A Wreath for Emmett Till
A Wreath for Emmett Till
Marilyn Nelson published A Wreath for Emmett Till in 2005, fifty years after fourteen-year-old Emmett Till was tortured and killed in Money, Mississippi, after allegedly whistling at a white woman. The poet was nine years old when Emmett Till was murdered, and his death affected her dramatically, as it did people throughout the nation.
Nelson had previously written another book of historical poems for young adults, Carver: A Life in Poems, which describes the life of scientist and educator George Washington Carver in free verse and formal poetry. However, with A Wreath for Emmett Till she chose a very difficult poetic form, a heroic crown of sonnets.
In the course of the poem, Nelson figuratively weaves a wreath of flowers to commemorate Emmett Till. Using the traditional language of flowers, Nelson communicates her poem's many themes, including justice, loss, and remembrance. She also switches perspectives several times. Through these strategies, Nelson memorializes Emmett Till, and she calls on her readers to bear witness when confronted with injustice. Only in this way, she says, can deaths like Emmett's be prevented from happening again.
Poet, educator, and critic Marilyn Nelson was born in Cleveland, Ohio, on April 26, 1946, to Melvin M. Nelson, an Air Force officer and one of the last Tuskegee Airmen, and Johnnie Mitchell Nelson, a teacher. The family moved often for her father's career, leading Nelson to develop a lifelong interest in different cultures.
Nelson started writing poetry in elementary school and went on to earn a bachelor's degree in English from the University of California, Davis, in 1968 and a master's degree from the University of Pennsylvania in 1970. While earning her master's degree, Nelson met and married Erdmann F. Waniek. She continued her study of literature at the University of Minnesota, publishing her first collection of poetry, For the Body, in 1978, and earning a doctorate in 1979. In that year, she and Waniek divorced, though she would publish under her married name until 1995. She has two children, Jacob and Dora, from her second marriage to Roger R. Wilkenfeld, which ended in 1998.
Nelson has taught English in Oregon, Denmark, Minnesota, and Delaware and was a member of the faculty at the University of Connecticut at Storrs from 1978 to 2005. She has published six books of poetry for adults and four books for children and young adults. In addition, she translated several books from Danish to English following a Fulbright teaching fellowship in Denmark. Her 2005 translation of Inge Pedersen's The Thirteenth Month won the American-Scandinavian Foundation Translation Prize.
Over the course of her career, her books of poetry—beginning with 1990's The Homeplace—have won numerous awards, including the Annisfield-Wolf Award, a PEN Winship award, and the Poets' Prize. Furthermore, she is a three-time National Book Award finalist and has received two Pushcart Prizes, two NEA fellowships, and a Guggenheim fellowship.
Translating a Danish children's book led Nelson to coauthor, with Pamela Espeland, The Cat Walked Through the Casserole and Other Poems for Children (1984). Later books for young readers shared the more serious themes of her work for adults. Carver: A Life in Poems was, among other things, a finalist for the 2001 National Book Award, a Newbery Medal Honor Book, and a Coretta Scott King Honor Book. A Wreath for Emmett Till won the 2005 Boston Globe-Horn Book Award and was a 2006 Coretta Scott King Honor Book, a Michael L. Printz Honor Book, and a Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award Honor Book.
The same year A Wreath for Emmett Till appeared, Nelson published a book of poetry, The Cachoeira Tales and Other Poems. Since then she has written Miss Crandall's School for Young Ladies and Little Misses of Color (with Elizabeth Alexander, 2007), a book of poetry for young adults.
From 2001 to 2006, Nelson was poet laureate of Connecticut, and in 2004 she founded Soul Mountain Retreat, a residence for writers. As of 2008, Nelson was a professor emerita at the University of Connecticut, spending most of her time at Soul Mountain.
In the author's note that opens A Wreath for Emmett Till, Nelson recounts how she came to write the poem and choose the form, going into detail about her decision to write a heroic crown of sonnets.
As Nelson explains, a heroic crown of sonnets is a sonnet sequence in which the last line of each sonnet becomes the first line of the next, sometimes with small alterations in word choice or order. The last sonnet is composed of the first lines of the other fourteen. In addition to these restrictions, sonnets are written in iambic pentameter and adhere to strict rhyme schemes. In choosing a very demanding form, Nelson sought to insulate herself from the pain of her subject and ensure the integrity of the poem.
Sonnet I opens with an allusion to act 4, scene 5 of Hamlet in which Ophelia, mad from grief after “her love,” Hamlet, killed her father, says, “There's rosemary, that's for remembrance.” In her grief, Ophelia communicates in the traditional language of flowers and plants. Taking her cue from Ophelia, Nelson draws on this centuries-old code throughout her poem.
As Nelson starts listing flowers for her figurative wreath, she begins hopefully, with rose petals (which symbolize love), but quickly moves on to flowers with darker meanings, such as caution and loss. Nelson then names other dominant themes of the poem. Heliotrope symbolizes that justice will be done; daisies and white lilacs stand for Emmett's innocence.
Nelson's choice of the mandrake to represent horror is particularly potent. With its branching white root, the mandrake resembles the human figure—in this case, a hooded Klansman. The mandrake also has old associations with magic and hangings: in the Middle Ages, it was rumored to grow under the gallows. Through the mandrake, Nelson begins to play with common American association of white with innocence and purity (as with the lilac and the daisy). For African Americans, white would have very different connotations.
For grief, the poet says that one flower is not enough, and so chooses three: rue, yew, and cypress, all associated with graveyards and death. With forget-me-nots, Nelson returns to the theme of memory introduced in the opening line. The last line, however, is an unfinished sentence, and breaks on the subjunctive “would,” presenting the question of whether or not the narrator wants to remember Emmett Till.
Nelson opens Sonnet II by finishing her sentence, transforming the question into an injunction to remember Emmett Till. What she would like to forget, however, is the racial aspect of Till's murder. She compares herself to a haunted tree, set off from others by this memory. With the haunted tree, Nelson alludes to a 1903 poem about a lynching called “The Haunted Oak” by Paul Laurence Dunbar. In Dunbar's poem, the tree is haunted because a man was hung from one of its limbs. The “one bare bough” of Nelson's poem refers to the bough from which the man was hung in “The Haunted Oak,” which opens “Pray why are you so bare, so bare, /Oh, bough of the old oak-tree.”
