14-year-old Emmet Till was lynched in 1955 down in Mississippi. His funeral – open-casket at the demand of his mother, Mammie Till Bradley, and attended by thousands – was held at Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ, just a couple of miles from where I sit on Chicago’s South Side.
Conceptionally I understand the likelihood that at some point I’ve crossed paths with someone who remembers that funeral, someone for whom Till’s name means more than a history lesson about America’s obsession with policing young black men’s bodies. It’s been a mere 63 years. I’ve been inside the church. But still, it seems a very long time ago.
Or it did. On Saturday my friend Mr. Young, a lifetime resident of the neighborhood, remarked almost casually that he’d been at Emmet Till’s funeral. He was eleven and his grandmother insisted on bringing him, wanting to instill a deadly important lesson about white people’s capacity for violence. It’s a lesson, he confessed, to which he never paid much attention. But he was there. He processed passed the casket of a child just a few years his elder, beaten beyond recognition. He saw people much older fall out in that church, the grief too heavy a load, at least for the moment.
I’m not sure what to take from this. I read enough history to know that historians lament the average American’s disinterest in the past. Maybe that’s true. But Mr. Young’s testimony is about more than remembering what shouldn’t be forgotten; I think it’s about how close these things are, about how incredibly quickly we relegate flesh and blood to memory’s sterile shelf.
In 1965 James Baldwin wrote an essay, “The American Dream and the American Negro”, in which he explored the country’s fraught relationship to its history. “The American soil is full of the corpses of my ancestors, through 400 years and at least three wars. Why is my freedom, my citizenship, in question now? What one begs the American people to do, for all our sakes, is simply to accept our history.” Maybe that’s what I felt listening to Mr. Young’s firsthand account of the Till funeral. We’re so accustomed to historical obfuscation that when someone says something plainly – I was there – it’s a revelation.
Baldwin goes on: “When I was brought up I was taught in American history books that Africa had no history and that neither had I. I was a savage about whom the least said the better, who had been saved by Europe and who had been brought to America. Of course, I believed it. I didn’t have much choice. These were the only books there were. Everyone else seemed to agree.” Baldwin’s reflection on his own childhood in Harlem is one he applies more broadly to each of this nation’s citizens, that what passes for our history is actually a collection of history-obscuring myths. The fog of memory leaves poor white people consoled that “at least they are not black” and young black people, as Baldwin remembers himself, thinking that you “belonged where white people put you.”
I wonder whether we leave these malicious myths unchecked because they seem so distant, built deeply into the foundation upon which too many of our assumptions are built. But Mr. Young remembers walking into Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ in the fall of 1955 to memorize his contemporary. And, to take another example in my community, Michelle Duster, Ida B. Wells’ great-granddaughter, is raising money for a statue to commemorate the woman who is the singular figure in the anti-lynching campaign. The threads are everywhere, ready to traced backward to people and events whose influence remains brilliantly latent, available to dissipate myth and fog. Our historical amnesia might be intentional but it isn’t inevitable.