ET and Emmett Till. Alienation and alienation. These themes will be central to Pope.L’s performance in March. Ever since our presentation on Wednesday, I’ve been thinking about the ability of images to connect us with a historic moment. Few pictures are more potent than the horrifying image of Emmett’s brutalized face. The now famous photograph galvanized an entire nation to act in outrage at the atrocities of first Emmett’s death and then his murderer’s acquittal. Time magazine recently ran an article showing a series of images depicting the civil rights movement, culminating in the election of Barack Obama. The first image of this series was a smiling picture of a Emmett Till. The narrative of images spanning Till’s own story—from innocence to transformed mutilation and death—carry enormous symbolic weight. They remind us both of the successes of the civil rights movement, as well as the sordid history from which our country is still recovering.
Our project with Pope.L has led me to confront these images almost daily this past week. I have been looking at them much more often than I find comfortable or easy. With each encounter, I feel that my relationship to the pictures, and to the boy, changes a little bit. When I first looked at the images of his beaten face, I would feel a sharp reaction in my stomach. I saw only the collapsed bones and swollen features. Revisiting the pictures, my reaction changes. While they are still uncomfortable to view, I have begun to see Emmett much more often in them. I wonder what the moments before his kidnapping, and during his torture must have been like. These, too, are disturbing thoughts, yet I believe they reveal Emmett’s humanity in ways that the iconic pictures of his body cannot. Emmett lived and breathed, and in his humanity he was both more and less than the boy that is preserved in these images.
Here are two images of the Bryant corner store. On this location, Emmett interacted with Caroline Bryant. By some accounts he whistled at her, by some he grabbed her waist and asked her to go with him on a date. This incident prompted Roy Bryant and J. W. Milam to take, beat, and kill Emmett. The first image was taken in the year of the murder. The second is from the present day.
And finally, one small sign of Till’s enduring legacy—Emmett Till Memorial Highway.