Continuing, Nelson alludes to another work about lynching, the 1939 song “Strange Fruit,” written by Lewis Allen and made famous by Billie Holiday (the “strange fruit” is the bodies of black people who have been hanged). Nelson then reflects on the long life of a tree, stating that through dendrochronology, the science of dating events through tree rings, we could know everything that has happened to this tree during its two centuries of life. She imagines that the death of Emmett Till would have fatally wounded some part of the tree, as it did in the Dunbar poem, marking it more substantially than natural events like floods and droughts would have.
In Sonnet III, the tree speaks, explaining that it is still scarred by what it witnessed with its “green ears,” or leaves. Though the tree has seen hundreds of natural deaths in the course of its life, that of Emmett Till is different. It not only disturbed a summer night, but it made the stars shiver. She evokes possible images from that night, again playing with ideas of light and dark: Emmett pursued by five men whose white faces are made even whiter by moonlight. The sonnet offers images of the men congratulating each other after murdering Till, clapping each other on the backs and smoking cigars. By contrast, for the tree and the narrator, what happened to Emmett Till remains horrific, so much so that it's hard to speak his name without emotion.
The allusion to her own difficulty in saying the boy's name turns the poet's thoughts to Emmett Till's tendency to stutter. Apparently his mother had instructed him to whistle when he was having trouble getting words out. She believed that the whistle he was accused of was actually a result of his speech impediment.
Sonnet IV sets the scene for Till's departure to his mother's relatives in Mississippi. Nelson again acknowledges Americans' complicated associations with images of white and black; she mentions that Mamie had finally bought her son a White Sox cap. The White Sox were one of two major league teams in Chicago when Emmett Till was a boy; they were, however, often referred to as “the Black Sox” after a 1919 scandal in which eight players accepted bribes to intentionally lose the World Series. In 1955 their home field was on the South Side of Chicago, where mostly African Americans lived. Nelson's references to “dungarees” and comic books further establish the time period of the narrative. In addition, the mention of comic books and the fact that Emmett's mother had to give Emmett a note for the train conductor remind the reader that Emmett was just a child.
Most importantly, this sonnet portrays Mamie Till-Mobley warning her son Emmett about the South. There, she says, he will encounter white people with “blind souls,” who strictly enforce the Jim Crow laws, which segregated black and white people. She feared it would be hard for a boy from Chicago to adhere to these social laws.
The sonnet concludes by jumping from commonplace travel preparations to the horrific outcome of the trip. After they tortured and killed Emmett, his murderers attached a cotton-gin fan to his body with barbed wire, to weigh it down, and dumped it in the Tallahatchie River. When Mamie Till-Mobley next saw her son, his body was bloated from being in the river for three days.
In Sonnet V, the narrator speaks directly to Emmett Till's mother. She imagines that she must have thought about killing herself when she confronted Emmett's body, hung with barbed wire, and reflects that she could not have known at that moment what the future held: that she would spend much of her life keeping Emmett's memory alive. Nelson compares her pain to that of Mary, the mother of Jesus. As the Sonnet Notes explain, Mary was known as “the Mother of Sorrows” and was proclaimed “blest” by the angel who visited her at the Annunciation, when she became pregnant with Jesus. Nelson wonders if Mamie Till-Mobley would have accepted her destiny as grieving mother and activist if she had had a choice.
The poet wishes in Sonnet VI that she could put Emmett into a universe where he'd be safe and successful—where the biblical Cain never killed his brother Abel, bringing murder into the world. Here she plays with the contemporary scientific idea that there is not just one universe, but multiple parallel universes, in which other lives are being played out. Even in these parallel universes, however, she fears that there is evil. She cannot conceive of a universe without it.
In this sonnet, Nelson refers to the men who killed Emmett as “terrorists” and compares his death to a wormhole, which in theoretical physics is a passage from one cosmos to another. The effect of Emmett's death on the United States was so profound that it transformed history. During the trial that ensued after his death, the country found itself in a different world.
As Nelson explains in her notes, Sonnet VII considers several possible lives Emmett might have lived—the lives of the parallel universes mentioned before. Instead of being a victim, he might have lived a happy life as a husband or partner, a friend, or as a hero, saving others on September 11. Dying when he did, Emmett had not had a chance to do anything significant yet. Instead of being remembered for what he did in life, he was remembered for what was done to him.
The mention of the World Trade Center recalls a previous use of the word “terrorist” in Sonnet VI. By referring to a moment in which the entire country, black and white, was terrorized, she helps the reader equate his or her own feeling of terror with Emmett's experience. She also draws a parallel between the “monsters” who attacked the World Trade Center and the men who murdered Emmett.
From thoughts of these human “monsters,” the author's mind goes to monsters in film, another instance in which the reader might relate to the feeling of being victimized. She offers the example of the classic 1967 movie Wait Until Dark, in which a blind girl, played by Audrey Hepburn, is terrorized by a psychopath.
The last few lines of this sonnet conflate Hepburn's character with Emmett Till. In real life, however, the monsters turned out to be ordinary people, not psychopaths. This, Nelson explains, is the real danger of mob mentality. Normal people, who live side-by-side with their victims, become capable of great atrocities.
Sonnet IX uses images from the book Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America edited by James Allen to evoke real-life lynch mobs—and their victims—from late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century America. Hangings were treated as holidays: children would attend them and treats like ice cream were sold. The comparison of human screams to hog screams and the human teeth collected as good-luck charms are other details from Allen's book. In the face of these images, Nelson has trouble believing that even Christ's death and resurrection could save such sinners.
In the Sonnet Notes, Nelson points out that much of this sonnet is one long sentence, which picks up speed as it accumulates racially based atrocities. For instance, the word “Shulamith” picks up the refrain from Paul Celan's poem, “Death Fugue,” written in response to the Holocaust (also referred to by the “piles of shoes,” amassed at Nazi gas chambers). “Machetes” alludes to the massacre of the Tutsis by their Hutu neighbors in Rwanda, and “bulldozed mass graves” evokes the attacks of Serbs on ethnic Albanians in the former Yugoslavia.
Nelson concludes the sonnet by mentioning towers, a reference, according to the Sonnet Notes, to both the World Trade Center and the city-state of Troy, which was destroyed in the Trojan War. The mention of “blasphemies” hints at the religious ideas sometimes offered to justify mass murder. Likewise, the use of the word “profane,” the opposite of “sacred,” underscores the fact that no matter what justification is given, these crimes are not condoned by any god.
She begins a new sentence, and concludes the sonnet, by turning from these horrors back to the gathering of flowers.
Nelson describes the labor involved in creating her wreath in Sonnet X. Rather than gathering the lilacs growing immediately nearby (also a reference to Walt Whitman's elegy for Abraham Lincoln, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd”), she ventures out into the woods to find exactly the right flowers, spending time meditating on Emmett's death. Line 5's “pathless woods” refers to Robert Frost's poem “Birches.” In Frost's poem, the pathless woods represent the confusion and difficulties of adult life. Nelson is underlining the struggle involved in creating this wreath.
