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Writing to Save a Life
The Louis Till File
Table of Contents
About The Book
A major literary figure tells “a searching tale of loss, recovery, and déja vu that is part memoir and what-if speculation, part polemic and exposé” (The Washington Post) about two generations of one family—civil rights martyr Emmett Till and his father, Louis—shortlisted for the National Book Critics Circle Award.
Emmett Till took a train from his home in Chicago to visit family in Money, Mississippi; a few weeks later he returned home dead. Murdered because he was a colored boy and had, allegedly, whistled at a white woman. His mother, Mamie Till, chose to display her son’s brutalized face in a glass-topped casket, “so the world can see what they did to my baby.”
Emmett Till’s murder and his mother’s refusal to allow his story to be forgotten have become American legends. But one darkly significant twist in the Till legend is rarely mentioned: Louis Till, Emmett’s father, Mamie’s husband, a soldier during World War II, was executed in Italy for committing rape and murder.
In 1955, when he and Emmett were each only fourteen years old, Wideman saw a horrific photograph of dead Emmett’s battered face. Decades later, upon discovering that Louis Till had been court-martialed and hanged, he was impelled to investigate the tragically intertwined fates of father and son. Writing to Save a Life is “part exploration and part meditation, a searching account of [Wideman’s] attempt to learn more about the short life of Louis Till” (The New York Times Book Review) and shine light on the truths that have remained in darkness.
Wideman, the author of the award-winning Brothers and Keepers, “is a master of quiet meditation…and his book is remarkable for its insight and power” (SFGate). An amalgam of research, memoir, and imagination, Writing to Save a Life is essential and “impressive” (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette) reading—an engaging, enlightening conversation between generations, the living and the dead, fathers and sons.
One of my grandfathers, John French, my mother’s father, taller, skin a shade lighter than many of the Italian immigrants he worked beside plastering and hanging wallpaper, used to ride me on his shoulders through the streets of our colored community Homewood in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I loved to sit up there. Safe. King of the world. Entranced by my grandfather’s tales about the neighborhood, by his long silences, his humming, his rhymes and songs. His broad shoulders a sanctuary I would count on, even when my father disappeared periodically from various homes shared with my mother and me.
I have never forgotten how peaceful the world looked from up there. How one day while I rode on my grandfather’s shoulders, my hands, knees, careful not to tip his wide-brimmed, brown hat, we passed Clement, a smallish man who swept out Henderson’s Barbershop. But back then, at this precise moment in the Homewood streets, I knew nothing about Clement, except I could see he limped, dragging along one worrisome foot in an oversize boot, and see he had a big face ugly enough to seem scary, even from my perch, a face with distorted features I did know would loom in my nightmares for years afterward.
John French called out the name Clement and the man returned the greeting with a slowly forming but finally huge grin, openmouthed, few teeth, a lingering gaze that fixed upon us, then inside us, then wandered far, far past us. A look telling me that everything familiar to me could instantly be unsettled and dissolve.
In 1955, about nine years after that encounter on the Homewood streets, I was fourteen years old, and a photo of dead Emmett Till’s mutilated face entered my life with the same sudden, indelible truth as Clement.
Just in case you don’t recall, I’ll remind you that in 1955, Emmett Till, also age fourteen, boarded a train in Chicago to visit family in Mississippi. A few weeks later a train brought his dead body back to Chicago. Emmett Louis Till had been murdered because he was a colored boy and had allegedly wolf-whistled a white lady.
* * *
Over half a century later, I’m still dealing with the faces of Clement and Till. To provide background for a fiction I intended to write about Emmett Till, I saved excerpts from newspaper coverage of the trial of Till’s murderers.
Over sixty newspapers on hand in 1955 for the Sumner, Mississippi, trial. Thirty photographers popping flashbulbs, seventy reporters pecking away at truth on their typewriters. I was a bit surprised by how much national and international attention the trial had attracted. Not surprised to learn public interest had rapidly evaporated. Today Emmett Till is generally viewed as a civil rights martyr, but the shabby trial that exonerated his killers, and the crucial role played by Till’s father in the trial have largely disappeared from the public’s imagination. Silenced, the Till trial serves as an unacknowledged, abiding precedent. Again and again in courtrooms across America, killers are released as if colored lives they have snatched away do not matter.
. . . the day opened hot and humid, the heat rising to an almost unbearable 95 degrees. (Chicago Defender)
. . . townspeople of Sumner have never seen anything like it here—the crowds, the out-of-state newsmen and the excitement of a big trial—not even on Saturdays or when merchants conduct a drawing to give away an automobile . . . Citizens estimated as many as a thousand outsiders came, more than on the biggest trade days . . . a porter kept busy passing a pitcher of ice water to trial officials. Downstairs, a cold drink stand had its biggest day in history. (Memphis Commercial Appeal)
Twenty-two seats were provided inside the rail for white newsmen where they could easily hear the proceedings . . . Negro press . . . limited to four seats directly behind the rail where the public is seated. (Chicago Defender)
A lily-white jury overwhelmingly constituted of farmers, all of whom have sworn bare-faced against all their traditions that it will not affect their verdict that the accused are white men like themselves and the victim a Negro boy from Chicago. (New York Post)
. . . the judge laid down the rules . . . He stated that smoking would be allowed and suggested that the men take their coats off for comfort. (Chicago Defender)
. . . Defendants made a dramatic entrance with their attractive wives and children at 10:25 a.m., setting off a buzz of interest and lightning-like flashes from the combined action of thirty cameramen . . . Mrs. Carolyn Bryant, a 21-year-old brunette who is expected to be a key witness, was dressed in a simple dark gray dress with a high neckline. Bryant held his two sons, Lamar Bryant, 1, and Roy Bryant, 2, and Milam clutched his boys, Harvey Milam, 2, and Bill Milam, 4 . . . Milam said he has been a good friend of the Negroes he has known. He said five years ago he plunged into the Tallahatchie River, from which the body of Emmett Till was pulled, and saved the life of a drowning seven-year-old Negro girl. (Memphis Commercial Appeal)
Once, Bill Milam picked up a toy pistol . . . fired an imaginary shot at Roy Bryant Jr. . . . clambered over the rail and stomped down the aisle making little boy noises . . . ran his hand along courtroom railing pickets, apparently deriving great satisfaction from the machine-gun click-clack he produced. (Memphis Commercial Appeal)
Moses Wright pointed a knobby finger at J. W. Milam today and said, “There he is”—identifying him as one man who abducted the sharecropper’s nephew in the early morning hours of August 28. Then the 64-year-old farmer pointed out 24-year-old Roy Bryant, Milam’s half-brother, as the second man who roused the Wright family from bed at 2:00 a.m. and took Emmett Louis Till away . . . “I got up and opened the door . . . Mr. Milam was standing at the door with a pistol in his right hand and a flashlight in the other,” Wright declared. (Greenwood Commonwealth)
Q: What did Milam say when you let him in . . .
A: Mr. Milam said he wanted the boy who done the talking at Money . . . [Mr. Milam] told me if it was not the right boy he would bring him back and put him in bed . . .
Q: When was the next time you saw Emmett?
A: He was in a boat where they had taken him out of the river.
Q: Was he living or dead?
A: He was dead.
Q: Could you tell whose body it was?
A: It was Emmett Till.
Q: Did you notice a deputy sheriff taking the ring off his finger?
A: Yes. (Jackson State Times)
Chester Miller, Greenwood undertaker, took the stand for a second time and described Till’s body: “The whole top of the head was crushed in. A piece of the skull fell out in the boat,” he said, “. . . I saw a hole in his skull about one inch above the right ear.” . . . Sheriff H. C. Strider of Tallahatchie County has said a bullet caused the hole above Till’s ear. (Greenwood Commonwealth)
Sheriff Strider has said the body may not be that of Till. “The whole thing looks like a deal made by the NAACP.” (Jackson Daily News)
The judge allowed the defense to record Mrs. Bryant’s testimony with the jury out of the room.
Q: Who was in the store with you?
A: I was alone . . . At about eight o’clock a Negro man came in the store and went to the candy case. I walked up to the candy counter and asked what he wanted. I gave him the merchandise and held out my hand for the money.
Q: Did he give you the money?
Q: What did he do?
A: He caught my hand in a strong grip and said, “How about a date, baby?”
Q: What did you do then?
A: I turned around and started to the back of the store, but he caught me at the cash register . . . He put both hands at my waist . . . He said, “What’s the matter, baby, can’t take it? . . . You needn’t be afraid.”
Q: Did he use words that you don’t use?
Q: It was unprintable, wasn’t it?
A: Yes. He said that and added “with white women before” . . . Another Negro came in and dragged him out of the store by his arm. (Jackson State Times)
A young Negro mother returned today to her native Mississippi to fight to avenge the life of her fourteen-year-old son . . . Mrs. Mamie Bradley Till, 33, is a demure woman whose attractiveness was set off by a small black hat with a veil folded back, a black dress with a white collar. In the more than 99 degree heat of the courtroom, she fanned herself with a black silk fan with a red design . . . In a quiet voice she answered the questions of the newsmen . . . (Daily Worker)
Q: Where did you first see the body?
A: I saw it at the A. A. Rainier funeral home in a casket . . . I positively identified the body I saw in the casket as my son . . . I looked at his face carefully. I looked at him all over thoroughly. I was able to see that it was my son’s body without a shadow of a doubt.
Q: His father, Louis, was killed overseas in the armed forces, was he not?
A: Yes, sir.
Q: Were his father’s personal effects sent to you after his death.
A: Yes, sir.
Q: Was there a ring in those personal effects.
A: Yes, sir.
Q: Did you give your son the ring that was returned?
A: Yes, but his hand was too small to wear it at the time. However, since he was twelve years old, he has worn the ring on occasions, using scotch tape or a string to help it from coming off. When he left Chicago, he was looking for some cuff-links in his jewelry box and found the ring and put it on his finger to show me that it fit and he didn’t have to wear tape anymore.
Q: And you say definitively that he left Chicago with the ring in his possession?
A: Yes, sir. (Jackson State Times)
Milam shook off his kids yesterday afternoon and stood up all by himself at adjournment and asked, “Where are our goddamned guards? We’ve got to get out of here.” (New York Post)
Up rose Sidney Carlton for the defense to point out the holes in the state’s case . . . He said of course Mamie Bradley, a mother, believes what she wants to believe. “The undisputed scientific facts are against her.” Then J. W. Kellum rose for the second defense summary . . . “I want you to tell me where under God’s shining sun is the land of the free and home of the brave if you don’t turn these boys loose . . . your forefathers will turn over in their graves.” (New York Post)
“What is your verdict,” inquired the court. “Not guilty,” said Mr. Shaw in a firm voice. The two defendants were all smiles as they received congratulations in the courtroom . . . lit up cigars after the verdict was announced. (Memphis Commercial Appeal)
Mississippi Jungle Law Frees Slayers of Child . . .
An all-white jury of sharecroppers demonstrated here Friday that the constitutional guarantees of “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness” do not apply to Negro citizens of the state. (Cleveland Call and Post)
Fair Trial Was Credit to Mississippi . . .
. . . Mississippi people rose to the occasion and proved to the world that this is a place where justice in the courts is given to all races, religions, classes. (Greenwood, Mississippi Morning Star)
In my notebook, the newspaper excerpts end with the words of Chester Himes, a colored novelist who chose not to reside in his segregated country and probably sent his letter to the Post from Paris, France:
The real horror comes when your dead brain must face the fact that we as a nation don’t want it to stop . . . So let us take the burden of all this guilt from these two pitiful crackers. They are but the guns we hired. (New York Post)
As I read more about the trial, I discovered that the jury had deliberated less than an hour—sorry it took so long, folks . . . we stopped for a little lunch—before it delivered a not guilty verdict. For an American government waging a propaganda war to convince the world of Democracy’s moral superiority over Communism, intense criticism of the verdict abroad and at home was an unacceptable embarassment. Federal officials pressured the state of Mississippi to convict Milam and Bryant of some crime. Since abundant sworn testimony recorded in the Sumner trial had established the fact that Milam and Bryant had forcibly abducted Emmett Till, the new charge would be kidnapping. Justice Department lawyers were confident both men would be found guilty.
Except, two weeks before a Mississippi grand jury was scheduled to convene and decide whether or not Milam and Bryant should be tried for kidnapping, Emmett Till’s father, Louis Till, was conjured like an evil black rabbit from an evil white hat. Information from Louis Till’s confidential army service file was leaked to the press: Emmett Till’s father, Mamie Till’s husband, Louis Till, was not the brave soldier portrayed in Northern newspapers during the Sumner trial who had sacrificed his life in defense of his country. Private Louis Till’s file revealed he had been hanged July 2, 1945, by the U.S. army for committing rape and murder in Italy.
With this fact about Emmett Till’s father in hand, the Mississippi grand jury declined to indict Milam and Bryant for kidnapping. Mrs. Mamie Till, her lawyers, advisers and supporters watched in dismay as news of her husband’s execution erased the possibility that killers of her fourteen-year-old son Emmett would be punished for any crime, whatsoever.
* * *
Revisiting trial testimony did not help me produce the Emmett Till fiction I wanted to write, but I did learn that his father’s ring was on Emmett’s finger when he was pulled dead out of the Tallahatchie River. The ring a reminder that Emmett Till, like me, possessed a father. A Till father I had never really considered. A colored father summoned from the dead to absolve white men who had tortured and shot his son.
* * *
While I gathered facts for an Emmett Till story never written, a second encounter with Louis Till occurred. In the mail I received an unsolicited galley of The Interpreter, a biography of the French novelist Louis Guilloux, author of OK, Joe!, a fictionalized account of his job as interpreter at trials of American GIs accused of capital crimes against French citizens during World War II. The Interpreter’s author, Alice Kaplan, used Guilloux’s experiences to examine the systematically unequal treatment of colored soldiers in United States military courts during World War II.
I found myself quite moved by Kaplan’s description of her pilgrimage to the grave of Private James Hendricks, hanged for murder by the U.S. Army in 1945, a colored soldier at whose trial Louis Guilloux had worked. Kaplan’s book took me 120 kilometers east of Paris, to a part of the countryside where the fiercest battles of World War I were fought—a gentle landscape of rivers, woods, and farmland, interrupted by an occasional modest village. I arrived with her at a massive World War I cemetery, with its iron gates and stone entry columns. Stood finally in a clearing enclosed by laurel bushes and pine trees reached by exiting the back door of the cemetery administrator’s quarters. The clearing contained Plot E, the officially designated “dishonorable” final resting place of ninety-six American servicemen executed by the U.S. military during World War II.
Situated across the road from Plots A–D, where 6,012 honorable American dead from World War I are buried in the main cemetery of Oise-Aisne, Plot E is quiet, secluded, seldom visited, meticulously groomed. A place unbearably quiet, I imagine, as I read Kaplan’s depiction of Plot E in The Interpreter and surveyed with her eyes an expanse of green lawn dotted with small white squares she discovers are flat stones embedded in the crew-cut grass. Four rows of stones, twenty-four stones per row, the rows about five feet apart, every white square engraved with a gray number, she writes.
