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Incidences de l'événement

 | 
Hélène Le Dantec-Lowry
, 
Claudine Raynaud

III. Histoires, spectacles et mémoire/stories, spectacles and memory

The Emmett Till Case and Fiction Writing

Claude Julien

Résumé

La mort d’Emmett Till et le procès de ses meurtriers bientôt acquittés par un tribunal acquis à la cause de la suprématie blanche indignèrent le monde en 1955 et contribuèrent à lancer la campagne pour les Droits Civiques en galvanisant la combativité des noirs emmenés par Martin Luther King. L’affaire Till, iniquité emblématique du racisme viscéral, a été peu représentée dans la fiction. Cette étude réunit trois œuvres extrêmement différentes : un roman afro-américain confinant à la littérature facile, deux œuvres de la plume de blancs, l’une écrite pour la jeunesse et l’autre par un Mississippien qui avait le même âge que le jeune Emmett au moment des faits et dont les parents fréquentaient la famille des deux meurtriers. Il ne s’agit pas d’évaluer les niveaux de véracité historique mais d’étudier les ressorts de chaque œuvre afin de restituer l’événement lui-même et d’en mettre les représentations fictionnelles en perspective : fresque s’étendant sur quatre décennies (qui finit —presque— bien), roman inspiré du « réalisme magique », et reconstruction au didactisme de bon aloi.

The death of Emmett Till and the ensuing trial of his murderers, soon acquitted by a jury sympathizing with the white supremacy cause, shocked the world in 1955 and contributed to the campaign for civil rights by galvanizing the fighting spirit of Blacks led by Martin Luther King Jr. The Till case, an emblematic iniquity of deep-rooted racism, has been little represented in fiction. The author examines three very different works: an African-American novel akin to easy-reading literature, and two books by white authors, one written for young readers and the other by a Mississippian who was the same age as Emmett Till at the time he was murdered, and whose parents knew the families of both murderers. The goal is not to determine whether the novels are true to historical facts, but rather to analyze the motivations of each of the works and put their fictional representations in perspective: a portrait covering four decades (with a happy ending—almost), a novel inspired by “magic realism”, and an honest didactic reconstruction of the facts.

Texte intégral

1That the Emmett Till case gave impetus to the burgeoning civil rights movement is arguable. Emmett’s racist execution and the acquittal of his murderers in the fall of 1955 are widely regarded as the catalysts that opened the eyes of those whites who were not blinded by racism and, mostly, prompted the stamina it took for black people to resist iniquity when the Montgomery bus boycott went under way in December.

  • 1 “In the Shadow of a Dying Soldier” is an account of Brown’s trip to Sumner, MS., to attend the tria (...)
  • 2 The references are to the following editions: Bebe Moore Campbell, Your Blues Ain’t Like Mine, New (...)

2Art became a natural vehicle for indignation: there are poems by Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks and James Emanuel, a song by Bob Dylan, a 1959 story by Frank London Brown,1 a 1964 play by James Baldwin, Blues for Mister Charlie, a number of turn-of-thecentury plays (one of them by Toni Morrison, performed but not yet published) and documentary films, a recent (2001) piece for solo cello by William Roper and, to end this partial list with the subjects of the present essay, three fictions that came out at a distance from the tragedy: Your Blues Ain’t Like Mine (Bebe Moore Campbell, 1992), Wolf Whistle (Lewis Nordan, 1993) and—written for young adults—Mississippi Trial 1955 (Chris Crowe, 2002).2 A few notes are needed to place these authors socially without becoming engrossed in biographical detail. Two of these are white men from very different backgrounds. Chris Crowe, now a resident of Utah, was born in California and raised in Arizona. He first heard of the Till case as a scholar reading one of Mildred D. Taylor’s autobiographical essays and then visited Mississippi to carry out research toward the novel. Lewis Nordan is a native Mississippian who was raised a few miles from Greenwood. He was at the time slightly older than Emmett, growing up in a home where the case was never talked about although the Nordans knew kinsmen of the murderers. Bebe Moore Campbell is a black woman born in Philadelphia and currently living in California who says she grew up with the painful consciousness of racism acquired precisely in 1955. Both Campbell and Crowe constructed their first novels from the Emmett Till case, and Nordan his second in the series he locates in Arrow Catcher —his own Yoknapatawpha. This is enough to show that all of them felt an urgent personal need to write about this tragedy and mockery of justice.

3The aim of the present essay is to study the diversity of creation by probing the three authors’ renditions of history. The point will not be to distribute praise or blame based on historical accuracy. Both history and fiction stem from a desire to speak on the world as perceived, but history aims at weaving remembered events into a narrative while fiction’s purpose is to tell its own story. Whatever liberties our novelists may have taken with historical facts are perfectly legitimate acts of creation. History’s role is not to dictate fictional content. Evaluating the distances between fact and fiction will here be a means to bring out the several discourses by risking a stranger’s personal interpretations. To pursue this intention, the reader will be, briefly, reminded of salient elements in the Emmett Till case before turning to the novels themselves: how their plots compare with history, and what their textual strategies suggest.

1. History

  • 3 Emmett was born in 1941. His parents separated in 1942. His father died in combat in Italy. (A poss (...)
  • 4 Crowe (2003, 50) adds the following detail, but not in his fiction: Emmett and his cousins sneaked (...)

4Emmett Louis Till (also known by the nickname of “Bobo”) was a fourteen-year-old black Chicagoan on his first visit to relatives in Mississippi. As he was born and raised in Chicago, his mother, Mamie Till Bradley, tried to impress proper southern behavior upon him before he left in the company of his cousin Curtis Jones.3 Her maternal wisdom was not rewarded. Emmett apparently failed to remember the profundity of racism in the South when he got carried away and accepted a dare to approach Carolyn Bryant, a former local beauty queen who tended the family business when her husband was trucking in Louisiana. The store was Bryant s Grocery and Meat Market, the only attraction in the tiny hamlet known as Money, where people congregated to talk, swap stories, listen to music, play checkers on the front porch, purchase soft drinks and/or candy. The day was Wednesday. Emmett joined a group of teenagers, seven boys and one girl, on an outing to Bryant’s for refreshment and enjoyment after a full day’s work picking cotton.4 As usual, Emmett tried to bluff his companions with a photo of a white woman he carried in his wallet, bragging about city life and hinting about a biracial relationship. He could not back out of the dare a (foolish) local youth saddled him with and walked in to buy some bubble gum. He spoke to Carolyn, some say he invited her on a date —the challenge he was given. Emmett was heard to say “Bye, baby” and whistle as worried friends were dragging him out of the store, but no one heard the words he actually uttered in there. The only information we have is Carolyn’s courtroom testimony which is, of course, self-serving and meant to vindicate her husband, especially when she said Emmett blocked her way and grabbed her by the waist. Did he actually wolf-whistle Carolyn? Mamie Till Bradley said a few weeks after her son’s death that he sometimes whistled to control his stutter (Crowe, 2003, 55); while witnesses on the spot declared many years later that he whistled his approval at them when they asked him how he liked the former local Miss, not directly at Carolyn herself.