The literary allusions continue throughout the sonnet: the poet gathers them as she might flowers. Line 6's choirs of birds evokes Shakespeare's sonnet 73. Line 11 suggests Lorraine Hansberry's award-winning civil rights play A Raisin in the Sun, and the “ice shards” of line 12 allude to Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale “The Snow Queen.”
Despite references to death, confusion, and violence, this sonnet is overall a hopeful one. It is springtime; the woods are turning green; and the author believes ultimately that innocence does exist, and that the “blind souls” of the South can be made to see again.
As she lays out the various flowers she will use, oak twigs set off a chain of thoughts, moving from trees to unavenged deaths and Emmett Till's death in particular. As the Sonnet Notes make clear, the United States, like the Roman god Janus, has two faces: one promises that all men are created equal, and the other violates this promise with injustices like the Jim Crow laws. The “forked tongue” refers to a saying among Native Americans, another group disenfranchised by white men who made promises and then broke them. She continues by referencing the promises inherent in songs like “My Country 'Tis of Thee” and “America, the Beautiful.” America has the fruited plain, but it also has the mandrake of lynchings.
Nelson returns to her imaginary wreath in Sonnet XII, naming more flowers, this time choosing distinctly North American plants. Indian pipe, also known as “corpse plant,” is a white herb that grows in dead plant matter and turns black when picked. Through Indian pipe, she refers again to Native Americans, noting that the rose is considered more valuable, but that Indian pipe is actually more useful to nature.
Even more effective is her image of bloodroot, a large white flower and a member of the poppy family, once valued by Native Americans for its medicinal qualities. Bloodroot has an underground stem that produces a red sap when picked. Because the poppy has old associations with forgetting or numbness, the bloodroot evokes both forgetting and bloodshed. But, Nelson asks, how can you have both? In order to forget bloodshed, one would have to be without a conscience, like the moon.
The author continues the theme of nature being without conscience in Sonnet XIII by using examples from the natural world. She also refers to the Steinbeck novel The Grapes of Wrath, the story of an Oklahoma farming family whose members become itinerant fruit pickers during the Dust Bowl. The image of blood splattering on white flowers refers back to the bloodroot of Sonnet XII.
In the last six lines of the poem, Nelson makes the leap from the consciencelessness of nature, which is blameless, to the consciencelessness of mankind, which is a “plague.” Nelson postulates that many of these conscienceless acts, like wars, are committed out of fear. She references Franklin D. Roosevelt's 1933 speech, in which he said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
With the word “his” in the first line of Sonnet XIV, Nelson converts the last abstract image of the previous sonnet into a very specific image, that of Emmett Till's body (among other things, his killers had gouged out one of his eyes). She enjoins the reader to join her in bearing witness because, unlike Emmett Till, who could not testify, we can speak up when we witness injustice. Unless we do so, atrocities will continue to be committed out of fear. This sonnet returns to the theme of remembrance and explains why the author believes it is important. In returning to the first line of the poem, she closes the wreath, or the circle.
This final sonnet repeats the first lines of all the other sonnets. In this way, it is a kind of circle within a circle, an adornment to the entire sequence. For Nelson's purposes, this also separates this last sonnet from the previous fourteen; again, the number fourteen corresponds with Emmett's age. In this final sonnet, Nelson returns to her theme of memory, saying that she would forget him, and erase his victimhood, if she could. Though she returns to the idea of a wreath, she concludes with a call to bear witness, the image of Emmett's gouged eye.
Who Was Emmett Till?
In this section, the author provides the reader with pertinent historical background on the real Emmett Till, his death, and the trial of the two men, Roy Bryant and J. W. Milam, who abducted him. She mentions that an all-white male jury heard the trial in a segregated courthouse in Mississippi, and that Emmett's great-uncle, risking his life, testified to his abduction. Despite his and others' testimony, Bryant and Milam were acquitted. She also explains how this fact brought home the realities of Southern racism to the rest of the country, helping to spark the civil rights movement.
The sonnet notes provide an official explication of the poem, explaining the literary allusions and historical references that pepper the crown of sonnets, many of which have been referred to here.
Here, artist Philippe Lardy explains his illustrations for A Wreath for Emmett Till. From his perspective, the poem was already like a painting, with symbols, layers, and color. Taking his lead from the poem, he alternated decorative elements, such as flowers, with images that reveal the horror of the crime. He divides the poem into three parts: the crime, the mourning, and the lesson, changing his color palate for each section. He used abstract images rather than specific images from the murder, feeling that they would ultimately be more powerful.
In his illustrations, Lardy draws from many of the symbols used by the poem, such as the mandrake. He also adds some of his own, such as the crow. Like Nelson, he fuses elements of black and white. Lardy says that by understanding the hidden forces behind our actions—and not just reacting out of fear—“we can change the world.”
From the first sonnet's mention of heliotrope, a central concern of A Wreath for Emmett Till is that of justice. This is appropriate, given the fact that the two men tried for Emmett Till's death were acquitted, despite the testimony of several witnesses. Nelson refers to all of this when she calls Mamie Till-Mobley the mother of “justice denied.”
In Sonnet XIV, Nelson positions Till's story within the history of lynchings in the United States, and then expands her focus to include other atrocities, such as the Holocaust and the massacres in former Yugoslavia. In Sonnet XI, she argues that the American injustices are even worse because of the fact that the United States was founded on the idea that all men are created equal, saying that America has a “Janus face,” one reciting the Constitution and the other promoting ideas like Jim Crow and segregation.
The last two sonnets sum up this call for justice, enjoining the reader to speak up in the face of atrocity, to not let murderers go unpunished. Only when people speak up can justice be achieved.
- Documentary filmmaker Stanley Nelson originally set out to make a historical documentary for PBS about the murder of Emmett Till, but once he realized how little evidence had been collected in 1955, his historical documentary became an investigative one. The evidence revealed by the resulting film, The Murder of Emmett Till (2003), helped convince the Justice Department to reopen the Emmett Till case in 2004. The Peabody Award—winning documentary is available through PBS Home Video.
- The companion website to The Murder of Emmett Till provides a timeline, background reading, a teacher's guide, and other supplementary materials. The companion website is located at http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/till.