I accompany her, moving slowly up and down the slight slope, between the rows, because when you stand still, Plot E’s quiet is too enveloping, too heavy, too sad. I need to animate my limbs, stop holding my breath in this almost forgotten site where ninety-six white squares mark the remains of men, eighty-three of them colored men. What color are the eighty-three colored men now. What color are the thirteen other men beneath their gray numbers. I think of numbers I wore on basketball and football jerseys. Numbers on license plates. Numbers tattooed on forearms. My phone number, social security number.
On page 173 in chapter 27, the final chapter of Kaplan’s book, she narrates in a footnote how she reaches number 73, the corner grave in row four that belongs to Louis Till. His story has such tragic historical resonance, she writes, then informs the reader of Private Louis Till’s execution by the army in 1945 for crimes of murder and rape in Italy, and that ten years later in 1955, Till’s fourteen-year-old son Emmett was beaten, shot, and thrown in a river in Mississippi for whistling at a white woman.
With research of Emmett Till’s murder fresh in my mind, I had wanted to inform page 173, inform Alice Kaplan the wolf whistle was only one of many stories, a myth as much as fact, though I didn’t speak to her then, in the shared quiet of Plot E whose silence I feared breaking even as I also understood I could not break it. Instead I raise my eyes from the page, my gaze from the photograph of a numbered white square of stone, and disappear, a ghost in the machine of a book, machine of my body. I do not speak to Alice Kaplan in Plot E. It’s not the time or place to discuss the wolf whistle’s problematic status. Not the time now to expand this anecdote about finding Louis Till in Kaplan’s book nor to talk about my own trip, years later, to the French cemetery. This is just a brief version of encountering Louis Till. Anyway, I believe the truth is more like he found me than I found him.
Dear Professor Kaplan,
In your account of a visit to Plot E of the Oise-Aisne American Cemetery and Memorial on Sunday afternoon in January 2004, you relate that the look-alike white gravemarkers were engraved with gray numbers and not names. How could you identify the person buried beneath a particular stone. More specifically, how did you know Louis Till was under stone 73. Had you obtained a directory, a guidebook, some official document matching names with numbers. If you possess such a source, where did you discover it. Would you be willing to share it. Does it contain facts about the dead other than names and numbers. Did you have in hand a map of Plot E so that you anticipated finding Louis Till’s grave at the corner of row four. Were you touched equally by the Till grave and the grave, number thirteen, of Private James Hendricks, the colored soldier whose trial you feature in your book about French novelist Monsieur Louis Guilloux, the interpreter at James Hendricks’s court-martial. Were you struck, Professor Kaplan, by the coincidence that both Mr. Guilloux and Mr. Till bear the given name Louis or by the resemblance between Guilloux and guillotine. Did you feel on the Sunday afternoon you explored Plot E that the life of each one of us no matter how tightly we clutch it, is an unanchored thread that does not guide us out of the labyrinth. I thank you in advance for any information you’re able to offer about these matters. Your book The Interpreter led me to Plot E of the Oise-Aisne American Cemetery and Memorial, and in a very real sense I have been wandering since in a limbo inhabited by shades of men buried there.
Several years after that letter—never sent—I was shaving and the TV news talking in another room announced a black father declared guilty of protecting his son. A carful of mad white boys rolls up to the black man’s suburban Long Island driveway and they demand he surrender his son to them because the son they say insulted the sister of one of the boys. A sexual, racial trespass, thus unforgivable, thus the son must pay. But the daddy, an old-time emigrant from the deep south, got a long memory, got him a little pistola cached away for just such emergencies. No. No. Never again. Get thee gone, ye whited sepulchers, he goes or says other words to provoke a predictable riposte such as, Nigger, you better move your scrawny old black nigger ass out of the way, boy, an exchange I imagine escalating rapidly to nastier imprecations and threatening gestures terminated abruptly by a single gunshot. One white boy down, bleeding on the black man’s driveway. The other boys in his crew rush him to the hospital, but it’s too late. He dies on the way, and this morning the breaking news: a judge has pronounced the black father guilty.
Familiar script. Offended white males go after black boy accused of molesting white female. Same ole, same ole Mississippi Till story repeating itself, but with the roles, the scenario sort of scrambled—north not south, day not night, black guy not white guy the one with a pistol in his hand, white accuser dies, accused black boy survives, and the court in this New York case declares black shooter guilty, not like Mississippi law declared the white shooter of Emmett Till innocent. This latest version of the script altered but not enough to obscure its resemblance to the original. Then the point would be lost, wouldn’t it. Just enough alike and different to appear as if festering ugliness between blacks and whites changes. Though it really doesn’t change, except maybe for the worse. This is what I heard from the TV in the other room as I shaved.
And getting even worse day by day it seems when I pay attention—one more colored victim declared guilty without a trial falls, fallen, falling dead, here, there, everywhere . . .
* * *
This text will not become the Emmett Till fiction I believed I was working on. All the words that follow are my yearning to make some sense out of the American darkness that disconnects colored fathers from sons, a darkness in which sons and fathers lose track of one another.
* * *
When I call the National Archives in Washington, D.C., the person, a specialist in military service records a friend suggested and whose extension I ask for, is unavailable. The phone of an alternative clerk, to whom I’m referred by a friendly human operator whose voice identifies him as alive and colored, picks up after three rings. A recorded message offers another extension that plunges me into a cycling menu of instructions, the product of Starquest Answering Service that’s either unintelligible by design or designed to make me pay for my sins—sins of age, of poor hearing and unnimble fingers, of unfamiliarity with the latest maneuvers necessary to wield control over recorded voices offering choices. Each set of options is so lengthy I forget them if I listen to the entire list. Or choose prematurely, always incorrectly, if I don’t listen to the bitter end. I feel like poor Ulysses roped to the mast, teased by a chorus of sirens or baffled, like Ralph Ellison’s invisible man by voices whose job is to keep me running. Voices that chirp, chatter, lecture, and sometimes, I’m sure, chortle at my efforts to steer through them and obtain information about Louis Till.
Turns out the backup person I seek is not available either, I learn later from the friendly colored operator. The alternate person’s mother died suddenly and he’s away burying her in Alabama. The toll mounts. Casualties jinxed perhaps by mere association with the grim subjects of my inquiry: kidnap, rape, murder, execution by hanging.
After weeks of calling and reaching no one, I complain again to the live voice. He offers yet a third number and bingo, persistence seems about to pay off. The original archivist who’d been reported gravely ill is either back at his desk or at a virtual desk in heaven where he’s able to receive calls. His voice is music to my ears even though it’s recorded music. He/it promises to return missed calls promptly, and sure enough my call’s returned. A recorded voice offers a number, recited twice to make sure I get it. I’m elated. Hang up immediately, punch in the twice-repeated number, and alas, find myself adrift in Starquest again.
* * *
Leghorn, Italy, a.k.a. Livorno, the site of Louis Till’s court-martial, say documents arriving at last, at last, after I put my request to the government in writing. The Louis Till file mailed to me also states that the executions of Till and his codefendant, Fred A. McMurray, occurred in Aversa, Italy, near Naples. I welcomed such facts though they only led to more questions. According to the death certificates of Privates Till and McMurray, the men were hanged the same day—July 2, 1945. Little else about the executions in Aversa appears in the copious file. Did Till and McMurray drop simultaneously, each through his own trapdoor, at the conclusion of the same . . . 3 . . . 2 . . . 1 countdown. Who counted. One countdown or two. One double scaffold or two scaffolds, separate and equal. Were the condemned offered a last chance to speak. Did either avail himself of the opportunity. Who witnessed the ceremony. Did the U.S. Army invite townsfolk and town officials, as was occasionally the practice at executions of American soldiers in occupied France. In Brittany, for example, the public execution site of a colored G.I. is remembered in the Breton language as park an hini du, black man field.
Was a real doctor or army-trained medic assigned to listen for the absent pulses of dead Till and McMurray. Sunshine or rain that day. Did the condemned meet their fate resolutely or falter. What thoughts were they thinking on the gallows steps. How many steps. Were the steps wooden. Portable. Were photos taken of the living prisoners, dead prisoners. What archive holds them if they still exist. Much later I would find in a book, The Fifth Field, a few photos claiming to document the hangings of Till and McMurray. Are the photos authentic. Is Louis Till’s face truly one of the faces in the blurry snapshots.
* * *
A copy of a Battle Casualty Report (July 20, 1945) appears on an early page of the Till file and registers Louis Till’s death. The words “in Italy” are typed crookedly into the Place of casualty box. An asterisk occupies the box where Type of casualty is supposed to be recorded. At the bottom of this page, just beyond the Casualty Report’s edge, a footnote, indexed by the asterisk above, contains two phrases, “judicial asphyxiation” and “sol died in a non-battle status due to his own misconduct.” Mrs. Till asserted on numerous occasions that only the second phrase was included in the telegram of July 13, 1945, sent to inform her of her husband’s death.
Given many such willful or unavoidable or contested or careless or premeditated aporias in the official account, how could the most diligent researcher hope to accurately reconstruct a double hanging in Aversa, Italy, over a half century after it happened.
Where there’s life, there’s hope, my mom used to say, even though my father, if he happened to be around, would always interject: And for every tree, there’s a rope, a rejoinder that would have irritated Mom even more if she had known (and probably she did) it was the punch line of a joke making fun of a southern darky ha-ha-ha obsessed with copping him a taste of white pussy ha-ha before he dies.
Where there’s life, there’s hope
* * *
Did Louis Till ever cop a taste of leghorn. Some historians contend the city of Leghorn is named for chickens its earliest settlers found in residence when they arrived to erect a fortified town in the middle ages. Others argue leghorn chickens—a small, hardy domestic fowl noted for prolific egg production—are named for the city where they were originally bred. Though the city of Leghorn, near Genoa in northwestern Italy on the Ligurian Sea, played a prominent role in his short (twenty-three years) life, it’s probably safe to conjecture Louis Till could not have cared less whether chickens or city bore the name leghorn first. But did he ever sample the local bird. Louis Till probably knew chicken in the sense Charlie Parker (a.k.a. Bird for love of them) knew chicken, but whatever Louis Till thought about leghorns or the city of Leghorn is lost in the silence that confronted me when I sought his voice in documents from the file.
Malcolm (a.k.a. Malcolm X) who shares a family name Little with the famously paranoid bird Chicken Little, was not literally present at Louis Till’s trial and execution, but Malcolm informed the world in no uncertain terms why proverbial chickens on their way home to roost in America would have paused in Leghorn/Livorno and clucked disapproval of the kangaroo court-martial conviction and hanging of colored privates Louis Till and Fred A. McMurray. Louis Till, my father and most other veterans of World War II, colored and not, are gone now and humankind is no closer to solving problems created by the conundrum of race than we are to figuring out whether leghorn chickens or their eggs came first. I attempt to smile and nod reassuringly as I promise Louis Till, Mamie Till, my father, brothers, sister, mother, Emmett Till, Malcolm, Martin, Mandela et cetera, that some of us are absolutely not satisfied by the prospect of remaining forever in the dark. Darkness as deep and sinister as the dark in which many colored soldiers, executed like Till and McMurray and James Hendricks, lie buried.
* * *
All stories are true. As far as I’ve been able to glean, Louis Till possessed no knowledge of that particular Igbo proverb, nor a general familiarity with the customs and folklore of the Igbo, a West African ethnic group whose homeland is southeastern Nigeria (a.k.a. Biafra). Even if Till had been a prolific reader, he would not have come across all stories are true in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, where I first read the proverb. Achebe’s novel, set in a traditional Igbo village at the beginning of the twentieth century, was not published until 1958, thirteen years after Louis Till’s death. Yet it seems that Till was privy to the wisdom of all stories are true. In the only direct quote attributed to him by army officers in the entire Till file, Louis Till articulates a very Igbo understanding of the predicament in which he found himself.
According to report #41 (Criminal Investigation Division/Rome Allied Area Command, United States Army—7 August, 1944) filed by CID/RAAC agents I. H. Rousseau and J. J. Herlihy and included in the Till documents I received, Louis Till didn’t open up to any extent when Herlihy, posing as a fellow prisoner, confined himself (10 July 1944) in the brig with Till to gain information about the crimes—assault, rape, murder—of June 27–28 in Civitavecchia, Italy. Another attempt to secure a statement from Till on 23 July 1944, the report continues, also met with negative results. Till remained adamantly silent, offering no information about the crimes being investigated nor providing an alibi to establish his whereabouts on the night of June 27. A stubborn silence that must have puzzled and frustrated his army interrogators since all the other accused colored soldiers were busy accusing one another. Breaking his silence once in response to the agents’ repeated demands for a statement, Louis Till allegedly said to Rousseau, “There’s no use in me telling you one lie and then getting up in court and telling another one,” a remark that clearly conveys to me and should have conveyed to Rousseau, Till’s Igbo sophistication, his resignation, his Old World, ironic sense of humor about truth’s status in a universe where all truths are equal until power chooses one truth to serve its needs.
If not in Achebe’s book, where did Louis Till learn the proverb’s wisdom. Louis Till was probably not good at reading. Not a devourer of paperback westerns like my father. Different as they were, both men were the same deep brown color, I believe, and both boxed. Both men, like traditional Igbo wrestlers, honed their bodies to school their minds. Both were good enough with their fists to try amateur boxing. My father in Pittsburgh, Till in Chicago, according to Mamie Till’s autobiography.
I see Louis Till in a gym—bobbing, weaving, feinting, throwing punches. Hear him training as I turn pages of the Till file. Heavy bag—whomp, whomp. Speed bag—blippidity—blip—blippidity—blip—blip. Sugar Ray fast hands flick out quick, quicker. Till up on his toes, leans in, dips back, circling—blip—blip—blip—blippidity—the bag can’t get away quick enough. Till tags it. Stings it. Snaps his punches. Sweat flicks off his dark shoulders. Then hop-hop-hop-hop he’s skipping rope—arc of jump rope cuts slices of air, tongue-shaped, round-shouldered tombstone slices inscribed a thousand perfect times. They hiss over him, behind him, portals of frozen air which frame a snapshot of Louis Till each time the rope whips by. Only inches to spare. Top of Till’s head sliced clean off if he doesn’t duck, step, lean, hip-hop through the whizzing rope.
Been there, done a little boxing myself. Recall how a jump rope dies a split-second whap as each arc strikes the floor. Whap-whap-whap under Till’s feet. In canvas shoes, quick hop after little quick hop seems like the boy don’t hardly touch the ground—he’s flying—the spinning rope whaps the gym’s wood floor—whap—whap—like slaps in the face. Wooden handles of jump rope gripped in taped fists, Louis Till carves the shape—tombstone, tongue—one last time. Ducks under, ducks through. He’s winded. Sweat drips. He freezes. Still as stone a couple counts, then attacks the speed bag again, relentless until he’s finished and lets the bag wobble to a stop. Walks away wet head to toes. Skinny calves, thick thighs, thick torso, a pigeon-toed walk like they say the fastest runners walk. Till heavyset, but light on his feet, sneaky quick, a silent Indian kind of walk and isn’t that why she’s so quiet, Mamie Till so still, holding her breath, waiting for Louis to return.