5When Mose Wright heard of the events in Money, he considered putting his nephew on the first available train to Chicago. However, the absence of any immediate white reaction —he did not know Rob Bryant was away from home— made him think the incident would blow over. He was wrong. Although Carolyn secured from her sister-in-law the promise she would not report Emmett’s offense, and did not inform her husband herself, Bryant got wind of the trouble. Just how he learned of Emmett’s alleged impudence to his wife is unknown, but Emmett’s prank was buzzed among black people and it is easy for rumor to spread out in such a small place. Whittaker who relies on information from Huie’s Wolf Whistle and Other Stories speaks of a “‘Judas nigger’ [who] told him what the talk was” (Whittaker, 1963, 106).

  • 5 Accounts vary. In the article Huie (1956, 7) wrote after interviewing Bryant and Milam, it is Crosb (...)

6Another cause for delay was the fact that Bryant did not own a car. He had to wait for an opportunity to borrow JW “Big” Milam’s —one of his half brothers. Milam offered to go with him to teach the “Chicago boy” a lesson. They made their move on Sunday night. At 2:30 am, they knocked on Mose Wright’s cabin door, armed with a pistol. Bryant identified himself through the door and demanded to see Wright’s nephew. They woke Emmett up in a backroom and abduction followed. Wright was under threat of his life and did not report it himself. Using a neighbor’s phone in the morning, Curtis Jones, Emmett’s Chicago cousin, called Sheriff Smith who was in charge of Leflore County.5

  • 6 Apparently hard-pressed for money when their businesses quickly failed due to a black boycott, the (...)

7The only contemporary sources that detail what happened after the kidnapping are what is left of the court trial transcripts, newspaper archives and the post-trial interview Bryant and Milam gave to William Bradford Huie.6 Their confession speaks volumes on the murderers’state of mind in a region basking in racism, and this is reason enough to approach their account with caution. As they tell it, they ordered the “Chicago boy” to dress up. They were angered when he insisted on putting socks on, then drove close to seventy-five miles looking for the proper place, a bluff by a river Milam had in mind, to intimidate their victim. Their stated intention was to just teach him a lesson, “scare some sense into him” (Huie, 1956, 5; Whittaker, 1963, 113). They eventually wound up at dawn in Milam’s tool house where they pistol-whipped (a technique Milam learned in the army) the young victim. Emmett remained defiant and Milam decided “it was time to put a few people on notice” (Huie, 1956, 5). With Emmett in the truck bed again, they drove to a recently refurbished gin mill where they picked a discarded fan. It was daylight and Milam was scared “somebody might see [them] and accuse [them] of stealing the fan” (Huie, 1956, 6). They made Emmett load the heavy fan into the truck and drove to a secluded spot by the Tallahatchie River where they ordered him to strip naked. Milam shot the youth in the head after he remained unrepentant, maintaining he was as good as they were and had already “had” white women. They next used barbed wire to tie the body to the fan and dropped it into twenty feet of water. They finally returned to Milam’s home where they spent three hours burning their victim’s clothes and shoes in the backyard.

8Like Carolyn’s court testimony, this confession panders to the local state of mind and is all the more suspect as the men are careful not to implicate anyone else. Carolyn herself is not even placed on the scene to identify Emmett as the offending person. Wright’s trial testimony tells a different story by placing her on the back seat of the abduction car. And Willie Reed’s testimony brought wholly different elements to the attention of the jury: that Emmett’s cries for mercy were heard as he was being tortured on a plantation run by one of Milam’s brothers, and that other (unidentified) men, two black and four white, were around. The black men were seen carrying something wrapped in a tarpaulin, then cleaning the barn and the bed of Milam’s truck. The white men, that is the impression Reed’s testimony gives, were just attending.

  • 7 This was returned by the Army after Louis Till’s death abroad.

9Emmett’s body was found three days later several miles downstream by a young white man fishing. The victim had been beaten beyond recognition, his skull crushed, an eye gouged out, and the body was so bloated that only his father’s silver ring was a certain identify clue.7

  • 8 Jet is a popular African-American weekly newsmagazine launched in 1951 as a complement to Ebony. In (...)

10The authorities prepared for a quick burial in Mississippi, but Emmett’s mother would not hear of it. She acted quickly and resolutely, alerting the press and pressuring Mississippi officials for the casket to be shipped to Chicago. The sight of her son’s mangled body when the coffin was opened in the train station made her decide on an open casket funeral. This meant a delay. Thousands lined up to view the body in church, and Emmett was finally put to rest three days later. Newspaper reports and photographs of the corpse, especially those published in Jet, made the lynching highly visible nationwide and the world over.8

11Here is a quick film of the events in Greenwood: Bryant and Milam were arrested for kidnapping the very Monday that followed the abduction. They were released after stating they had set Emmett free the moment Carolyn told them he was not the offender. However, the outcry was such that Governor Hugh White ordered local officials to fully prosecute Bryant and Milam the day after the body was recovered. They were arrested again, this time under the charge of murder —an unprecedented event in Mississippi, indeed in the whole United States.

12The trial took place in Sumner rather than Greenwood because the body was recovered in Tallahatchie County. At the time, Sumner had 19,000 black residents, and Sheriff Strider, like the 11,000 white inhabitants, believed in white rule and set the tone for the proceedings.

13No one volunteered spontaneously to represent the defendants in court because they were not really liked or esteemed in town. Still, passions ran high in the state whose white citizenry felt their way of life was threatened by outside influence, worst of all the U.S. Supreme Court, which had just decided that school integration must be effected with “deliberate speed”. As a consequence, local people (one should recall the first White Citizens’ Council was formed the year before to resist the Brown decision) rallied around their racist persuasion and generously contributed to a defense fund when all five lawyers in town agreed to team together, pro bono, under the guidance of J.J. Breland.

  • 9 Smith spoke up in court against the murder: “I was born and bred in the South, and the very worst p (...)

14The spotlight was on Mississippi and the stakes were high for a state that suddenly found itself in the need to give the world an image of fairness. The prosecution headed by District Attorney Gerald Chatham who was assisted by former FBI agent Robert B. Smith9 (Whitfield, 1988, 31) did the best they could: on the same day as Emmett’s funeral in Chicago, the grand jury agreed to the following indictment: “Rob Bryant and J.W. Milam did willfully, unlawfully, feloniously, and of their malice aforethought did kill and murder Emmett Till, a human being, against the peace and dignity of the state of Mississippi.” (Crowe, 2003, 67)

  • 10 See Metress, 2002, 174-175. Also www.archipelago.org, 2-3, 5-7.