- Like The Murder of Emmett Till, Keith Beauchamp's 2004 documentary The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till helped convince the U.S. Justice Department to reopen the Emmett Till case. Beauchamp spent nine years making the film and developed a close relationship with Mamie Till-Mobley in the process. Like Nelson, he discovered many witnesses to the crime who had never spoken out about what had happened and were willing to do so years later. Through his investigations, he concluded that up to ten people had been involved in the murder.
- In 2005, National Public Radio recorded Marilyn Nelson reading A Wreath for Emmett Till as part of an interview with Farai Chideya on Don Gordon's News and Notes. The reading along with the interview may be heard on the NPR website at http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php.
Memory and Bearing Witness
Nelson's call for justice is deeply connected to the questions about memory and forgetting that appear throughout the book. In the beginning Nelson expresses some ambivalence about whether or not she wants to remember Emmett's death. In the first sonnet, for instance, she begins with rosemary for remembrance and circles back around to forget-me-nots by the end. However, she concludes the sonnet with a half-finished sentence that hints she would prefer to forget. The next sonnet converts this question into an injunction to remember his death, and she clarifies that what she would like to forget is the racial aspect of his murder.
She reflects in A Wreath for Emmett Till on the price of carrying these memories. In Sonnet II, she takes the point of view of a haunted tree, alluding to Paul Laurence Dunbar's poem, “The Haunted Oak.” The tree, having witnessed Emmett's murder, is permanently damaged. Likewise, she contemplates his mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, who devoted her life to the “public remembrance” of her son's death. In Sonnet V, the narrator wonders whether Till-Mobley would have accepted this destiny if she'd had a choice. Finally, the poet portrays her own struggle to memorialize Emmett's murder, walking “pathless woods” in Sonnet X, as she gathers flowers for a wreath. Bearing witness to atrocity is not simple.
So why is it important to remember? Nelson works through this question in Sonnet XII with the image of the bloodroot of line 10. While the moon might look down on murder and continue to smile, this kind of consciencelessness in mankind signals a “plague” of ignorance with regard to wrong and right. However, to remember as a conscious being means either taking some kind of action or living with the burden of “unforgettable shame.” Unlike Emmett Till, she says, “we are whole and capable of speaking out.” Thus, A Wreath for Emmett Till is as much a call to action as it is a memorial.
By Sonnet XV, her ambivalence about memory has been resolved. She knows that she has no choice but to remember Emmett Till: “If I could forget, believe me, I would,” she writes. As she cannot forget, she turns back to her wreath, her poem, created in memory of Emmett Till.
Jim Crow Laws
The Jim Crow laws are the backdrop to Emmett Till's murder and Nelson's poem. The name Jim Crow originated with a black minstrel caricature popularized by a song in the early 1830s; in the post—Civil War years it came to
refer to the system that segregated whites and blacks throughout the United States, and particularly in the Deep South. In Sonnet IV, Nelson portrays Mamie Till-Mobley schooling Emmett in the ways of the South. It was because he was perceived as challenging these social laws that he was lynched.
The Jim Crow system was rooted in the post—Civil War years, when the South instituted as many restrictions as possible on former slaves in an effort to hang on to their old, slave-based way of life. In order to do this, a system of Black Codes was established by governments in the former slave states. In 1896 a light-skinned black man named Homer Plessy, who'd been forced to leave a white train car, challenged the Black Codes. Plessy argued that they violated the Fourteenth Amendment, which ensured equal protection for the newly freed slaves, and the Supreme Court responded in Plessy v. Ferguson by ruling that “separate-but-equal” was all that was required. The Jim Crow laws developed out of this ruling.
Jim Crow meant that black people had to use separate water fountains, schools, waiting rooms, hotels, and restaurants. They were expected to address all whites by “sir” and “ma'am,” while white people only referred to black people by their first names. Buses had separate sections for blacks and whites; trains had black cars and white cars. Jim Crow existed throughout the United States following the Civil War, but it permeated every aspect of life in the southeastern United States. Jim Crow had nothing to do with class or education, but was based on race alone.
Heroic Crown of Sonnets
As she explains in her author's note, Nelson chose an extremely difficult form, the heroic crown of sonnets, to distance herself from the profound sentiment of her subject. In a heroic crown of sonnets, the last line of each sonnet becomes the first line of the next, sometimes with slight changes in word choice or order. In this way, the sonnets are woven together. A sonnet comprises fourteen lines, which is the number of years that Emmett Till lived. Fourteen original sonnets are further crowned by a fifteenth sonnet, composed of the first lines of the other fourteen sonnets.
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- What strategies does Marilyn Nelson use to help her readers identify with what happened to Emmett Till? Write an essay describing them and commenting on whether or not you feel that she was successful. What role does the form—the heroic crown of sonnets—play in how she presented her subject?
- Marilyn Nelson wrote A Wreath for Emmett Till as a memorial to Till's death, to ensure that similar tragedies would not occur again. Think of something either in your own past or in recent history that you would like to memorialize. What kind of memorial would be appropriate? What would the purpose of your memorial be? Create your memorial—a piece of writing, artwork, song, etc.—then write a one-page essay explaining the meaning of your memorial and why it is a fitting tribute to the event.
- A Wreath for Emmett Till is composed of fifteen Petrarchan sonnets. Review the rules for a Petrarchan sonnet and write your own, paying close attention to the rhyme scheme and meter. After you have written your poem, adhering to the form, rewrite it, this time in free verse. How are the poems different? Which version do you prefer? Why?
- A dominant theme in A Wreath for Emmett Till is that of justice. Choose one example of an injustice that's happening right now in our society or in the world. Research the situation and then think of something you could do to help. Write a paper describing the situation and outlining your idea. What are the obstacles to your plan? What positive and negative outcomes could it have? Be sure your paper takes both into account.
- Emmett Till's death and the subsequent trial influenced generations of civil rights activists. Research an event or a moment in the civil rights movement and do a presentation to your class explaining why it was important to the movement as a whole. Who were the key players? How did your event inspire future activists? Provide supplementary materials such as pictures, time lines, or first-person testimonies to help bring the moment to life.
Nelson chose to write Petrarchan sonnets, which are Italian sonnets invented by the poet Petrarch (1304–1374). A Petrarchan sonnet is divided into two sections: one of eight lines, an octave, and one of six, a sestet. The octave takes the rhyme scheme of abbaabba; the sestet of cdcdcd. Traditionally, there would be a turn, or volta, at the end of the octave. With the volta, the poet introduces some new thought or idea to be pursued in the rest of the poem. An excellent example of this occurs in Sonnet XIV, when Nelson shifts from the consciencelessness of nature to that of mankind.
