This is National Poetry Month, a time when – like Black History Month and Earth Day – corporate culture blinks for a moment at realities it generally ignores. Still, a glimpse can reveal plenty. This month, in one of the main windows of the downtown public library in my town of Baltimore, the poem on display is "If Mamie Till Was the Mother of God" by Joseph Ross, which won the local Pratt Library system's 2012 poetry prize. The poem has to do with the 1955 torture and murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till in Mississippi for whistling at a white woman. If you're sketchy on the details, here is Ross's explanation of how Emmett's mother, Mamie, electrified the world by displaying her son in an open casket:
Mamie Till’s decision to bury her son in a casket with a glass top was a momentous one. In her words, she wanted the world “to see what they did to my boy.” In 1955, Mamie Till sent her son Emmett to live with relatives in Mississippi for the summer. One night, he was dragged from his uncle’s house, beaten to death and dumped in the Tallahatchie River, with a cotton gin fan tied around his neck with barbed wire. His body was found downriver some days later. The image of her son’s beaten and distorted body were broadcast around the world. In the view of some, this murder was seen as the beginning of the civil rights movement.
Emmett Till, as I've mentioned, was not only brutally beaten but tortured, including having one of his eyes gouged out. As it happens, a few years ago I met and interviewed Emmett Till's cousin, who was in the same bedroom with Till the night that white men burst into the house and took him away to murder him. I will never, ever forget it.
Here is a photo of how you'd see Joseph Ross's poem if you walked past the Baltimore downtown library this month:
Photo: Robert Waxman
At a time when today's American brown shirts want for government's sole job to be the killing of infidels and the punishing of scapegoats, it's good to see a public library acting like a public library. My thanks to my friend Rachel for pointing this out.