15For tactical reasons, in fact so a jury could be selected, District Attorney Chatham announced at the outset that the State did not seek the death penalty against the defendants. However, the prosecution did try (with the help of Medgar Evers and other local NAACP officials) to produce two key witnesses, Leroy Collins and Henry Lee Loggins, whom Sheriff Strider had had jailed under false identities. According to James L. Hicks, then a black reporter for The Baltimore American who put his life in jeopardy to locate these men, Collins and Loggins may have been the black men Willie Reed testified he saw hosing the back of Milam’s pickup.10 No one has, to this day, ever heard of or from these men.

16Sheriff Strider made sure blacks were vastly outnumbered in the segregated courtroom. Those black citizens who were allowed to attend (even Emmett’s mother who arrived with congressman Charles Diggs, of Michigan, on the second day of the trial) were kept where they belonged, in the back, while black reporters were seated at a Jim Crow table.

  • 11 The case was reopened in May 2004 when the Justice Department ordered a full investigation. It was (...)
  • 12 Mose Wright, the first black man to point an accusing finger at a white man in court, was smuggled (...)

17The selection of the jury took a full day of haggling as over fifty prospective jurors were examined. The twelve men (women were not available for jury duty in Mississippi at the time) on the panel were all white, of course. Everyone, white as well as black, knew Bryant and Milam were guilty as charged. But, as the jury foreman later confessed to the press, he voted for acquittal because the state failed to prove the identity of the body beyond a reasonable doubt.11 Indeed, attorney J. J. Breland had argued that Emmett Till was in hiding somewhere, and that the body in the Tallahatchie was an unknown person whose corpse was planted there by outside agitators. The outcome of the trial was acquittal, as expected. No one, black or white ever entertained any hope the defendants would be declared guilty. The black people who testified in this hostile courtroom showed great courage.12 Many questions were left pending as the prosecution did not —perhaps could not— probe each and every lead. For one, no ballistic evidence was sought from the bullet that was in the victim’s skull. For another, the prosecution never looked beyond the two half-brothers. Nothing was done to pursue the lead of Willie Lee’s testimony as to other white men present on the scene. Who they were and what their role was are capital issues that are very unlikely to ever come to light.

2. Stories and History

  • 13 One of them is available online from the writer’s own site. (See the Other Resources section).

18In a personal e-mail dated August 2, 2006, Crowe very candidly explains how and why the novel came to be through his late discovery of the Till case when reading an autobiographical essay in which novelist Mildred D. Taylor wrote on its impact on her life. He then mentions his shock on realizing that violence and denial of justice were virtually forgotten half a century later, and concludes with his urge to write a historical novel to instruct the young. This project led him to Greenwood, Mississippi, where he looked, listened, and delved into local newspaper archives. Putting pen to paper, he realized he had gathered information but had no story: his first attempts at writing did not take him beyond the first chapter, of which there exist ten versions.13

19The plot line arose from a personal consciousness of the generation gap that spreads over three “stubborn” generations in the fiction: disagreement—incomprehension—between Earl Hillburn, Hiram’s grandfather, and Harlan, Hiram’s own father; then between young Hiram who does not understand his own father’s attitude toward the older parent. Hiram at first sides with his grandfather, a patrician who embodies the comforts of the old South, then understands the reasons for his father’s revolt and flight from Mississippi to Arizona.

20Hiram’s evolution constitutes the core of the book. He is at first satisfied with the good old life, nice abundant food and home harmony. He grows vaguely aware at the outset that the Hillburns’ material comfort has a price—back-breaking work for the black field hands—but his nine-year-old mind goes back to sleep and he hardly challenges his grandfather’s point:

“Son, let me tell you something.” … “God made the negroes to work the land. They don’t feel the heat like we do; they can work all day long in the most hellish weather. They’re strong people, good with their hands”
“I’m good with my hands too, Grampa. Gramma lets me help in the garden.”
“Well, sure you’re good with your hands, Hiram, but there’s lots more you can do. These folks, they’re doing what the good Lord intended them to do; that don’t mean you can’t do it too, but you got more in you, boy. You’re meant to be the boss, not the worker.”(
MT, 8)

21Hiram returns “home” from Arizona, very much against his father’s will, to spend time with his widowed and now ailing grandfather. He has turned sixteen, but, still very much an unsuspecting grandchild, asks no questions about the council meetings Earl takes part in. However, he detests the way his former friend —bully— R.C. Rydell manhandles and humiliates Emmett. He dares not intervene at the time but later involves himself in the tragic events when he reports to the police his suspicion R.C. may have been a party to the crime. A subpoenaed witness, he attends the trial.

  • 14 The White Citizen’s Councils were known as “uptown Ku Klux Klans”.

22The story uses history in more ways than one. Firstly, the research the author has effected allows for accuracy. The courtroom atmosphere, segregation, the jury selection process, the defense fund jar that “overflowed with money” (MT, 163), the outrageous arguments of the defense team —that “outsiders” had planted a corpse in the river— are historical fact. So are local newspaper articles (transcribed verbatim), such as the one deploring an “incident” (MT, 127) that reflects badly on the state; and so is the account of the courage it took black witnesses to speak truthfully. The story achieves a lot in this respect, without falling into didacticism. The truth is made believable, and so is fictional Hiram’s fear for his life should he be called as a witness for the prosecution. Secondly, the story appropriates the enigma history offers by fictionalizing the unknown other white men Willie Lee testified he saw on the plantation run by J.W. Milam’s brother. The story opts for just one man: no less a person than Hiram’s grandfather himself, a discovery that completes Hiram’s turn of mind and makes him understand his father’s rejection of life according to his grandfather’s gospel. Earl who is among those whom convention calls the “better citizens of the South”14 regrets the murder he did not participate in directly, but his presence on the scene throws a dark stain on Hiram’s devotion to him. There is no anger. Hiram simply wants to go away from the unacceptable, from a grandfather who will not even “clear his conscience” (ΜT, 223) with him before he left.

  • 15 Everyone acknowledged this and the local press insisted this proved Mississippi could take care of (...)

23Hiram’s reaction dovetails with the novel’s fairness. There is no simplistic caricature of the South, such as “good” blacks versus “bad” whites. Of course, R.C. Rydell is a rabid racist; but he is also brutal against the harmless Remington brothers. And there is Mr. Paul (drawn from a real person Crowe met in Greenwood) who helps Hiram see the light, criticizes Earl Hillburn and his friends in the White Citizens’ Council for wanting “the way of the South” (MT, 73) to continue, and tells Hiram that, in spite of what he might think, there has been change because, at least, “there was a trial” (ΜT, 221). Another aspect of fairness is the image of the authorities: District Attorney Chatham’s diligence and Judge Swango’s orderly conduct of the trial.15 They are like Sheriff Smith: as good men as they can be, walking, like half-fictitious Mr. Paul, up in the air on a tight rope. On the other hand, Sheriff Strider is pictured as an open racist, which he was. His answer to the press as to the hate mail he received is transcribed word for word in the novel. Forgetting the defendants had just been exonerated on the ground no one could say for sure the corpse was Emmett’s, he came out with a declaration whose import the reader is left on his own to fully grasp:

“I’m glad you asked me this,” said the sheriff as he looked into the camera. “I just want to tell all those people who have been sending me threatening letters that if they ever come down here, the same thing’s gonna happen to them that happened to Emmett Till.” (MT, 192-193)

24Another aspect that makes the novel fair and believable is the characters. Hiram’s early lack of courage and slow evolution; Emmett’s canny self-assertiveness in the railroad station when he manages not to carry Hiram’s heaviest luggage, his attempt to find a snapper to play a trick on his cousins, his showing off before his cousins—his pride in having a white friend. Emmett’s behavior is probably constructed from the murderers’ post-trial confession that paints the young Chicagoan as a lad who was ready to stand his ground.

