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Home > How To Lounge> Books > From Dylan to Hughes, the ballads of Emmett Till

From Dylan to Hughes, the ballads of Emmett Till

Percival Everett’s Booker-nominated The Trees is just the latest work to draw from an infamous 1955 lynching in America

Emmett Till
Emmett Till

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In the electric prologue to American writer Percival Everett’s novel The Trees (shortlisted for the 2022 Booker Prize last week), we meet Wheat and Charlene Bryant, residents of Money, Mississippi, the proverbial one-horse town. Wheat’s old, wheelchair-bound mother is known to everyone in the family as “Granny C”. Among her infrequent ramblings is a persistent thread: She keeps talking about a black boy that she “wronged”.

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““Oh Lawd,” Charlene said. “We on that again.”

“I wronged that little pickaninny. Like it say in the good book, what goes around comes around.”

“What good book is that?” Charlene asked. “Guns and Ammo?”

“No, the Bible, you heathen.”

(…)

“Well, it’s all done and past history now, Granny C. So you just relax. Ain’t nothing can change what happened. You cain’t bring the boy back.”

The Mississippi setting and Granny C’s last name give the game away. Readers familiar with American history will know that this woman is supposed to be Carolyn Bryant, the white proprietor of a grocery store who in 1955 falsely accused a 14-year-old black boy named Emmett Till of whistling at her. Bryant’s husband and his half-brother abducted Till, torturing and killing him and dumping the body in the Tallahatchie river nearby. An all-white jury found the men innocent and the case became a national and global flashpoint, a metonym for racist Americans.

The Trees, like Paul Beatty’s The Sellout (which won the Booker in 2016), is a highly effective satire on American racism. Everett’s protagonists are a pair of black detectives, Jim Davis and Ed Morgan, dispatched to Money by the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation (MBI). Jim and Ed are investigating a series of murders, beginning with two of Carolyn Bryant’s descendants, that appear to have been committed by the ghost of Emmett Till. In each murder, the corpse is accompanied by the corpse of a young black man who resembles Till (down to the nature of the mutilations). In each case, the dead white man’s testicles are enclosed in the ghost-Till’s fist, and the mysterious Till-corpse disappears from underneath the nose of the police each time.

This, however, is not so much a whodunit as the deconstruction of one. Everett constantly plays with the genre expectations readers have while also demonstrating how a society deeply (perhaps irrevocably) split along racial lines keeps out any influence that threatens to bring it into the 21st century. “It ain’t even the 20th century here, never mind the 21st, know what I’m sayin’?” says the white sheriff of Money to Ed and Jim at one point.

The two detectives themselves are delightfully droll characters who are very aware of the kerfuffle their presence has caused in Money, where the white residents take to calling them names of famous black celebrities (“Where did Shaquille O’Neal and Samuel L Jackson go?”). In many of the houses they step into during their investigations, they are the first black people to have crossed the front door. During a hilarious passage that soon turns dark, the duo asks a local white resident for directions to a place “where they might hear some black music”.

“The man stroked his little Pekingese dog while he considered the question. He directed them to a juke joint in the Bottom. “It used to be called Black Bottom,” the man said. “Now we just call it the Bottom. Anybody will know what you’re talkin’ about. Nobody ever heard of no place called White Bottom.””

The darkness kicks in when Jim and Ed ask the Pekingese’s name out of politeness but the owner refuses to tell them, avoiding eye contact. Everett doesn’t spell it out (this is far too subtle a book for that) but the implication is clear enough: The dog’s name is something deeply racist/offensive.

With The Trees, Everett joins a long list of American writers, artists and musicians who have depicted the murder of Emmett Till. Bob Dylan, for example, wrote a song about it called The Death Of Emmett Till. It’s a sophomoric work, not one of his better songs, either lyrically or musically. But it did have one memorable para depicting the acquittal of the two white men responsible for the murder. After the acquittal, they confessed readily before journalists and made thousands of dollars selling their story to magazines.

“I saw the morning papers but I could not bear to see

The smiling brothers walkin’ down the courthouse stairs.

For the jury found them innocent and the brothers they went free,

While Emmett’s body floats the foam of a Jim Crow southern sea.”

Afterimages, a far better poem—and by far the most viscerally affecting document on the matter—was written by Audre Lorde. Among other things, this poem connected the dots between the hate crime and the patriarchal conditioning of the men who killed Till (in The Trees, Everett’s plot point about the corpse, Till clutching his victims’ testicles in his dead fist, does something similar).

“A black boy from Chicago

whistled on the streets of Jackson, Mississippi

testing what he’d been taught was a manly thing to do

his teachers

ripped his eyes out his sex his tongue

and flung him to the Pearl weighted with stone

in the name of white womanhood

they took their aroused honor

back to Jackson

and celebrated in a whorehouse

the double ritual of white manhood

confirmed.”

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There are several others. William Faulkner wrote an essay, ‘On Fear’, on the subject in 1956 in Harper’s, arguing against racial segregation. Langston Hughes’ poem Mississippi—1955 was also written as a response to Till’s murder; later in his career, though, Hughes rewrote the poem in such a way that it became less specific to Till’s circumstances and more of a general condemnation of racist violence. Toni Morrison and James Baldwin both wrote plays where the murder, the trial and its aftermath are directly depicted. Morrison’s novel Song Of Solomon has a scene where several characters listen to the radio news on Till’s murder. Their resultant conversation depicts how “selective policing” works in America.

“You stupid, man. Real stupid. Ain’t no law for no colored man except the one sends him to the chair,” said Guitar.

“They say Till had a knife,” Freddie said.

“They always say that. He could of had a wad of bubble gum, they’d swear it was a hand grenade.”

The Trees is Everett’s reminder that over six decades after Emmett Till was killed, there remain cataclysmic divisions in American society and racist white American authority figures are deeply invested in maintaining this status quo.

Aditya Mani Jha is a Delhi-based writer.

 

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