Even if you’re a casual student of American Civil Rights history, you know the story of Emmett Till, an emblematic story of deplorable race relationships in the ’50s captured on documentaries like Eyes on the Prize. It was an episode that served as a mighty catalyst for the civil rights movement.
On a visit to his Mississippi grandmother, the 14 year old Chicagoan was murdered for allegedly “wolf whistling” a white townswoman. He was savagely bludgeoned , a 75 pound fan tied to his neck, and thrown into the Tallahatchie River. At a widely covered trial, the suspects, J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant, were acquitted by an all-white jury. His body was returned on the City of New Orleans to his mother. His wake the A.C. “Sammy” Rainer Funeral Home attracted thousands of visitors who moved around his casket, a casket that his mother insisted be open so that all could see how horrific the attack had been. The images of the disfigured teenager were widely circulated, especially in Negro Newspapers like the Chicago Defender and the Pittsburgh Courier. Perhaps lesser known is the fact that Mamie Till, the 33 year old mother of the victim, became a forceful civil rights activist up until her death.
When he began a project to fictionalize the life of Emmett, John Edgar Wideman admits that he knew little more about the deep story than most Americans. What attracted him to the Till story was the fact that he and the victim were born in the same year, and that he was as shocked and confused as any young African-American living in Pittsburgh or any other city in the industrial North. It was easy and terrifying for him to imagine that were he to visit his grandfather’s place of origin in South Carolina, his fate would be the same.
But what lead Wideman to change the direction of his project was the absence of Mamie’s husband and Emmett’s father from the narrative. Wideman discovers that Louis Till (sometimes called Saint Louis because he was from Missouri) had served in Europe in WWII but was hanged for murder in Italy in 1945. The depth of Mamie’s grief was compounded by the death of her husband nine years earlier; her love for Emmett was magnified by the absence of his father.
The new project was driven forward by Wideman’s discovery that someone had “leaked” the Till file to the grand jury two weeks prior to their review of the case. Case closed. Emmett Till was seen as the rotten fruit of a bad seed, a barbarian like his father not deserving of further consideration.
The book that results from this discovery, Writing to Save a Life: The Louis Till File (November, 2016), is a detective story, a “cold case” tale of an intrepid researcher in search for the truth behind the sketchy, disorganized record that he obtains through the Freedom of Information act. For Wideman: “The Till file is my hobbyhorse. Me astride it like some kind of chocolate Don Quixote.”
His search for the elusive truth requires the imagination of a novelist, but the writer of numerous works of fiction (as well as non-fiction) knows both that “all stories are true” and also that his treatment can be dismissed as wild speculation. But speculation about what is not recorded is what Wideman creatively does. He brings his writer’s skills to imagine Mamie making a “sammich” for her ungrateful and ornery husband before he goes off to work at the Argo Corn Starch Plant in Summit, Illinois. He wonders how Louis might have felt seeing brown faces in Cabablanca where his army division was first stationed. He speculates on the state of the “guilty” man’s mind as he walks toward the gallows. He fashions alternative murder scene scenarios to the one in the official record.
Sometimes his imaginative probes are flights of fancy, as when he wonders whether one of Emmett’s killers, a man who served in Italy, might have crossed paths with Emmett’s father. The .45 that he proudly displayed to the Mississippi townfolk, was Army issue.
“I choose to assume the risk of allowing my fiction to enter other people’s true stories.” But what he reads in the account is not a true story of a trial but a fabrication designed to win an easy conviction. The file is full of descriptions of improbably events and lacks even a single dissenting eye-witness voice about a crime that has committed at night during the turmoil of a battle. A number of factors are disturbing, one of which is the command that comes down from General Eisenhower that all capital trials are to be completed expeditiously so that the Allied forces can move on to the new front.
A visit to the Till grave deepens the despair of the writer. Till is buried in Plot E of a military cemetery in Brittany, a section for dishonored soldiers. 83 of the 96 graves in this section of the military cemetery, which holds 6,000 graves, are those of colored soldiers. Many remains were brought from other grave sites throughout Europe to this one in 1949. The grave pits of the dishonored soldiers were half the size of the others. The writer-speculator wonders what the gravediggers found when they exhumed the Till body.
Is Till’s death random? Perhaps so if you know that while 300,000 black soldiers were in uniform, most were kept stateside until 1945 when the segregated Army, fearful of the deleterious effect these Americans would have on the operation, thought they were really needed. Till was one of a small fraction of black soldiers sent to Europe in 1943. The Louis Till story is another lynching story, but Till did not “stick like a bone in the country’s throat. America’s forgotten Louis Till.” But Wideman, a veteran himself, is the one who can’t forget. He seeks explanation through a trip to the ancestral homestead in Promiseland, South Carolina, but this community, founded by free slaves during Reconstruction, is no more. What consolation that the quixotic writer finds is in the raw beauty of the Brittany coast.
This work is also a meditation on his own life, especially the troubled relationship with his own father, a man who was emotionally unavailable and who eventually abandoned his wife and her five children, John the eldest. Wideman sees in his own long-suffering mother some of the same gritty resolve that he sees in Mamie Till. The first line of the couplet in my title comes from Wideman’s mother; the second line was a standard response from his father.
Though his father, who worked as a waiter, was never a criminal, he, like Louis, was rarely around to protect, advise and supervise his son. And when the old man was around, he rarely approved of his son’s choices, whether it be John’s decision to hang around with Big Jim, the neighbor flim-flam man and surrogate father to orphaned neighborhood boys or his adoption of Senegalese tunics when he returned at holidays from college. Because he has turned into a celebrated writer with a faculty appointment at an Ivy League university, he has often marveled (especially in Brothers and Keepers) that he did not turn out like his brother Rakhim, an incarcerated murdered. So the life that he is writing to save is as much his own, and that of other African-American males, as it is Louis Till’s.
This is a challenging work in part because of Wideman’s ventriloquism. He moves rapidly between a number of voice: that of the bureaucrat, the country Negro, the image-hungry poet, the cool historian, and the outraged victim of injustice. It’s a bit of a wild ride, but satisfying if you can hang on.
It’s also a timely work at this time of change in the president’s office. The account of Till’s death in the middle of the 50s decade and his treatment of the life of one forgotten member of “America’s greatest generation” is a caution against thinking that there was a time when America was allegedly great, a time to which we are summoned to return, a time when black lives truly didn’t matter.