The Problem of Beginning: What’s in a Story?
The term storytelling has a delightful double meaning. On the one hand, it implies recounting experiences in a coherent narrative format with the perspective of an audience in mind. On the other hand, it can also connote a certain slippage from the realities of the episodes it supposedly portrays, if not a wholesale bending of the facts to create a “good story.”1
Ian McGregor and John G. Holms, “How Storytelling Shapes Memory and Impressions of Relationship Events over Time”
Where you stand when you philosophize and theorize determines who benefits from your thinking.2
Joy James and Ruth Farmer, Spirit, Space and Survival: African American Women in (White) Academe
The preceding epigraphs by scholars, McGregor and Holms and James—respectively—alert us to the quandary of beginning when we (re)construct a narrative. From where do we begin to tell a cogent narrative that remains accountable to history while attending to the relations of power that exist, particularly when the power and violence precede and anticipate the subject matter? Most pointedly, they challenge me to think critically about remembering (as memorial) and narrativize dispossessed Black lives when death is the socially and culturally expected and acceptable condition of Black existence? Narratives can announce and articulate who we are and how we imagine we fit into the grander schema. They illustrate a general desire for social coherence and recognition, particularly when the stories told are in response to anti-Black murders and violence—namely, racialized lynchings. The literature on lynching has analyzed and theorized the historiography of lynching violence in the United States and antilynching movements; the geographic limitations of lynching scholarship; lynching rhetoric—including literary and visual representation; lynching and the state; lynching as a performance of white identity, citizenship, and national belonging; and gender and lynching violence, with a focus on Black women victims. One necessary intervention in the breadth of scholarship on lynching and lynching memory is the limited focus of the lived experiences of persons who become victims of mob rule. While the scholarship has given us much to think with thematically, lynching memory fails to conceptualize lynched victims outside of the lynching event violence. Our memory of Emmett Louis Till has not yielded very different results.
According to the official record, Emmett Louis Till, a fourteen-year-old Chicago native visiting his uncle, entered the store where twenty-one-year-old Carolyn Bryant was working behind the counter. The official record maintains that Emmett made an inappropriate sexual advancement—a whistle, a physical touch, or Till saying, “Bye, baby,“ upon leaving the store, or a combination of all three offenses. As a result of Emmett’s inappropriateness and Bryant’s account, in the early morning hours of August 28, 1955, in Money, Mississippi, Roy Bryant and J. W. Milam invaded the family home of Mose Wright. They forcibly abducted Emmett from his uncle’s home, tortured him, murdered Emmett, and then tossed his body into the Tallahatchie River. Till’s life is reduced to two points: the brief moments in the Bryant’s convenience store where he transgresses and his subsequent murder—from transgressor turned flesh. He is an isolate. He is divorced from both his family and any connection to life before the events leading up to his death. Wilson and Mamie Till-Mobley attempt to disabuse us of this way of telling the story of lynching. Further, both draw our attention to the language of lynching and the power dynamics that exist within storytelling. Furthermore, Mamie reminds us of the Black mothering work of serving as a “repository of his memory.”3
Kevin Wilson Jr.’s Oscar-nominated, award-winning short narrative fiction film, My Nephew Emmett (2017), encapsulates the meaning of storytelling and some of the limitations of this history as represented in the official record and our attempts at correction. Centering on Till in his family’s home, the film participates in discourse and critique about the history of anti-Black lynching while illuminating the “impossibilities in capturing [the extent of the violence] in lynching violence.”4 As Erin Gray describes, the film is “a subtle portrait of a family on the brink of crisis,”5 situated within the historical moment of Jim Crow propped up by anti-Black racial violence and, more specifically, anti-Black lynching. The film effectively maps the interiority of the Wright family dynamic and their kinship narrative. We witness Emmett relationally to Mose Wright, who, according to Wilson, is “unable to control the outcome of a horrific situation”6 and is confronted with the impossible dilemma of protecting his immediate family versus Emmett.
Bridget Cooks7 draws our attention to the film’s sensuality—the ways the film insists on an awareness of the Black body, as body, as sentient beings, not reducible transgressor turned flesh. On the one hand, the film is a visual example of Frank Wilderson’s assertion that “Blacks are sentient beings who have drives and desires and suffer somatic compliance, the residual effects of trauma, much like other sentient beings.”8 The audience is to conceptualize and empathize with Till, connected to his life, in his body, bonded in kinship. In doing so, the film is performing a counternarrative, pivoting away from what Jacqueline Goldsby calls “the cultural logic of lynching.”9 The cultural logic of lynching situates lynched victims outside of relationality—corporally and in isolation or coterminously with white murderers.
