The Blood of Emmett Till
Timothy B. Tyson (Simon and Schuster, 2017)
In a story with as many actors and events as the civil rights
movement, there are many possible ways to divide the world into
'before' and 'after', but it's fair to consider the death of Emmett
Till a major one. The tale begins in 1955, in a Mississippi where
black people simply did not vote or serve on juries, and where they
could be harassed or killed with near-perfect impunity. "In the
decades before the civil rights era, racial killings in remote
corners of the Deep South frequently went unreported by the national
or even the local press."
Rumbling threats from Washington about school integration had
spurred the rise of White Citizen's Councils, the professionally
educated, daylight-facing counterpart of the Ku Klux Klan. If the KKK
didn't burn you out or shoot at you, the Citizen's Council could cost
you your livelihood - there was nothing for it, either way, but the
next train north to Chicago.
Chicago, of course, had serious limitations as an escape valve,
being heavily segregated and economically unfair in its own right.
Blacks could vote, and compete for industrial jobs with immigrants
from Europe, but they lived in segregated enclaves, often amid a
network of kinfolk from back home in the South. Emmett Till's mother,
Mamie Bradley, was doing nothing unusual sending her son with her
uncle on a train to Mississippi, there to enjoy his cousins' company,
and help with Moses Wright's twenty-five acre cotton crop.
The teenagers had enough free time to go fishing, or down to the
store in Money, three miles away, for cold drinks. On the fateful
Wednesday in late August, Emmett was alone with Carolyn Bryant, the
young woman who was tending the store, for only a minute or two.
Later, in court, she would testify that he grabbed her by the waist
while uttering obscenities, but her lawyer's earliest notes describe
his behavior as 'insulting' her, with no mention of physical contact.
Even though he grew up in the North, fourteen-year-old Emmett
surely knew the rules about dealing with white people, but he was an
outgoing boy who liked making people laugh. There were no other
witnesses, and the details had long since slipped Carolyn Bryant's
mind when she spoke with Timothy Tyson fifty years later, but she
told him something obvious: "Nothing that boy did could ever
justify what happened to him."
That Saturday night, Bryant's husband, Roy, and his older
brother, J. W. Milan, were up late playing cards and drinking. At two
in the morning, they showed up at Moses Wright's house, where he and
his wife and the six teen-age boys were asleep. The white men took
Till away, beat the living daylights out of him, shot him in the
head, tied a weight around his neck with barbed wire, and dropped him
in the Tallahatchee River.
But his feet and legs floated, and he was found by a young man
who was out fishing. Though the kidnapping occurred in Leflore
County, Tallahatchee County's Sheriff H. C. Strider claimed
jurisdiction; he would soon tell reporters that he suspected the
NAACP of planting a body and making up a story. (A ring Till was
wearing, which had belonged to his father, made the identification
certain.) Milan and Bryant were indicted on September 7, and went to
trial on September 20th. "This left little time for a proper
investigation," says Tyson, " which was the point."
Meanwhile, however, Emmett's body had been shipped to Chicago, by
a funeral home outside of Sheriff Strider's jurisdiction; and though
a deal had supposedly been made to keep the coffin sealed, Emmett's
mother Mamie had it opened, and allowed photographs to be published
in Jet, a national magazine for Negro readers. Together with
the enormous crowds that came to view the mutilated body, this meant
tremendous outside interest in the trial, which drew national
television cameras, and international reporters, as well as the
ever-essential black press. "The very sight of white and black
reporters greeting one another and exchanging notes in a friendly
manner shocked the Sumner crowd. Therein was some of the trial's
actual drama, for if almost everyone involved could predict the
trial's verdict, few could predict its consequences."
Under all this scrutiny, the conduct of the trial itself appeared
to be fair, but no Mississippi jury was going to convict a white man
for killing a black boy who had insulted his wife. In less than a
week, Milan and Bryant were acquitted.
