(c) Doug Slagle, Minister to the Gathering at Northern Hills, All Rights Reserved
Listen to the Message here or read below:
Black, Poured Directly into the Wound
Prairie winds blaze through her tumbled belly, and Emmett’s
red yesterdays refuse to rename her any kind of mother.
A pudge-cheeked otherwise, sugar whistler, her boy is
(through the fierce clenching mouth of her memory) a
grays-and-shadows child. Listen. Once she was pretty.
Windy hues goldened her skin. She was pert, brown-faced,
in every wide way the opposite of the raw, screeching thing
chaos has crafted. Now, threaded awkwardly, she tires of the
sorries, the Lawd have mercies. Grief’s damnable tint
is everywhere, darkening days she is no longer aware of.
She is gospel revolving, repeatedly emptied of light, pulled
and caressed, cooed upon by strangers, offered pork and taffy.
Boys in the street stare at her, then avert their eyes, as if she
killed them all, shipped every one into the grips of Delta. She sits,
her chair carefully balanced on hell’s edge, and pays for sanity in
kisses upon the conjured forehead of her son. Beginning with A,
she recites (angry, away, awful) the alphabet of a world gone red.
Coffee scorches her throat as church ladies drift about her room,
black garb sweating their hips, filling cups with tap water, drinking,
drinking in glimpses of her steep undoing. The absence of a black
roomful of boy is measured, again, again. In the clutches of coffee,
red-eyed, Mamie knows their well-meaning murmur. One says She
a mama, still. Once you have a chile, you always a mama. Kisses
in multitudes rain from their dusty Baptist mouths, drowning her.
Sit still, she thinks, til they remember how your boy was killed.
She remembers. Gush and implosion, crushed, slippery, not a boy.
Taffeta and hymnals all these women know, not a son lost and
pulled from the wretched and rumbling Tallahatchie. Mamie, she
of the hollowed womb, is nobody’s mama anymore. She is
tinted echo, barren. Everything about her makes the sound sorry.
The white man’s hands on her child, dangled eye, twanging chaos,
things that she leans on, the only doors that open to let her in.
Faced with days and days of no him, she lets Chicago — windy,
pretty in the ways of the North — console her with its boorish grays.
A hug, more mourners and platters of fat meat. Will she make it through?
Is this how the face slap of sorrow changes the shape of a
mother? All the boys she sees now are laughing, drenched in red.
Emmett, in dreams, sings I am gold. He tells how dry it is, the prairie.
Mamie Carthan was born on November 23rd, 1921 in the small town of Webb, Mississippi. Shortly afterwards, she and her parents moved to Argo, Illinois so her father could work in a corn processing factory. They were part of a large exodus of African-Americans from the Jim Crow South who looked for greater opportunity up North.
Mamie was a hardworking and intelligent youth. She was the first African-American student to make the A honor roll in the nearly all white Argo High School – and the fourth African-American to graduate from it.
At age 18, she met and fell in love with an amateur boxer, Louis Till. Mamie’s parents did not approve, but she married Louis anyway and nine months later gave birth to her first and only child – Emmett Till.
After a divorce two years later, Mamie raised Emmett as a single mother on the South Side of Chicago. She worked as a clerk for the Air Force and earned wages that placed her well within the middle class. When Emmett was five, he contracted polio and was hospitalized. He recovered but, as a result of the disease, developed a persistent verbal stutter.
Mamie’s son was a happy, fun loving boy who loved doo-wop music and Jack Benny. He was popular and the center of attention at school. Emmett was also fiercely loyal to his mother. Their relationship was loving, protective and close.
During the summer of 1955, Mamie’s uncle, Moses Wright, visited Mamie and Emmett. He was a sharecropper and part-time minister in the Mississippi Delta region. Emmett, who had only known life in a big city, was captivated by Moses’ stories of fishing and tromping through rural bayous and backwoods. Mamie was pleased her 14 yer old son, who had never known his father, looked up to Moses. When he suggested Emmett return with him for a vacation in Mississippi, Mamie reluctantly agreed.
Before he departed Chicago, however, she warned Emmett about how to behave as a black male in Mississippi. She told him, “If you have to get on your knees and bow when a white person passes, do it willingly.” In her book, The Death of Innocence, written years later, Mamie said she was anguished about allowing Emmett to visit Mississippi. She was only two when she left that state but she’d heard stories from her parents about white supremacy and lynchings of blacks in the state. For her, Mississippi was an alien and dangerous place.
Mamie’s fears for her son in Mississippi proved valid. One Sunday morning, Emmett and other boys played hooky from his uncle’s church. They went to a local grocery to buy candy. The store was owned by Roy Bryant and managed by his wife Carolyn.
