Thursday, September 20, 2018

Writing to Save a Life: The Louis Till File, by John Edgar Wideman

This riveting book explores the death of Emmett Till (the black teenager murdered in Money, Mississippi in 1955 for purportedly whistling at a white woman) through the execution of his father, Louis Till, by the US Army during World War II.

Following the rapid acquittal of Emmett Till's murderers, international outcry pressured the Mississippi court system to at least pursue the lesser charge of kidnapping against them. The grand jury was poised to do so, when the spectre of Louis Till, Emmett's father, was introduced. While stationed in Italy serving in the Army's Transportation Command, where most black enlistees were posted, he was tried and convicted of raping and murdering a local woman. The damning testimony was given in exchange for clemency by one of his comrades, and Louis and another man were court-martialed then executed by hanging - lynched - in Italy, in July, 1945. The story of Louis Till's court-martial was released to the public (the papers) in October of 1955.

Why then, a decade after his execution? Wideman has no doubt the disclosure was timed to turn public opinion against young Emmett and his mother Mamie by drawing a like-father-like-son parallel between Louis Till, unable to speak in his own defense, and Emmett, likewise silenced. Through the Freedom of Information Act, Wideman obtains a copy of Louis Till's file from the US Archives. Reading about this unrepentant man, the author cannot help seeing his own life: his distant stone-faced father, not unlike "I'll be back when I'm back" Louis Till. Wideman sees that coldness as the armor a black man was/is forced to wear in a society that constantly degrades him, insults him, robs him of manhood, and may very well murder him simply for existing. When he slams the front door in departing his house, whether on the way to his daily job or for a night spent elsewhere, it's never a given that he will return.

During his court-martial, "Till remained adamantly silent... a stubborn silence that must have puzzled and frustrated his army interrogators since all the other accused colored soldiers were busy accusing one another. Breaking his silence once..., Louis Till allegedly said to Rousseau, "There's no use in me telling you one lie and then getting up in court and telling another one," a remark that clearly conveys to me and should have conveyed to Rousseau Till's Igbo sophistication, his resignation, his Old World, ironic sense of humor about truth's status in a universe where all truths are equal until power chooses one truth to serve its needs."

So why is Wideman writing this book "to save a life," as he puts it? "I work for an incarcerated son and brother. They are locked inside me, I am imprisoned with them during every moment that I struggle with the Till file. No choice. Trying to find words to help them. To help myself. Help carry the weight of hard years spent behind bars. If I return to Till's grave, I will confess to him first thing that the Louis Till project is about saving a son and a brother, about saving myself."

This is fine writing, and a different way of considering a single terrible deed: connecting it to a larger world of injustice dissolves some of the immediacy of Emmett Till's murder, but draws back far enough to make that grotesque act a single chip in a mosaic. Narrow your eyes and it comes into focus: a black man in a noose. It's long past time to cut him down, cut it out. Think about it, and read this book.