The Fact of Being Black: History, Culture, Politics II
’Twas down in Mississippi not so long ago
When a young boy from Chicago town stepped through a Southern door
This boy’s dreadful tragedy I can still remember well
The color of his skin was black and his name was Emmett Till
-Bob Dylan, “The Death of Emmett Till” (from the Bootleg Series, Vol 9 [1962-64]
It was the summer of 1955, in Mississippi. The temperatures can rise to the high 90s, but this state had been burning for another reason. The previous year, three young civil rights activists, who had been championing racial integration and attempting to register black voters, had disappeared. Their bodies would be recovered from an earthen dam more than six weeks later. The head of one of the Ku Klux Klan chapters in the state of Mississippi, who doubled as a preacher, was acquitted by an all-white jury that declared itself unable to convict ‘a man of God’. Two of the three men were white, and the good old folks of Mississippi doubtless thought of them as race traitors; as for the one black men among them, James Chaney, the only good “Nigger” was a dead one—few white men doubted that.
Fourteen-year old Emmett Till, visiting his cousins in Money, Mississippi from Chicago in the summer of 1955 would have been unaware of much of this. On August 25th, he reportedly wolf-whistled at a white woman, Carolyn Bryant, a local beauty queen who ran a little provisions store. Three days later, at 2 AM, Bryant’s husband and his half-brother, J. W. Milam, kidnapped Emmett Till from his uncle’s home. They bludgeoned young Emmett’s body until his face was unrecognizable and then shot him dead; his mutilated body was thrown into the Tallahatchie River, from where it was recovered three days later.
Once again, an all-white and all-male jury acted to preserve the interests of the white race. Bryant and Milam were acquitted of the charge of murder; the grant jury that convened to discuss kidnapping charges against the two men refused to indict them. In the town of Sumner, where the trial was held, visitors were greeted with the slogan, “A good place to raise a boy.”
Months after the trial, Bryant and Milam confessed to the killing; their story appeared in the January 1956 issue of Look. But they could not be tried again, having been acquitted of that charge. For their story, they received the tidy if not princely sum of $4000: murder pays, literally. Till might well have been forgotten, destined to become another statistic in the log book of white atrocities against black people, but for the fact that his mother, Mamie Till, took the bold step of having her son’s body displayed in an open coffin on September 3. Mourners recoiled at seeing Emmett’s horribly mutilated body; indeed, his body was in such an advanced stage of decomposition that he could only be identified by his initials on a ring on one of his fingers. Photographs of Emmett’s body were reproduced widely and appeared in hundreds of publications. Mrs. Till, who died in 2003 at the age of 81, did not live long enough to see her son receive justice, but his killing is nevertheless said to have spurred on the civil rights movement. Most histories of the Civil Rights Movement commence with Rosa Parks’s refusal to give up her seat and move to the back of the bus in Montgomery, Alabama, but Ms. Parks herself would go on record to say, “I thought of Emmett Till and I just couldn’t go back.” The most influential documentary ever filmed on the Civil Rights Movement, the epic Eyes on the Prize, would open with the story of Emmett Till.
The casket in which Emmett’s body was placed is now displayed in the Smithsonian’s new museum of African American history. There have been many other developments in the story of Emmett Till: early this year, Carolyn Bryant, whose whiteness and lies—an ugly pairing that has destroyed many lives, indeed been the undoing of entire cultures—sent Emmett to his ghastly death, confessed that Emmett had made no physical or verbal advances on her. “That part’s not true”, she told the author of a new book on the Emmett Till case. But even more recently, Emmett Till is back in the public consciousness, this time with a controversial painting by Dana Schutz entitled “Open Casket” that was exhibited at the Whitney Biennial last month. Schutz has based her painting on photographs of Till’s body that were published in Jet, the Chicago Defender, and a number of other magazines at that time. It is not her painting which is controversial as such; rather, according to a number of African American artists, the subject is not Schutz’s to claim. She is white.
The artist Parker Bright positioned himself, over successive days, in front of the painting, sometimes with friends and fellow artists, to block the view. The words, “Black Death Spectacle”, were splashed across the back of the T-shirt that he was sporting. A black British artist, in a letter written to the two Asian American curators of the show, Mia Locks and Christopher Y. Lew, called for the destruction of the painting, arguing that the rights to freedom of speech and expression are “not natural rights” and that Diana Schutz, whose works command considerable sums of money in the art market, stands to profit from Emmett Till’s death. Schutz has declared that she never intended to sell the painting; in her defense, she admits that she cannot know what it is like to be “black in America but I do know what it is like to be a mother. Emmett was Mamie Till’s only son. The thought of anything happening to your child is beyond comprehension. Their pain is your pain. My engagement with this image was through empathy with his mother.”
Schutz’s defense does not appear to be implausible, and we should in any case be prepared to believe her both when she says that she never intended to sell her painting and that, as a mother, she can empathize with Emmett Till’s mother. History is, of course, a profligate narrative of people profiting from the suffering of others, and many others are guilty of much more onerous acts of commission; it isn’t absolutely clear, as well, why, had she intended to sell her painting, Schutz would have been guilty of anything more than bad taste and poor ethical judgment. We may ask why Schutz must be subjected to some imaginary litmus test. It is perhaps also a tad bit unfortunate she chose to summon the “holy” institution of motherhood in her defense: if one intends to elicit some support, the figure of the mother can always be called forth. But, beyond all this, lie some questions that in their elemental simplicity take us to the heart of the debates surrounding the politics of representation. Who speaks for whom? With what right? With what notion of entitlement? With what responsibilities? Does one have to earn one’s stripes in order to speak for another—provided that is what Schutz was seeking to do—and just exactly how does one earn these stripes? Over the span of centuries, many of those whom we accept as voices of conscience have urged upon us the notion that if there is injustice anywhere in the world, it is always a threat to justice; if someone else is without freedom, I cannot be entirely free myself. Freedom is indivisible—at least some part of us must hold on to this idea. If there are others who are suffering, wherein is my ‘happiness’? If at all I feel this way, do I not partake of that suffering?
In every great social and anti-colonial movement of the last several decades, one common principle has persisted among various differences. In the women’s movement, the most astute feminists welcomed the participation of men, but on the condition that women would furnish the lead. The major anti-colonial movements of the 20th century did not disavow the support of sympathetic white liberals; but there was always the awareness that white men, even the best intentioned, often have a tendency to dominate if not hijack a movement. Mohandas Gandhi never lacked English friends and sympathizers, in India and England alike; but they accepted the idea that they would support the freedom struggle from the side. This seems to be an unimpeachable idea of social justice, one calculated to lead to a heightened appreciation of the dignity of the struggle itself; and these considerations, too, are not so far apart from the questions that have been raised by the black protest against Diana Schutz’s painting of Emmett Till’s “open casket”. Nevertheless, there is also something profoundly disturbing about the supposition that, as a white artist, the suffering of Emmett Till is not hers to claim—at least not for purposes of representation. If there are no “natural laws” that confer an automatic right to freedoms of speech and creative expression, surely there are no “natural rights” which would lead us to believe that blacks know blacks best, or that only women may speak for women? It would be trivializing the issue if we took the examples of Ben Carson or Clarence Thomas to suggest the difficulties in supposing that racial solidarity trumps every other bond of fellow feeling. But how long must we persist in the notion, which one would imagine has had its day (though of course one knows otherwise), that politics derives in the first instance from identity? Is the protest over Schutz’s painting anything really much more than this rather procrustean idea?