"In 1956 the U.S. Information Agency surveyed European
disdain for American race relations and found the Till case the
'prevalent' concern, though it would soon be weighed alongside mob
violence at the University of Alabama and in Little Rock." White
Mississippians would blame the NAACP and 'communists', which to them
might as well have been the same thing, for making them look bad.
The real question, I always think, is not 'Were there communists
supporting black civil rights?' but 'Where were the Americans? Where
were the Christians?' Of course, that's thinking from 'After.' The
light that shone on this murder, after all the others that happened
in darkness, would shine on Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Improvement
Association; it would shine on lunch counter sit-ins and Freedom
Rides; and it shines on the deaths of Trayvon Martin and Michael
Brown, among so many others.
and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values
I recently inquired of my
social media friends what impression they had of Zen and the Art
of Motorcycle Maintenance, a strange sort of novel published by
Robert Pirsig in 1974. Was it A) a life-changing classic; B) a period
piece; C) a hipster cliche; or D), an impenetrable mess? "All of
the above" was a popular answer, and some people said that their
views might have changed over time.
I belong to the first group. My adolescent life
was lit up by the book's approach to certain burning questions of the
day: What's the right balance between living in your head and in the
world? Why is originality both praised and feared? Do we need anyone
to tell us what is Good? Pirsig has some humane answers, albeit
delivered by the sort of mad genius uncle that the adults tend to
write off as a flake.
Of those who remember throwing it across the room in frustration,
one complaint was that they could not find the plot. Is it even a
novel, in the first place? The author's note says it's all true, so
you could call it a lightly fictionalized memoir. The surface plot
goes like this: A man rides a motorcycle, with his son on the back,
from Minnesota to California, talking to himself the whole way.
But, mercy, such talk! The narrator describes it as a
Chautauqua, which is to say, the long-winded nineteenth-century
equivalent of today's TED talks. The subject matter is summed up in
the subtitle, 'an inquiry into values.' That lends credence to the
'pretentious hipster cliche' theory, especially considering that he
is undertaking to talk about not only Zen Buddhism, but Poincaré,
Kant, and Plato.
At the same time, though, he is talking
about the reality all around him: the weather, the terrain, how his
motorcycle is running. On this reading, I noticed how neatly the
metaphysical journey is mapped onto the geographical journey,
attaining a majestic altitude over the Continental Divide. No matter
how lofty his thoughts, sunshine is still hot and rain is still
The narrator's personal history is emerging, too,
involving mental illness and an episode of electroshock treatment.
When he's told “You have a new personality now,” that raises more
questions than it answers. The old personality, dubbed 'Phaedrus', is
a ghost worthy of the German Romantics, or Henry James. This is
ironic, because the man we meet is Classic all the way, a passionate
devotee of the Church of Reason. That's why he's so good at the
naming of parts, conceptually dissecting his motorcycle into parts
and systems. In the Chautauqua, he turns these tools of analysis on
logic itself. What he really wants to know is, what is the
relationship between the True and the Good?
It makes sense
that the book caught hold as a cult classic among the young people
who were also reading Catch-22, Slaughterhouse Five,
and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Pirsig argues through the
long-running contention between the Classic and the Romantic, the Hip
and the Square, and he shows how they might benefit from learning to
appreciate each other. Notwithstanding the quirks of the vehicle, the
passion of the argument still resonates.
McPhee's New Yorker pieces are always interesting, even when
his subjects might sound unpromising. He's far more interested in
geology than I am, as well as the natural world in general. Who else
could have got a whole book out of oranges? But in Draft No. 4,
he comes to a topic I'm deeply interested in: how does he do it?
