes from Emmett Till’s story, which is one reason I recounted it in such detail. His mother’s exact words; the condition of his body; the whistle, the stutter.
The poem’s form reinforces meaning; and it’s the form that raises this to an exceptional level. It’s a mirror poem – the first and second stanzas are reversals, the lines in palindromic structure, with only slight changes in punctuation that make the text completely different, the second time. Compare “Lord knows, your face—it sorrows across my page” and “Lord knows your face. It sorrows across my page”. These statements could be made by different people, but more likely, by the same person in two different times. Maybe by a person who, in 2012, when a boy was murdered with impunity for wearing a hoodie and carrying a bag of Skittles, remembered 1955, when a boy was murdered for whistling.
Emmett Till stayed upright through it all. “We were never able to scare him,” said one of his attackers in a later interview. So he told Emmett: “I’m going to make an example of you – just so everybody can know how me and my folks stand.”
In this mirror made of you, I want the world to see what they did.