A Wreath for Emmett Till
Last summer a teacher friend and I went to the International Civil Rights Museum in Greensboro. We left feeling that we had learned a lot, and that we had a long way to go to achieve the world that the civil rights leaders of the 50’s and 60’s had envisioned. We were warned before going into one of the rooms that there would be brutal images of lynchings. The images were difficult to look at, and perhaps the most heartbreaking was one of Emmett Till, a fourteen year old boy who was accused of whistling at a white woman, was kidnapped out of uncle’s house, beaten, shot, and thrown in the river. After his body was found, his mother insisted that he have an open casket, so that everyone would see what had been done to him.
Marilyn Nelson has used a series of sonnets, called a heroic crown, to mourn Emmet Till. In many ways it is a inspired choice – the strictness of the form allows the reader to at first stand back from the horror it portrays, and then feel a part of it. This is not something that many of my 8thgrade students could pick up and really understand, but for those who can, they have been given a masterpiece. If I taught high school, this would be required reading in both English and History classes.