What happened in the store is not fully clear, but most facts indicate Emmett encountered the young and pretty Carolyn. Emmett may have been attracted to her, got nervous speaking with her, and began to stutter – due to his childhood bout with polio. Mamie had taught her only child to whistle softly to himself when that happened – as a way to calm himself and speak more clearly. His friends say Emmett never physically or verbally accosted Carolyn. Forty-three years later, Carolyn admitted Emmett said and did nothing menacing. Nevertheless, she acted offended at the time and quickly told her husband that a husky black teen had not only whistled at her, he’d made sexual advances.
Late the next night, Roy Bryant and his cousin drove to Moses Wright’s house and kidnapped Emmett Till. They tied him, put him in the back of their truck and raced away. Moses Wright spent the night searching for Emmett – hoping to find a beaten but still alive nephew.
Three days later, the body of a naked black boy was found floating in the Tallahatchie River. It was unrecognizable. It was later identified as Emmett Till because the body wore a small ring recently given to him. Emmett was bloated, had barbed wire bound around his neck, he’d been dragged behind a truck, had his tongue cut off, one eye gouged out, and the side of his head smashed in.
The local sheriff encouraged a speedy Mississippi burial. Mamie refused. She asked that Emmett be placed in ice and returned to Chicago. Later, she instructed that her son’s funeral be open casket. His death had become national news – a young African-American boy lynched in the deep South for doing nothing more than whistling in the presence of a white woman. Fifty-thousand people came to Emmett’s funeral. Many were overcome by the sight and smell of his body. Photographs of Emmett’s horribly disfigured face were published in newspapers around the world.
Mamie told the press that the world needed to see what had been done to her son. In her book she wrote, “Have you ever sent a beloved son on vacation, and had him returned to you in a pine box, so horribly battered and water-logged that someone needs to tell you this sickening sight is your son, lynched? People had to face my son and realize just how twisted, how distorted, how terrifying race hatred could be.”
One month later Roy Bryant and his cousin were put on trial in Mississippi. Mamie flew down to testify. Emmett’s uncle also testified and, in doing so, displayed the kind of courage few black men in the South dared show. Defense lawyers questioned whether Emmett was dead by claiming the body pulled from the Tallahatchie was not him. The ring had been placed on it. Emmett, they suggested, had run away and was up to no good. The all-white jury spent 67 minutes deliberating – with the foreman stating that if it weren’t for a soda-pop break, it would have been much shorter. The two defendants were found not guilty.
One year later, now immune from prosecution under double jeopardy laws, the two were paid by Look magazine for an interview. They admitted they murdered Emmett saying he’d still be alive if he hadn’t acted equal to whites. He and other black boys needed to be taught a lesson.
Emmett’s lynching is credited with igniting the modern Civil Rights movement. Langston Hughes wrote a poem soon after. Toni Morrison wrote a play. Bob Dylan composed a song and only three months later, Rosa Parks said that when she was ordered to the back of a Montgomery, Alabama bus, she thought of Emmett Till and thus refused.
Gwendolyn Brooks wrote her famous poem “The Last Quatrain of the Ballad Of Emmett Till” as a tribute. Brooks is considered by most scholars to be one of the foremost 20th century American poets. She was the first African-American to win a Pulitzer Prize.
This past March, an assembly of poets continued an annual tradition called the Golden Shovel Award in which writers are asked to honor a deceased poet by taking a line from their best poem and incorporating its words into a new and freshly written poem. This year they honored Brooks and her poem about Emmett Till.
Patricia Smith, an acclaimed contemporary African-American poet, then wrote the poem I consider today – Black, Poured Directly Into the Wound. This message is the second in my August series I’ve entitled “Summer Poetry for Reflection.”
What I find poignant in Smith’s poem is its focus on Mamie and her grief. The poem is immediately relevant because it captures not just the feelings of every grieving mother, but more importantly of today’s black mothers whose sons have been unjustly murdered. The poem is neither political or angry. Instead, it goes beyond surface emotions to plumb the depths of grief felt by a black mother – her pain, her struggle to make sense of horrific tragedy, her obligation to grieve in ways that transform a son’s killing into a cause.
In Smith’s poem, Mamie’s world is turned upside down. Images in the poem evoke that kind of ironic inversion. The world is no longer blue and green. It’s red and full of doom. Mamie is no longer pretty, pert and golden skinned. She’s raw, red eyed, screeching, and threaded awkwardly. She’s gospel – or good news – revolving into a symbol of bad news. She’s a victim and yet she’s not. Emmett’s friends blame her as the one who sent him off to be lynched. She’s thus emblematic of how too often our culture blames black victims for their injury.
