Emmett Till

We had a guest preacher at St. Mark’s yesterday, so no sermon from me this week. Instead, I’d like to share a poem I wrote recently. It was the day after the verdict was handed down in the trial of Derek Chauvin, and I was feeling the same ambivalence so many were feeling: a sense of vindication that the court found George Floyd’s death to be murder paired with a sense of dogged endurance because accountability is only a small piece of justice.

That day I began reading Imani Perry’s beautiful, tender, honest, and wrenching letter to her sons in her book Breathe. Early in the book, Perry speaks of Emmett Till’s mother:

When Mamie Till shared the bloated distended face of her beautiful son Emmett, who was murdered, she did not offer other Black parents possession. Mamie Till’s pieta was one in which she could not hold his wounded but still beautiful body across her lap. Hers was a pieta, instead, of distended, inflamed, and bloated remains from a distance; a pieta of a mother made empty-handed by virtue of the cruelty of the execution remains with us. That funeral service, a martyrdom, sending off a patron saint for those who survive after deaths, is an ever present haunting.

Imani Perry, Breathe, p. 17

After reading that paragraph, I sat back and laid the book in my lap. I thought about George Floyd and Emmett Till and how their names encapsulate the names of so many others – remembered and unremembered – that the hands of racism and white supremacy have killed. And I began imagining Emmett Till as an old man, the person he would be now if our country truly lived into its founding principles. And this poem came out all at once. It is part prayer, part wish, part confession.

Emmett Till

He’d be 80 this summer,
Sitting on the back porch
And watching his great-grandchildren play.
“Look what I found in the dirt, Grandaddy!”
An earthworm, fat with last night’s rain.
“We can hook it,” he’d say,
“And maybe catch us a small-mouth…”
Then he’d suck on his empty pipe
(The grandchildren don’t like him smoking around 
Their babies)
And get philosophical:
“But those ole fish are too smart by half.
We’d most likely be giving them dinner…
And that’d be OK too, I s’pose.”

His name means Truth
In Hebrew, if you squint a bit
And cut the doubled letters.
Truth sunk in the Tallahatchie,
But Truth always rises,
And so did he
To indict a country
From a coffin,
His momma Mamie opening the lid
For the sake of children
Digging earthworms in the soil
The same color as their skin.

His name means Truth:
Truth killed in a courtroom –
So help me God.
That’s what they swore
And they swore on a Bible
Closed.
If they’d opened it
They’d have seen
What it took this pale-all-over poet
Over thirty years
To see.
That Jesus was lynched, too,
Just like him,
His brown body pierced.

But the passive voice won’t do.
They lynched Jesus like they lynched him.
Hold on now…
The third-person won’t do either,
Because I yell, “Crucify,”
On Good Friday,
So I’ll remember my responsibility.

His name means Truth:
Truth tilling the earth
’Til it’s all turned over
And the rocks of racism
Are plucked out one by one
From my soul,
Our soil.

But we’ll put the earthworms back
So his imagined great-grandchildren
Can delight in their accordion bodies,
Bringing air to the depths,
And say,
“Look what I found in the dirt.”


Photo by Glen Carrie on Unsplash.

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