As with all strictly constructed sonnets, the sonnets in A Wreath for Emmett Till are written in iambic pentameter, a type of poetic meter, or rhythmical pattern, that most closely approximates natural human speech. The word “iambic” refers to the kind of metrical “foot,” or group of syllables, used in the poem. An iamb is a group of syllables in which a stressed syllable follows an unstressed syllable (or syllables). The word “pentameter” refers to the number of feet per line—in this case, five feet per line.
As the poem summary reveals, Nelson uses symbols throughout A Wreath for Emmett Till, most notably flowers. Some are very straightforward: rosemary for remembrance and rose petals for love, for instance. Others, like the mandrake or the bloodroot, are more complex.
With the anthropomorphic mandrake, Nelson draws on its old associations with magic and the gallows and then gives the symbol a New World twist by comparing it to a Klansman. In Sonnet XII, she moves from the European flowers, with their old symbolic meanings, to North American flowers. For instance, with bloodroot, a kind of poppy whose underground stem produces a red sap, she provides a symbol for both bloodshed and forgetting, two major themes of her poem.
Like symbols, literary allusions pepper the poem, providing an added layer of depth. Her allusion to Paul Laurence Dunbar's poem “The Haunted Oak” in Sonnet II is a particularly potent example. The older poem not only provides her with the voice of the haunted tree, but it also offers insight into the history of lynching in America. Other allusions, such as her reference to Paul Celan's poem “Death Fugue” in Sonnet IX locate A Wreath for Emmett Till in a larger tradition of witness poetry.
Allusions also serve as a kind of shorthand, allowing the poet to borrow the meaning of the poem referenced. An example of this is Sonnet X's “pathless woods.” By referring to a poem by Robert Frost, we understand that Nelson wants to convey the same sense of confusion and worry communicated by Frost when he used these words. This economy is particularly important when working with a form like the sonnet, which limits the number of syllables the poet may use.
Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas
The civil rights movement—the effort to achieve freedom and equality for African Americans—is commonly said to have begun on May 17, 1954, with the Supreme Court's ruling in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, which said that the racial segregation of public schools was unconstitutional under the Fourteenth Amendment. The case was argued by Thurgood Marshall, who would later become the first African American Supreme Court justice. The decision overturned the separate-but-equal doctrine established by Plessy v. Ferguson. Because no provisions were made for how to implement the decision, it would be some time before it created any real change. However, it was the basis for much of the political activism that defined the civil rights movement.
The Murder of Emmett Till and the Civil Rights Movement
Throughout the South, white segregationists responded angrily to the Brown decision, but nowhere was the response more violent than in Mississippi. By the time Emmett Till arrived there a year and three months later, several black men had already been killed by white men; two of them were NAACP organizers who had come to Mississippi to register black voters. In Money, Mississippi, a black girl had recently been flogged for the dubious crime of “crowding white people” in a store. Emmett Till had no idea that he was walking into a powder keg when he went to stay with his mother's Uncle Mose.
Eight days after Emmett arrived in Money, Mississippi, he went with his cousins to a smaller town. They stopped at Bryant's Grocery and Meat Market, where twenty-one-year-old Carolyn Bryant was minding the store while her husband was out of town. Accounts of what happened vary, but Emmett allegedly whistled at her as he left the store. Some say that he was being mischievous, others, like his mother, insisted that he whistled as a result of a speech impediment. In any case, the boys jumped into a car and fled the scene. A few days later, two white men, Roy Bryant and his half-brother J. W. Milam, abducted Emmett Till from Mose Bryant's house at gunpoint and took Emmett out to the car, where Carolyn Bryant allegedly waited to identify him. Emmett's family did not see him alive again.
Though Mamie Till-Mobley had not been an activist before, her quest for justice catapulted her into the civil rights movement. When she found out about her son's death, the sheriff in Money was already taking steps to have Emmett buried quickly, to hide what had been done. Before he could do that, she insisted that his body be sent to Chicago instead. When the coffin arrived, she opened it on the train platform to see for herself whether or not it was her son.
When she opened the coffin, she saw that his head had been split open with a hatchet, that one eye had been gouged out, and that his nose and part of an ear had been cut off. Only two of his teeth remained. He had been shot in the head, and his mutilated body was bloated with water from the river. In response, she resolved to have an open-casket funeral. In her memoir, Death of Innocence, Till-Mobley explains that when the undertaker offered to “retouch Emmett,” she said no. “Let the world see what I've seen,” she told him.
So many people came to see Emmett, that she delayed the burial for four days. Over one hundred thousand people are reported to have viewed the body, and the prominent African American weekly Jet ran a picture that carried the image of Emmett Till's murder to the entire country.
In addition to these images of Emmett's body, those of the trial also created a reaction throughout the country. During the trial, several people came forward to testify. Mose Wright testified to Emmett's abduction. A boy named Willie Reed testified to seeing Emmett with the defendants and then hearing his screams coming from a shed. Willie Reed's mother confirmed having heard Emmett's screams, and Mamie Till-Mobley testified that the body was indeed that of her son. Despite these testimonies, Bryant and Milam were acquitted by an all-white jury after only sixty-seven minutes of deliberation.
The results of the trial opened the eyes of Americans across the country. But as Juan Williams explains in Eyes on the Prize, the trial was important not only because people all over America were alerted to the injustices of the South, but that “black Americans, particularly in the South, saw something else as well—something that is easily overlooked. They saw black people stand in a court and testify against white people.”
For both of these reasons, the murder of Emmett Till and the trial that followed inspired more activism, most notably that of Rosa Parks, who thought of Emmett Till when a few months later she decided to keep her seat—rather than give it up to a white man as required by Jim Crow—on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Out of the Montgomery bus boycott, organized in her support, emerged a new civil rights leader, the twenty-six-year-old Martin Luther King Jr. The success of the bus boycott would prompt sitins throughout the South, desegregating lunch counters and restaurants. And in 1957, nine black children, protected by national troops sent in by President Eisenhower, would brave an angry crowd to integrate Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. Each act of protest sparked others in turn.
Though the civil rights movement is said to have ended in 1965, the struggle for equal rights for African Americans continues to this day.
When A Wreath for Emmett Till was published by Houghton Mifflin in 2005, it received overwhelmingly favorable reviews. Writing for Booklist, Gillian Engberg called it a “searing poetry collection” and a “powerful achievement.” Kirkus Reviews added, “It's a towering achievement, one whose power and anger and love will make breath catch in the throat and bring tears to the eyes.” In 2006 a number of awards confirmed critical opinion: the book was honored by the Michael L. Printz Award, the Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award, and the Coretta Scott King Honor Award.
