*TRIGGER WARNING: This post contains a link to a graphic image of a brutally murdered boy named Emmett Till. Because his mother asked that his body be buried in an open casket so that all could see what had been done to her child, I am honoring her wishes again and sharing his image. I will clearly indicate in the text the moment where this image appears. If you cannot look, do not click the link. I have looked at this image only a few times in my life, but I will never be able to forget what I’ve seen.*
Dear Lily June,
As a teacher, I would talk to my students about ethos. It’s a more complex concept than this, but essentially, it refers to the credibility of a speaker. Some voices have more connection to a topic at hand, and thus are more able to accurately convey an experience than others. I would ask my students anytime they wrote something to consider their ethos, and whether–and why–their voice could or should be outweighed by others. When such was the case, it was up to them to bolster their arguments not just with their own assumptions, but with the words and figures of experts or with the testimonies of those with first-hand experiences.
My voice matters little in the face of what’s happening in our country right now. But as your mother, I feel obligated to share with you the times I have failed in terms of understanding race and privilege, so that, if nothing else, from here on out, I can try to do better for you and help you learn to do better than me.
I am in elementary school in the 1990’s. We are learning about the Jim Crow era in America, and I cannot wrap my mind around it. We learn that there was a time when schools, water fountains, buses–everywhere, everything–was segregated by race. “Whites Only” signs used to be ubiquitous, and those who would ignore the spoken and unspoken laws of demarcation would sometimes meet violent ends. There’s no sugarcoating this. White men, Lily June, would hang black men from trees until they would suffocate and die.
It is unfathomable to me. It is barbaric, and cruel, and I can’t understand how such a thing could have happened. I do not even try. I console myself with thinking, “I can’t believe this is how things were for my parents. It is not like this anymore. Now, things are better.”
I am in college in the early 2000’s when a teacher gives me a copy of the poem by Sterling Brown, “Southern Cop.” Something about it keeps unsettling me, like a peach pit I’ve swallowed whole, sinking in my gut like a stone. The teacher gives it to us to teach us the concept of irony, what it means when the author says one thing in order to get you to think about another. Here is the text in its entirety:
Let us forgive Ty Kendricks.
The place was Darktown. He was young.
His nerves were jittery. The day was hot.
The Negro ran out of the alley.
And so Ty shot.
Let us understand Ty Kendricks.
The Negro must have been dangerous
Because he ran;
And here was a rookie with a chance
To prove himself a man.
Let us condone Ty Kendricks
If we cannot decorate.
When he found what the Negro was running for,
It was too late;
And all we can say for the Negro is
It was unfortunate.
Let us pity Ty Kendricks.
He has been through enough,
Standing there, his big gun smoking,
Having to hear the wenches wail
And the dying Negro moan.
In the past few years of watching the news and seeing black man after black man killed by actual or self-appointed police, I have returned to that poem over and over again in my mind, and I still can’t believe that it wasn’t written yesterday. That, in fact, that poem was written in 1936. That so very little has changed in eighty years.
At the time, though, in that classroom of a northern university, I thought, “The South is barbaric and cruel. Things like that don’t happen here, around me.”
In 2007, I am accepted into graduate school at the University of Alabama. I move to the deep south, a sheltered northeastern liberal who cannot imagine the lessons awaiting me. One moment I remember clearly is sitting, as a graduate teaching assistant, on the front stoop of my classroom’s building smoking a cigarette when two white fraternity girls (not my students) sit down to have a conversation near me about then presidential hopeful, Barack Obama.
Girl A turns to Girl B and says, “Oh my god. What do you think of Barack Obama?” and Girl B responds, “I don’t really have that strong of an opinion about politics,” [long pause] “but I think he might be the antichrist.” If there’d been a glass of sweet tea in my hand, Lily June, I might have done a spit-take; I think at the time she’s enacting an ironic parody. But when I look their way, I see in Girl B’s face that she’s dead serious.
Girl A continues, “Yeah, he supports gun control. Do you know who else supported gun control?” She waits for Girl B to come up empty. “Hitler.” (I wish these were punchlines, just as I wish a student the following week had been kidding when he told me that “Obama’s backing of universal healthcare makes him a socialist. If this keeps up, I’m moving to Canada”–where they, Lily June, already have socialized medicine.)
I’m tempted to confront all these kids on their obvious bias, their flimsy argumentation, only I don’t because I don’t believe what I’m hearing. Even as they’re saying it, and I’m seeing that they mean it, I can’t, even as a teacher, correct them to their faces. I tell myself it’s not right to impose on students my political beliefs. I tell myself what they’re expressing isn’t hate; it’s just not my opinion. Maybe, in my heart of hearts, I want to believe what I’m hearing is ignorance, not racism. But when the first is willful, is there really much of a difference?
