August 28, 1955: I was twelve years old, growing up in Harlem, and preparing to enter my final year of junior high school. Tall, skinny, nerdy, shy, and bookish, I’d been tagged as academically advanced in the final year of elementary school and went from seventh to ninth grade.
August 28, 1955: The day fourteen-year-old Emmett Till was to draw his last breath, in a place far away from home and under circumstances too gruesome to imagine. But I didn’t have to imagine: Till’s mother insisted on an open casket so that the world could see what had been wrought upon her baby man. The New York Daily News carried the photo of his body in the casket on the cover.
That day, as usual, I picked up the paper to read the headlines and do the puzzles, but I was stopped in my tracks. The large cover photo of his desecrated face and bloated body just stuck like glue in my mind and rose like a hurricane in my stomach. I gagged and I had to hold back the vomit. Till had been weighted down so that he sunk to the bottom of the Tallahatchie River outside the town of Money, Mississippi, where he’d been visiting relatives. I’d never seen anything like that image before in my young life. Yes, it made me physically ill. It haunted me.
Until that day, I had no idea of the horrors African Americans lived through and died in. Probably to protect us, my parents never even discussed slavery. (After all, how can the next generation have hopes and aspirations, if they’re weighted down by the tragedies of the past? I believe that’s the way many of my parent’s generation felt about the evils they escaped when they migrated North.)
That image continues to plague my memory. It returns frequently to remind me of who I am and why I do what I do.
Emmett Till and legions of sacrificed African American men, women and children: they are why I write books proclaiming the significance of my culture’s huge contribution to American history, literature, technology, and visual and performing arts.
Emmett Till and the rude awakening I experienced on learning of his assassination: that’s why I’ve used my expertise in performance studies to become an anti-racist cultural worker.
Emmett Till: I stand on the shoulders of this teenaged Ancestor. I MUST make good, because of his unwitting sacrifice.