All reviewers commented on the poem's formal structure, and some noted the formality of the language as well. Cris Riedel, writing for School Library Journal, wrote that it is “quite formal not only in form but in language,” adding that “this chosen formality brings distance and reflection to readers, but also calls attention to the horrifically ugly events. The language is highly figurative in one sonnet, cruelly graphic in the next.” Engberg commented, “The rigid form distills the words' overwhelming emotion into potent, heart-stopping lines that speak from changing perspectives, including that of a tree.” Like Engberg, many critics note the variety of voices heard in the poem: “Individual poems speak in the voices of a witnessing tree and of Mamie Till-Mobley, and broaden the mourning to include all victims of violence,” wrote Kirkus Reviews.
Reviewers differed in their response to the ample supporting material provided by the book. While Cris Riedel wrote, “This underpinning information makes this a full experience, eminently teachable,” Kirkus Reviews stated of the Sonnet Notes and the artist's comments, “The latter two are rather unfortunate additions, as the words, purified in the crucible of the form, speak eloquently enough on their own.”
The only substantial point of controversy among critics concerned the poem's role as a memorial. Most applauded Nelson's effort to commemorate Emmett's murder. Publishers Weekly called it a “compelling invitation to bear witness,” adding that “Nelson's text suggests that readers must acknowledge their inhumanity so that they can make different choices.” Kirkus Reviews wrote, “Only Marilyn Nelson can take one of the most hideous events of the twentieth century and make of it something glorious.” However, a more recent review from Betsy Hearne in The Horn Book Magazine questioned this accomplishment: “does all this bury the subject or resurrect him? Is beauty the appropriate commemoration of atrocity, or might it—and should it—dull its emotional impact?” She also points out a contradiction between the illustrations, which move from circular, reassuring images of wreaths to coffin shapes and back again, closing with a “goldfinch perched amidst lush summer fruit and flowers.” Hearne points out that Nelson “seems to be challenging us not to smile calmly at this death, but Lardy's circular visual reassurance may contradict her warning.”
Nevertheless, Hearne concludes her review by saying “despite that reservation, such a rare book is worth offering to readers so they may consider Nelson's challenge for themselves.” Ultimately, all reviewers agree about the importance of A Wreath for Emmett Till, expressing admiration for the formal achievement and appreciation for her effort to bear witness to Till's death.
Ginny Wiehardt is a poet and an instructor of creative writing. In this essay, Wiehardt considers how A Wreath for Emmett Till , as a poem of witness, addresses questions related to memory and forgetting.
When Marilyn Nelson set out to write a poem about lynching, she had already written two collections of historical poems, The Homeplace and Carver: A Life in Poems. In the award-winning book The Homeplace, she offered her own family history as an affirmation of the African American experience. As she explained in an interview for the National Book Foundation:
Much African American literature describes ours as a heritage of brutalization and rape, resulting in a sort of spiritual lostness…. I wanted to talk about finding pride in our parents' generation, and in our parents' parents' generation, in people who triumphed over slavery.
Carver: A Life in Poems, written for young adults, furthered this goal with its portrayal of the life and work of the groundbreaking educator and scientist George Washington Carver.
In taking on the subject of lynching in A Wreath for Emmett Till, however, she confronted one of the darkest chapters of African American history. Rather than celebrating achievement, she was exploring victimhood. Appropriately, given her own goals as a writer, Nelson returns repeatedly in A Wreath for Emmett Till to the question of memory and forgetting. Is it better to forget atrocity or commemorate it? As Betsy Hearne queried in The Horn Book Magazine, “Is beauty the appropriate commemoration of atrocity, or might it—and should it—dull its emotional impact?” If we have no choice in whether or not to remember, how do we bear that burden? Nelson raises questions about memory—and struggles to answer them—in a number of ways in A Wreath for Emmett Till, particularly through the use of symbols, mainly flowers, and through allusions to other poems of witness.
Flowers fit naturally with Nelson's chosen form, the heroic crown of sonnets, which is inherently a type of wreath. Like Ophelia, driven to madness by her father's death, Nelson turns to the language of flowers, beginning with an allusion to Ophelia's own words, “There's rosemary, that's for remembrance,” in act 4, scene 5 of Hamlet. From rosemary, the sonnet names other flowers and themes that will run through the poem. Nonetheless, it ultimately circles back to memory through its imagery of forget-me-nots.
The last line of the poem, breaking as it does on the subjunctive “would,” introduces a note of ambivalence, hinting that perhaps the speaker would like to forget Emmett's death. With the next sonnet, however, she firmly reverses this desire, commanding her readers not to erase the memory of Emmett Till. She then clarifies that what she would like to forget is the “racial memory.” It is not his death, but how and why he died that haunts her.
This question of the racial aspect of Emmett's murder re-emerges later, in Sonnet VII and Sonnet XV, which both command, “Erase the memory of Emmett's victimhood.” In Sonnet VII, she imagines for Emmett the kinds of lives she would prefer to remember: that of a husband or partner, a friend, even a hero. She wishes to remember Emmett Till for what he did instead of what was done to him.
In Sonnet XII's bloodroot, Nelson introduces an apt symbol for her ambivalence. A white poppy that emits a thick, red sap, bloodroot works as a symbol of both bloodshed and forgetting. But, the speaker wonders, can you have both? Forgetting such a murder, she argues, would mean either being without conscience, like the moon, or suffering “a plague” of not knowing the difference between right and wrong. Unlike nature, we cannot conscionably witness bloodshed and dismiss it from our minds. We have no choice but to remember.
As Nelson struggles with this burden of memory, she also turns to other works of witness literature, seeking wisdom and locating her poem within this tradition. In Sonnet II, she offers two examples of works that specifically bear witness to lynchings: the 1939 song “Strange Fruit,” written by Lewis Allen and made famous by Billie Holiday, and Paul Laurence Dunbar's 1903 poem, “The Haunted Oak.” In Dunbar's poem, the tree is haunted because it was used in a hanging. The “one bare bough” of Nelson's poem refers to the limb from which the man was hung in “The Haunted Oak,” which opens, “Pray why are you so bare, so bare, /Oh, bough of the old oak-tree.” By borrowing Dunbar's metaphor and referring to Lewis Allen's song in line 7, she places her poem in the context of these other works and locates Emmett's death in a history of lynching in the United States.
In Sonnet III the tree speaks, bearing direct witness to what it has seen, and putting Emmett's death in the perspective of its two hundred years of life. Nelson differentiates what happened to Emmett from the thousands of natural deaths the tree would have seen. Again echoing Dunbar, Nelson imagines that the tree is permanently wounded by what it has witnessed. Nelson's tree, pierced by Emmett's screams, has been “slowly dying” ever since, while Dunbar laments: “And never more shall leaves come forth /On a bough that bears the ban; /I am burned with dread, /I am dried and dead, /From the curse of a guiltless man.”
