Apr. 5th, 2006

ceebeegee: (Southwest cactus)
I'm reading a book now called Death in the Delta, about the murder of Emmett Till in 1955. Emmett was a 14-year-old Chicago boy, a black boy, who visited his relatives in August of that year, and on a dare, whistled/made a kidding pass at a white woman in a grocery store. A few days later the woman's husband and his half-brother showed up at the house where the boy was staying, kidnapped him, and his body turned up in the Tallahatchie River a few days after that, horribly mangled. Emmett's mother had the body viewed in an open casket, Jet magazine ran the photos, and all over the world, the spotlight was turned onto the peculiar and lethal customs of the Deep South. Bryant and Milam, the two murderers, were acquitted in a laughably short jury deliberation (less than an hour) despite the overwhelming evidence against them. And a few months later, knowing they had nothing to fear due to double jeopardy, they laid out in detail exactly what they'd done in an interview with Look magazine.

I've done some research on the Till case before, but this book is probably the most in-depth I've ever studied. I knew that Carolyn Bryant didn't tell her husband at first--she'd told her sister-in-law, who was in the back of the store when Emmett interacted with Carolyn, but they agreed not to tell. Unbelievably, it was Emmett's 16-year-old cousin who told the husband. He must've known what would happen. The book speculates it was a combination of adolescent jealousy and poor judgement. (I suppose it could've been from fear of what would happen if he didn't tell--after all, he had to leave there all the time, and if Bryant found out a few months hence, he could've taken it out on him. But still...)

Anyway, knew all that. And I knew that after the case Bryant and Milam were more-or-less shunned by the rest of their (white) community after the case. The book talks about how the white community, when faced with a "threat" (sarcasm) to their sense of supremacy, almost always in the form of the Negro Male Breaching the Sancity of White Womanhood, would ignore class and close ranks against color. But only until the crisis passed. But what I didn't know was that when the case first broke, there actually was some talk in the white community about "this terrible thing" and the Sheriff was actually investigating it legitimately. It was when the national media focused on the case that the Delta became defensive and closed ranks--the Sheriff denied, justified and explained away, and even testified for the defense. With that in mind, it's amazing the case was prosecuted at all, and certainly that an indictment was secured.

The book also examines the link between integration and sex--although white supremacist rhetoric of the time (and all through the 20th century) was obsessed with Protecting the White Female (and hence violently opposed to integration), it really had very little to do with the woman per se, but the White-Woman-as-Property, the woman as an extension if the man (which explains why so many white men had liaisons, consensual or otherwise, with black women--to humiliate the black man). The book talks about when the civil rights movement really starting heating up, feminism was not far behind, and part of both of those movements was when white women started asserting their right to consenting liaisons with anyone they chose, including black men.

Toni Morrison wrote a play about the case, called Dreaming Emmett. I was thinking I'd like to direct this, maybe this winter. The problem is, it's unpublished--I suppose I could write Toni Morrison and ask for a script.

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