Mamie Till is difficult to pick out in the apartment’s deepest shadowed corner where she’s slumped. She doesn’t want Louis Till to see her before she sees him. Quiet as a mouse so he won’t hear her before she hears him and launches her attack or counterattack, she tells herself, hiding from her husband in the darkness with a butcher knife and pot of boiled water with a lid to stay hot, scald his sorry ass, his mean soul. He hurt her first. Louis Till hurt her bad and she’s still hurting an hour later, back pushed against the wall, knees pulled up, chin resting on her swollen breasts, breasts resting on her big belly, the poor little child inside her made to go through all this ugly shit, too. Not even born yet but here’s her baby, his baby in the dark crying and hurting like she is, her poor baby inside her moaning like she’d moan out loud if the noise wouldn’t give away her hiding place. Mamie Till is all drawn up inside herself, quiet-quiet, hard-soft ball of herself, round and crowded up with the scared baby inside, she waits. Mamie righteous, fierce, because to save her child she must save herself. She must counterattack and drive Louis Till out the door.
Mamie Till told an interviewer Emmett almost missed his train to Mississippi. She said they had to hurry to get to the Twelfth Street Station on time. I believe I’ve seen that station, that it’s in the documentary I watched, Say Amen, Somebody, about the origins of gospel music, featuring Willie Mae Ford, legendary Chicago singer. I replay a scene in which the middle-aged daughter and son of Willie Mae Ford drive down a ramp into a train station’s underground parking lot. Stroll with them up to street level. Peer with them into a window near an unused entrance to the station. Our faces press close to the glass. With tissues from her purse, the daughter scrubs at a thick coat of grime. Boy, oh boy. Look at that. The camera meanwhile previews the station’s dark interior—an old-fashioned passenger coach abandoned on the tracks where it was uncoupled last, giant cylindrical metal containers stacked against a wall, unrecognizable debris scattered everywhere, gathering dust and rust in the gloom. Coming down here and seeing this decay, based on what it used to be, my, my, puts it all in one package, the man says to his sister, both of them standing inside the station now, eyes panning like the camera. My, my, the man sighs, close to tears. He recalls for his sister the station’s better days, a busy hub of activity when their mother was a star on the gospel music circuit, funny how every time those redcaps be knocking each other out the way to pick up Mama’s luggage. Not about tips. No, no. You know Daddy. Daddy didn’t believe in tips. Huh-uh. A dime sometimes maybe, most they gon get, if they got that.
Grainy clips earlier in the documentary had shown Willie Mae Ford, gospel queen in furs and feathered hats, departing or returning home to Chicago. Freedom trains full of colored emigrants from the south used to land many times a day in Chicago, trains whose sounds are embodied in the old, new music Willie Mae Ford sings, music baptized “gospel” by Reverend Thomas Dorsey, a.k.a. Georgia Tom, a blues troubadour in his younger days. Dorsey’s gospel music too bluesy for some folks. Too much Bessie Smith, Mamie Smith, Ida Smith hip-shaking, home-breaking in it, explains Say Amen, Somebody, and not everybody ready to hear it inside their churches. I remember when lots of them wouldn’t have Mama to sing let alone preach, the sister says to her brother.
The train station in the video could be the same one where September 2, 1955, Mamie Till, dead Louis Till’s wife, dead Emmett Louis Till’s mother, accompanied by her father, an uncle, cousins, an undertaker, two preachers, one named Louis Henry Ford (the father of Willie Mae Ford?) wait for the train from Mississippi bringing her murdered son back home to Chicago. Same train, the City of New Orleans, Emmett had boarded alive to leave Chicago less than two weeks before. A large crowd congregated at the station on September 2 to support Mrs. Till and witness the terrible truth of a story read in the papers, passed by word of mouth, concerning one of theirs, a fourteen-year-old Chicago black boy on a summer visit to relatives in Money, Mississippi, a boy beaten, shot, his mutilated body wired by the neck to a seventy-pound cotton gin fan and tossed into the Tallahatchie River to punish him, his cousin’s story claims, for wolf-whistling a white woman.
The tape plays on and I listen for the Till train’s entry into the station. Listening as I still listen some Sunday mornings for the scratchy music from my mother’s cracked black plastic radio tuned to WAMO at the end of the dial. My fair-skinned mother humming along as she spray-starches and irons one of my brown-skinned father’s white shirts for church. White shirts with collars and breasts ironed stiff, my father wears under his waiter’s jacket six days a week downtown in a dining room in Kaufmann’s department store in Pittsburgh, a restaurant that used to be barred by a gold rope across the entrance, by a hostess notoriously uncordial towards colored folk who dared to eat there. Louis Till must have owned a white shirt. My father’s white shirt for church Sunday morning was more perfectly white and gleaming than the perfect ones worn to work every weekday and Saturday. My father’s hardness and absence crackled in those white shirts he demanded be kept spotless, wrinkle-free. In a room rented after he left us for good, gospel plays on a radio while he removes a laundered white shirt from its cellophane wrapper. He turns his back to me to put it on. When he’s facing me again, I watch his thick, dark fingers button the shirt, tremble to work gold-rimmed cuff links into tiny holes.
Even as a boy fourteen years old, Emmett Till’s age when Emmett Till was murdered, I understood my father hated those white shirts. Hated them and loved them, too. I also understood, boy or not, I was a large enough boy to get my ass out of bed and help my mother the night I heard a terrible crash in our living room. I knew my parents were fighting, but instead of rushing to save my mother, I lay petrified, pretending to sleep, afraid of a white shirt glowing in the darkness of the adjoining room. I held my breath, waited for my mother’s footsteps to prove she was alive and had managed to pick herself up from the floor.
My father had been waiting for my mother. I knew this without spying on him. How could I sleep while my father sits out there waiting for my mother, waiting with the lights off in the other room, not a sound for hour after hour except music playing in my head and the snoring of my siblings. Rakhim in bed beside me was the worst. On good nights the other kids’ restlessness and nasty noises were quieted by sounds of my mother busy in the kitchen, scrubbing dirty pots, rinsing, drying, stacking dishes. The rasp of a crooked cupboard door that never shuts first try. The last thing every evening she runs water for a cool drink then washes her cup and puts it away for coffee next morning. Same cup she uses all day so she doesn’t make extra work. Plate, knife, fork and spoon set out for my father each night he’s not home for dinner so he knows there’s food in the fridge to warm up if he hasn’t eaten on the job or smuggled home fancy leftovers from late night private parties he works. Last final thing, she switches off the kitchen light, and the yellow bar under our bedroom door dims.
Some nights I keep listening after my mother leaves the kitchen, crosses the living room, into the hall. Listen past the point she’s probably asleep in the tiny room squeezed into a corner of a landing at the top of stairs that go down to the Lemingtons’ apartment. My parents’ room is a room far enough away to muffle their whispers, their preparations for sleep on those rare nights they go to bed together. Though certain nights, I think I hear the blue crackle of a white shirt as my father pulls it off, or hear my mother alone in their bedroom humming gospel like she hums when she’s up very late waiting for my father to come home and he doesn’t, and she hums herself to sleep curled on the couch. Always gone when I jump up first thing next morning to check.
No matter how long I listen, sooner or later my vigil fails. I drop off and lose her. Worst nights, lying awake beside my youngest brother Rakhim, I worry and worry that everything I love and hate will be gone in the morning and never return. I listen long after my mother finishes her last little things, turns off the kitchen light and the bright inch under the door is replaced by faint illumination leaking in from a lamp by the front door she always leaves on for my father. I wonder if my mother’s sleeping or not in the bedroom, more closet than room, where she’s supposed to be. Wonder if she’s full of worries about my father. My siblings. Me.
The night of the terrible crash came right after three days and nights my father never made it home. Not home late as usual. Not home early or late. Not ever. No father for three days. No warnings in the morning from my mother to the younger kids, Shhhh. Hush all that noise, youall. Shush and eat your cereal. You know your father’s sleeping. You know you better not wake up your father. No father’s snores when I pass the bedroom landing on my way to school.
On the bad night my father returns early. Nine, ten o’clock. Very early for him, anyway, and he knocks softly then fumbles in his deep pockets for keys to let himself in. My mother’s out. Very late for her. A rare night she’s not home, and good boy me has performed his duties, bedded down the other kids at the exact hour, in the precise fashion, almost, my mother commanded. Don’t be mean to your little brothers and sister. Firm but nice with them. And don’t you dare sit up waiting for me like you think you’re my mother. Soon enough I’ll be sitting up all night worrying because you think you’re grown enough to run the streets till dawn, she said. But I couldn’t help staying awake.
Music’s playing in my head, fast and slow, rhythms change, words change, Rakhim’s wheezing snores mixed in, blues mixed with gospel, mixed with R & B, the Dells and Diablos, Drifters and Spaniels and Midnighters singing my songs on WAMO. Love music mixed with worry music mixed with dance music mixed with desire and fear of things I didn’t know the names of yet. Worried maybe I never would. Worried it all might vanish.
No light brightens the crack below the door. My father snapped it off when he came in and discovered my mother not at home. After three days gone, I’d begun to believe he’d left for good, but then I hear his key in the lock and he’s back home that night before my mother. Mother late. Father early. Strange turnabout. Me faking sleep. I wasn’t spying on my father, but I could hear his breathing, heartbeats, pounding of his thoughts, his big hands gripping his knees. I could hear his stillness in the overstuffed armchair everybody called Daddy’s Chair. His impatience and anger fill the silence with unthinkable acts, unspeakable words, hard and heavy as fists.
I pretended not to know why I was scared, though if I had tried, I could have said why. I was old enough to understand nearly everything. It was all in the music. In the talk in Henderson’s Barbershop. Woman who’s a wife and mother got no damned business out in the street, don’t care whatever goddamned sister you say you with, no goddamned business out in the street this goddamn time of night. Did I hear those particular words that night or are they blues words, gospel words, barbershop words dreamed, heard before the fact or after the fact of my mother’s body striking the floor, a sound that would have awakened me even if I’d been asleep as far away as the place old thunder and lightning, fire and brimstone Reverend Felder of Homewood AME Zion promised God would pitch bad black boys.
* * *
The singer’s daughter tells her brother she overheard one of the church young folk ask: Willie Mae Ford Smith. Who that? Then Say Amen, Somebody’s camera retreats for a long shot to frame the once-upon-a-time gospel queen’s children within the airplane hangar immensity of an empty steel shell with steel girders holding up a steel groined, vaulted ceiling, the section of a Chicago train station they reached by driving earlier in the video down a ramp at whose entrance light blazed in a checkerboard pattern from overhead grates, shafts of smoking brilliance pouring into the obscurity below, obscurity only slightly relieved here, inside the station, by illumination from begrimed panels in a ceiling miles away it seems from where the brother and sister stand now after they have parked underground, exited outdoors, then entered the station. They instinctively huddle closer together as they talk in whispers, as any two people or small group of persons likely would talk in a gloomy space that dwarfs them, dwarfs their voices whether they speak softly or shout. Big-boned, wide-hipped, large brown people whispering small things, simple, deep things, a call-and-response of reminiscence, holding on, letting go until there is no bottom, no sides, no ceiling to the station, no secrets, no down or up or come or go.
I pause the tape. Is it the Twelfth Street Station. What does it remember. Is a train station able to gaze at itself, revive the past, double it, a double as quiet as the face, the moving lips of my reflection within a mirror. Quiet as silences within the silences of Thelonious Monk’s piano. During the Twelfth Street Station’s heyday did people’s dreams truly float above the platform upon which I picture myself waiting for an Illinois Central train to arrive or depart, a platform lined with cardboard suitcases, ancient steamer trunks, duffel bags, shopping bags, string-tied bundles and cartons, colored girls carrying everything they own in a warm package they cradle in their arms, all of that dreaming and waiting, waiting, every shadow and echo and breath of those lives dust and grit somebody brooms away each morning from the station’s concrete floor.
* * *
I remember Chicago at night, a tapestry of winking, blinking lights out the windows of an elevated train, lights which are pinpricks in a black winding sheet draped over a snowbound city. And once in a taxi, approaching the city in daytime from O’Hare, I stared at the stark verticality of church steeples, minarets, smokestacks, waves of skyscrapers, a gray backdrop that recedes and draws nearer, both at once, skeletal towers trussed by power lines, sheaves of dirt poor dirty row after ramshackle row of houses, blocks of low-rise apartment buildings, public housing warrens twenty stories high, acres of demolished blocks, blocks and succeeding blocks of concrete, brick, stone-faced canyons the hawk rules in winter and no matter how much you bundle up or hoody-up humping through alleys, wind-tunnel streets, body slanted at a forty-five-degree angle like a character in a cartoon, your eyes tear, teeth chatter, no mama to wipe your snotty nose.
I also remember Chicago in a photo tucked in an old family album. Who had scribbled Chicago and people’s names on the photo’s yellowed backing. Faded, indecipherable names. Names of dressed-up folks maybe on their way to a splendid party. Chicago was a surprise in the Pittsburgh family album. Who are these strangers floating past, fancy people, handsome people in furs and expensive overcoats, my sturdy brown people light on their feet as ghosts. Do they live on another planet inhabiting the planet I inhabit. One scene, one photo, many universes dissolve, splash, one into the other always. I still possess Emmett Till’s photo from September 1955 on a page torn out of Jet magazine that Aunt Geraldine saved and gave me thirty years later.
I was fourteen the first time I saw the photo in Jet. Emmett Till’s age that summer they murdered him. Him colored, me colored. Him a boy, me too. Him so absolutely dead he’s my death, too. Fuzzy replicas of the photo appeared in colored newspapers—Pittsburgh Courier, Chicago Defender, Amsterdam News—the image circulating, recycled decades later in Eyes on the Prize, a documentary history of the civil rights movement in which I saw the horrific picture of dead Emmett Till’s face staring back from my TV screen and freeze-framed it. Courage mustered finally, half a century after the fact. I did not look away. Hoped if I stared hard maybe the photo would wither, wrinkle, flames curl its edges, consume it. No screams, no agony, no sputtering frying chicken crackle like you’d think you’d hear.
* * *
I push play and Say Amen, Somebody resumes. More quiet exchanges between brother and sister, their voices barely audible to one another above the stillness. Are they afraid words might disturb sleeping ghosts. Delay the Till train’s slide into the station or its glide away. As if words could stop a train. Stop time. No. Not even words a brother and sister keep inside themselves, will you bury me or will I bury you, not even those unsayable words shouted out loud could waken their mother, stop the Till train.
Willie Mae Ford Smith’s grown-up children under the steel arc of roof remember fine clothes, fine cars, taxis. Black limos rolling up to the curb. So much glitter and glamour. The brother recalls veteran redcaps as well as neophytes shaking their heads in wonder, Who that. Where they going. Where they coming from. Boy oh boy. Their mother, Willie Mae Ford, sang church music thick with blues, ready or not, like it or not, you get blues licked up in gospel. Didn’t want Mama when she young and just starting out, and before long they standing in line in bitter cold and snow paying good money to hear Mama and now the young folks see her in church every Sunday forgot her name.