25Apart from one historical element, setting up Jake as the “Judas nigger”, Your Blues Ain’t Like Mine departs from history far and wide in so far as Jake, a black helper in a white-owned pool hall, denounces a non-existent breach of racial etiquette strictly out of jealousy for Armstrong (Emmett’s fictional double). Changing the place from a store that caters to vital needs, to mere entertainment alters the vision of local people’s living circumstances. Armstrong is not a first-time visitor from Chicago either. He has been farmed out by his mother (Delotha) to his grandmother Odessa while she is struggling to open her own beauty parlor after Wydell (Armstrong’s father who is still alive), has deserted her for the bottle. One can see the novel clearly opts for such stereotypes as the broken black family and the unworthy husband. Armstrong is impatient to go back north. He works part time for a rich man who runs the local paper, Clayton Pinochet, and who pays for this promising youth’s tuition. Clayton is a white “liberal”—so he thinks—who keeps a black mistress.

26There is no offense to Lily, the former beauty queen and wife to the pool hall owner, Floyd Cox. Armstrong blusters around using a few French sentences his father has taught him from his war days in Europe and humiliates Jake, but never addresses the white woman, buys anything from her —or ever whistles at her. Lily is not working in the pool hall. She just peeks in, transgressing Floyd’s order to stay in their car.

27The novel relies on “white problem” clichés that sound hollow in the protagonists’ mouths. The vaguely feminist Louetta, Lily’s sister-in-law, is a case in point as she spouts her approval of the murderer:

“[…] if a nigger didn’t get lynched every now and then, well, there’s just no telling what they’d do to us.”
“Who?” Lily asked.
“Why, honey, the niggers and our husbands both. I don’t care what color they are; men build up steam. And they gotta let it out somewhere. Colored men. White men. They both crazy. Honey, the point is you gotta look at it this way: a whole lotta women can’t say, ‘I got a man who’ll kill for me.’” (
BM, 54)

28There is only one defendant, Floyd, who shoots Armstrong in Odessa’s backyard and whom the victim denounces before he draws his last breath. There is no abduction, no torture, no body thrown in the river. There are no accomplices either, just Armstrong’s father and brother who watch him give Armstrong a “good talking to” (BM, 72). The trial is presented summarily in seven pages and, once again, historical accuracy is not sought. The novel sails through a dichotomous construction insisting on the local inequity: the jury is selected quickly, the prosecution is not eager to prosecute, and the judge is a known member of the Ku Klux Klan—out of family tradition. The funeral is mere family (melo) drama: Wydell, a derelict man, goes to his son’s burial by accident. He knew nothing of his death. He had passed out, drunk over a whole weekend, and is taken to the church by hard-working cousins to whose store he had walked to in the hope of borrowing money to pay his rent. By the time Armstrong is laid to rest and injustice carried out, the novel has run one third of its length and will thereafter follow the protagonists, white and black, until the late 1980s.

  • 16 The author commented about his story as compared to historical fact in a postscript titled “The unr (...)

29Nordan’s Wolf Whistle literally turns history on its head without ever trying to pass itself off as a “realistic” novel. In a satire at once funny and terrifying, coherent and discontinuous, tender and brutal, the only historical fact kept intact is the courage and dignity (and danger) of Emmett’s uncle on the stand. Nordan also opts for Emmett’s nickname, Bobo, but, in a deliberate a-historical twist involves a “better citizen” in the murder.16

  • 17 This is a hilarious scene Lewis Nordan himself reads on the internet (see the Other Resources secti (...)

30Bobo is the center of attention around a bar and grocery, where he shows a picture of a white girl he carries in his billfold. Lady Montberclair drives to the store in her white Cadillac and breaks an17 unspoken local taboo by purchasing a box of tampons. Also in the store is Solon Gregg, the dregs of poor white society, who goes around with a. 25 pistol in his pocket. Solon wants to impress the other customers by getting a ride in Miss Sally Anne’s luxury car. But Bobo has been challenged by his friends, “Axe her, you like white stuff so much” (WW, 31) and mumbles to Lady Montbetclair a sentence she does not hear. Much to Solon’s displeasure, Lady Montberclair offers to drive Bobo home on the car’s back seat. Bobo seats himself on the front seat instead, and the “Judas nigger” is converted into an outraged white (trash) Judas when Solon, expecting payment, reports the breach of etiquette to Sally Anne’s husband. Lord Poindexter Montberclair has been drinking when Solon tells him of Bobo’s alleged misconduct and the befuddled rich white man dismisses the information “trash” (WW, 53) has brought him as insignificant.

  • 18 Although this symbolically transposes guilt to the whole United States, it is, of course, a wild le (...)

31The absurdist strain continues. On discovering his wife has an affair with a known homosexual who plays the organ at church, the great man seeks Solon whom he finds in a hotel room on the verge of committing suicide. A contract is proposed to punish Bobo: 1,000 dollars plus a getaway bus ticket. Solon haggles. He obtains a better deal: the money, plus the great man’s red Camino pickup truck as a getaway car, plus his Luger —and the two men start on their punitive expedition in a downpour. Solon speeds madly on slippery byroads, stops on the way at a store where he boasts they are out to kill Bobo. Abduction ensues. The rich man-poor man team soon unravels: Montberclair erupts in anger when he finds out the photo in Bobo’s wallet is that of a movie star (and not of his wife), and Solon forces him out of the car in the rain at gunpoint. Solon who is not any longer in the mood to kill Bobo mentions going on a fishing party together. He talks to the captive who never answers him, then throws his wad of money out the window and his worthless .25 gun next. Bobo jumps out. Solon begins by feeling for him, so far away from home, alone in the rain and the dark, until Bobo shoots him in the face from the ditch. Solon returns fire with Montberclair’s Luger, shooting an eye out of its socket. Solon then gets a gin fan and dumps the body in the floodplain lake by the spillway. The novel takes up an argument the defense used to convince the jury the body’s identity could not be known for certain by making the corpse stay two weeks in water. Both Montberclair and Solon stand trial in a courtroom presided over by a federal judge18 whose last name, Durwood Swinger, belies the coming acquittal: they will not hang. The accused are defended by an appointed lawyer from New Orleans. The defense fund (“a few quarters and dollar bills showed in the jars” [WW, 220]) is very low: people simply do not contribute because Montberclair is wealthy, and the money is donated merely to protest against outside interference. As Bobo’s uncle is about to point an accusing finger at the murderer, an African parrot lands on Solon’s head and relieves itself on his back, “great farting blobs of liquid white bird dooky” (WW, 255). The parrot’s admission in court is another hilarious episode: Alice Conroy’s uncle brings his pet in court to relieve his (returning) estranged wife’s allergies. More must be said about the magical realism at work in Wolf Whistle.