I don’t hesitate, though, to mock them in my classrooms when discussing logical fallacies. I walk in one day and tell my students, “Oh my god. Did you hear that Barack Obama ate breakfast this morning?” There is a burble amongst them as they’re trying to figure out what I’m getting at. “Do you know who else ate breakfast sometimes? Hitler.” The ones who get it laugh, and the ones who don’t, Lily? They still frighten me.
When he wins in 2008, I watch Obama’s election speech, and I weep with more Hope for this country than can be emblazoned on a tens of thousands of t-shirts. But I didn’t see, at the time, that in my prior silence, I was no different than the Congress that would end up barring a good man at every turn from leaving his legacy. It is as if, infuriated that the first African-American has approached the presidential ladder, some members of Congress waited until he’d climbed to the very top and then set the bottom rung on fire.
But before all that could happen–before the government shutdowns and the painful stalemates and the brutal compromises and the horrific shootings–there is the day after the election, and I am walking to campus still smiling. And then I see a number of my students, as if they are in mourning, wearing all black. And still, I say nothing.
I will learn I’m not the only one having these kinds of experiences. The man who will become my husband and your father is, at the time, my significant other. He tells me a story about how a white girl from his class comes to his office hours, openly weeping. “I didn’t realize until your class, Mr. Moore,” she tells him, “that I was a racist.” It’s clear from her demeanor that she wants to be comforted in the midst of this confession. But what do you say to that?
Another colleague, a mutual friend of your dad and I, shares a tale of a black student in her class who turns in an essay in response to the prompt “Describe a life-changing moment you experienced, and the lesson you took away from it.” This eighteen-year-old boy writes about a time he leaves his backpack in the school gym and takes his mother’s car without her permission to go back to school and get it. Through friends of a friend, he somehow is able to call the school’s janitor after hours to let him back in.
But when he gets there–with the janitor still on the line of his cell call–he’s met with a security guard who throws him to the ground, repeatedly calling him derogatory names, and claiming the boy is trying to break in. Eventually the janitor, hearing what’s happening, is able to rush to get the bag to the kid, and the security guard walks away, no other word spoken about the situation.
I ask the colleague what lesson her student writer was able to glean from such an awful moment, and she tells me. He decided it was his fault, and that he should never again borrow his mother’s car without her permission. What do you say to that?
I have turned over and over these scenarios in my mind, Lily June, but I still have no idea, in either of those situations, what I would say. And I still feel guilty for that.
The problems reach a fever pitch in my own classroom in 2011. We are reading Gwendolyn Brooks’ “The Last Quatrain of the Ballad of Emmett Till” in class. The title refers to an actual 14-year-old boy from Chicago who, when visiting family in Mississippi, was brutally beaten, mutilated, shot and sunk in a river over the assumption that he flirted with a white woman. The poem, though, is really about Emmett’s mother, and her despair at having to bury her son.
The Last Quatrain of the Ballad of Emmett Till
(after the murder,
after the burial)
Emmett’s mother is a pretty-faced thing;
….the tint of pulled taffy.
She sits in a red room,
….drinking black coffee.
She kisses her killed boy.
….And she is sorry.
Chaos in windy grays
….through a red prairie.
We are dissecting its images, discussing the especially difficult last two lines, but the analysis feels superficial. I ask the students why they’re having such trouble connecting to this important text–a text that describes a brutal murder not far from where they live. One white student tells me, “Ms. Moore, in the South, we’re forced to read this kind of stuff all the time. But it isn’t like that down here anymore.”
I cannot take it. I pull down the overhead screen to pull up a powerpoint slide on the projector. I warn my students of what’s coming, and then I show them Emmett Till’s face before the murder.
And then I show them (be warned) Emmett Till’s open casket after. Even now, I cannot see this picture without wanting to vomit. There is no face there. There is only a space where a face used to be, a collection of bone and meat and muscle and tendon, no whisper of the smiling boy above who was so viciously slaughtered. And the memory of a country that couldn’t–or, more honestly, just wouldn’t–convict his killers.
I wish I could say I have some eloquent way at the time to persuade my students to care after looking at the photographs, but I can’t. I didn’t. From the second that image is on the screen, facing my back even, I can’t teach anymore. I just sit down at my desk and cry and let my students watch me do it. I tell them that this is what people are capable of, in any place, at any time. I tell them, as I’d once heard another professor say in a different class, “The world is diabolically indifferent.” And then I dismiss them into the world, scared that my emotional outburst and lack of professionalism will lose me my job come student evaluation time.
I don’t teach anymore, in large part because I know this: I’m not the one to do it. There are teachers who, instead of doing the crying in front of their classes, can encourage their students to feel what the literature itself is asking. It’s what I didn’t say that made me a coward; how I privileged my feelings over others’ that made me a failure.
I’m trying now, Lily, to be a better mother and teach you now what I couldn’t teach my students: How to listen. And how, when what you’ve heard is intolerable, not just to reject or dismiss or deny, but react.
- By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3981740
- By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18039240