A Wreath for Emmett Till (Excerpt)
by Marilyn Nelson
Emmett Till’s name still catches in my throat,
like syllables waylaid in a stutterer’s mouth.
A fourteen-year-old stutterer, in the South
to visit relatives and to be taught
the family’s ways. His mother had finally bought
that White Sox cap; she’d made him swear an oath
to be careful around white folks. She’s told him the truth
of many a Mississippi anecdote:
Some white folks have blind souls. In his suitcase
she’d packed dungarees, T-shirts, underwear,
and comic books. She’d given him a note
for the conductor, waved to his chubby face,
wondered if he’d remember to brush his hair.
Her only child. A body left to bloat.
It’s a fair question to ask, how far have we really come as a country in 65 years? It’s a question that haunts white Americans, those of us that would like to believe we are not part of the problem, which means, we are part of the problem. For when the privileges and dividends for being white are so pervasive that they cease to be visible to us, we have to ask the question to ourselves again, how far have we really come? I don’t know how far we’ve come, but its obvious to the entire world, we have a long, long, long way to go here in Minneapolis.
“What is gentlest in love is love’s violence.
Losing yourself in love, you reach love’s goal.
Love makes you suffer, as love makes you whole.
Love steals your everything and makes you rich.
Love is both meaningless and poetry.
Captured by love, by love you are set free.”
Marilyn Nelson’s award winning crown of sonnets titled A Wreath for Emmett Till is a masterpiece of writing. Nelson has had a long and successful career as a writer and educator; everything from novels, to children’s books, to historical fiction, translations and poetry. In 2014 she published “How I Discovered Poetry” a book dedicated to her love affair with words. I would encourage you to seek out the entire text of A Wreath For Emmett Till. It is one of the finest sonnet sequences ever written. Here’s a video of her reading the two sonnet excerpt on today’s blog.
Your only child, a body thrown to bloat,
mother of sorrows, of justice denied.
Surely you must have thought of suicide,
seeing his gray flesh, chains around his throat.
Surely you didn’t know you would devote
the rest of your changed life to dignified
public remembrance of how Emmett died,
innocence slaughtered by the hands of hate.
If sudden loving light proclaimed you blest
would you bow your head in humility,
your healed heart overflow with gratitude?
Would you say yes, like the mother of Christ?
Or would you say no to your destiny,
mother of a boy martyr, if you could?