4. Textual strategies—social metaphors

32Wolf Whistle is tightrope-walking literature, complex, exuberant, both burlesque and grievous —but never trivializes the tragedy. It goes back to the past, the Civil War (long-lived red-headed buzzards bearing the names of politicians speak from their perches) and the Southern experience in general. It draws from despair—historical and personal, as the 1995 essay in The Oxford American, “The Making of a Book”, makes clear. It speaks on the role of racism in preserving the structure of white society, the wealthy and the poor, the former needing the latter, pedantic Montberclair says to Solon, “to keep our niggers in line…. It gives you lower classes, you white-trash boys, some raison d’être, wouldn’t you say so?” (WW, 118). In other words, the preposterous association between Dexter (for short in Solon’s mouth) Montberclair and Solon Gregg offers the novel an opportunity to take a fictional route inspired from C. Van Woodward’s The Strange Career of Jim Crow and Lerone Bennett’s 1965 famous Ebony essay, “The White Problem”. Subservient Solon is ready to accept being insulted as long as he hopes for pay, while the drunken rich man has his Luger in hand. When Solon holds the gun, in the car, power changes hands and Montberclair is left on the roadside without Solon giving a thought to regret.

  • 19 Nothing is at it should be in town where a Yankee journalist covering the trial laughingly declares (...)
  • 20 Before she actually calls out to the old man, when the urge to speak becomes overbearing, the text (...)

33Solon is, among other white characters, both laughable and pathetic. The list is long of grotesque protagonists, deconstructed minds struggling with the Arrow Catcher (sometimes called “Scumtown” [WW, 7]) world around them.19 Red, the owner of “Red’s Good-lookin Bar and Gro” who is unable to quote the price of a box of tampons when his customer is a female. Smoky Viner, proud he once butted flat an outdoor privy. Alice Conroy, smitten with her former professor, Dr. Dust, and doing her best to bring modernity to the local school, taking her fourth graders (with due permission from the principal, Mr. Archer) on outings such as a boating trip on the smelly sewage treatment decantation pool, or attending the trial—the whole white class on the balcony where the blacks are, but seated in the front row. Alice, who feels so sorry for Bobo’s uncle, fearful and isolated in a sea of hostile white faces that she suddenly blurts out: “We are here! We colored people are behind you!” (WW, 231).20 Alice, our guide through the looking glass, who sees the martyred body in a rain drop at the same time the murder is taking place.

34Magic realism comes into play at the most unexpected moments. For instance; it helps place the events of the novel within the historical continuum when Alice Conroy projects herself into the future:

She saw children holding hands with grown-ups, black and white, singing “We Shall Overcome” in long lines and in churches. She saw a church bombed in Montgomery [sic], dead children, marchers in Selma, freedom riders in Jackson. She saw bombs flying over the miraculous desert, Baghdad burning, Emmett Till dead, Medgar Evers, dead, Martin King… geographies not yet known to her for, in the extremity of her pain and need, linear time disappeared and became meaningless, blood running alongside lost hope in the streets of many nations. (WW, 17-18)

35Magic realism also appears at moments of extreme tension. Solon’s flow of words in the abduction pickup is only answered by Bobo’s silence. The young man’s voice is only heard after his death. His eye that has been shot out by the bullet sees the aftermath of the murder and describes the murderer’s actions. The eye sees Solon carrying the gin fan, Bobo’s hand brushes over Solon s to help him with the weight while loading the fan into the pickup. His mind plunges into Solon’s intimate thoughts, the white man’s regret it did not occur to him to make Bobo carry this heavy piece of machinery before shooting him. Such a passage is of course a rewriting of the murderers’ confession to William Huie that they stood aside as they made Emmett load the fan into the truck bed and later carry it to the river bank, just to impress him into repentance, so they declared.

  • 21 “‘I’m for the nigger. It ain’t right. Kill a boy for that. I don’t care what color he is.’... For t (...)

36A very significant occurrence of magic realism is the archery episode, significant because it involves the author s past experience as a teenager. In “The Making of a Book”, Nordan speaks of his regrets for keeping quiet at a then current “joke about a nigger trying to swim across Roebuck with a gin fan he had stolen” (Nordan, 1995b, 218) tied around his neck. One of Nordan’s school fellows spoke up against the joke and the author was haunted all those years by the wish that he had been the person protesting the murder.21 This very episode, also in a school gymnasium locker room, resurfaces in the novel. The student who speaks up in opposition is Smoky Viner, the one youth everybody hates:

Somebody said, “We ain’t said it was right, Smoky. We just kidding around.”
Smoky Viner said, “I laughed too, I couldn’t help it.”
Well.
Smoky Viner said, “I hope I live long enough to forgive myself for that laugh.”
(WW, 206)

37Alice’s cousin, Roy Dale, a youth with smelly feet because (due to his hernia) he is shy of being seen naked in the gymnasium shower, becomes the archer in the team and Smoky the arrow catcher. In this very—very—local sport, the archer shoots a blunt rubber-tipped arrow at his partner who has to catch it in mid air to score… As Smoky is hit in the forehead, the murder is magically undone and Bobo’s body, “dressed in heavy garment of fish and turtles and violent death, reverse[s] all its decay” (WW, 208). Smoky collapses, stunned, and the group now see “a boy with courage to speak words that they had not had courage even to think” (WW, 210) while Roy, in a symbolic nonviolent gesture, breaks the one steel-tipped arrow in his quiver (which he used to shoot into his bedroom wall at night) and cries out three times that he is sorry.

38Your Blues Ain’t Like Mine adopts a much less inventive personal strategy. While Wolf Whistle looks at the past the better to concentrate on the present situation, Your Blues Ain’t Like Mine projects itself into the future as it follows the protagonists’ lives from 1955 to the late 1980s. As far as race relations in the 1950s go, the novel insistently tries to state the motives leading Floyd Cox to murder. Floyd is presented in a rather ponderous manner as a macho husband (though a poor lover) who kills out of cowardice, to conform to the ideal that his contemptuous father and brother think he can never attain. And Lily, his sexually unsatisfied wife, persuades herself Floyd did the right thing, by killing to protect her. Not that she is happy with the local racial situation: she would like to make friends with Ida, a young black unwed mother who, like her, dreams of leaving the Delta for a better place to live. Only local habitus keeps the young women apart. Ida knows the gap cannot be bridged in 1955. In the 1980s, when it turns out she is the elder Pinochet’s illegitimate daughter (an easy fictional route), she demands her due, a full half of the family fortune, from her would-be-liberal half brother. Floyd meets his nemesis; black customers boycott his pool hall and his marriage deteriorates as Lily is increasingly estranged from his loveless domineering ways. He at last runs across Willow Scott, a militant half-black half-Cherokee woman who hurls a five-letter word at him, “Trash”. His fate is sealed with a somewhat uninspired reminder of his past misdeed: “The word struck Floyd like a bullet that would remain lodged inside him forever” (BM, 329).