Later, leaving the station, one sibling frowns, the other grins in response. Whole lifetimes flicker on the TV screen compressed into a single glance they exchange. One expression scrubbed away instantaneously by the next, light to dark to light, too fast to follow, he’s your brother, you’re his sister, we’ve done that, been there, no need to go back, to linger or regret or hope. Here we are, here it is, this quiet moment in the station Samboing into every other moment and the black boy chases the tiger fast as the tiger chases him.
* * *
Mamie Till listens harder than anyone else for the Till train. Looks closer than anyone else at her dead son’s body, I looked at the ears, the forehead, the lips, the nose, she wrote. She knows the train’s due, perhaps in the station already, the same City of Orleans that carried her live Emmett away two weeks ago, returns today with his corpse, enters the Twelfth Street Station, enters silence sealed under a high, arching ceiling. Silence of dark, swollen thunderclouds, quiet of a storm ready to burst.
Nothing closer to truth than truth—but the truth is—not even truth is close to truth. So we create fiction. As a writer searching for Louis Till, I choose to assume certain prerogatives—license might be a more accurate word. I assume the risk of allowing my fiction to enter other people’s true stories. And to be fair, I let other people’s stories trespass the truth of mine.
I go with Mamie Till back home to Chicago. It’s a week or two after the Mississippi murder trial and its ugly aftermath. No kidnapping charges filed against the two men who abducted and killed her son. Why Mamie Till is asking herself. Mrs. Till, dead Emmett’s mother, dead Louis Till’s wife, must be thinking that terror never ends. Terror is truth and truth is terror and it never ends, she thinks. Truth of that big stinking crate with a box inside with Emmett’s dead body inside the box. Terror of the box closed, truth of the undertaker prying it open with hammer claws. Terror of not looking, truth of looking. She must bear both for Emmett, for love, for justice, a look inside the box she cannot dare until she prays hard and a voice whispers, your heart will be encased in glass and no arrow can pierce it. Truth of listening to herself say, I want the world to see what they did to my baby. Terror of standing beside Bo’s open casket at the funeral while she sees in the eyes of mourners who file past the terror and truth of what they see. Terror of lost Emmett. Truth of how he returns. There’s my heart underneath that glass lid. Terror of sleepless sleep, sleep, sleep, sleeping all day, never truly asleep. Truth of being wide awake forever, day and night. Terror and truth of nightmares sleepless sleep brings . . .
She talks to herself. After the ceaseless terror and truth and terror, she’s still alive in her mother’s apartment in Argo and must decide to live or die, and decide again the moment after this one. Yes or no again. Her eyes rest on a man who sits on a chair Albert carried in from the kitchen. This man, the half brother of her lover Albert, has the strange name, Wealthy, and she thinks maybe he might have been sent by God, to help her. She needs to believe, needs help. Too many nights alone, too much wandering and fumbling around here in these rooms alone day after day, bone tired, going crazy, if truth be told. No sleep, then more tired and nervous fumbling around here after Mama goes off to work in the morning. I’m all alone with my own self, she thinks, but keep bumping into Bo, my sweet Bo, everywhere and then it’s not him I hear, I smell, I follow. I reach out to touch him, but Bo’s gone, gone, and I drop down on the sofa or armchair, try to nap, to forget and can’t. Wear myself out trying to make up some person who will tell me what to do next, tell me to stop holding my breath, tell me how to breathe again, tell me not to wait for the worst thing on earth to be over because it’s never over, always more terror and truth and then more.
* * *
Mr. Wealthy looks like a nice man and I surely do need somebody nice, a nice somebody to say words I can’t say to myself. Say breathe. Say the thing you must do next, Mamie Till, is this. The voice of a new somebody. Not you, Mama. Not nice Albert. Somebody I don’t know who says words I need to hear. No face, no color, no man or woman I can imagine, though I think it should have to be a man because a woman’s too much like me, she would try to make me feel better because she’s a woman, a mother who understands bleeding inside for her child and moaning inside and watching how everything outside minute by minute pays you no mind, gets no better, gets worse and you’re more scared every minute for your child but nothing you can do, just watch and hurt and bleed and try to tell yourself it’s not as bad as it seems, everything going to be all right like the songs say, by and by, but that lie don’t fly, you are just talking to your own dumb self, you need another person to tell you the truth. It could be a woman or a man who tells it to me but harder, Mama, to believe a woman and nobody, no man or woman or chicken with a talking mouth can bring back my child. My sweet Bo gone. They killed my baby.
They said Emmett bad, Mama, and say that’s why he’s dead. Bad like his bad daddy, like father like son they said and I need someone to talk to me, hold my hand. I need kind words doesn’t matter who says them, and when this half brother or cousin or friend or whatever of my Albert, this Wealthy, his odd name, comes to the door, I ask myself is he the answer to a prayer I only halfway allowed myself to pray, prayed so softly under my breath, couldn’t hear myself praying it was so quiet and so deep down inside me because I wasn’t sure I wanted God to hear either, maybe just overhear, didn’t want God to get the wrong idea that maybe I blame Him or always expect nice things from Him or like I know better than Him what’s right or wrong for me or think I deserve His special attention when I don’t because this whole wide world like you say Mama ain’t nothing but a stool for Him to rest His feet on. Just bear the burdens the Good Lord give you to bear, girl, Mama says. He ain’t never gon burden you with more’n you can handle, she says. And sure enough here comes this man Wealthy. He doesn’t know me, never knew Louis, never met Bo. Here he is out the goodness of his heart in my mama’s apartment in a polka dot tie and a nice gray suit he wears like he’s in the army, all buttoned up, pressed and starched soldier sharp like Louis grins picture perfect clean in his army photo. This Mr. Wealthy not a strapping man like Louis or Albert. A smallish, tight fist kind of man, iron creases in his clothes and straight-backed as an arrow and proper the way he took a seat on the chair Albert carried in from the kitchen and Mr. Wealthy straightens his neat little self, tugs his silver tie, as if one too few polka dots showing. Tugs a pant leg straight after he crosses a short leg over his knee.
No ma’am. No thank you, ma’am. Nothing to drink for me, thank you, Mrs. Till, the first thing he says after he said, Pleased to meet you, ma’am, though I’m truly sorry we are meeting under these unhappy circumstances, Mrs. Till. Same words she heard from the lemon-colored undertaker, Mr. A. A. Rainier, who buried Emmett, undertaker smiling his sad, droop-mouth smile at people so he gets that check when they’re grieving for somebody or somebody grieving for them. Mr. Rainier says pleased to meet you, Mr. and Mrs. So and So, sorry it’s under these circumstances, fresh graveyard mud on the wingtips of his shoes, spit-shined like Mr. Wealthy’s shoes, Mr. Wealthy with one narrow foot standing at attention in the air, the other foot patting Mama’s living room rug after he crosses his little leg over his knee and begins to speak.
* * *
Don’t you believe a word those dogs say, Mrs. Till. Excuse my language, please, ma’am. Albert told me many times what a fine young man you were raising. Albert very fond of your son, Emmett. You all have my deepest sympathy, Mrs. Till. You and your family and Albert, too. Wished I could do something to help and thought to myself it’s not much but it’s the least you can do, Wealthy, go on over there with Albert and tell Mrs. Till about the army. Army something I know, Mrs. Till. I’m a veteran. I know the army and I can tell you from experience. Army lies. Tell a person every kind of lie there is. Bad business they put in the newspaper about your late husband, best not believe a word of it.
Army and the government lie. Lie, lie, lie all the time. When the sneaky Japs bomb Pearl Harbor, plenty of us colored men in a hurry to join the army. We want to enlist because it’s our country, too. Only country we got, and it’s a man’s duty defend his country. Signed up like Old Uncle Sam pointing his crooked finger at everybody said sign up. But the army lies. They don’t want colored soldiers.
Treat us like slaves. Like animals. Yes they did. And nothing we could do about it. Behave like they say you better behave or they lock you in the stockade. Beat you, kill you quick as they kill the enemy we all spozed to be together in the U.S. Army to fight. Treat us colored soldiers like they own us, like they got the God-given right to kick us, spit on us and the only right we got is salute and say, Yes, sir. Here’s my behind, sir. Kick it again, sir. Dirty dog duty or days we’re mules and horses and elephants carrying Uncle Sam’s war on our backs.
Don’t you believe a word they putting out about Mr. Till, God rest his soul. Any the fellows went through the war, tell you what I’m telling you, Mrs. Till. Say just exactly what I’m saying. No different for colored over there in the war than things here today, in this United States of America. This Chicago. White man lie and say you’re guilty—you’re guilty. Case closed.
Now I’m not saying terrible things didn’t happen in the war. But not just colored boys doing wrong. All the lies they put in the newspaper you’d think it was just us doing wrong. Just colored soldiers guilty. Not the truth, Mrs. Till. Never met your husband, but he was a soldier in the same colored army I served in, Mrs. Till. So the bad they say he did, maybe he did, maybe he didn’t, but if the army say he did bad things, your husband finished. Never had a chance. Nothing a colored soldier can do about it. Nothing, Mrs. Till. Not until God rises up off His throne and stomps down those golden stairs and stops the lies.
* * *
Mamie Till wrote an autobiography. Didn’t give Louis Till much space in it. According to Mrs. Till, Louis was often brutal with her. Put his hands on her. Then absent. Then dead. Then he turned up ten years later at a very inconvenient time, an embarrassing boogeyman from Mamie’s past to haunt the trial of their son’s murderers. Mamie wrote that Emmett was Louis Till’s only accomplishment and in the end his only reason for being on earth. Must have been a bit more to her relationship with Louis than that, I believe. Probably adored the cute, mischievous little boy inside her handsome, mean man Louis. Maybe a tough guy was attractive to her. Maybe she thought she could stick her head in the lion’s jaws without getting hurt. Mamie also a down home, practical country girl. What sorts of men available in Argo, Illinois. What choices did she have. Most colored men and women newly arrived immigrants from the south, people marginalized economically, socially, in segregated enclaves. Mamie Carthan took a chance with Louis Till. Hoped she could tame him, mother him into a decent, dependable man. A project that was failing, she wrote. Then the army took Louis. Mamie Till probably lavished all her love on Emmett while she waited for Louis to return. After a telegram from the army said Louis Till dead, she could fall in love with him again in the person of his son. And this time love him without the worry of getting mauled.
Of course Mamie Till a lion, too. Like my mother she did not derive her sense of self-worth solely from her relationship with a son, though she would do anything in her power to protect him and demonstrate her love. If the Till offspring had been a daughter, Mamie Till would have loved her as much as she loved a Louis Till son. Like my mom, Mamie Till worked hard to maintain her integrity, dignity, honesty, her consistency in how she viewed herself, how she treated other people and expected them to treat her. Once I grew smart enough to appreciate my mother’s example, I attempted to emulate her but fell far short of her standards.
Mamie Till, a lion and a warrior. She risked her life in September of 1955 when she traveled from Chicago to Mississippi. Her son Emmett’s blood still fresh on the hands of the murderers she confronted at the trial in Sumner. Threats, harassment, disrespect did not chase her back to Chicago, though she admitted in her memoir she was deeply frightened each day by the ordeal of the trial, by cars that trailed the car she rode in from the courtroom to her motel, by bullets she lay in bed at night waiting to hear crash through the windows of her room. Soon after she returned home from Mississippi, she became a public spokesperson, a relentless witness who told her story to anyone willing to listen. First with NAACP officials sharing the podium as her sponsors, then alone, on her own two feet, traveling to welcoming cities or hostile cities across the country. She persisted in this work, until her death—speaker, writer, activist, dedicated crusader for civil rights, determined not to allow her fellow Americans to forget the terror, the injustice inflicted upon her son Emmett. Upon many, many other colored children of colored mothers.
* * *
Mamie Till remembers fixing Louis a sandwich. She wraps it in waxed paper, folds the edges like you gift wrap so edges even and neat. She’s out of rubber bands. Rubber bands not around like before the war. Hopes the sandwich will hold together. Tucks it into a brown paper bag, adds an apple, creases the bag’s top tightly shut. What kind damn sammich dat. She does not respond What the hell damn kind do you think, Louis Till. A T-bone steak sammich, hands ready to fly up to protect her face. No. Don’t start. She is Louis Till’s wife. Her mother’s good daughter. Her daddy’s sweet girl. Raised in Argo Temple Church of God in Christ. Baloney, she answers. A baloney sandwich for your lunch today, Louis. Thank goodness Louis not listening for an answer, not looking for a fight this morning. Brown bag in hand he’s out the door. Slams it behind him. She can allow her arms to relax, her fists to drop to her sides. Wipe her fingers on her apron. Finish her thought. A baloney sandwich for your lunch break at Argo Corn Products, Louis, with my daddy and all the other colored men carrying sammiches fixed by wives, mothers, women who buy cold cuts from the A & P with money from Corn Products paychecks.
Baloney. Three paper-thin, pink slices between four slices of white bread. I wish like you wish Louis it could be country ham or turkey or roast beef or half a fried chicken with potato salad, greens and biscuits Louis but you know good and well Louis you only give me baloney money and plenty of times I don’t even see baloney money. Do my best. Spread margarine on bread then mustard and mayonnaise, some ketchup if we have ketchup in the house. When I press the slices together, careful not to press too hard, and get the crusts messy. Wipe stuff from the knife back inside the bread so I don’t waste. It’s baloney today Louis not one of those mustard and mayonnaise days, so consider yourself lucky today, man, and yes I know you work hard Louis and I know you want more and I truly believe you deserve more and I know you think the only way you can get more is card playing and shooting dice Louis and you lose the little bit we have and you don’t bother to come home at night like there’s nothing here to come home to I guess you think Louis with the cupboard bare and my tired, bare face up in your face, my tears, my mouth all twisted up to holler at you when you come in here empty-handed and maybe you’re shamed, maybe my tired body not enough for you, just good for scrubbing floors, washing your clothes, and even with everything I do around here to make a decent home Louis sometimes I believe it means nothing to you, home no place special in your mind, slinking in here with your hands empty when the money’s gone and you can’t even give me the little bit I need to feed you and feed myself so my body can feed my child, your child, Louis, our baby I carry every day God sends here and when you’re not home I’m here day and night carrying your child Louis and today it’s a baloney and bread sammich Louis and roll your big eyes at me if you need to but what else you think it’s going to be.
I can hear you mock me down at Corn Products, see you ball up the paper I take my time to fold to make nice for you and hear you fuss at the sandwich I made and I wish wish maybe just once Louis you could try not to tear the wax paper, not crumple it up and toss it in the trash at work. I wish one day you would save wax paper I wrap your sandwich in. Why can’t you for once just fold the wax paper up neatly like a person folds a nice letter to slip in an envelope and bring it back home in the bag and I could use bag and paper again and it would save a little money, Louis, but that’s not the only reason why.
