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Emmett Till in Literary Memory and Imagination

By: Harriet Pollack
Reviewed by: Nabella Shunnarah
Louisiana State University Press, 2008
$22.50, Paperback

In this book of literary criticism, the editors present a rich compilation of writers who attempt to give insight into the minds and hearts of the people surrounding the murder of and trial for Emmett Till. Citing literary figures such as William Bradford Huie, James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Lewis Nordan, this book is an important work to any student of the civil rights movement in the South. From Gwendolyn Brooks’ poetic depiction of the lamentations of Till’s mother to the use of blues music as a metaphor in Bebe Campbell’s Your Blues Ain’t Like Mine, this book is a study of the “interracial consciousness” of the times.

Like Muhammad Ali who reacts to the killing by derailing a train, each author ponders the trauma, the psychological chaos that the killing induced, not only in the South, but in the whole nation. The incident reverberates in the memories of all those who lived at the time and writers of all races echoed those sentiments. Perhaps one of the most compelling entries in this book is the critical essay “Silence and the Frustration of Broken Promises” by Kathaleen Amende about writer Anne Moody who states in her autobiography Coming of Age in Mississippi, “But now there was a new fear known to me—the fear of being killed just because I was black.” Moody’s frustration, says Amende, stemmed not only from the lack of action and justice toward rights for African Americans but the idea that nonviolence can accomplish their goals. And so Moody turns to art, her writing, and allows her voice to be heard.

Yet, as Metress states in his essay “On the Third Day He Rose,” Till became the Black Christ, the one to sacrifice his life so that people can see the errors of their ways and aspire to a greater good. Three months after the murder, the bus boycott in Montgomery began, leading the way to the end of segregation in the South. Metress makes a powerful statement about the Christian metaphors surrounding Till’s death: “…a sacramental memory takes the deep wounds and unsettling traumas of our fallen world and discovers in them the presence of things unseen, the presence of meaning, purpose and—above all else, hope.”

With this book, Pollack and Metress, professors at Bucknell University and Samford University respectively, have made a significant, compelling contribution to the study of race relations in literature.

Nabella Shunnarah is a freelance writer and teacher living in Birmingham.

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