39Another melodramatic ingredient of this rather rambling novel is the relationship between Armstrong’s parents, Delotha and Wydell. The shock of their son’s murder brings the couple together again. Wydell leaves the bottle aside to run a successful business with Delotha. He becomes a family man, the good father of two daughters until a son, W.T.—Armstrong’s look-alike—, is born and Delotha turns into an ultra possessive mother who crosses Wydell’s attempts to discipline their son. She also rejects Wydell as a husband, which (rather unconvincingly) drives him back to his former haunts while W.T. succumbs to the evils of city life.

40Your Blues Ain’t Like Mine has the shadow of the Till tragedy dissolve into romance-like ingredients. Wydell takes W.T. down south in an effort to turn his son’s life around by making him conscious of his family origins in the place where his brother was killed. The cotton fields have given way to catfish farms, but exploitation of the poor goes on in the Delta. Is change on the way? Maybe not because the novel, circle-like, ends where it began: with the blues of the title that cannot be shared—with Lily waking up, “healed” (BM, 9) by the blues that waft to her from the cotton fields—then, forty years later, with W.T. asking his father to sing to him the songs he used to sing at work. But the novel somehow counters the hopelessness the title suggests. The exploited ones now come in two colors, black and white, and Clayton comes up in his Mercedes (Cadillacs are out of style) to join a demonstration against the management of the farm of which he still owns the majority of the stock.

41Of the three fictions we have been reading, Mississippi Trial, 1955 is the closest to the Till case and understandably so, as the novel grew out of a deliberate intention to instruct younger readers. All fictions, whether for mature or young readers, are systems that offer models to emulate or to repudiate. Like any other art form, literature wields some kind of power depending on how persuasive—i.e. believable or seductive—a particular story is. Propaganda does not go well with art but there does not exist any art strictly for art’s sake. Literature for the young aims at socializing readers and the genre’s most frequently used strategy is the Bildungsroman Hiram is a positive hero, warm-hearted, open-minded and intelligent. He is the ail-American pragmatic youth dear to educator John Dewey’s heart: someone who learns by himself, literally makes himself. Indeed, as already stated, Hiram sees with the help of blind Mr. Paul, who knows perfectly well that behaving ideally is impossible in Greenwood, and simply teaches the young man the forbearance that is one of the novel’s characteristics:

“But even if he’s in the wrong place at the wrong time, a good person should not go along. He should leave or stop whatever bad that’s happening.”
“Sure he should. Sure should all of us.” Mr. Paul paused. “Have
you always managed that?”
That gave me something to think about while I walked home. (MT, 221)

42The South Hiram liked before moving to Arizona was a world of sensual coziness, waking up to the smells of coffee and a plentiful breakfast. Hiram is a lifelike protagonist, a man-to-be that is beholden to his grandfather, but who, in fact, learns more from, or takes after, his grandmother. The Hillburns are probably well-to-do, bul not wealthy. Their household is slightly unusual in so far as Hiram’s grandmother does the housework in the absence of black staff. Contrary to her husband, she never brings up the question of the Southern way of life and forbids “talking politics at the supper table” (ΜT, 12). Always considerate, she is the one who sows the seed for Hiram’s good social decision.

43The novel works within the constraints of the genre and the first person narrative Crowe chose. Its persuasiveness arises from two contrary movements: the rigid white supremacist South that persists in metaphors while the young man is evolving in the other direction. Southern unyieldingness is visible in many varied occurrences. In grandfather Hillburn’s refuge, his “wing-back chair” (MT, 10) in which he naps or reads The Greenwood Common-wealth. Such a chair suggests blinkers preventing the eye from looking left or right. There also are the Remington brothers (nice and funny as they are) whose “swirling words” (MT, 210) make Hiram think he is “trapped in quicksand” (MT, 58). There are also the oft-repeated grandfather’s certainties, his consciousness that his problem always was he “wouldn’t give an inch.” (MT, 113) Another highly symbolical passage is the description of the Yazoo River where Hiram goes to meet Naomi Rydell. His childhood sweetheart fails to come that night. He looks down into the stream, kicks a few pebbles into the shadows but does not “hear or see any sign that they had broken the water’s surface” (MT, 152). The river flows unperturbed, like Hiram’s unbending grandfather, like the ways of the South. The oppressive presence of the South comes full circle when, toward the end of the novel, the rigors of the sun and the humidity—a mild physical discomfort first noticed as Hiram’s train reaches the Delta (MT, 46)—turn into a moral discomfort as Ronnie Remington blabbers about Earl’s pickup truck in connection with the murder: “The weight of his words and the weather and everything else from that Mississippi summer [my italics] squeezed all the air out of me. I half staggered back into the house.” (MT, 213)

44Uncovering his grandfather’s dishonesty (his presence on the scene of the murder which he hides from Hiram until the last moment) provides the reader with an intellectual game that comes to light retrospectively. The narrative irony of chapter twelve is a strong moment when Hiram’s grandfather reminisces about his neighbors’ probably talking behind his back, “about how [he] was a poor father, that if [he] had raised Harlan right, he wouldn’t have shamed me.” (MT, 138)

  • 22 See “A Reader’s Guide”, ‘An Interview with the Author’ section: unnumbered page.

45Mississippi Trial, 1955, contrary to Wolf Whistle, which remains (in Nordan’s own words) an “angry book”22, speaks hopefully of the outcome of the Till case through Ruthanne, Emmett’s aunt who keeps the house for Earl Hillburn and becomes for young Hiram a substitute grandmother piling his plate with the food he likes. Ruthanne probably knows more about her employer than she dares to say. A perfect mother and home keeper, she tells Hiram that it “could be old [my italics] Mr. Hillburn’s finally having a change of heart.” (ATT, 217) In that case, she adds, especially if the feeling spreads, Emmett will not have died in vain.

46The above descriptions have outlined the deep differences between the three fictions under study here. A clichéd story that roves from character to character over four decades, Your Blues Ain’t Like Mine is certainly a weaker literary creation. On the contrary both, Mississippi Trial, 1955 and Wolf Whistle create original fictional paths closer to the tragedy—psychologically for the latter, historically for the former.