* * *
Little Mississippi. Mamie Till say it like she proud. Argo, Illinois, but we call it Little Mississippi, she say. So many of us from down there come up here to live. On Mama’s street lots of family. Aunt Marie. Uncle Kid. June Bug. Uncle Crosby. Then next block it’s Aunt Babe and Uncle Emmett and Great-Uncle Lee Greene. Mama and them started up Argo Temple Church of God in Christ and Sunday morning it’s Webb, Mississippi, all over again right here in Argo.
Louis Till shuts his eyes to hide from her, hide what he’s thinking. He ain’t no country ass Webb ass Mississippi ass goddamn Negro. He shadowboxes. Speed bag blippety-blip-blip. Fists a blur. He’s from Missouri not no goddamn lynch niggers Mississippi. Ain’t no damn cotton fields out where he come from. Day he leaves New Madrid he looks through a dirty bus window at fields of something growing and truth is he don’t know what the fuck it supposed to be. Maybe corn for Corn Products. Alagra syrup and Mazola cooking oil and margarine. Argo starch with that green and yellow Indian man on the box look like he a ear of corn. They make every damned thing from corn. Corn they grow out west and he sees flying green fields, flying Indian man boxes, flying speed bag. Opens his eyes, nods at this Mamie and hopes she’s done talking that dumb country ass shit she’s talking. Asks his self why Mississippi Negroes never get enough of other Mississippi Negroes night or day. Sure won’t ask her.
Everybody white as snow out in Missouri, Louis Till would like to say to Mamie if he could. But there are some Negroes out there because here he is black in Argo, Illinois, so got to be some black like me back in Missouri. She know the name of her people come up here, names of her people down there, all her people names and he don’t know one, not one of his people. No names. Only Louis Till. Orphan. No middle initial. No people. What I’m spozed to do, girl, with all those names you saying. Not my names. Not my church. Not my people. Got none. Got one name, Till. Louis Till. Me. My people. My name.
* * *
Alma, my mama’s name. Alma Gaines Carthan, Mrs. Till explains in her book, raised me close up under her so when I met Louis I was innocent about the world. Mama never talked to me about female things. Once a boy stole a kiss when we were playing in the school yard. Shook me up so much I ran straight to Mama when I got home from school. Mama, I’m pregnant, Mama. She’s shook up, too, hugs me, both us crying. Then I tell her about the boy kiss me and she look at me like I’m crazy. Smacks me hard. Whap. Girl, you ain’t pregnant. I don’t stay dumb long but the way Mama raises me keeps me dumb long enough to think Louis Till real smart. Louis good looking and been out in the world on his own two feet his whole life so Louis seem to a girl like me like he knew just about everything. Swept me off my feet, you could say. Mama surprise me when she say Yes you may go with Louis Till to get ice cream. My first date with Louis. First date with anybody. A walk over to Kline’s Deli and Ice Cream Parlor.
On the way to Kline’s, Louis nice as could be, walking alongside me like a perfect gentleman and he asks me about this and that, you know. Louis never did talk much but there he is with his big-eyed, big, brown, good-looking self walking beside me asks me one or two little things, smiling like he likes to hear my answers and I’m chattering away I bet like some country bumpkin fool telling Louis Till all my business even though I didn’t have no business to tell and he’s not giving up a bit of his. But there I am pleased as a pea in a pod with a handsome young man strolling down the Argo streets. Sure hope somebody sees us. Running my big mouth and probably grinning way way too much, too. Chattering away like if I don’t hurry up and say something make him fall in love with me before we get to Kline’s, Louis be gone and I’d be Cinderella in the story when the clock strikes midnight.
Walking to Kline’s with Louis my feet don’t hardly touch the ground. Only thing I remember worrying me a bit was Louis asked me do I like banana split. Think to myself. Banana split. Why split. Louis work every day at Corn Products and a whole banana don’t cost very much. Why we got to split one. If Louis really love me and wants me to marry him, why wouldn’t Louis buy me my own banana. But I just smiled up at him and shook my head yes because one little bump don’t ruin a ride. Half a banana, half a doughnut, half a peanut, anything Louis buy for me in Kline’s fine with me. Any boy ever brought me anything, I ask myself. No the answer. Nothing. So shush, girl. If Louis Till buy a banana, and split it with you, take your half and say, Thank you so much, Louis.
Louis stepped right up to the counter at Kline’s like he’s been stepping up to counters his whole life. Said two banana splits. Mr. Kline looks away from Louis and gives me one of his sneaky, halfway wanna be cute grins I never appreciated on his face when he tells me to tell Alma he said, Hi. Then he sets two brown, hard cardboard bowls on the counter. Picks two bananas off a yellow pile in front of sliding glass doors with every sort of shiny dish, bowl, glass, cup and saucer behind them you need to serve people in a nice soda fountain kind of place. Lays each banana in a bowl. Slices them long way down the middle. One scoop each of three different color ice creams, chocolate sauce over the ice cream, sprinkle of nuts, a long squirt of whipped cream last thing before a big red cherry on top. Banana split. So that’s what Louis talking about. Banana splits.
Get you a take-out box and some dry ice so your ice cream don’t melt before you get home, Mamie, Mr. Kline says and winks at me, but Louis picks up his bowl in one big hand, tells me with his eyes to pick mine up and follow him over to a booth under the window.
Now I know better than to sit down in Mr. Kline’s store. Those red cushion stools at the counter and red booths under the front window for white customers not colored customers. Been knowing that’s the way it is since the first day I come up to Argo from Webb with my mama to be with my daddy after he found work at Argo Corn Products. Seems like certain things you always knew or better know and nobody needs to tell you. Whether it’s Webb, Mississippi, or up here in Argo, Illinois, if you’re colored, certain things you understand and you better understand and best not forget. Even if you’re an empty-head little girl your eyes and ears tell you certain things or maybe it’s a rotten egg something in the air your nose smells. Point is, deep down you know better and know best not to take a chance going nowhere you’re not supposed to be. Guess I was still floating, still daydreaming my Louis Till fairy tale because I followed Louis and sat down across from him in the red cushion booth right under the window and had a spoonful of banana split halfway to my mouth before I looked up and there’s Mr. Kline standing just where I knew he would be in the aisle at the end of the booth and he says exactly the words I knew he would say don’t matter I’m with Louis Till or not.
You know youall can’t eat in here, Mamie.
Louis not a particularly tall man. Seemed real tall to stumpy me, but Louis more what you’d call a big, strapping man. Big enough to be a tall handful if he stared at you in that way of his. Don’t remember whether I put a spoonful of ice cream, banana, whipped cream, nuts and chocolate sauce in my mouth or set the plastic spoon back down in that cardboard bowl. Too scared to taste or swallow anyway when I see how Louis stared at Mr. Kline. Wanted to get up from that booth and run. Run home. Run, run, run to Mama fast as my legs could carry me.
Louis didn’t say a word and neither did Mr. Kline. Louis just rolled his eyes slowly up the man’s white apron to the man’s red face. I watched those cold eyes of Louis and didn’t see Mr. Kline go away but I knew he was gone. Never took my eyes off Louis and forgot all about running away.
So long before there was a Dr. King, had my own Dr. Martin Luther King. Before Louis went off to fight the war, had my very own warrior in Argo, Illinois. It was Louis and me that Saturday afternoon integrated Kline’s Deli and Ice Cream Parlor. Sitting in the red window booth, Louis shining on me and I believe me shining on him while we ate those banana splits. Seemed like before long half of colored Argo paraded past peeking in at us to see if what they heard was true. Some of them got brave, start to come in, order a sundae, a soda and sit down, too. Whole place full of colored by the time I finished my very first banana split. Colored taken every seat and some standing around licking ice cream cones or just standing there to be there and be seen, and Kline’s never went back to the way it was.
* * *
Mama mad at me. Mad at Louis Till for mixing her little girl up in foolishness that could have got us both killed. But what’s Mama going to say. Louis was right. I think she liked Louis a little more after that. Even though she never would come right out and say it. I sure liked him more. More when I was already too much in love with him for my own good. Thought I had found a man who would never let anything bad happen to me. A man not scared. A big, strong man to protect me. Louis not especially tall, like I said, but he don’t need to be tall. He used to shadowbox. Shadowbox what he called it once when I asked him what in the world was he doing, jump up like a crazy man all the sudden and go to prancing and dancing around Mama’s living room, his big fists balled up, punches a mile a minute popping in the air, his head and shoulders herky-jerky like he’s a puppet and somebody else crazy pulling the strings. Shadowbox, he said. I didn’t understand a thing bout boxing but I knew nobody could stand up to Louis coming after them with both fists flying. Nobody else in the room, just Louis punching with both fists, but I knew Louis knocking down all the other boxers. Bam. Bam. One after another falling. Down they’d go and I’d want to clap and holler. Go on, Louis. Go, man. Me so proud and way too much in love. Shadowboxing he said.
* * *
Snow. Snow. Snow. Seems like some winters in Chicago snow every day. Wake up in the morning look out the window, see snow falling and think to myself, Huh-uh, Mamie. Can’t be snowing again. Must be starch blowing over here from Argo Products. Big cloud of cornstarch making everything white. Tried to tell my cousins down in Webb, Mississippi, the summer I was twelve and visiting, about cold and snow up north. Not the little-bitty sprinkle of snow some of them had seen or chilly like it is when people down there talk about how cold it can get in Mississippi. No. No. No. Hey, youall. Listen up. Got a wind in Chicago call it Hawk. Hawk snatch you bald head. Nobody liable to see you ever again. And snow. Ima tell youall something about snow. In Chicago it snow, snow, snow every day. Higher than youall’s house. Cars can’t drive nowhere till snowplows big as a bus come and clean up. So much snow you can make a snowman tall as people. It’s Frosty the snowman. Stones for eyes, stick for a nose. Another stick for a pipe.
My cousins standing round all google-eyed, hushed up for once till the oldest one, Clarence, cut his eyes at me and said, You lying, Mamie Till.
Tattle Tale Tit
Your tongue shall be split
Every dog in the town
Shall have a little bit
* * *
Louis Till sits shivering, chest bare, trousers wet, shirt drying over the back of one of Alma Carthan’s kitchen chairs. Mamie scalded him good. He hollered like a stuck pig. Runned out the apartment. Never saw Mamie in the dark. Never saw black boiling water coming till it smack him. All up in the chest, his shoulder, splashes on his cheek. Felt like one side of him blew up all the sudden and blood burns, wet fire pouring down his arm, his chest. He howls. Down the steps, out on the pavement before he sees under a streetlamp it’s not blood. Hot, hot damned water. Boiling, scalding hot. Why she got to do that. Out here burned up and dripping wet in the goddamned street where’s he spozed to go. It’s little Mississippi, she said, and niggers love being up under other niggers sure enough and he runs all soaking black blood, wet black skin falling off to Mother Carthan’s door. Where else he gon go.
She looks across a chain that keeps the open door locked. Dat you. Dat you dere, Louis Till. Why it take her all that long studying through the cracked-open door to see it’s him. She know good and damn well who. He shakes now. Grits his teeth so they don’t chatter. Nothing to say anyway. What he spozed to say. Say to Mamie’s mama Mamie did it. Scalded him. Skin hurts under the wet shirt maybe the wet is blood after all. Your crazy girl did it, Mother Carthan. Open the goddamn door. Stares at his wet shoes. Waits. Hurts. Waits. Hears the chain slide. That you, Louis Till. My Mamie all right, Louis Till. Don’t she see it’s him standing there at her door bleeding to death. It ain’t Mamie on fire she sees at her door, damnit. It’s him, half his chest blowed off. Ain’t nothing wrong with Mamie except the bitch crazy. She ain’t the one hurt bad, she the one done the scalding.
Sit down, Louis Till, her mama say. Get out that wet shirt. Easy, easy does it, boy. My, my. What you two been doing. You sit still here. Got to telephone my poor baby.
Mamie says butter. Margarine if you don’t have butter. Butter cool the burning. Butter help heal, she say. Say tell him stay away from me, Mama. Don’t ever want to see you again, Louis, her mama say Mamie said. Stay away, Mamie says.
* * *
He stops Mamie in front of the hardware store. Right down from Kline’s. What she need in the hardware store. What the hell she know how to fix.
Leave me alone, Louis. You can’t follow me around and bother me like this. Judge said don’t bother me. Don’t even come near me the court paper says and here you are dogging me like a shadow. I know Louis Till doesn’t give a damn what I say or anybody else says. But it’s the law this time telling you to leave me be. You best go on away from me, Louis. Don’t block my way, man.
( . . . )
Don’t you dare touch me. Don’t want your hands on me ever again. And I mean it. You had your chance. Lots and lots of chances, Louis Till. Too many chances. Too late now. It’s over now. Finished. Just leave me alone.
( . . . )
Let me by, Louis. People watching, Louis. Stop before you get yourself in deep trouble.
( . . . )
You just don’t understand do you. And you never will. We have nothing to say to each other. Just step back so I can go about my business.
( . . . )
( . . . )
Don’t make me hate you. It doesn’t have to be ugly like this. Don’t make trouble, Louis. I’m sorry, Louis. Truly sorry. For you and me. For poor little Emmett. But it’s over now. Let it go, Louis. No more trouble, please.
( . . . )
* * *
I’m awful weary of seeing you here, Mr. Till. I could cite you for contempt, lock you up, and then I wouldn’t have to see you in my courtroom for a good long while. But given the national emergency, I’m going to offer you an option. Rather than becoming a burden to Illinois taxpayers, you can serve your country, Mr. Till. Go down the hall and enlist in the United States military. Today. Immediately, Till. Or off to jail with you. Which will it be, Mr. Till. Army or prison.
My father, who served in the United States Army same years Louis Till served, told me that some Sunday mornings before dawn they’d blow a bugle inside the colored soldiers’ barracks. Roust our bad, no-sleep heads. Bugle call and everybody still stinking drunk, still asleep, half-destroyed, half-dressed, guys throw up, guys knock each other out the way to get in line and get out of line, scramble back inside the barracks to piss a quick piss, quick runny shit. All us mad, lined-up and bleary-eyed, clothes slept in, fought in, danced in, bled in, punch-ups, vomit in the street outside the club last night. Shit. A sure enough sorry bunch of colored GIs, lemme tell you, he said. My father said, talkative a minute about his army days. Sunday morning, he said, and you might think the bugle call a damned go to church call, but not church on those Georgia crackers’ minds. Slaves on their mind. They say you guilty of some bullshit or another they slave your ass. Slave you to a peckerwood farmer for a week or put you on the road gang. And this ain’t 1844. It’s damn 1944. Damn Savannah, Georgia, in the good ole U.S. of A. and we’re in Uncle Sam’s uniform fighting Uncle Sam’s war, but believe it or not, sonny boy, that’s how they did us down there.
* * *
If Louis Till had been around to school his son Emmett about the south, about black boys and white men up north and down south, would Emmett have returned safely from his trip to Money, Mississippi, started up public high in Chicago that fall of 1955, earned good grades like I did, eluded the fate of his father, maybe even become successful and rich. President of the United States. But the flame of his father’s fate draws Emmett like a moth. Son flies backward and forward simultaneously like the sankofa bird because part of the father’s fate is never to be around to protect, advise, and supervise his son, the fate of father and son to orphan each other always. Fathers and sons. Sons and fathers. An eternal cycle of missing and absence. Bright wings flutter like a dark room lit suddenly by a match.
