By Cossette Hampton
Though a popular name now, Emmett Till was just a young Black boy from the South Side representative of many others. Baby Till was born July 25, 1941 in Chicago, Illinois in the United States. His father, Louis Till, was a private in the United States Army during World War II like many other Black men at the time. Emmett was only 4 years old when his family received word that Louis Till had been executed for “willful misconduct” while serving in Italy. Thus, young Till was raised by a single mother who worked long-days to keep food on the table and the lights on, so like other Black children he was forced by the poverty white society imposes on us to reach so-called adulthood at an early age.
Till was only 14 years old when he was beaten to death in Mississippi by two white men, 24 and 36 years old, for whistling at and flirting with the wife (Carolyn Bryant) of one of the white men (Roy Bryant) involved in the killing. Apparently Till was visiting his cousins in Mississippi and bragging to a few friends about being able to “handle” white girls. His friends then taunted him to go into the store nearby and get a date with the “pretty little white woman” in the store. Till took this dare seriously and proceeded to enter the store and get the 21-year old white woman, Carolyn Bryant, to go out on a date with him. Reports of the events say that upon feeling uncomfortable and intimidated by Till, Carolyn proceeded to her car out in the front to retrieve her pistol. At this point, Till was ushered off by his cousins and “wolf-whistled” at her on the way out; the day was seemingly over.
Roy Bryant had been on a business trip during the interaction between Till and his wife, however when he returned four days later, he was apparently outraged. Bryant collected his brother-in-law, J.W. Milam, who was a slave plantation overseer to teach Till a lesson. Reports say Milam “can handle Negroes better than anybody in the country.” At 2:20 a.m. on August 28, 1955 Roy and J.W. kidnapped Till and took him to Tallahatchie River where they ordered him to take off his clothes and proceded to beat him nearly to death, gouge out his eye, and shot him in the head. They threw his mutilated body tied to a cotton-gin fan with barbed wire into the river.
On September 23, 1955 an all-white jury deliberated for less than an hour before issuing a verdict of “not guilty.” Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam only admitted to the crime a few months later when they told the whole story to Look Magazine for $4,000 under the protection of double jeopardy laws. The two racist murderers died old, free men.
The sad story of the death of Emmett Till is familiar to most, but the societal implications are rarely openly disputed in relation to this case. Put simply, a young Black boy who these white people saw as a muscular, aggressive Black man had intimidated a white woman 7 years older than him. According to the account of the Bryant’s, both of them felt that he was worthy of death, be it by the gun Carolyn Bryant was on her way to retrieve or by the gun that ended his suffering near the Tallahatchie River. In both cases, the young Black boy is adultified and hyper-sexualized, and forced to prove his manhood through the attainment of a white woman’s attention.
Though slavery was “abolished” in the United States in December 1865, the fact that one of Emmett Till’s killers was a plantation overseer plays a role in explaining the persistence of de facto slavery in the U.S. in 1955 and even today. This simultaneously illuminated the position of the black man in a supposedly post-slavocratic society, where flirting, much less rape by Black men was seen as the total debasement of white femininity. White femininity, or liberal femininity is structured around the sexual innocence and purity of all-that-is-white womanhood. It is for this same reason that white women have the leisure to worry about, and feel comfortable using feminism to naturalize the body hair, odor and natural appearance of white women while damning the same for Black women. In a slave society, because Black women have no bodily autonomy due to white ownership, the attainment of sex from Black women cannot be seen as pure or desirable because it is easily accessible by even the dirtiest, poorest white man. Pumla Gqola cites David B. Davis in her book, Rape, saying that, “… the relationship between a slave and a free person, especially a master could never reach the ideal level of the first model I described (sex as the closest possible moment of love), since the slave, as chattel property, could never achieve even temporary equality.” (41)
If we as Black people view the world we live in as a white racist capitalist imperialist patriarchal heteronormative supremacist inherently anti-Black world, then it is necessary to continue to regard ourselves as slaves in the obvious and subconscious eyes of white people. In other words, until we address the structure of the world we live in, any relationship with white people will only seek to dehumanize us as Black people, whether we would like to admit it or not.
Emmett Till was victim to a society that was comfortable lynching Black people… BLACK CHILDREN, for the protection of the White man’s child: his wife. Till was also victim to a society that taught him to value his manhood according to his knowledge of how to “handle” white women in the same way that a white man’s manhood, like J.W. Milam’s, is hinged on his ability to “handle” Negro slaves. White men lift up white women as the ideal model of the feminine human to be admired, yet protected from the animalistic hypersexual Black man. Nevertheless, White men fuck their White wives and rape the wives of slaves in the blatant view of Black men with the goal of mutating their concept of healthy sexuality. The Black man comes to hate the white man and desires to fuck his wife not only to get back at him, but also to prove and reclaim his manhood. Afterwards, he goes to his slave hut pushes the Black woman’s face into the dirt and rapes her because she is nothing. In both situations, the Black man still through these endeavors does not have access to patriarchy, because his paternalistic aspirations never materialize. His whole life is thus spent merely mimicking White men. For this reason, we must protect young Black boys like Emmett Till from the damage that comes from idolizing and putting White women on a pedestal. In the same way, we must instill in our daughters a propensity to have pride in and protect Womanism as Black women from so-called feminist values that allow white women to debase and demoralize us while making us forget about how her husband rapes the Black world. We must also educate our sons and daughters to bring them to an understanding that no relationship with a white woman (or between a Black woman and a white man, for that matter) in our current society can be deemed healthy. Because we live in a slave society, even the cute, soft-haired fetishized offspring of a mixed-race couple will be born a slave. The aspiration to be a man, or to be white won’t be realized or fixed by fucking (or loving) white women; efforts to achieve equity in this manner will only lead to more lynchings of our people.
May Emmett Till and all of our other Black ancestors who were victimized by the White man’s vow to protect White women Rest in Peace.
Cossette Hampton is an organiser for BYP100 in Chicago, United States and an intern for the Black First Land First movement in South Africa.