47Perhaps what these novels tell us about the past and the future is best measured in terms of the human distress the protagonists feel, i.e. their self-questioning, what they failed to do that they could have done to prevent violence. In Your Blues Ain’t Like Mine, there is no distress among whites. Lily finds Floyd has grown taller and is proud (a short-lived sentiment and illusion) he has killed to protect her. Among blacks, Ida regrets she did not approach Odessa after speaking to Lily in the train station, so Armstrong could be sent out of harm’s way. She has another regret, to a certain extent selfish, that the tragedy has made her lose her friendly talks with Lily. On the contrary, the white protagonists in Wolf Whistle are concerned. Young Alice wonders whether she could have done more after seeing Bobo’s dead body in the raindrop, and Lady Montberclair confides to her that the events are “painful to remember” (WW, 288). The two women, wealthy and poor, are browsing different aisles in a junk store, a jumble of misplaced items, and later happen upon a crystal ball together. Magic again, which brings the faintest gleam of hope as the book closes:

Nobody knows for sure what happened next, but maybe, behind Alice and Sally Anne, the crystal ball in Swami Don’s Elegant Junk shone with a bright blue light of empty interiors and of faraway and friendly stars and all their hopeful planets and golden moons. (WW, 290)

48This episode balances Bobo’s magic visions on sinking in the watery depth, of Alice “seeing his own dead body in a raindrop; of the past, “a trace of slave death from a century before”; of the future, “an image of things to come… a mojo waving good-bye, one tiny black finger at a time, good-bye, dear Bobo, we’lI never forget you, you’ll live forever in our hearts.” (WW, 181) Deep concern is also in Mississippi Trial, 1955 as Hiram insistently blames himself for not doing more than alerting the sheriff, for not driving to Mose Wright’s cabin—though he saves face by telling himself he did not know the way.

  • 23 Clinton Melton was killed by Elmer Kimbell. a friend of Milam’s who had borrowed Milam’s truck on t (...)

49Mississippi Trial, 1955 is the most optimistic of the three books, not simply because Ruthanne expresses the hope Emmett has not died in vain. The whole novel is a metaphor of, or a call for, social change. Again, the three books’ implied discourses on the future are different. Your Blues Ain’t Like Mine acknowledges the rise of a black (modest) middle class, but the title and the text suggest impassable barriers between husband and wife, between blacks and whites. Wolf Whistle allows Nordan, a novelist born and raised a few miles from Greenwood, to confront his past. But the misplaced objects in Swami Don’s pretentiously named store, like the not-to-be-opened box with flying carpets in it, suggest magic is only valid in literature. The irony behind Wolf Whistle is that Nordan phoned his courageous school mate, fictional Smoky, whose name he will not disclose. Today’s adult does not recall anything of the youth’s courageous stand Nordan admired so much (“No, Buddy. I’m sorry. I really don’t.” [1995b, 81]) What is memory—history? What is fiction? It takes a Westerner, Crowe, to express hope based on a black character s perception of a white supremacist’s change of heart. History supports this hope if only in that Ruthanne’s views are confirmed by such a real-life change of heart. In his 1956 Segregation: The Inner Conflict in the South, an essay almost punctuated with references to the Till and Melton cases, Robert Penn Warren revisited his views on race.23

50Concerned artists have endeavored to keep the case alive in America’s racial consciousness. So have historians. So have civil rights advocates, desirous to right a wrong through the courts of justice. The latest news was recently released through Associated Press: the manslaughter charges brought by the Leflore County Attorney General against Carolyn Bryant, for pointing Emmett Till to her husband as the youth to punish for breaking the local racial etiquette, were dismissed by a Grand Jury on the ground of insufficient evidence. The Mississippi Grand Jury made its opinion known on Feb. 20, 2007. The year before, Federal authorities had decided not to prosecute anyone because the statute of limitations for federal charges had run out. It is likely no one will ever be convicted in this case, unless the “other men” theory is proven true and names, or just one name as in Crowe’s novel, come out.

Bibliographie

Works Cited

Brown, Frank London. 1959. “In the Shadow of a Dying Soldier”. Southwest Review, Vol. XLIV, No. 4, 292-306.

Campbell, Bebe Moore. 1992. Your Blues Ain’t Like Mine. New York, N.Y.: Ballantine.

Crowe, Chris. 2002. Mississippi Trial, 1955. New York, N.Y.: Penguin (Speak).

———. 2003. Getting Away with Murder: The True Story of the Emmett Till Case. New York, N.Y.: Dial Books for Young Readers.

Huie, William Bradford. Jan. 24, 1956. “The Shocking Story of Approved Killing in Mississippi.” Look. Accessible at:
www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/till/sfeatures/sflookconfession.html
. [Accessed 07/20/06]

Metress, Christopher, ed. 2002. The Lynching of Emmett Till: A Documentary Narrative. Charlottesville, Va.: University of Virginia Press. Excerpts accessible at:
www.archipelago.org/vol6-1/hicks.htm
. [James L. Hicks’s writings used with permission of the Cleveland Call and Post. (Oct. 8, 1955) Accessed 07/28/2006]

Nordan, Lewis. 1995a [1993], Wolf Whistle. Chapel Hill, N.C.: Algonquin Books.

———. 1995b. “The Making of a Book”. In The Oxford American, No. 6.

Warren Robert Penn. 1994 [1956]. Segregation: The Inner Conflict in the South. William Bedford Clark ed., Athens, Ga.: University of Georgia Press.

Whittaker, Hugh Stephen. 1963. “A Case Study in Southern Justice: The Emmett Till Case.” [Master’s Thesis, Florida State University. PDF version accessible at:
www.etd.lib.fsu/theses/available/etd-05272004-140932
.
[Accessed 07/21/06]

Whitfield, Stephen J. 1988. A Death in the Delta. The Story of Emmett Till. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins U.P.

Other Resources

Beauchamp, Keith. 2005. “The Untold Story of Emmett Till.” (Film)

Campbell, Bebe Moore (on):
http://voices.cla.uinn.edu/vg/Bios/entries/campbellbebemore.html

Crowe, Chris (on): www,chriscrowe.com/books/abouttrial.html

Dylan, Bob. 1963. “The Death of Emmett Till”. Lyrics:
www.bobdvlan.com/songs/emmetttill.html
. Sound track:
www.geocities.com/richardrouver/et.html
. [Accessed 07/17/06]

Hicks, James L. 1955. See Metress, 2002, above.

Huie, William Bradford. 1959. Wolf Whistle and Other Stories. New York, N.Y.: Signet.

Nordan, Lewis: (reading by, from Wolf Whistle, pp. 28-32):
www.algonquin.com/nordan/realaudio.html

[Accessed: 07/25/06]

——.(on):www.olemiss.edu/depts/english/mswriters/dir/nordan_lewis.
[Accessed: 08/01/06]

Reopening of the case (on the):
www.npr.org/templates/story/story.Dhp?storyld=196702&place=home02.
Timeline:
www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/till/timeline/timeline2.html

Notes

1 “In the Shadow of a Dying Soldier” is an account of Brown’s trip to Sumner, MS., to attend the trial. It focuses on black courage and the local dangers besieging an outsider “unfamiliar with the formula for staying alive in Emmett Till’s dying place” (293), and concludes on a flight to safety organized by local blacks.

