“Emmett Till’s name still catches in my throat”: Lynching and Children’s Literature

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Emmett Till’s story is told by poet Marilyn Nelson in a heroic crown of sonnets.

Last week, I wrote about the children’s books in my public library (the big central one) that discussed the lynching campaigner Ida B. Wells. I hadn’t initially intended to write about Wells; I was looking to see if there were children’s books on lynching available and her name came up first. I was pleased to find the Wells books, particularly the one by Walter Dean Myers—but in some ways I was also not surprised. Children’s biography subjects, even when bordering on the controversial (lynching is not exactly a good bedtime-book subject) also tend to stay safe in some way or another. The books about Wells certainly deal with lynching, but in a roundabout way; a lynching campaigner is a safer focus than a lyncher—or indeed, someone who was lynched.

But I had initially gone to the library hoping to find books about Emmett Till, because I had thought that Till would be the ideal subject for a children’s book about lynching. He was, after all, a child himself when in 1955 he was lynched for allegedly whistling at a white woman in Money, Mississippi, shot in the head and bound with barbed wire before being tossed in the Tallahatchie River. His murderers were acquitted despite the open casket funeral his mother held and despite the outrage his death provoked all across the nation. If you wanted to teach children about the crime of lynching, there could be no better subject, especially since his death prompted many who had opposed or been indifferent to the Civil Rights Movement to change their minds.

 

However, I had not grown up in the 1970s knowing about Emmett Till. Discussions of the Civil Rights Movement when I was a kid included other figures who had changed minds—Martin Luther King, Jr of course, and Rosa Parks (who was always portrayed, not as a campaigner, but as a tired lady on the bus). I remember seeing the photo of the first day of school desegregation in Little Rock Arkansas, African-American girls with their books against their chests as they were escorted by the National Guard. I even learned, eventually, about the 16th St. Baptist Church bombings and how innocent girls were killed. These figures and images were all made safe somehow for childhood consumption: King as a larger-than-life figure, giving his “I have a dream” speech, Parks rendered much older and weaker than she was, students supported by the symbol of the American government (see how good the US is, we protect against racists; somehow this message was congruent with the American racists who were spitting in the faces of the students), children killed by a bomb but in a church so it was straight up to heaven for them. Perhaps these interpretations were as much mine (protecting my child self) as of the children’s books I read about Civil Rights. But Emmett Till was not in them. He might have whistled at a white woman. This, apparently, was enough to keep him from being a notable figure of the Civil Rights era in books for children.

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Freedman’s discussion of Till is quickly ended, and the reader is returned to the relative safety of Rosa Parks.

 

Even now, many children’s books that I found on Civil Rights do not even mention Emmett Till. The few that do put Till’s murder in the context of other Civil Rights actions. Russell Freedman’s Freedom Walkers: The Story of the Montgomery Bus Boycott (Holiday House, 2006), for example, gives a couple of paragraphs to Till’s lynching in the midst of a discussion about Rosa Parks. The last line of the paragraph about Till, in which “the killers boasted to a journalist that they had indeed murdered Till” (32), and the first line of the next paragraph, “Rosa Parks had not expected to resist on that December evening” (32) are never directly connected, but narratively, the book returns to a position of safety by invoking Rosa Parks.

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Irma McLaurin’s history of the Civil Rights movement gives Till two pages–but never uses the term “lynching”.

Irma McClaurin’s contribution to the “Drama of African American History” series, The Civil Rights Movement (Marshall Cavendish, 2008), has a two-page spread about Till’s murder, but they never refer to it as lynching. And, while the author notes that Till’s death had an impact, it is interesting that she writes that the verdict acquitting the white murderers, rather than the death itself, “had a dramatic impact on an entire generation of young African Americans”. The acquittal of white racists is seen as galvanizing, but for African-Americans only.

 

My public library did have books for children specifically about Emmett Till—but they were not available in the children’s section. Both Simeon Wright’s Simeon’s Story : an eyewitness account of the kidnapping of Emmett Till (Lawrence Hill, 2010) and Marilyn Nelson’s A Wreath for Emmett Till (Houghton Mifflin, 2005) are listed in the library catalog as “juvenile literature” but neither are shelved in the children’s section. Instead, they can be found in adult non-fiction. And while Wright’s book could conceivably be seen as a book for adults, A Wreath for Emmett Till was written and designed as a picture book and a poetry book for young people. Nelson herself was nine years old when Till was murdered, and she wrote in her introduction that Till’s “name and history have been a part of most of my life” (n.p.). She wanted to write the collection of sonnets (a heroic crown of them, if you are well-versed in poetic forms) for young people who would recognize what it meant for a person of their own age and generation to be lynched. She felt that the strictness of the sonnet form would help protect herself as she wrote “from the intense pain of the subject matter” (n.p.). But although the book won multiple awards as a children’s book including the Coretta Scott King award and an ALA Notable Book for Children (it won several awards as a Young Adult book as well, including the Michael Printz Award), my public library does not encourage children to access it. “Emmett Till’s name still catches in my throat,” Nelson writes in one of her sonnets, but unless we teach children about the history of lynching and how it affected all Americans—including children—his name and story will not underscore the violence, current and historical, of racist Americans who take the law into their own hands.

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One thought on ““Emmett Till’s name still catches in my throat”: Lynching and Children’s Literature

  1. Jennifer Ryan-Bryant

    I just taught Lewis Nordan’s Wolf Whistle, a fictionalized account of Emmett Till’s murder, in my grad class. Nordan was one year older than Till the year he was killed, and the murderers’ trial was held in the same county where he lived. It took him 38 years to write this novel about an event that haunted the rest of his life–a novel intended for a YA audience. Thanks for this important entry.

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