* * *
In the nursing home, the veteran, my father, also said—his speech a surprise each time he speaks, always in his street voice, his polite waiter’s voice long gone—losing something, not the worst thing in the world. Losing something means you had something to lose. Means some fool get up in your face and say, you ain’t nothing, nigger, you can frown at the fool or smile or smack the fool upside the head if he persists in his foolishness. Pay him no mind my father said cause you got the memory of the good thing and nothing nobody says till the day you die can take that away.
* * *
I traced Till’s outfit, Company 177 of the 379th Battalion, Transportation Command, from Casablanca to Civitavecchia to Naples. Beyond the bare facts of their deployments, I couldn’t discover much concerning their activities or whereabouts. Probably about as much as colored soldiers of the 379th knew in 1944. Transport Command troops pack up and ship out when officers bark commands. Private Louis Till winds up in the rubble of another town he’s never heard of, never imagined, orphan again, and he will stay there as long as officers say stay.
* * *
Sometimes, Private Louis NMI (no middle initial) Till, 36392273, of 177 Port Company, 379th Battalion, T.C., must know he’s in Italy. Knows it don’t make no fucking difference but he knows sometimes. Knows it well as he knows his own name, Louis Till. As well as he knows the number 2 plus the number 0 equals his age—20—when he enlisted. And knows he’s not going to get much older. And so what. Age ain’t nothing but a number. Don’t mean a thing. Nothing. Not a got-damned thing. Knows he’s Louis Till and grown, been grown, and he’s in one place today, tomorrow another place maybe, another city or town, another no place in the middle of no where and so what. He’s Louis Till. Him. Everything he always is. He knows his name, age, color, a nigger, a orphan so why he got to say it out loud every day. No need to be walking around like he’s afraid he might forget name, rank, serial number and what belongs to him in the ditty bag up under his goddamn bunk in the goddamn camp in this goddamn country. Why he need to go around saying shit if he knows shit. He knows he’s a grown man and been grown since way back as long as he can remember, since back in New Madrid, Missouri, that day he sees a black boy on a fold-up, pissy cot crying like a baby and he’s a grown man in the doorway, Louis Till grown up already, eight years old watching hisself cry and he hollers, Why don’t you shut the fuck up. Hush your sorry-ass mouth, nigger, nobody listening to you, nobody care nothing bout you crybaby motherfucker why don’t you just shut the fuck up. Why you sitting there in broad daylight, a grown-ass man in short pants sitting on a rock with his big head in his hands crying funny, crying like a baby pissed his bed. You ain’t no child, you a damn grown man, fool. Why don’t you shut up, sitting alongside the road everybody goes up to get that vino man you lucky I ain’t crossed-over and smacked you off that rock, nigger, in them raggedy pieces of uniform they all wear creeping through here now the United States Army finished kicking they dago asses good. Sneaking home and crying funny like a bitch. Who the fuck he think he is with his funny little cap about to fall off his big grown man head. Crying funny just like they talk funny and got that funny money over here ain’t worth shit, a wheelbarrow full ain’t worth nothing don’t make no sense and so what, Private Till thinks, long as he can talky-talky him up some vino and talky-talk him up some pussy him talking funny like them and they talking funny like niggers when they wants something niggers got and that’s how Private Till knows it’s Italy.
* * *
“Night in Tunisia.” Did Louis Till know the tune. Could Till hear it as his ship approached North Africa. The song floats in the air, plays itself to be heard, passed on. Did Louis Till smile, whistle the music, though the tune was not written down, not playing on records or radio at the time. Does he smile at the fact he lands in a North African city full of brown people and black people that goes by the name Casablanca, white house.
* * *
A guidebook would inform Louis Till if he cared to consult one, that in 1468 the Portuguese attacked Anfa, a Berber settlement dating back to the seventh century, captured the town and later developed it to serve as a port, Casablanca, in a rapidly expanding network of imperial commerce founded upon, then flourishing through the buying and selling of African bodies. Today Anfa is a shopping center in sprawling Casablanca. Louis Till could read this in another book and read in yet another that when approached by ship, the city’s an idea, whitewashed ramparts and white mazes of low square dwellings, row after row terraced on piggybacked hills that slope gently to the water. He could read how the gleaming whiteness creates mirages, dreams, phantoms on the horizon and when the sky is clear, the city is doubled in the water like blue sky’s doubled by the deep blue ocean upon which you sail, gliding, skimming over the waves, bobbing in the chop, then glide again, slower, slowly as sea flattens and the ship draws closer to what appears to be a single immense dwelling that sprawls on the hills, Casablanca, a white house built of sun-bleached, sun-polished bones from which dark flesh has vanished.
Louis Till leafs through invisible pages, listens to invisible words to find what he needs to know (for instance, women in Casablanca are divided by color, not necessarily by the color of their skins but by the color of the troops they hang with, the ones who go with colored boys and the ones who don’t, a color line policed here absolutely, brutally, ruthlessly as the color line at home, so beware, my man, of white helmets, white armbands, white puttees, flying squads of white MPs in jeeps who enforce the local color code, and punish unmercifully, gleefully, with lead-lined batons, white-gloved fists, steel-toed boots, with cocked 45s and barbed-wire stockades all colored offenders who dare cross the line), a guidebook of stories Louis Till and his colored buddies knew well, stories told by guys who have been to Casablanca or guys repeating lore passed down a thousand years by successive waves of colored soldiers, slaves, seamen, passing through, awaiting cargoes, repairs, provisions or stationed here or stalled like Odysseus before the walls of Troy in The Golden Book of Greek Myths my mother read to me.
* * *
War is mostly rumor and myth for men in the Transportation Command, colored men like Louis Till and just about every other colored soldier because with very few exceptions, I learn, colored are assigned to Transport Command service units and seldom see with their own eyes war like in the movies. No firefights, bayonet duels, no huddling in a foxhole, no comrades falling, blown up beside you as you charge across a field, everybody shooting and shouting like in a colored director’s movie I had rented recently about colored combat troops in Italy in World War II. No. The Transport Command’s war a rumble of distant guns, distant cities burning at night on the horizon. War most real for colored soldiers when they bury white guys, young guys far from home like them.
* * *
On rare days, rare nights war lets Louis Till get fucked up. Get his head bad, punch niggers, buy pussy, fuck up good if he’s listened to stories passed down from colored soldier to colored soldier, learned to follow maps drawn in air of invisible cities, deeper cities within cities where war lands him. Second cities he’ll know by their touch, smell, sound. You see them only if you know how to look. In this white house Casablanca a market hides, nigger market blacker than the white folks’ blackest market is what Louis Till hears and in that market he can sell cartons of Camels he steals from truckloads he steals for white officers. American cigarettes colored guys say he can trade for a silver ring with his initials on it and Casablanca, 1943. I watch Louis Till scratch letters in the sand. He watches an Arab whose face under a brown hood is darker than his, pound L.T. into the ring with quick, precise strokes.
* * *
The one they call Saint—what the fuck else they spozed to call a negro named Louis who comes from Missouri—stumbles from the crowd of other sweaty colored men, wobbly, dizzy on his feet, a windup woogie just about danced itself to death. He wobbles out the mess out there where no room to dance, it’s war out there, people bump and grab and knock. People hold on to people’s arms to get past, to get through. You nod, and they nod and grapple, cling, wrestle. You hang on and rub and get smacked apart, flung together. Some garlic breath bitch all up in your face you rub her big behind, hold on till some nigger call hisself dancing snatch her fling her, she gone. Hair short as a man’s and shoulders broad as a man and big farm girl hand can squeeze hard as you can squeeze and you push a knee, a thigh into her meat. Rub, touch Miss Ann soft hair. Rub a leg up in there and she grinds she bounces away another fool got her, and gone.
Saint. Over here, Saint. Over there’s the table, McMurray, Kitchen, Junior Thomas, Hite. Glass of beer in each of Till’s hands, quick hands don’t shake, break you up. Here he come sipping both glasses, Till ain’t carrying no beer for none those fools at the table, Till fight you try to take one of his half-full, half-empty glasses. Here he come bumping to the table, nerve to call hisself dancing, halfway falls, a fucking war out there man fiky-fiky work bitch fuck you through your clothes right out there under that red light in the ceiling. Work bitch, work. Hey man how you doing, man, hey blood, hey splib, hey spook, hey home watch the fuck where you’re going nigger yeah man you my man kick your ass, fool, cool breeze, be spades, be coons, be your brother man, hey, hey, man watch the fuck out the way, man, that’s my man, Saint. Say hey, all the way, it’s the 177 of the 379, shit yeah. Say hey, Saint. Gotta be okay.
* * *
Louis Till finishes both glasses of beer before he reaches the table. Eyes big as saucers, eyeballs rolling round like he’s checking to make sure the room’s where it was before he blinked. He’s coming up for air, born again, remembering instantly the presence of ancient enemies. There’s beer down the front of his khaki blouse. Beer in his fists slopping out so he can’t bob and weave and duck, can’t counterpunch, hook, clinch. No footwork, no feint, slip, jook. You run, skip, hop-hop-hop for hours, days, months in the gym to go a quick minute in the ring. Why you go through all that dumb shit, man—why you waste your time, man. Look like some big old wobbly bear on a bicycle stumbling over here from the bar. You crazy, Till. Sit your behind down, boy. Before you fall down. Nobody gone pick your big black ass up off the floor if you fall, boy. Sit your drunk self down, Saint, before you fall down, Saint.
* * *
He didn’t live long enough to hear Otis Redding sing “Dock of the Bay” and Otis didn’t live very long either, but since Louis Till knows there, you could say he goes there, sits on a dock at the edge of the bay, stares at the sea he hears more clearly than sees. It’s night, no stars. Now and then a flash way, way out, the sudden white sheen of a wave’s marcelled crown etched a second before it crashes into another wave, black wave after wave invisible if no shine blinks here and there, blinks like somebody searching, combing the black sea with a flashlight beam.
He’s on the dock of a bay and listens to far-off waves explode like big guns and smaller, closer waves lap and suck the sea, it’s very near indeed, sloshes inside his belly, though sea also distant as the Casablanca moon hidden by clouds tonight after a whole day of white sky and white heat and humping ammo boxes with McMurray, Thomas and Hite. Sky black now but he recalls sun on his back, and remembers a pinkish, freckle-faced boy in New Madrid, orphan like him, nigger like him, name gone, but round, pale face comes back clear as a bell, the pigeon-face boy with a sliver of eyeglass in his speckled pink hand, showed him how you burn holes in newspaper. Glass makes fire like a match, a tiny white circle hotter and hotter, then a curl of smoke and the paper burns. Burns like Till’s dark skin in Italy’s white niggerish heat.
Till wished he had eyes in the back of his head. He could watch his self catch fire. Would a twist of smoke rise, like from that bug his quick hand snatched and pulled off the wings. Then they cooked it, wriggly legs wriggle faster, faster. Black bug on its back going nowhere.
No eyes back there. No sun. No moon. Silent black sky, noisy black sea. On the dock of the bay he hears Otis. Hears wood creak. Wooden posts in the water hold up one end of the dock where he sits. Legs dangle, heels touch nothing when he swings them. Lets the thought come into his mind of the whole damn dock a chair one of them fools snatches out from under him and his crew laughs at the look on ole Till’s face. Saint Till from dry-ass Missouri drops into the sea and he don’t know a lick about swimming. Till would laugh too, if he had time before he drowns. Pretty funny if he thought about it. Dumb arms and legs trying to learn to fly, learn to swim, before he hits the water. Funny even if it’s him, his turn.
Everybody laughing. McMurray got the biggest mouth. Laughs loudest. Damned greedy-ass McMurray on the dock behind him tonight. McMurray got lucky. Heads you lose, tails I win, Till. Talked that silly old shit but he got lucky, goes first. Big mouth McMurray back there in those boxes, getting him some trim. All up in them Miss Ann drawers. McMurray got lucky goes first. You called tails, Till. You lose, Till. What else he spozed to call. It’s about tail, right. Tails wrong. Wrong, you wrong, Till. Wrong. Heads. My turn first. And Ima wear that trim out. Shut up, nigger, and hurry up, nigger, we ain’t got all night. Hurry up, McMurray, you ain’t nothing, just got lucky, nigger. Hurry up. Over and out, nigger. I ain’t sitting here waiting on no goddamn dock of the bay the whole damn night. One more minute, I’m coming back there snatch you off it, nigger. My Johnson tired of listening to you. You ain’t nothing no way, nigger. Just lucky. Just get up off it. You know you ain’t doing nothing.
Private Louis Till, incarcerated in the Mediterranean Theater of Operations, United States Army (MTOUSA) Disciplinary Training Center, Metato, Italy, must have wondered what kind of motherfucker so bad they weld steel bars to his cell. Old skinny white motherfucker army gon hang, they say. Poet, they say. Dry as a dried up rattlesnake skin. In a cage with extra bars they say cause he badder than a nigger, they say. Till thinks, No-no. Huh-uh, No damn way. Rolls his eyes, sucks his teeth, hisses Shee-it at nobody in particular, shakes his head no and says shee-it again under his breath. No goddamn way. These motherfuckers nuts round here.
* * *
A traitor they call him. Poet Ezra Pound convicted by his own treasonous words. Betrayed his country on the radio. Friend of the enemy. Off with his poet’s head. Confined until trial in what he dubbed my gorilla cage, in duplicate letters, one posted to his sweetheart wife, one to his mistress. Witnesses agree Pound suffered. Alone night and day in a bare, outdoor, steel-barred, steel-mesh-reinforced, roofless cell. Some say it broke him, say he drooled, barked, chased his tail. Many observers believed and continue to believe the poet deserved worse. Deserved more punishment than wind, sand, sun that cured his skin the parchment color of pages of Provençal ballads and lays he had read in a Florence library. Hang the poet because he never learns. Continues to accuse. Blame. Excoriate. Deny. Complain like Sibyl singing in her cage.
* * *
One moonless night not long before they transferred him from a colored barracks to a locked death row isolation cell, two cells away from the poet Pound’s cell, Private Till risks a beating or a bullet from guards who shoot to kill after curfew. Other colored prisoners know he sneaks out. You crazy, Till, somebody says. Till, falsetto, mocks him. You crazy, Till. Till grins at the others. Can’t nobody hurt me. Dead man already.
Till knows he’s lying through his teeth. A beating worse than a bullet to the brain. Hurts so bad he wants to cry like a baby. After the guards finish, blood, sweat and pus stick him to his cot. Hurts to breathe. Cuts sting like a swarm of angry bees. He sneaks out anyway every chance he gets. Breaks rules because if a prisoner doesn’t break the rules, rules break your heart, my brother, my son, all the colored prisoners I know and have read about assure me.