On the other hand, Wilson’s film illuminates that the Black home and Black family lack the social capital to access de facto and de jure protections in the Jim Crow South. Mose—Emmett’s uncle and the head of the household—has no legal recourse for protecting his family against the white invasion of Milam and Bryant. The film depicts a rifle that lays flaccidly against the wall near the door, functioning as a stark reminder that the idea of “home” is qualified with the reality of anti-Blackness. It has rendered family as synonymous with invulnerability, security, and freedom. Mose does not pursue Bryant and Milam when they abduct fourteen-year-old Till and drive off. Mamie Till-Mobley described Money as a place much worse than other places in the Jim Crow South: “It was a place with racial attitudes as rigid as an oak tree in the dead of winter. People who lived in the area know where the lines were, knew not to cross them. It was in them. A basic life function.”10 Milam and Bryant, like Mose, know their social roles. They draw on the social capital and legal protections to claim authority in the Wright home, cognizant that their white skin offered them de jure and de facto immunity. Similarly, Carolyn Bryant borrows from her bank of social capital—as a white woman—and legal protections as a member of a family to claim her place within the realm of protected gender and kin.
The Problem of the Narrative: Who Frames the Story of Emmett Till
In Saidiya Hartman’s seminal article “Venus in Two Acts,” she declares, “I want to tell a story … capable of retrieving what remains dormant … without committing further violence in my own act of narration.” She continues, “It is a story predicated upon impossibility—listening for the unsaid, translating misconstrued words, and refashioning disfigured lives.… Yet how does one recuperate lives entangled with and impossible to differentiate from the terrible utterances that condemned them to death?”11 Hartman’s challenge of retrieval and practices of listening, translating, and refashioning guide my analysis of the inherent problem in using Bryant’s truth to memorialize Emmett Louis Till. The terrible utterance that condemned him to death was the lies told by Carolyn Bryant, lies that we continue to perpetuate in our retelling of the events leading up to his murder. Wilson’s film utilizes whistling as the catalyzing moment that ends Till’s life. Existing in the metalanguage of that signification, sound, and utterance is a trace of victim blaming. Bryant’s accusation is emblematic of the pervasiveness of white fantasies about Black hypersexuality. Beginning with her accounts to memorialize Tills is to implicate him in and condemn him for his murder. It both participates in and perpetuates the trope of sexual deviance by inferring that Emmett Louis Till performed some inappropriate sexual act, which resulted in his murder. Though the “specter of Carolyn Bryant”12 is always present because she lied, the causal agent in these accounts is Till himself, and Bryant becomes a purveyor of history and her truth as an axiom.
The framing of Till’s death around that actionable language appeals to and appeases the psychological disturbance that we experience when we are faced with witnessing this particular variant of antiblack violence. This violence is steeped in mythologies about Black male children as unique bearers of sexualized guilt. We cannot construe Till fully as the victim of this harm until we embrace the idea that Black male children are vulnerable to (1) their mothers not being believed, (2) their male relatives not being able to protect them, (3) random white women producing their innocence through accusing Black male children of being sexual aggressors. We encounter the reality that Black people are subject to a death sentence without having had to transgress. Framing Till’s death around that actionable language effectively forecloses the possibility of critically thinking about the gratuitous nature of unfettered racial violence. The works of Geneva Smitherman13 and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o14 contend that language is not only a tool of communicating and reinforcing power over others but also a carrier of cultures of subjection and a medium through which we acquire, produce, and reproduce knowledge about our value compared to the lack of value of others. The stories we tell intend to produce moral meaning between interlocutors.15 How we frame the murder of Emmett Till around an action from him allows us to make some logical equation that, to quote Smitherman, orders the chaos that his death leaves us feeling. If A, then B; thus, if no A, then no B. It is a fallacy we witness today in police violence queries: “Well, what did he do to deserve that?” or “What action provoked such outrage?” Alternatively, the statements that begin “If he/she/they would have just” lull us into a false sense of safety. I challenge us to avoid perpetrating violence against Emmett’s memory through our attempts to remember and memorialize. Borrowing from bell hooks’s oppositional look theory, I ask how we can practice oppositional remembering. We must begin where Mamie Till-Mobley (then Mamie Bradley) demanded that we begin. She said, “It’s my opinion that the guilt starts with Mrs. Bryant.”16
Carolyn Bryant’s statements about the events of August 24, 1955, are the pivotal point from which we begin our (re)membering of Emmett Till’s murder. Beginning there is to begin with a lie. Bryant alters her account of what occurred in the store over the years on a minimum of four occasions. In his 2017 book, The Blood of Emmett Till,17 Timothy Tyson claims that Carolyn Bryant recanted her testimony, stating, “That part’s not true.… Nothing that boy did could ever justify what happened to him.” Her family denies the recantation happened. Bryant’s account, however, remains the official record. It begs the question, if we cannot trust or believe her account, why do we keep using that account to begin the retelling of Emmett Till’s short life and horrific murder?