McPhee has been teaching the writing of narrative non-fiction at
Princeton for many years. In these essays, which have themselves
appeared in the New Yorker, he both shares his own idiosyncratic
processes and lays out some broadly applicable principles.
of what is peculiar to McPhee has to do with the tools he's had
access to. He started with typewritten slips of paper laid out on a
table and grouped by topic. When he switched to using a computer, he
found a piece of data-manipulation software that he's now effectively
the last user of; he has the inventor's phone number. The essay on
structure presents some rather abstruse diagrams that McPhee used to
wrangle various stories into shape, including a couple of tours de
force where he devised the structure before he even knew what the
subject was. This is not recommended for amateurs.
there's plenty of useful advice, which acknowledges that, while we
can't all be John McPhee, neither can he be us. On taking notes: "Use
a voice recorder but maybe not as a first choice–more like a relief
pitcher. Whatever you do, don't rely on memory." In fact, it may
be to your advantage that someone you're interviewing is aware of it:
"Display your notebook as if it were a fishing license."
When your subject is aware of you as an audience, "You can
develop a distinct advantage by waxing slow of wit....If you don't
seem to get something, the subject will probably help you get it."
you've done your research, you're going to need a starting point.
It's not a time to be too cute: "A lead is good not because it
dances, fires cannons, or whistles like a train but because it is
absolute to what follows." A sound lead points the way through
your structure. What kind of structure? "A piece of writing has
to start somewhere, go somewhere, and sit down when it gets there."
What to include? "It's an utterly subjective situation. I
include what interests me and exclude what doesn't interest me. That
may be a crude tool but it's the only one I have."
is all a lot of work, and unquestionably daunting. "To lack
confidence at the outset seems rational to me. It doesn't matter that
something you've done before worked out well. Your last piece is
never going to write your next one for you." The point of doing
(at least) four drafts is that the first draft may be a mess, but it
can only be improved if it exists. If you're lucky, you're not
completely alone. "Editors are counselors and can do a good deal
more for writers in the first draft stage than at the end of the
publishing process. Writers come in two principal categories–those
who are overtly insecure and those who are covertly insecure–and
they can all use help." Lucky for us, both The New Yorker
and Farrar Straus and Giroux still employ editors, and long may they
And here's the peroration, with which I couldn't agree more: "When
am I done? I just know. I'm lucky that way. What I know is that I
can't do any better; someone else might do better, but that's all I
can do; so I call it done."
Course: Essays from where writing and life collide
Black (2016, Engine Books)
Black got a late start as a writer. In her twenties and thirties, she
was raising three children, in the complicated circumstances that are
commonplace these days. The opening essays in this book talk about
what else was going on psychologically, how desperately she wanted to
be a writer, and how angry she was that she was standing in her own
way. "I no longer want the record sanitized, this story of mine,
replete as it is with good fortune, to be recast as only a happy
narrative, or as one in which everything fell into place with no
damage done. You can't be that frustrated for so long, nor that
filled with self-loathing, then emerge without sustaining injury."
Course is a book of essays about those injuries, and what Black
learned from them about writing. She has written it at just the right
moment, when she's still in sympathy with the difficulties she faced,
but not overwhelmingly embarrassed about them. She's clear-eyed and
careful about self-pity: " 'No Whining' makes a fine motto, but
there's value nonetheless to understanding why this pursuit feels so
difficult at times, why the writer's existence can be so isolating,
and even so frightening; and there's value to exploring whether it's
possible to restructure one's perspective to make it less so."
Indeed, as it turns out, uncertainty is probably the key to
creativity. The writer writes to find out, which means she starts out
not knowing, which is bound to be uncomfortable. "And certainty?
It closes doors. Ends discussions. Shuts other people out."
uncertainty means that Black starts every story not knowing if it
will work. She also doesn't always know when she'll know it's not
working: she worked on her first novel for four years. She felt she
didn't have time to fail at her first novel, since she was in her
forties–but three drafts later, she had to admit defeat, and the
time was 'wasted' after all. Being a writer means accepting that the
one piece out of ten that gets to publication shares a process with
the nine that didn't. "We are all struggling here. We are all
making false starts, falling in and out of love with our own words,
facing hard truths about something we have labored on for what seems
like an eternity. And we are haunted by the belief that it's a whole
lot easier for everyone else."