The tragedy the tree experiences reflects that of all who bear witness, including Mamie Till-Mobley, who is referred to in Sonnet V as “the mother of sorrows.” Till-Mobley dedicated much of her life to “dignified public remembrance” of Emmett's murder so that what happened to him would not occur again. Nelson wonders whether or not Till-Mobley would have accepted her destiny if she had been given the choice. Finally, in Sonnet X, Nelson reveals her own struggle to commemorate Emmett's death, explaining how she walked Robert Frost's “pathless woods,” meditating on death. She illustrates the effort a memorial requires and how she gathered the necessary faith to continue her work.
In Sonnet IX, Nelson considers the history of lynching in the United States and then broadens her gaze to encompass the many tragedies of the twentieth century, such as the Holocaust and the massacres in the former Yugoslavia. In line 9, she cites Paul Celan's “Death Fugue,” written in response to the Holocaust, offering another example of witness poetry. In line 10, she looks back even further to the towers of Troy. As Cris Riedel notes in School Library Journal, Nelson writes “in the Homeric tradition of poet-as-historian.” Through this allusion, Nelson notes her debt to the ancient poet.
Nelson acknowledges yet another debt in Sonnet X with her reference to Whitman and his elegy for Abraham Lincoln, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd.” In her essay, “Beyond Confession: The Poetics of Postmodern Witness,” Alicia Ostriker notes Whitman's place as the father of American witness poetry when she writes, “Whitman stands behind all such work, both as walker in the city and as wound-dresser during the War between the States.”
With her allusion to “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd,” however, Nelson does more than just nod her head at Whitman. She also subtly implies that she wishes to go further than Whitman. Rather than picking cultivated flowers growing nearby, she wanders into Frost's “pathless woods” to search for wildflowers. This sentiment may be in part because as an African American woman, the death of Emmett Till would mean something different to her than Lincoln's did to Whitman. On the other hand, with so many literary allusions in one sonnet—we find not only Whitman and Frost, but also Shakespeare's Sonnet 73 and Hans Christian Andersen's “The Snow Queen”—it is clear that the flowers she gathers here are actually literary allusions. Perhaps she must venture further than Whitman because she has a longer tradition to explore, understand, and ultimately build upon.
Additionally, her reference to “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd” evokes Whitman's own answer to the question of why poets must memorialize tragedy: “for well dear brother I know, /If thou wast not granted to sing thou would'st surely die.” Ostriker echoes this sentiment when she writes, “We understand silence is surrender,” and paraphrases Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich's comment that art destroys silence. A poet has a responsibility to break the silence, even if it requires great contemplation and effort to do so appropriately.
By Sonnets XIV and XV, the speaker has resolved her ambivalence. In Sonnet XIV she enjoins the reader to bear witness to injustice and in Sonnet XV, she writes candidly, “If I could forget, believe me, I would.” She no longer hesitates to admit that she would prefer not to remember. She knows that she has no choice, and that the memory demands action. Otherwise, she understands, she must accept another burden, that of “unforgettable shame.” In the final sonnet, she reiterates her command to erase Emmett's victimhood and then gathers her flowers for her wreath, her memorial.
In this last sonnet, Nelson makes it clear that she shares Hearne's concerns about using beauty to commemorate atrocity. She does not end the poem with hopeful or beautiful images. Rather, she leaves her readers with her most brutal symbol: that of Emmett's witnessing but mute eye. It returns us to the assertions of Sonnet XIV—that we have a responsibility to speak out because we are “whole” while Emmett is not. In this way, Nelson ensures that the meaning and purpose of her poem is not lost in beautiful images or comforting platitudes. Thus, the ultimate value of A Wreath for Emmett Till is not that it commemorates a death, but that it challenges the living.
Source: Ginny Wiehardt, Critical Essay on A Wreath for Emmett Till, in Literary Newsmakers for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2009.
In the following review, Hearne analyzes the relationship between the images and the poetry in A Wreath for Emmett Till and questions the use of beauty to commemorate atrocity.
Emmett Till's murder by white racists in 1955 was so brutal that his mother let his tortured body testify to the ugly facts in an open-casket funeral. Attempting to capture the immediacy of such an unspeakable act in the format of young adult picture-book poetry and from the distance of a half-century dares much. Nelson represents the story in a complex heroic crown of sonnets, a sequence of fifteen interlinked sonnets in which the last line of one becomes the first line, sometimes slightly altered, of the next, and the last sonnet is made up of the first lines of the preceding fourteen. The elegant formality of the text, with its subtle power of tone and diction, is accentuated by Lardy's stylized, symbolically abstracted illustrations. These move deliberately through dominant shades of blood red, earth brown, and sunny yellow, varying their compositional emphases from elliptical wreath shapes to rectangular coffin shapes and back again, closing with a goldfinch perched amidst lush summer fruit and flowers. Four notes thoughtfully explain the poet's childhood awareness of the event, the historical context, the poetic allusions, and the graphic rationale. The question is,
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
- Using both poetry and photographs, Marilyn Nelson's 2001 book, Carver: A Life in Poems, chronicles the life of influential scientist, educator, and Renaissance man George Washington Carver, who was born a slave, attained a master's degree, and began the agricultural department at Booker T. Washington's Tuskegee Institute, where he worked to help landless black farmers.
- Death of Innocence (2003), written by Mamie Till-Mobley, the mother of Emmett Till, and novelist Christopher Benson, is Till-Mobley's award-winning account of Emmett Till's life and murder. It is also a moving portrait of her own struggles to find a purpose for her grief in the civil rights movement.
- For her descriptions of the lynchings, Marilyn Nelson drew from images in Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America (2000), edited by James Allen. This collection documents lynchings through pictures taken by late-nineteenth-century and early-twentieth-century Southerners.
- The 2003 two-volume Library of America collection Reporting Civil Rights includes articles written about the Emmett Till trial, along with reporting from other major civil rights events. Especially evocative is Murray Kempton's coverage of Mose Wright's testimony.
