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Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Fatheralong {*}

by John Edgar Wideman

Harper's Magazine Notebook (August 2009)

{*} The word I heard as a child when the church sang "Farther Along".

Louis Till, the father of Emmett Till, the fourteen-year-old Chicago boy murdered in Mississsipi in 1955, one year after the Supreme Court's school desegregation decision, is the first father I think about when I am asked to comment on the alleged failure of black males to assume properly the responsibilities of fatherhood. I also think about Freud, about the global crisis demanding a metamorphosis of family that's not new, not black. President Barack Obama, who addressed such issues earlier and eloquently in his Dreams from My Father (1995), is clearly the catalyst of the present discussions as he works to apply his personal insights and experiences to a national dilemma. I'm moved by his honest explorations of fatherhood, his witness. The world is a troubled, dangerous place, at best. Unfairly dangerous for young Americans in free fall, growing up too fast or not growing at all, deprived of the love, guidance, positive example, the material, intellectual, and moral support of fathers negotiating the perils with them.

Louis Till's Non-Battle Casualty Report lists his rank as PVT, his serial number as 36392273, lists the Date of Casualty as July 2, his Reporting Theatre as MTO, the Mediterranean Theatre of Operations, lists his Arm or Service as TC, the Transportation Command, a non-combat unit to which nearly every colored soldier in the segregated US Army was assigned, lists the Place of Casualty as Italy, and leaves blank, except for an asterisk, the space in which Type of Casualty should be listed. Mrs Mamie Till's name (misspelled "Mammie") appears on the Battle Casualty Report, but it does not mention Till's son, Emmett.

The first time Mamie Till knew her husband had been hanged in Italy by the United States Army was in the fall of 1955, not long after their son Emmett was murdered, about a dozen years after she'd seen Louis Till last in Chicago. The telegram she had received from the Army on July 13 1945, composed of selected facts from the Non-Battle Casualty Report, informed her that her husband, Private Louis Till, had died of willful misconduct, but omitted "sol died in non-battle status" and "judicial asphixiation", words typed into a confidential footnote below the official report. Although assisted by a lawyer, Mrs Till's attempt to investigate the circumstances surrounding the death of her husband and father of her only child had been stymied by the government's terminal unresponsiveness, the very same government that ordered its colored soldiers to serve in what amounted to a separate, second-class army of conscripted laborers.

The government that at its highest levels chose to break its own rules and violate the rights of Private Louis Till by sending his confidential service record, which included a transcript of his court martial (CM288642), to lawyers defending the kidnappers and killers of his son, Emmett. Driven by their desire to repair the public image of a state that was being drubbed nationwide by press coverage of Emmett Till's murder, the Mississippi arch-segregationist Senators James Eastland and John Stennis are likely the ones who obtained and leaked Louis Till's papers, as only officials with their rank and clout could demand and receive, from the Army adjutant general, a soldier's classified service record. A Colonel Ralph K Johnson, TJAG (The Judge Advocate General) on October 14 1955, did the dirty work of signing off on the release and penciling out the word CONFIDENTIAL stamped on the cover and pages of the Record of Trial by General Courts Martial, dated February 17 1945.

In November 1955, approximately six weeks after a trial that found World War Two veterans - J W Milam and his brother-in-law Roy Bryant - not guilty of murdering Emmett Till, a trial that the Cleveland Post and Call derided ("Mississippi Jungle Law Frees Slayers of Child") and the Greenwood, Mississippi, Morning Star complimented ("Fair Trial Was Credit to Mississippi"), the state of Mississippi, compelled by the testimony of a sheriff during the trial that Milam and Bryant admitted to him they had taken Emmett Till from his great-uncle Moses Wright's home, sought indictments against the two men for kidnapping. Parties unknown leaked to the press that Emmett Till's father, Mamie Till's husband, Louis, far from being the martyred war hero portrayed in Northern papers during the trial, had been hanged by the US Army for committing rape and murder.

This revelation of the crimes of the father doomed any chance that jurors in Sumner, Mississippi, would indict the killers of Louis Till's son for any wrongdoing whatever. Instead of what measure of comfort she might have felt if the court had punished her son's murderers, Mamie Bradley Till found herself watching in dismay as Emmett Till's already dead and brutalized body was tarred, feathered, and lynched again for the father's sins, her fourteen-year-old boy stigmatized, scorned as rotten fruit from a rotten tree.

The novelist Chester Himes, expressing the despair shared by many of his fellow citizens, published a letter in the New York Post on September 25 1955, in which he wrote, "The real horror comes when your dead brain must face the fact that we as a nation don't want it to stop. If we wanted to, we would. So let us all share the guilt, those in New York as well as those in Sumner, Mississippi."

As a father, Louis Till didn't have much time to spend with his son. Emmett Till was born in July of 1941 (a month after I was born), and Louis Till (like my father) went off to war in a segregated army in 1942, returning to Chicago only once, one AWOL night before the Army came and knocked on Mamie's door in the morning and hauled him back. A ring Louis Till purchased in Casablanca and had engraved with his initials and the date May 25 1943, was included among the personal effects Mamie Till received from the Army after she was notified of his death. This silver ring, cached in Emmett Till's jewelry box or occasionally worn on his finger, padded by tape until his finger grew thick enough the last year of his life to keep it in place, may have been the most intimate link between father and son, an irony, since the ring also served to identify Emmett Till's battered, bloated, disfigured body when it was pulled from the Tallahatchie River.