Mamie is still a mother, “once you have a chile, you always a mama,” the poem says. And yet Mamie isn’t. She, with a hollowed womb, is an echo of what she once was. She’s nobody’s mama anymore.
The once golden hued boys who played with her son, she sees them as drenched in red. They too await a bloody end. And Emmett, whose body is literally fat meat, he inhabits her dreams wreathed in gold – a halo wearing son marching through a dusty eternity. Mamie’s grief wound is thus aggravated not by salt poured into it – but by all the history of blackness.
I often encourage empathy. Patricia Smith’s poem does the same. Her poem cries out with the anguish of a black mother – emotions nobody but she can feel. We’re asked to not just understand those feelings, but literally feel her confusion, anger, disconnection, numbness, and gut wrenching grief.
It takes all I can muster to imagine the worry and grief of a black mother. When tragedy comes to the Mamie Tills, Sabrina Fultons (mom of Travon Martin) or the Samaria Rices (mom of 12 year old Tamir – killed by Cleveland police as he played with a toy gun), they are expected to be the face of every mom’s grief – all the better for whites to feel empathy. And yet whites can’t fully offer that. Our experiences of sorrow and prejudice and fear is too limited.
Black mothers and their sons have a distorted relationship due to centuries of racism. Mother’s who were slaves had to watch as their beloved babies – particularly their sons – were ripped away and sold for profit. Solomon Northrup’s narrative in Twelve Year’s a Slave describes seeing the mother Eliza plead and cry hysterically for her master not to sell her son – and then be threatened with whipping unless she stopped.
The same scene was replayed under different circumstances, but identical context, when Leslie McSpadden, mother of Freddie Gray who was tumbled to death in the back of a police van, collapsed with anguished cries after hearing her son was dead. She later said the news made her feel as if she had been killed. “There was,” she said, “a feeling that there was no respect, no sympathy, nothing for my son.”
Black mothers are often blamed for their tough discipline of boys, for their seeming lack of tenderness, for their often angry attitudes toward men. Patricia Smith reminds us, however, of the love a black mother has for her sons, for her keening grief at their deaths, and for their obsessive protections over them – yelling, cajoling and even encouraging their emasculation – all to somehow save them from tragedy.
My relationship with my mom – and that of other gay men with their moms – is nowhere near as fraught and pained as it must be for black men and their mothers. But I believe there are faint echoes of similarity. Reflecting on Smith’s poem, I can hear those faint echoes in my past. They help me empathize with black moms.
Bullied as a boy, I recall my mom comforting me – encouraging me to be strong and reassuring me I’m loved. She openly cheered at my little successes – hoping to empower my self-esteem. She even had me transferred to a small private school – all to better protect me.
Years later, after I came out, I recall her stern looks at dad when he told a crude joke about gays, or laughed at something I’d wear or say that was not masculine enough. She mourned my divorce – but she also understood why. She never spoke the word “gay” with me, but she knew. And she never stopped enjoying my company, cheering my adult little successes, or acting the protective lioness. Perhaps like a black mother, she feared for me out in a hostile world. I wonder about the nights of worry she may have had for me – as a bullied young boy, as a quiet teen moving into adulthood, as a gay man venturing into a new life. My mom, like black moms, had a bond with me forged not just by love…..but also by worry.
The lives of sons matter deeply to almost ALL mothers. Patricia Smith’s poem reminds us that Emmett Till’s life mattered to Mamie – as did the lives of his many friends – all symbolically drenched in red. The same is true of Sabrina Fulton for Travon Martin, Leslie McSpadden for Freddie Gray, and the slave mom Eliza for her son Randall. The lament of most black mothers is one I want to understand and feel. It’s the cry of a whole nation of black mothers saying together – “the lives of our sons, their black lives, they matter.” That’s a cry that goes far beyond white counter arguments. Of course, police lives matter. Of course, all lives matter. No black mother would ever disagree.
But history’s terrible images of black men swinging lifeless from trees, of weeping boys sold away from their mamas, of young men languishing in prison for drug addiction, of Emmett Till, Travon Martin, Tamir Rice and thousands like them dead too young – and their killers walking away unpunished – such images plaintively implore the truth that black lives deserve the spiritual imperative of respect and dignity. To understand that, to feel that, to empathize with that, and then be drawn to advocate for that, we need only listen and reflect on a black mama’s cry…
I wish you peace.
Michael Tacy will now sing for us Billie Holliday’s song “Strange Fruit.” I encourage us, while Michael sings, to meditate on the ongoing tragedy of racism and hate in our nation. In doing so, I encourage us to imagine the hurt and grief and anger of black mamas. I encourage us to inhabit their pain and then use that feeling to touch our souls…