Tuesday, March 7, 2017

The Death of Emmett Till -- Dylan Places Spotlight on American Shame

Tomorrow evening there will be a community forum gathered to discuss Carla Hamilton’s current art exhibit at the Duluth Art Institute. The show is titled Gezielt (Targeted). It addresses issues of race and community policing. The discussion will be led by the DAI Artist Services Director, Amber White. Panelists will include Hamilton; the City of Duluth Human Rights Officer Carl Crawford; Chief of Police Mike Tusken; and the president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)-Duluth, Stephan Witherspoon.

The rewards of any artistic engagement, from poetry to music to the visual arts, are directly related to the personal investment of time and reflection we put into it. Carla Hamilton's Gezielt, therefore, becomes an opportunity to reflect once more on race relations in America. Hamilton's exhibit serves to help us simultaneously think about how far we've come and how much progress is still needed.

Initially, when she told me about her experience last year it struck me like a poke in the eye. But then, her response was not only creative, but also revealing. We really have made progress.

In January, I reflected again on Dylan's early protest songs about race relations in the Deep South. Songs like The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carrol and Only A Pawn In Their Game have always remained riveting reminders of systemic injustice. Another very early song Dylan recorded, but never released was a grimly disturbing The Death of Emmett Till.

This past week I discovered an audio version of a book written fifty years after this 1955 incident titled The Blood of Emmett Till, by Timothy B. Tyson. A unique feature of Tyson's book is this: Carolyn Bryant, the white woman in whose name Emmett was lynched for having somehow having violated, gave her first interview in her life and told a different story than the one she initially told.

Anyone familiar with Duluth's lynching of three Negros in 1919 can't help but hear echoes of our own experience. "They're selling postcards of the hanging..." Audacity.

Emmett Till grew up in Chicago, but had come down to Mississippi for the summer with two other boys. One day the kids got into a car and drove into town to go to the store. Carolyn Bryant worked at this little drifter store and after some of the boys had been inside they told Emmett she was pretty and he should also fetch a look. Emmett and another went inside. His friend went outside again and for about a minute he was alone in the store with her. What she claimed happened next resulted in his death.

In The Blood of Emmett Till Timothy Tyson spends five chapters laying the groundwork for "the incident." Bryant's response may have seemed as insignificant as a spitball thrown over the edge of a cliff, but once events are set in motion there's not much one can do to stop it. The power of an avalanche can be devastating.

In the Jim Crow South there were two kinds of laws, the spoken and the unspoken. Perhaps this is true in most cultures, but in the South violating an unspoken law was a matter of life a death. In Emmett Till's case, the latter.

Some people would say that growing up in Chicago he didn't know any better. They speculated that it's is possible, for example, that when he paid her (if that occurred) he touched her palm when he put the money in her hand, not realizing he should have put it on the counter.

But even Chicago had its unwritten rules and the blacks knew their place there, too. Years ago I purchased and read Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Carl Sandburg's book about the Chicago race riots of 1919 which was triggered by an incident involving a black boy crossing an imaginary line from a black swimming area into a white swimming area in Lake Michigan. Whites essentially stoned him to death, setting in motion a riot that resulted in 38 deaths and more than a hundred injuries. In other words, each race was to know its place.

Tyson uses the first five chapters of the book to set up the context before telling the incident in chapter 6. What happened next is what led to the young Bob Dylan producing a song about it.

Dylan wrote The Death of Emmett Till in 1962, performing it but once, on July 2. He was barely 20 years and forty days old. A recording of this performance was released on the 1972 album Broadside Ballads, Vol. 6: Broadside Reunion, under the artist name Blind Boy Grunt. Dylan did a studio recording the song as well, which was finally released in 2010 on The Bootleg Series, Volume 9: The Witmark Demos.

The song is not a feel-good. Nor is the book, which ends on the note that although lynchings are no longer the threat that they once were racism in America is still alive and well.

The Death of Emmett Till

’Twas down in Mississippi not so long ago
When a young boy from Chicago town stepped through a Southern door
This boy’s dreadful tragedy I can still remember well
The color of his skin was black and his name was Emmett Till

Some men they dragged him to a barn and there they beat him up
They said they had a reason, but I can’t remember what
They tortured him and did some things too evil to repeat
There were screaming sounds inside the barn, there was laughing sounds
out on the street

Then they rolled his body down a gulf amidst a bloody red rain
And they threw him in the waters wide to cease his screaming pain
The reason that they killed him there, and I’m sure it ain’t no lie
Was just for the fun of killin’ him and to watch him slowly die

And then to stop the United States of yelling for a trial
Two brothers they confessed that they had killed poor Emmett Till
But on the jury there were men who helped the brothers commit this
awful crime
And so this trial was a mockery, but nobody seemed to mind

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

If you can’t speak out against this kind of thing, a crime that’s so unjust
Your eyes are filled with dead men’s dirt, your mind is filled with dust
Your arms and legs they must be in shackles and chains, and your blood
it must refuse to flow
For you let this human race fall down so God-awful low!

This song is just a reminder to remind your fellow man
That this kind of thing still lives today in that ghost-robed Ku Klux Klan
But if all of us folks that thinks alike, if we gave all we could give
We could make this great land of ours a greater place to live
Copyright © 1963, 1968 by Warner Bros. Inc.; renewed 1991, 1996 by Special Rider Music

* * * *
Both the song and the story can make us uncomfortable. Nevertheless, becoming uncomfortable is a first stage of personal growth, laying the foundation for community growth. Tomorrow evening's Community Forum at the Underground may have some uncomfortable moments. Addressing issues of race and injustice can seldom be characterized as "fun" but it can give us an opportunity to learn more about who we are, what we believe and what we want our future to look like.

Meantime, life goes on all around you...

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