What kind of father did Emmett Till imagine when he wore the silver ring. Looking down at the ring encircling his own dark finger, did Louis Till ever think about a son bearing his name, Till, wearing the ring one day.

While his sentence of death by hanging was receiving its mandatory review by The Judge Advocate General's Division, Louis Till was confined in the Disciplinary Training Center, a United States military prison in Metato, near Pisa. The poet Ezra Pound, facing a capital sentence himself, on charges of treasonous radio broadcasts, was Till's fellow prisoner, the only civilian in a population of 3,600 mostly colored inmates. The Pisan Cantos, written during Pound's internment in the DTC, imagine Louis Till as Outis, Greek for "no one", "nobody" the wanderer of the Odyssey, as Zeus the lusty ram, Till's sign, the Chinese ideogram "M4", "a man upon whom the sun has gone down" (Canto LXXIV: 170-178, edited by Richard Sieburth).

If Louis Till had been around to school Emmett about the perils of the South, about how white men treat black boys down south and up north, would Emmett have returned to Chicago safely on the City of New Orleans train from his trip to visit relatives in Money, Mississippi, started up public school in the fall, earned good grades, maybe even have become successful and rich, eluding the fate of his father. Or does his father's fate draw Emmett like a fluttering moth to its flame, Emmett flying backward and forward at once, like the African sankofa bird flies, because part of the father's fate is not to be around to advise and supervise and support the son, the fate of father and son to be divided always. A cycle of predictable missings and absence eternally renewed. A flicker of wings igniting, quickly extinguished, then darkness.

Race is myth. When we stop talking about race, stop believing in race, it will disappear. Except for its career historically and in people's memories as the antithesis of human freedom, the embodiment of inequality and injustice that remained far too long a toxic, unresolved paradox in nations proclaiming themselves free. In a raceless society color wouldn't disappear. Difference wouldn't disappear. Africa wouldn't disappear. In post-race America "white" people would disappear. That is, no group could assume as birthright and identity a privileged, supernaturally ordained superiority at the top of a hierarchy of other groups, a supremacy that bestows upon their particular kind the right perpetually to rule and regulate the lives of all other kinds. This idea, this belief in "whiteness", whether the belief is expressed in terms of color, ethnicity, nationality, gender, tribe, et cetera, constitutes the founding principle of race, its appeal and its discontents.

To dismiss race as myth is not to underestimate its power. Race, like religion, is immune to critiques of science and logic because it rests on belief. And people need beliefs. Although science has discredited the biological underpinnings of the notion of race, faith rushes in to seal the cracks, paper over glaring omissions in arrested explanations of human difference offered by racial ideology. Louis Till's color, the color of his son, Emmett, the color of Richard Wright's fictional character Bigger Thomas, Colin Powell's color, are not problems until the myth of race and the racialized perspective it authorizes turn color into an indictment, into instant proof of innocence or guilty-as-charged. We should understand by now that race can mean anything, everything, or nothing, depending upon whom we ask.

The continuing existence of race in the United States indicates conspiracy and cover-up. An attempt to make more palatable to ourselves, and anyone watching, the not-so-secret dirty secret shared by all Americans that our country, in spite of public professions to the contrary, entertains a deeply internalized, segregated vision of itself. We look at ourselves and believe we see White Americans or Black Americans. We perceive our problems as Black or White problems. The urgent task of redressing the shameful neglect of American children gets postponed by hand-wringing and finger-pointing at feckless black fathers and the damage they're inflicting upon their black offspring. Or sidetracked just as effectively by blaming society and exempting blacks because race tells us blacks are permanent victims, not agents of change. The truth of too many black boys in prison, too many black babies dying, too many hungry black youngsters being raised in dire poverty, too many terrible black schools - these truths misrepresented by discourses perpetuating the myth of separate races don't spur us to action but become an occasion for shedding crocodile tears, washing our hands of personal as well as collective responsibility. More than half a century ago James Baldwin outed this kind of hiding from the consequences of racialized thinking as willed innocence. At this late date, displays of surprise or ignorance about how bad things are for our children suggest dishonesty, signify complicity, conscious or unconscious, with the cover-up.

Louis Till was born fatherless in Madrid, Missouri. One could argue that the concept of race abiding today in America is a profound orphaning of all black children. Argue that any attempt to understand black fathers and to interpret their responsibilities, successes, and failures should begin right there, with a consideration of the fact that myths of race isolate children, place them at risk, disinherit and repudiate. Start by listening a moment to the roaring silence in which Louis Till is buried, the silence neither his voice nor his son's voice can break, the dark, impervious silence in which words - good, bad, responsible, black, white - vanish.


John Edgar Wideman is a contributing editor of Harper's Magazine and the author, most recently, of the novel Fanon (Houghton Mifflin).

Bill Totten


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