could be true, but it's probably not. Everyone else is also feeling
competitive, envious, and discouraged, in between bouts of
inspiration. Some days we can live in that enviable state where only
the work itself matters; other days, the rejection letters represent
the verdict of Literature. By the end of the book, Black sounds
calmer and wiser than when she began, even though her narrative voice
is otherwise occupied lately. I don't think it's because she's
achieved Success, exactly, but because she trusts that, when she has
something she needs to say, she'll be able to say it.
with a Wild God: A Non-believer's Search for the Truth about
Ehrenreich (Twelve, 2014)
Barbara Ehrenreich was a girl, she was not religious. Her bent, both
personally and by family tradition, was toward radical rationalism;
this book, a not-quite-memoir, could have been titled "I Was a
Teen-Age Solipsist." In Living with a Wild God,
Ehrenreich revisits her journals from that time, which she'd kept
through four decades and a dozen or so moves, "because,"
she says, "if I have any core identity, any central theme that
has survived all the apparent changes of subject, the secret of it
lies with her."
an adult, Ehrenreich is a writer and an activist, always on the side
of the economically down-trodden, and this, she comes by honestly:
her family emerged from Butte, Montana, a mining and smelting town in
the middle of Big Sky country. Her father got out of the mines by
pursuing the study of metallurgy, and then parleyed his good looks
and ability to hold his liquor into a series of upwardly mobile
management jobs. This entailed repeatedly uprooting his family,
through Pittsburgh and various spots in New York and Massachusetts,
before their arrival in Southern California.
family's tradition of hard-headed atheism also sprang from Butte. "I
was born to atheism and raised in it, by people who had derived their
own atheism from a proud tradition of working-class rejection of
authority in all its forms, whether vested in bosses or priests, gods
or demons." So when the fourteen-year-olds around her were going
through religious training, Barbara was on her own with the Big
Questions, like 'why are we here?' and 'why do we die?' She was also
wrestling with a secret. Starting about a year before the journal
begins, she had begun to have moments of direct experience,
unmitigated by words or thoughts.
nearest name for this seems to be 'dissociation'; Ehrenreich
satisfied herself that it was neither a religious experience nor a
sign of insanity. In what was probably a very good decision, she
almost never discussed her episodes with others: the more accurate
her description, the more it would have made her sound insane. The
unpredictability of her episodes was worrisome, and made avoiding the
psychedelic drugs of the day the obvious choice: "For some of
us, at some times, participation on the dullest,
lowest-common-denominator version of 'reality' is not compromise or a
defeat; it is an accomplishment."
devoted her college years to the study of chemistry and physics,
Ehrenreich went on to graduate school in New York. It was there, in
1965, that the larger world, at last, broke in on her ruminations.
The war in Southeast Asia changed everything, as reports trickled
back of atrocities in the jungle. "...now that I had begun to
love the protective armor of solipsism, there was less to shield me
from accounts of bayonets cutting through the bellies of pregnant
Vietnamese women or napalm-dispensing helicopters swooping down over
children. Once the imagination learns how to construct an image of
another person's subjectivity–however sloppy and improvised that
image may be–it's hard to get it to stop."
never quite gets to the answers her teenage self was looking for;
life got in the way. She got married and had children; she continued
to find things out and write things down, producing nearly two dozen
books to date. So the answer to sixteen-year-old Barbara's question
to her future self, "What have you learned since you wrote
this?" is missing some things that girl would have liked to
know. Neuroscience would have been very interesting to her, and
philosophy as well. What she did learn, though, about engagement with
the world, matters a lot: we are members of a species, in a network
of life. Other people are real, and their suffering matters.
I started reviewing books nearly twenty years ago for Voices, the occasional newsletter of Emmanuel Church, Boston. The newsletter has evolved to a different form, but I still try to write something every month. I've shared these with friends by email, and it seems good to post them here as an archive, to see what connections may emerge. Welcome, and happy reading!