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Emmett Till
James Emanuel
I hear a whistling
Through the water.
Little Emmett
Won't be still.
He keeps floating
Round the darkness,
Edging through
The silent chill.
Tell me, please,
That bedtime story
Of the fairy
River Boy
Who swims forever,
Deep in treasures,
Necklaced in
A coral toy.

James Emanuel was born in Nebraska in 1921. He served in the army during World War II, and after his discharge he attended Howard University, eventually earning a doctorate at Columbia. He was teaching in Europe when his only son committed suicide after a brutal police beating. After that, Emanuel vowed never to return to the United States. He died in Paris in 2013.
The poem Lisa read is an elegy for Emmett Till, a fourteen-year-old Black boy from Chicago who was brutally lynched in Mississippi in 1955 after being accused of whistling at a white woman in a store. He was beaten, mutilated, and shot, and his body thrown into the Tallahatchie River. Till’s mother insisted on an open casket at his funeral, so that the world could see what had been done to her son. Till’s murderers were found not guilty, though they admitted to the crime a year after their acquittal. Emmett Till’s death became a turning-point in the Civil Right Movement.
James Emanuel knew he wanted to write a poem about Emmett Till, but he struggled for a long time, because, as he said, “the subject was such a terrible thing.” In fact, he worked on the poem for seven years, before it finally came together in less than twenty minutes.
Emanuel drew on his wide reading in building the rich imagery of this poem. He remembered “The Prioress’s Tale” from Chaucer, a story in which a boy is murdered and thrown into a cesspit, and yet continues to sing. He certainly remembered Shakespeare’s “Full Fathom Five,” one of the songs in The Tempest, in which a drowned man is imagined as transformed—“those are pearls that were his eyes; / Of his bones are coral made.” And he remembered, too, something Yeats had said—“in time, people will not react to violence; but, if you turn your subject into a legend, then they will remember.”
In his poem, Emanuel does just that—he remembers Emmett Till with the language of poetry and myth. Here Emmett—like the murdered boy in Chaucer—will not lie still. Instead of singing, those passing by the water where his body was thrown hear the sound of whistling, the echo of that alleged whistle which was the pretext for Till’s lynching. Emanuel evokes the fear and horror of the place: “He keeps floating / Round the darkness, / Edging through / The silent chill.”
The end of the poem, with its use of childlike diction, is perhaps even more chilling. Emanuel imagines a child asking for “That bedtime story / Of the fairy / River Boy.” Nothing could be less like a bedtime story, nothing could be less childlike—but then we remember that Till himself was a child, just fourteen years old. Emanuel turns Emmett Till into a legend, because he knows, as Yeats did, that people who have learned to ignore violence will pay attention to legend.
It was not until fifty years after Emmett Till’s death, in 2005, that markers were placed in Money, Mississippi, to honor Emmett and acknowledge what happened to him. These markers have been repeatedly vandalized, sprayed with bullets, knocked over, and even thrown into the Tallahatchie River where Emmett’s body was thrown. Just last September, another sign was knocked down. Some in America would like to forget Emmett Till, but, as Emanuel writes in this poem, “Little Emmett / Won’t lie still.”
When asked why poetry is important, James Emanuel said: “A person reading a new poem expects to encounter unusual combinations of familiar words; thus he has agreed to accept changes, however small—and hence however vast—in his being….  we might claim that reading or writing poetry could lead to revolutionary thought. Dictators keep their eyes on libraries, and in our truly thoughtful moments we know why.”
As we conclude this reflection, here’s James Emanuel himself reading “Emmett Till.”



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