- Eyes on the Prize: America's Civil Rights Years, 1954–1965 by Juan Williams is the companion book to the acclaimed PBS documentary by the author. Each chapter of this 1988 publication describes the Civil Rights Movement in lucid prose. Photographs and firsthand accounts bring the struggles of the 1950s and '60s to life.
does all this bury the subject or resurrect him? Is beauty the appropriate commemoration of atrocity, or might it—and should it—dull its emotional impact? Nelson's final lines read:“Trillium, apple blossoms, Queen Anne's lace, /Indian pipe, bloodroot, white as moonbeams, /Like the full moon, which smiled calmly on his death, /Like his gouged eye, which watched boots kick his face.” Nelson seems to be challenging us not to smile calmly at this death, but Lardy's circular visual reassurance may contradict her warning. Despite that reservation, such a rare book is worth offering to readers so they may consider Nelson's challenge for themselves.
Source: Betsy Hearne, “Marilyn Nelson: A Wreath for Emmett Till,” in The Horn Book Magazine, Vol. 81, No. 3, May–June 2005, p. 1.
In the following review, the reviewer praises the intricacies of Nelson's poetic form while pointing out weaknesses in the later sonnets.
Only Marilyn Nelson can take one of the most hideous events of the 20th century and make of it something glorious: An intricate cycle of 15 sonnets—an Heroic Crown, in which the last sonnet is made up of the first lines of the previous 14. As she considers the lynching of Emmett Till, she uses the traditional “language of flowers,” plaiting rosemary for remembrance, heliotrope for justice, daisies for innocence through her wreath. Individual poems speak in the voices of a witnessing tree and of Mamie Till Mobley, and broaden the mourning to include all victims of violence. It's a towering achievement, one whose power and anger and love will make breath catch in the throat and bring tears to the eyes. Children's book newcomer Lardy's illustrations are bold and powerful, appropriately choosing disturbing imagery over depictions that are more realistic. The poem is followed by a brief account of Till's lynching, glosses on the individual poems and an essay from the artist explaining his choices of imagery. The latter two are rather unfortunate additions, as the words, purified in the crucible of the form, speak eloquently enough on their own.
Source: Kirkus Reviews, “Nelson, Marilyn. A Wreath for Emmett Till,” in Kirkus Reviews, Vol., No., April 4, 2005, p. 1.
In the following review, Engberg analyzes the way that form and content intersect in A Wreath for Emmett Till.
“I was nine years old when Emmett Till was lynched in 1955. His name and history have been a part of most of my life,” writes the creator of award-winning Carver (2001) in the introduction to this offering—a searing poetry collection about Till's brutal, racially motivated murder. The poems form a heroic crown of sonnets—a sequence in which the last line of one poem becomes the first line of the next. “The strict form became a kind of insulation, a way of protecting myself from the intense pain of the subject matter,” writes Nelson. The rigid form distills the words' overwhelming emotion into potent, heart-stopping lines that speak from changing perspectives, including that of a tree. Closing notes offer context to the sophisticated allusions to literature and history, but the raw power of many lines needs no translation. Nelson speaks of human history's deep contradictions: “My country, 'tis both /thy nightmare history and thy grand dream.” But there's also the hope that comes from facing the past and moving forward: “In my house, there is still something called grace, /which melts ice shards of hate and makes hearts whole.” When matched with Lardy's gripping, spare, symbolic paintings of tree trunks, blood-red roots, and wreaths of thorns, these poems are a powerful achievement that teens and adults will want to discuss together.
Source: Gillian Engberg, “Nelson, Marilyn. A Wreath for Emmett Till,” in Booklist, Vol. 101, No. 11, February 1, 2005, p. 1.
Engberg, Gillian, “Emmett Till: A Poem of Sorrow and Hope,” in Booklist, Vol. 101, No. 11, Feb. 1, 2005, p. 970.
Hearne, Betsy, “Review of A Wreath for Emmett Till” in The Horn Book Magazine, Vol. 81, No. 3, May–June 2005, p. 339.
The Murder of Emmett Till, www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/till (1999–2003).
“Nelson, Marilyn: A Wreath for Emmett Till,” Kirkus Reviews, Vol. 73, No. 5, March 1, 2005, p. 292.
Nelson, Marilyn, and Philippe Lardy, illus., A Wreath for Emmett Till, Houghton Mifflin Company, 2005.
Osen, Diane, “Interview with Marilyn Nelson” in the National Book Foundation Author Study Guides, www.nationalbook.org/authorsguide_mnelson.html (January 2008).
Ostriker, Alicia, “Beyond Confession: The Poetics of Postmodern Witness,” in The American Poetry Review, Vol. 30, No. 2, March 2001, p. 35.
Packard, Jerrold M., American Nightmare: The History of Jim Crow, St. Martin's Griffin, 2003, pp. 48–49.
Reporting Civil Rights: Part One: American Journalism 1941–1963, The Library of America, 2003, pp. 211–221.
Review of A Wreath for Emmett Till in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 252, No. 15, April 11, 2005, p. 54.
Riedel, Cris, “Review of A Wreath for Emmett Till” in School Library Journal, Vol. 51, No. 5, May 2005, p. 156.
Rubin, Richard, “The Ghosts of Emmett Till,” in the New York Times Magazine, http://www.nytimes.com/2005/07/31/magazine/31TILL.html (July 31, 2005).
Till-Mobley, Mamie, and Christopher Benson, Death of Innocence, Random House, 1963, p. 139.
Williams, Juan, Eyes on the Prize, Viking Penguin, 1987, pp. 2–89.
Younge, Gary, “Justice at Last?” Guardian Unlimited, http://www.guardian.co.uk/usa/story/0,12271,1499919,00.html (June 6, 2005).
Crowe, Chris, Getting Away with Murder: The True Story of the Emmett Till Case, Dial, 2003.
In unflinching, accessible prose, Chris Crowe's young adult book Getting Away with Murder: The True Story of the Emmett Till Case chronicles the story of Emmett Till's murder, the subsequent trial, and the nation's response.
Hansberry, Lorraine, A Raisin in the Sun, Random House, 1995.
Lorraine Hansberry's award-winning play about an African American working-class family living on the South Side of Chicago opened on Broadway in 1959 to rave reviews and remains relevant today. This Modern Library edition offers an unabridged version of the play and an introduction by Robert Nemiroff.
Morrison, Toni, Beloved, Vintage, 2004.
Toni Morrison's Nobel Prize—winning novel follows Sethe, a former slave, who is haunted by memories of the farm she escaped from and the ghost of her baby whose tombstone is marked with the single word “Beloved.”
Ondaatje, Michael, Coming Through Slaughter, House of Anansi Press Limited, 1976.
In Coming Through Slaughter, poet and novelist Michael Ondaatje chronicles the life of legendary cornetist Buddy Bolden, who is widely known to be the first to play the improvised music that would become known as jazz. Ondaatje tells his story through short, poetic vignettes.