Black sky drops like a hood over Till’s whole body first step away from the barracks. Lights are strung on the fence like it’s Christmas, but they can’t change the darkness. Creep, creep. He pretends he’s a spook nobody can see. Nobody wants to see. His feet know the invisible camp. Creep, creeps. Charmed, he believes under the dark, heavy hammer of sky. Nothing to lose, dead already, just one life and they took it, can’t steal it again. A ghost already with a ghost wife, ghost son, ghost home in a ghost city, Chicago. But one night a voice calls out, Till. Saint Louis Till. Stopped in his tracks, he shivers. Hot as it was that particular night. Frozen absolutely still. Not a sound, not a breath. He’s dead. Why another ghost fucking with him. Don’t make no goddamn sense. Crazy fucking camp got me nuts, he thinks. Remembers the skinny, old white man. Death-row cages like shark teeth out there in the dark. Over there. Can’t see shit, but sure enough a voice from over there. Till. Old white man with your name in his evil mouth. How the fuck he know your goddamn name, Till.
* * *
Doc. Do you think you could arrange for me to speak with one of my fellow guests. Private Louis Till. A nigger the niggers call Saint Louis. We might have been neighbors once. Back in Missouri. We’re neighbors again here, so to speak. I’d love to chat with that particular colored boy before I’m transferred. A meeting with Private Till before the army hangs one or both of us.
* * *
Pater Dear and Mater Dear, the poet wrote his parents . . . 4 conditions necessary for a nation to produce an epic. Unfortunately, in our sweet land of liberty, none of the 4 exist. (1) a beautiful tradition (2) unity in the outline of that tradition, (3) a hero, mythical or historical (4) a damn long time for the story to lose all its garish detail and get encrusted with beautiful lies.
In spite of all the above, your humble son is trying his hand at epic. A modern epic must be a prose poem, I reckon. Mine will consist of three sections. The first will introduce a character who endures the meanest of lives. A nigger or slave, maybe. Part two will chronicle his miraculous transformation. Aided by pluck, luck and the gods’ insatiable appetite for a good joke, the protagonist will achieve undreamed of success. From a life of no meaning wrest meaning. The third section will demonstrate the folly of meaning, the folly of abandoning irresponsibility. We will observe our hero (darky?) yearn unto death to taste again the sweet chaos of nothingness he’s forsaken.
* * *
In his cell the poet listens to colored prisoners talk. Colored prisoners who speak a different language. Theirs is almost like his. His almost like theirs. He pilfers. Collects. Savors. Mimics. Envies their speech. His poet’s fancy delighted, instructed by colored exchanges, colored words, colored names. Colored soldiers whose actual names are colors—Black. Green. Niggers bearing stolen names of white presidents—Washington. Jefferson. Wilson. They call Louis Till, Saint. In the poet’s cantos Till is called a ram. He lends Till a greek god’s name. Tags Till with a Chinese pictograph signifying negation, -no, not.
* * *
A poem by a colored poet, Robert Hayden, remembers names of slave ships—Desire, Estrella, Amistad, Esperanza—names he calls bright, ironical . . . jests of kindness.
The dark ships move, the dark ships move, Hayden wrote. Colored people like him cargo aboard those dark ships, dark cargo branded with new names. Old names lost. Silenced. Like Till’s. Like mine. Old names forgotten before we discovered how to speak them.
Voyage through death to life upon these shores. Death, life, darkness, light too ancient to be owned by human beings of any color.
How many meanings and jests are imprisoned in Till, the traitorous poet Pound may have wondered as he unpacked meanings and jests in his own. Till (noun) a box for money. Till (verb) to prepare earth for seeds. Till (adverb/preposition?) a measure of time. How much time. Whose time. What is the weight of a pound of flesh. How much time left for Till, for him, the poet, fellow prisoner in the Metato, Italy, D.T.C. Till tried, convicted, doomed now to solitary confinement until he’s hanged by the neck and dead. Until he’s not Till. Till his time up. No time. Not a man. Why does the poet brand Till with all these names. Mark him Otic, Ancient Greek for no one, nobody. A name Ulysses named himself to fool the blind Cyclops.
* * *
Goodbye for now, my love. I miss you terribly, the poet writes to his wife and to his mistress. Pity your poor old Xerxes in his pointy cap and pointy beard, his magnificent armada wrecked by storms before it could conquer the Greeks. Yesterday the world’s most powerful monarch. Today hiding in his tent, weeping.
* * *
Louis Till likes the idea of a fast, clean knockout. Finish off a guy. Get it over slick and quick. Blam. Hands not stinging not bleeding or busted up when you unwrap the tape. Sing that little song nobody hears you sing but you. Little tune inside your head when you finish something just the way you spozed to finish and it’s done, finished, clean. Uh-huh. Shee-it.
* * *
He could sit like a dog or cat sit and watch all day all night the way that water come up and go back down the beach like water’s one thing and wants to be another thing like maybe water wants to be land and water keeps coming up to land, climbs all over land but water ain’t land it’s water and land just sits there being land don’t move a inch it’s land like before water come up and still land after water go away and water still water no matter how many times it creep up on land all that water out there still water why it come back again to land when it just gon touch land and go back again to water long as you sit here and watch.
Towards the end of the summer of 1955 I saw in Jet magazine a scary photo of a dead boy almost exactly my age, a dead colored boy murdered in Money, Mississippi, whose mutilated face looked like a black bug somebody had squashed under his thumb. I fell in love and had my heart broken the first time that same summer, but the big news on our end of Copeland Street, where a few raggedy houses held a few poor colored families living just down the block from Walnut Street’s upscale shops, was neither my aching heart nor the far-off Mississippi murder of Emmett Till who we whispered about like it was our fault, a shameful, dirty secret. The big news that summer was a showroom-fresh, three-tone green Mercury docked alien as a spaceship at the curb on our end of the block.
Like everybody else colored on the street I couldn’t get enough of the spit-shined, fighter-jet sleek car. Its owner, Big Jim the gambler, who people said paid cash he won on a single roll of the dice for his new car, had given us another thing to talk about earlier in the summer. He started to appear, Brooklyn Dodgers cap on his head, baseball bat in hand at an early morning hour when nobody expected to see night owl Big Jim up and about on the street. Then all summer he bragged about how he caught a trolley car and went downtown every morning. Bragged that he planted his huge behind on a chair just inside the door of the Duquesne Light Company office. Scowling, bat across his knee, not saying a word till finally some office chump scared or tired or both of seeing him sitting there each morning asked what he wanted, sir, and in no uncertain terms, he told the person Lights, dammit, and Duquesne Light turned his lights back on that they’d turned off for lack of payment.
* * *
With a Big Jim scowl in his voice my father hollers from the kitchen: Get your tail in here, boy. Why didn’t you come in the house when your mother called you last night.
Wasn’t late, Daddy. Not hardly past ten o’clock.
Didn’t ask you what the damn time was. Don’t care what hour of night or day, when your mother tells you do something, you know you better do it. And quick.
She called me out the window. I wasn’t nowhere, Daddy. Just sitting downstairs right across the street in Big Jim’s car where Mom could see me if she looked.
Since when you grown enough to be sitting around at night in anybody’s car.
Wasn’t going nowhere, Daddy.
Then what you two doing in the damned car.
What he say to you.
Well, I’ll be talking to Mr. Big Jim soon’s I get home from work tomorrow. Meanwhile, you’re grounded. Don’t set your foot out the door without asking your mother. And if she says yes, don’t you even think about going anywhere near that lard-ass yellow man or his shit green car.
* * *
Three-tone green. Three colors were a fad that summer. All kinds of brand-new shiny rides in crazy color combinations dazzled the streets. Though for years most of us at the tail end of Copeland would continue to watch TV in black and white on small screens, picture snowy, flip-flopping, in 1955 we could peer through a Walnut Street appliance store window at a World Series tinted in wobbly colors on a twenty-one-inch Magnavox console.
Color’s the future. Emmett Till’s black and white photo in Jet the past, an old story of old-timey, terrible shit white men did to black boys down south. Changes coming fast but some things don’t change. A long time after that summer of ’55 and I’m still trying to make precise sense of my deep fear, my father’s deep anger, my own deep anger, my father’s deep fear, strutting peacock cars, fathers and sons afraid of each other. War and hate and terror and love.
* * *
On Copeland Street, Latreesha’s pretty face arrived two months before the crushed face of Louis Till’s son greeted me in Jet magazine. Same summer I see the photo of Emmett Till’s dark face with all the boy, all the human being battered out of it, I’d fall in love the first time. Make love, so to speak, for the first time. With Latreesha. Sweet, sweet, impossibly pretty-faced, smooth-limbed, Latreesha. My first time in love and I’m gloriously loved back and then she’s lost in a minute after I thought she would be mine forever. Latreesha’s gone, never comes back, never another summer visit from New York City, never cuddles again with me on my grandmother’s sofa. Only that once. One chance, Latreesha. We pass on the street, lovemaking not two weeks old, and she looks away, or worse, ignores me, grins like a Chessy cat at a guy who strolls beside her, arm round her shoulders, her eyes smiling up at him like he’s the only person on planet earth. Latreesha long gone before she catches a Greyhound at the end of August back to New York City. Cruises past all summer in some dude or another’s shiny ride, smiling, going places a fourteen-year-old chump with no wheels, no driver’s license could take her. July and August she might as well be in Harlem where she came from before she arrived to stay the summer in my grandmother’s house where Latreesha’s father boarded on the first floor. He worked double shifts on his good job in the steel mill and Latreesha didn’t know anybody else in town her age so I got my chance. She’s my first love on the downstairs sofa bed in my grandmother’s house while her daddy worked and Grandma snored like gangbusters upstairs.
Latreesha’s visit and Emmett Till’s murder were the same treacherous summer, each boxed in a separate set of memories and associations until it dawns on me that they shared 1955.
Latreesha showed up in June, the summer of Big Jim and his baseball bat in the Duquesne Light Company office, summer of the three-tone green car Big Jim bought with cold cash, summer of color TV in a store window, a summer ending in September with Emmett Till dead in darkest Mississippi. The rest of my life undreamed, a life that’s much closer to over now, everything it was, is, and everything left to come, compressed into a space too small to imagine unless a name, a moment drops like a stone in a still pool and I’m the plummeting stone, the hole, the rings rippling, expanding, disappearing.
I couldn’t get enough of Latreesha, her bright, sassy eyes, those very shapely little arms, strong and tough as a boy’s she bragged, balling up her fist with pink polish on the nails to make a muscle she dared me to squeeze. Go on, chicken . . . can’t hurt me. And sure enough that small girl wiped me out, opened my nose, broke and ate my heart during a summer that had seemed paradise the first weeks of June, my birth month. Emmett Till’s last June alive. I may have made love the first time on my birthday. It could have happened on June 10, though not likely. Wouldn’t the coincidence have been unforgettable. Let’s just say to make this a good story, it could have been that precise day, a June 10 birthday present on the fold-out sofa and I’ve simply forgotten the date like I misplace the name Latreesha sometimes. Like I couldn’t hold on to Latreesha and lost her forever. My bad habit of forgetting things, losing things, even precious things, getting worse as I grow older.
* * *
By the end of the summer I could pretend to laugh about Latreesha. Listen to Big Jim make fun of her in his car. He said that little peanut got the nerve to come switching her narrow fanny round here. Batting her eyes at me and I’m old enough to be her granddaddy. Sure is a pretty car, Mr. Jim. You ever give rides to people in your pretty green car, Mr. Big Jim. Women ain’t shit, boy. Just out for what they can get.
Good to hear Big Jim say what I couldn’t say out loud, couldn’t even think inside myself. Not quite. Not yet. Not sure I really believed a word he said about Latreesha but I spent hours in that Mercury because I needed to hear it. Knew from a distance when he was inside the car because its belly dipped down closer to the street. Car’s interior, shades of green to match the exterior, smelled like Henderson’s Barbershop. Hair tonic, shaving lotion, the stinging, medicated cream Mr. Henderson or one of his sons pats on your neck when a haircut’s finished, towel snapped off your shoulders. Henderson’s what it smelled like when I sat on green leather upholstery beside Big Jim, and he riffed nonstop about every damned body, every damned thing. Stuff in the neighborhood, in the newspapers, on radio and TV. His talk like the barbershop when it’s full of men signifying and telling lies, ball game loud on the radio, quiet gimpy Clement busy pushing his broom.
I used any excuse to go in Henderson’s and listen to the men. If no ball game on, nobody’s errand on deck to run, I’d loaf around outside with my cut buddies, our corner only a couple storefronts away from the barbershop. We couldn’t catch voices inside Henderson’s, but we could learn rhymes the old heads recited outdoors while they stood around laughing and teasing each other, or sat on boxes, or leaned back on chairs under the red letters of Henderson’s window.
Oh, she jumped in bed
Pulled the covers over her head
And said I could not find her
Said yes I shall you silly gal
And jumped in bed behind her
She grabbed my goose
Wouldn’t turn it loose
Stuck it in her
Feel the egg
Running down her leg
She know damn well
I found her
No way was I about to repeat those kinds of toasts to my father. No way I’d tattle on the nasty talk in Big Jim’s car. Big Jim did most of the talking. In the dark that smelled like Old Spice and Watkins hair oil I did the listening. Thought all the time about Latreesha, but I couldn’t say out loud how good it felt to hug that girl my mother tagged fast. I wanted to brag to somebody about copping pussy at barely fourteen. Didn’t dare, because deep down I knew dumb luck was the only reason I copped and if I hoped to get that lucky ever again in life, best keep my mouth shut. My Latreesha story turned pretty pitiful, pretty quick, anyway. So good once, then so much hurt, shame, disappointment. Day after day I tried to figure out what I’d done wrong. Meanwhile I listened to Big Jim laugh at everybody’s bonehead doings and ugly mugs and funky underwear. Watched Big Jim scowl when he said fuck those motherfucking evil white folks at Duquesne Light. Everybody’s business in Big Jim’s mouth like it’s his job to drive the streets all day and spy on people so he could park his fancy car in the evening on the colored end of Copeland and sit at the curb until a boy like me with nothing better to do comes along and climbs in to hear all the bullshit Big Jim collected. A lonely, lovesick boy ready to sit and listen all night if he didn’t have to be home before ten.
Latreesha. How could I forget her. I didn’t. More like I filed her. Buried Latreesha’s file. Afraid to put the pieces of that summer of ’55 together. To make of it what. The summer I fell crazy in love before summer hardly got started. The summer that ends with the picture of a dead colored boy’s face too terrible to look at.
* * *
Summer of a punch that landed my father in jail overnight. Your father’s not hurt, my mother said. He’s fine, they told me. Cut Jim Saunders up pretty bad, they said. Police took them both. Big Jim to the emergency room. Your daddy down to the precinct. One of the men said, Don’t worry. Your husband be home this evening, tomorrow afternoon the latest. Big Jim bloody but ain’t hurt bad, he told me. Said too much blubber on Jim before you get down to anything you could hurt bad. Said cops couldn’t care less about two niggers fighting in the street. You know the cops. Put your husband in a cell to cool off. Couldn’t really call it much of a fight, they told me. More like your father had decided to give Big Jim Saunders a whipping. You know your father’s good with his hands from that little bit of boxing he used to do.