Oppositional remembering would have us utilize Mamie Till-Mobley’s knowledge of her son in her attempts at remembering and re-member the broken, torn, swollen pieces of Emmett Louis Till. In the 2005 documentary The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till,18 Till-Mobley said, “I knew for two reasons that [Bryant’s testimony and the official record] was a lie. Number one, Emmett’s speech impediment under stress would not allow him to get these things out. And number two, the respect that I had put into him for womankind and for mankind, he just wouldn’t come off that way.” Till-Mobley’s oppositional remembering engenders deep scrutiny of what persists in traditional accounts of Emmett Till’s death—borrowing from scholar, Tiffany Willoughby Herard’s assertion, “We are each other’s archives. We carry each other’s memories and ways of surviving. If we remember each other’s names and what we learned from each other, we can help each other bear the trauma of the dead.”19 We must also contend with the impossibility of Black relationality and the lack of social coherence for Black bodies.20 Said differently, though Till-Mobley spent half a century publicly detailing an oppositional story about her son, her story does not have purchase because she cannot know her son, speak for her son, be her son’s public voice, more than a white woman who met him for a moment could. Carolyn Bryant could know Emmett because her life as a white woman depended on a set of brutalizing and lethal lies about Black male children. Carolyn’s story is taken as axiomatic, whereas Mamie’s knowledge is lost in the interstices.
Bryant’s story of Emmett implicates Till in his murder, grants her access to the cult of true womanhood, and disallows critical analysis of the gratuitous nature of anti-Black violence. Utilizing it prohibits Mamie Till-Mobley from articulating a Black mother’s story about the innocence of a Black male child. It disavows Till-Mobley’s focus on her son’s life, her dreams for him, and a world of possibility the Bryants and Milam stole from them to prop up the myths of vulnerable white womanhood. The stories we tell about the murder of Black people must not be quiet about the presumption that our existence is itself a transgression. Speaking from the interstices as Till-Mobley did requires us to develop exactingly detailed stories that listen for our knowing of Black mothers.
LaShonda R Carter is a graduate student in the Program in Culture and Theory at UC Irvine. Her research interests are political theory, gender and politics, and Black political thought through interpretative, qualitative, and archival methods. Her current work interrogates the limitations of the lynching lexicon using a rhetorical and linguistic analysis and by focusing on Black women to read the abiding effect of lynching violence.
Ian McGregor and John G. Holms, “How Storytelling Shapes Memory and Impressions of Relationship Events over Time,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 76, no. 3 (1999): 403.
Joy James and Ruth Farmer, eds., Spirit, Space and Survival: African American Women in (White) Academe (New York: Routledge, 1993), 34.
April Jackson, “From Hymnody to Hip-Hop: Black Muslim and Black Christian Male Youth Are Rhyming for a Reason and Utilizing Their Mother’s Wizdoman Ethnographic Research Study” (PhD diss., Claremont School of Theology, 2019).
Linette Park, as part of the Colloquium on Lynching Violence and Representation: Film Screening of My Nephew Emmett and a Roundtable Discussion (University of California, Irvine, February 22, 2019).
Erin Gray, as part of the Colloquium on Lynching Violence and Representation: Film Screening of My Nephew Emmett and a Roundtable Discussion (University of California, Irvine, February 22, 2019).
“Kevin Wilson Jr. Talks ‘My Nephew Emmett’ @ WFF 2017,” Posted by Woodstock FilmFest, YouTube video, 2:40, October 15, 2017, https://
www .youtube .com /watch?v=MQO9yuMWdNA.
Bridget R. Cooks, As part of Colloquium on Lynching Violence and Representation: Film Screening of My Nephew Emmett and a Roundtable Discussion (University of California, Irvine, February 22, 2019).
Frank B. Wilderson III, “Doing Time in the (Psychic) Commons,” in Time, Temporality and Violence in International Relationships: (De)fatalizing the Present, Forging Radical Alternatives, ed. Anna M Agathangelou and Kyle D. Killian (London: Routledge: 2016), 98.
Jacqueline Goldsby, A Spectacular Secret: Lynching in American Life and Literature (University of Chicago Press, 2006).
Mamie Till-Mobley and Christopher Benson, Death of Innocence: The Story of the Hate Crime that Changed America (New York: Random House, 2003), 121.
Saidiya Hartman, “Venus in Two Acts,” Small Axe, Number 26 12, no. 2 (June 2008): 2–3.
Park, as part of the Colloquium on Lynching Violence and Representation.
Geneva Smitherman, Talkin and Testifyin: The Language of Black America (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1986).
Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Globalectics: Theory and the Politics of Knowing, Wellek Library Lectures (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014).
Charlotte Linde, Working the Past: Narrative and Institutional Memory (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009).
“The Untold Story of EMMETT LUIS [sic] TILL (Documentary 2005) by Keith Beauchamp,” posted by Mamie Till Mobley, YouTube video, 1:08:18, November 19, 2012, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bvijYSJtkQk&t=2914s.
Timothy B. Tyson, The Blood of Emmett Till (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2017), 6.
“Untold Story of EMMETT.”
Tiffany Willoughby-Herard, telephone conversation, 2019.
Frank B. Wilderson III, Red, White and Black: Cinema and the Structure of US Antagonisms (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010).