2 The references are to the following editions: Bebe Moore Campbell, Your Blues Ain’t Like Mine, New York, N.Y.: Ballantine. 1992; Lewis Nordan, Wolf Whistle, Chapel Hill. N.C.: Algonquin Books, 1995; and Chris Crowe, Mississippi Trial, 1955, New York, N.Y.: Penguin (Speak), 2002. Hereafter respectively abreviated as BM, WW, and MT, followed by the page number.

3 Emmett was born in 1941. His parents separated in 1942. His father died in combat in Italy. (A possible smearing campaign pointed out in The Memphis Commercial Appeal for Oct. 15, 1955, that Louis Till had been executed for raping two Italian women and killing a third. See the Other Resources section: “Time Line”). Emmett’s mother worked as a civilian procurement officer for the Air Force. Her salary was adequate and their living conditions in Argo. III., then in a six-room South Side apartment were good. Emmett suffered from a slight speech impediment due to his having been a polio victim that sometimes caused him to stutter. He was a regular American boy, smart, witty and popular among his school friends, who played basketball in Washington Park and was a fan of the White Sox (Crowe, 2003, 38-40).

4 Crowe (2003, 50) adds the following detail, but not in his fiction: Emmett and his cousins sneaked out of church in the middle of his uncle Mose Wright s sermon. Enough to conclude they should not have been in Money at the time of the wolf-whistle.

5 Accounts vary. In the article Huie (1956, 7) wrote after interviewing Bryant and Milam, it is Crosby Smith, Elizabeth Wright’s brother, who reports Emmett’s abduction—not Curtis, as in Crowe (2003, 62).

6 Apparently hard-pressed for money when their businesses quickly failed due to a black boycott, the two half-brothers agreed to be interviewed for $3,500 (Whittaker, 102). The interview appeared in the January 24, 1956, issue of Look under this title: “The Shocking Story of Approved Killing in Mississippi”. The fifth amendment made them secure from a retrial and the two men admitted to the killing, stating why and how they carried it out.

7 This was returned by the Army after Louis Till’s death abroad.

8 Jet is a popular African-American weekly newsmagazine launched in 1951 as a complement to Ebony. In 1997, Jet had over one million subscribers in over forty countries, many of them in Africa. (See “Encarta Africana 2000” CD set, entry for “Jet”).
It may be that Mamie Till Bradley’s feistiness, her insistence that her son be not buried in Greenwood, created the case. Had Emmett been a Mississippi farm boy rather than a vacationing Chicago youth, his death might have gone unnoticed. Indeed, many lynchings or murders that took place in post-World War II Deep South have not been fully accounted for (Whitfield, 1988, 102).

9 Smith spoke up in court against the murder: “I was born and bred in the South, and the very worst punishment that should have occurred was to take a razor strap, turn him over a barrel and whip him” (Whitfield. 1988, 41).

10 See Metress, 2002, 174-175. Also www.archipelago.org, 2-3, 5-7.

11 The case was reopened in May 2004 when the Justice Department ordered a full investigation. It was revealed one year later that portions of the court transcripts were missing. Emmett’s remains were exhumed. A bullet was found in his skull and DNA testing left no doubt as to whose corpse that was. The Emmett Till Bill was passed by the Senate, creating a new unit within the Justice Department to probe old civil rights cases. As of this writing, closure of the case is pendant and findings may lead to indictments and prosecution—but not of the direct perpetrators. Milam died in 1980 and Bryant in 1994. both from cancer, and in their beds, in Mississippi. From cancer. (See the Other Resources section: Timeline, p. 4).

12 Mose Wright, the first black man to point an accusing finger at a white man in court, was smuggled out of the state directly after the verdict. So was Willie Reed who, incidentally, suffered a nervous breakdown in Chicago. (See the Other Resources section: Timeline, p. 3).

13 One of them is available online from the writer’s own site. (See the Other Resources section).

14 The White Citizen’s Councils were known as “uptown Ku Klux Klans”.

15 Everyone acknowledged this and the local press insisted this proved Mississippi could take care of its own affairs (Mettress, 2002.60, 115; Whitfield, 1988, 47).

16 The author commented about his story as compared to historical fact in a postscript titled “The unreality of fiction”: “The novel I wrote, Wolf Whistle, is pure invention The big blank spots in my memory were something of a blessing.... With no memory of the identity of the persons actually involved, I was free to set the novel in my already invented fictional geography and population of Arrow Catcher, Mississippi.” (The pages of this section are unnumbered).

17 This is a hilarious scene Lewis Nordan himself reads on the internet (see the Other Resources section), in which “modern” Lady Sally Anne Montberclair puts the store owner in an impossible situation.

18 Although this symbolically transposes guilt to the whole United States, it is, of course, a wild legal impossibility.

19 Nothing is at it should be in town where a Yankee journalist covering the trial laughingly declares that “Faulkner was just a reporter.” As another newsman remarks that the statue of the Confederate soldier is facing south, still another quips: “He’s planning his retreat” (WW, 212).

20 Before she actually calls out to the old man, when the urge to speak becomes overbearing, the text comments, tongue-in-cheek: “Of course Alice was white herself, and not colored—nothing’s simple” (WW, 227).

21 “‘I’m for the nigger. It ain’t right. Kill a boy for that. I don’t care what color he is.’... For thirty-eight years I have wished I had been the boy who spoke those courageous words” (Nordan, 1995b, 76).

22 See “A Reader’s Guide”, ‘An Interview with the Author’ section: unnumbered page.

23 Clinton Melton was killed by Elmer Kimbell. a friend of Milam’s who had borrowed Milam’s truck on the day of the murder. Kimbell’s acquittal provoked protest in the local press in the name of a “fifth column of decency” (Warren, 1994, 53).

Auteur

Professeur émérite à l’Université François-Rabelais de Tours, docteur d’État (« L’Enfance et l’adolescence chez les romanciers afro-américains, 1853-1969 », Université de Paris VIII, 1981), Claude Julien a enseigné les études américaines et afro-américaines aux universités du Mans et de Tours ainsi qu’aux États-Unis. Il a édité ou coédité des recueils d’essais sur Jean Toomer (Ellipses, 1997), John Edgar Wideman (Callaloo) et le polar noir (CRAFT 2). Sa contribution la plus récente (CRAFT 4), « Reading Percival Everett : European Perspectives » est consacrée à l’œuvre de cet écrivain. Il est membre du bureau du Collegium for African American Research.
Professor Emeritus at the University François Rabelais in Tours, he wrote a doctoral dissertation entitled “L’Enfance et l’adolescence chez les romanciers afro-américains, 1853-1969,” which he defended at the University of Paris VIII in 1981. He has taught American as well as African-American Studies at the Universities of Le Mans and Tours, as well as at several American Universities as an exchange professor. He has edited or co-edited collections of essays on Jean Toomer (Ellipses, 1997), John Edgar Wideman (Callaloo), African-American detective fiction (CRAFT 2), and, more recently, on the works of Percival Everett (CRAFT 4). He is a member of the Collegium for African-American Research committee.

© Presses universitaires François-Rabelais, 2007

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