I can see my father shadowboxing. Whomp. Whomp. Punches in flurries. Punches too close for comfort graze air inches from my face, my mother’s face. Louis Till. Bip. Bip. Bippiddy-bip. Weaves and bobs, turns Big Jim in circles, then sidesteps and an uppercut. Whomp. All the air flies out Big Jim’s soft gut. My father marked him. Split his lip. Bloody nose. Eye swole up. Big Jim never had a chance. Bloody mess in a minute. Like the bull after a bullfighter wears his big ass out.
What could I say to my father about Mr. Big Jim’s car. Problem was my father had needed to ask. Something about his fourteen-year-old son in a car at night with Big Jim my father could not trust. I heard distrust in my father’s voice and never exactly trusted him again.
Hated him, the daddy I loved, when he told Rakhim, Don’t plea-bargain. Don’t admit you did something you didn’t do. Tell the truth, Son. They can take a lot of things from you, but don’t let them steal the truth. I know you didn’t shoot that white boy, Rakhim. In my heart I know it sure as I’m standing here. Sure as I’m your father and black. Don’t let them make you say you did that crime they say you did. Tell the truth, Son. Lawyer we got you a good lawyer. No case, he says. Nothing on you, Rakhim, unless you give them something.
And Rakhim, poor, unlucky Rakhim, said no plea bargain and does the time to disprove your point, Daddy. Oh, my good black man, Daddy. Lover man, loser man, Oh, my good, honest, cheating father. The dead victim was white, Daddy. Witness said a black man shot him. That’s everything they needed to lock up my brother or me or you forever. You knew it better than me. Why don’t you ever listen to anybody once you make up your stubborn mind. Once your pride orders you what to do. All that fine, mean pride, Daddy. All the mean years they put Rakhim away.
Why did you have to act like you know everything about judges, courts, law, just cause you’re black and the cops tossed your belligerent ass in jail overnight a couple of times.
No, Daddy. Big Jim didn’t try to touch me.
* * *
Latreesha, Big Jim, my father, the Tills gone. Too late now. I’m still hurting and angry anyway. Rakhim was only three or four years old the summer of 1955. How old will he be when they finally let him come home. Mercy, parole boards call it. Mercy to release him after a lifetime in prison. I’m afraid the board will wait until the tumor in his neck big as an orange. How many months out before the tumor strangles him.
* * *
Where are you, Latreesha. I’ve never forgotten you. How could I. Your devilish eyes. Silky smooth skin light and bright as my mother’s. I’ll never forget tugging down the elastic waistband of your madras Bermuda shorts. Slowly, slowly. Afraid to go too fast. Afraid if I take too long poof, you’ll be gone. Sofa bed empty. Me left alone with Grandma’s snores bumpty-bump-bumptedy stumbling down the stairs.
You were the first, Latreesha. I’d never seen a real girl up close that way before. Only white women in magazines in Henderson’s. Of course, I haven’t forgotten. Remember inch by inch. You raised your hips, kicked your legs to help me get you naked. I didn’t want to miss anything. Scared I’d do it wrong. Could hear my heart thump. Yours. Could you hear mine. Did you feel my heat, my heart like I felt yours. You touched me. Sweet, gentle touches. You sucked in your breath then slowly let it go. Breath, like words whispered in my ear. Your touches were words, too.
Where have you been all this time. All these years and years since. First love. Buster of my thirteen- or fourteen-year-old boy’s cherry that Emmett Till summer I thought I’d become a man then quickly became a boy again. Then a dead boy.
I undressed you slow motion and rushed into you. Patience gone. Cool fled. I couldn’t stop. You twisted. Jerked away. We left a tiny puddle on my grandmother’s sofa.
Trying to go slow, but everything was over fast. Telltale scent afterwards. Would your father smell it when he got home from work. I hadn’t been close to the ocean yet, so had no memories of it to help me place the odor. I thought Vicks VapoRub, deli pickles floating in brine.
Once back in our clothes we gave the sofa’s plastic cover a good scrub with a dishrag and paper towels from your father’s neater than a pin kitchen where he fixed and ate his solitary meals before you arrived. No female company allowed in my church lady grandmother’s house until you came along that summer to help out your father and escape bad Harlem streets, bad Harlem boys. I scrubbed and scrubbed. Worried your father or my busybody grandmother would see a stain and tattle to my mother. Poor Grandma, always sickly after Eugene didn’t come home after the war. So blind if a bullfrog squatting on the sofa she wouldn’t see it unless it croaked. What did we do with the incriminating evidence, those wads of crumpled paper towel, guilty dishcloth. Did we throw away the dishrag with the paper. I don’t remember, but I do recall every inch by inch of you. How fine you were. How good it felt to lie next to you Latreesha. I wanted everybody in the world to know, but back then I couldn’t tell a soul. Certainly not my father, most certainly not my mother. Not my loudmouth, teasing crew or fat, grinning Jim Saunders either. Big Jim the busybody, gossipy, rhino-sized man who paid cash for a brand-new three-tone Merc and claimed he knew you, spoke with you, but whether he did, Latreesha, or not, he didn’t need to hear every little detail of a fourteen-year-old boy and thirteen-year-old girl kissing, hugging, getting it on in the dark.
I was the one who needed dark. You didn’t ask me to turn off the lamp beside the sofa, did you. I’m the one said, Better not unfold the sofa. I’m the one killed the light, even though I yearned to see you top to toes. Toes painted the same fast pink as your fingernails. I turned off the lamp because I didn’t want you to see too much of me. My scrawny chest, bony arms, big feet with no socks in stinky sneakers, raggedy, gray drawers under my hoop shorts.
You knew a lot more about boys than I knew about girls. Harlem wise about everything. Your tight jeans rode low on your hips like I’d seen only white boys in movies wear them. You stopped me when I tried to remove your T-shirt. Huh-uh. No, no, mister. Leave it be. Saving my titties for my husband. Punched my shoulder with the heel of your hand as you twisted out from under me. You crazy, boy. No rubber. No. No. No. Don’t you know no better.
You scared me, Latreesha. I thought I had hurt you. Or maybe you had changed your mind. Truth is, I didn’t think. I was gone. So full of myself I exploded. Too late then to do anything but try and figure out what happened while I’d been away.
Before we tidied up the mess, while we were still side by side, half-naked in the dark on Grandma’s plastic-wrapped sofa, neither of us said a word. I thought maybe you were upset. Then you sat up quickly, scrambled over me like enough of this foolishness and you wanted to put on your clothes. You scooted, bumped me out of your way as you got up, and I had to drop my hand to the floor to keep from rolling off the edge. Next thing I know, you lean down, give my penis a kiss, a quick peck more like a touch than a kiss but it made my whole body shiver. I hoped you missed the sticky spot and wondered if I should kiss you down where you kissed me. Wondered if kissing your lips after they touched my private part would be like kissing it myself.
You snuggled down with me again after you’d used the bathroom, shut up my dumb questions, my worries with your tongue searching for mine inside my mouth. All those dumb questions, and here’s another for you. Or a couple, I guess. On this first visit after so many years, is it strange for me to ask, Latreesha, strange for me to think you might know the answer. Did Emmett Till ever get a chance to make love.
Reading Group Guide
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In the process of researching civil rights martyr Emmett Till—a fourteen-year-old black boy who was beaten, mutilated, and murdered in 1955 in Mississippi for allegedly whistling at a white woman—John Edgar Wideman finds that Emmett’s father, Private Louis Till, was hanged in Italy in 1945 for rape and murder. Like Emmett Till, Wideman was fourteen in 1955; like Louis Till, Wideman’s father served in World War II. Struck by their similarities and the horror of Emmett and Louis’s stories, the author embarks on a search for the truth of Louis Till’s life and death. From gospel music documentaries to official court transcripts to a cemetery in Brittany, France, Wideman researches the circumstances of Louis’s life and simultaneously explores his own memories of growing up black in the 1940s and 1950s. Wideman imagines what life looked like from the perspectives of Emmett, Louis, and Emmett’s mother, Mamie Till, conjuring their voices to offer up the truth absent from official records.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Why was Louis Till’s confidential service file leaked to the press two weeks before the grand jury convened to determine the fate of Emmett Till’s murderers? What effect do you think the file’s revelations had on the jury’s assumptions about Emmett?
2. How do the statistics on the racial breakdown of American soldiers executed after court martials in World War II found by Wideman influence his assumptions about Louis’s trial?
3. When Wideman receives Louis Till’s confidential file from the army, its pages aren’t numbered and they don’t describe the events of Louis’s life in order. Why do you think Wideman is driven to number the pages himself? What problem does he encounter when he tries to do so?
4. What does Wideman find in the Louis Till file about how the results of Louis’s court martial were authorized for release? Does the limited material that exists lead you to suspect there were correspondences setting the groundwork for the leak that weren’t included?
5. What contradictions does Wideman find in the testimony of the Italian residents of the house in which Louis and Fred A. McMurray, a black soldier and his supposed accomplice, allegedly raped two women and murdered one of them? Who was the third soldier at the scene on the night of the rapes, and why do you think he was not charged with a crime?
6. Is Wideman surprised by the desolation he finds when he travels to Promiseland, South Carolina, his father’s birthplace, to visit the graves of his father’s family? What does the crumbling settlement signify to him?
7. Why did Wideman, as a child, repeatedly decline to visit his grandfather in Virginia despite his grandfather’s eagerness to host him? Would you have made the same decision?
8. When Wideman abandons the book he is writing about Emmett Till, he defines his new project as his “yearning to make some sense out of the American darkness that disconnects colored fathers from sons” (page 17). How does his narrative go about accomplishing this ambitious goal?
9. Throughout Writing to Save a Life Wideman focuses on the process in which he writes the book, describing how he came to Louis Till’s story and how researching it changed him. How does the focus on process affect your reading experience?
10. Wideman’s approach to discovering what truly happened to Louis Till “assume[s] certain prerogatives” by “allowing [his] fiction to enter other people’s true stories” (page 34). He imagines the motivations and thoughts of his subjects as he provides factual context about the social and economic conditions in which they lived. How does taking these licenses reflect that the Louis Till file itself, though narrated in an objective tone, in fact “writes fiction” (page 113)?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Wideman feels he has an added connection with Louis Till because his father served in the army during the same year. Does anyone in your book club have a parent or grandparent who served in or lived through World War II? Discuss the experiences they shared about that time.
2. Wideman believes the train station where Emmett’s body was returned to his mother may have been the one in which gospel legend Willie Mae Ford appears in the documentary Say Amen, Somebody. Watch the documentary and find the scene. How does knowing the story of Emmett change the impression it makes?
- Publisher: Scribner (November 15, 2016)
- Length: 208 pages
- ISBN13: 9781501147289
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Raves and Reviews
“A quietly harrowing postscript to the tragedy of Emmett Till [and] a searching account of [Wideman’s] attempt to learn more about the short life of Louis Till.”
—New York Times Book Review
“A searching tale of loss, recovery and deja vu that is part memoir and what-if speculation, part polemic and exposé … At times melancholy, at others raw and rippling with rage, Wideman masterfully weaves together memory, history and archival documents with letters and conversations he imagines to capture the cruel irony of the Tills’ fate … Haunting, provocative and inspired work.”
“Wideman is one of the great prose stylists of contemporary American fiction, a master of parallel fragments and the question-as-statement.”
“[Wideman is] a towering figure in American literature… one cannot deny the force of Wideman’s vision and the measure of his grief and moral concern. The great body of work that he has gifted us carries voices and memories from the past into our present.”
“Brilliant and ultimately ferocious.”
—Dallas Morning News
—New York Magazine
“A provocative mix of nonfiction and imagined scenes … [Wideman] shines a light on Emmett’s little-known father.”
“Reading Writing to Save a Life is to ride shotgun in [Wideman’s] tricked-out time machine to a familiar destination: the jagged fault lines of America’s racial divide.”
“Forty-nine years after the publication of his first book, Mr. Wideman has forged ‘Writing to Save a Life: The Louis Till File,’ perhaps his most impressive armament so far … A challenge to … rise up, open the door and see the shared humanity that some have worked so hard to disguise. That is the key to John Wideman’s writing and it is our responsibility to seize it in the hope of saving a life, be it an African-American man shot repeatedly for no reason or our own.”
“A genre-defying mix of history, biography, and memoir that explores the role of race in the 1945 court-martial of Louis Till, a 23-year-old soldier who was executed for rape and murder while serving in Italy.”
“Captivating … Wideman revives an incredibly disturbing but largely forgotten detail from the Emmett Till affair … Like a forensic defense attorney, [Wideman] interrogate[s] the file from every possible angle: the questions not asked, the abridged statements and translations, the mystery of Louis Till's silence about his own guilt or innocence.”
“In a writing career that is already full of tremendous achievements, this slim volume represents some of Wideman’s most powerful work.”
“Combining elements of original research, memoir, and informed imagination, this moving account provides a poetic but dark vision of racial injustice passed from father to son.”
—Library Journal, starred
“There are many layers of meaning in this book … and the narrative expands into a meditation on black fathers and sons, the divide and the bonds, the genetic inheritance within a racist society. A book seething with the passion and sense of outrage behind the Black Lives Matter movement that also traces specific roots of the movement's genealogy.”
“With his trademark penetrating style, Wideman recounts the life of Louis Till, the circumstances that brought him to his death, and the circumstances that would end the life of his son 10 years later.”
“In his long awaited new book, Writing to Save a Life, John Edgar Wideman tells the largely forgotten story of Louis Till, a man of color who suffered a miscarriage of racial justice a full decade before the infamous lynching of his son Emmett. Wideman pens a powerful blend of fact and fiction, riffing on concerns and themes that he has explored for a half century now in his highly distinguished body of prose. These pages represent a wise and wonderful achievement, both timely and timeless.” —Jeffery Renard Allen, author of the novels Song of the Shank and Rails Under My Back
"John Edgar Wideman’s Writing to Save a Life: The Louis Till File excavates the forgotten prequel to a brutal chapter in the ongoing history of American racial injustice. Wideman examines a particular narrative—the way a father’s death was exhumed to justify his son’s murderers going free—in order to question the terms of narrative itself, refusing to mistake silence for significance, absence for presence, or history for truth. I read this provocative and surprising book in the wake of the murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, and it felt utterly essential. I was grateful for Wideman’s nimble intellect, his commitment to nuance, and his insistence that we pay attention to the brutalities perpetrated under the guise of justice."
—Leslie Jamison, author of The Empathy Exams
“Unclassifiable and harrowing. The path through ‘the very specific American darkness that disconnects colored fathers from sons’ is found and lost and found again through prose that jumps and shimmers, punches and croons. This is one of those books virtually impossible to write…yet it has been written. And by a great American writer.”
—Joy Williams, author of Ninety-Nine Stories of God and The Visiting Privilege
"Writing to Save a Life is a mercurial coupling of fact and fiction from a profound writer. Wideman's conceit is that to grasp fully the lives and deaths of Emmett, Mamie and Louis Till—son, mother, father—one medium of human understanding is simply not adequate. It is a rare and stirring document."
Awards and Honors
- Carnegie Medal Honor Book
Resources and Downloads
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