John Edgar Wideman: Making Sense of American Darkness
Searching for Truth, Justice, and the Louis Till File
One of my grandfathers, John French, my mother’s father, taller, skin a shade lighter than many of the Italian immigrants he worked beside plastering and hanging wallpaper, used to ride me on his shoulders through the streets of our colored community Homewood in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I loved to sit up there. Safe. King of the world. Entranced by my grandfather’s tales about the neighborhood, by his long silences, his humming, his rhymes and songs. His broad shoulders a sanctuary I would count on, even when my father disappeared periodically from various homes shared with my mother and me.
I have never forgotten how peaceful the world looked from up there. How one day while I rode on my grandfather’s shoulders, my hands, knees, careful not to tip his wide-brimmed, brown hat, we passed Clement, a smallish man who swept out Henderson’s Barbershop. But back then, at this precise moment in the Homewood streets, I knew nothing about Clement, except I could see he limped, dragging along one worrisome foot in an oversize boot, and see he had a big face ugly enough to seem scary, even from my perch, a face with distorted features I did know would loom in my nightmares for years afterward.
John French called out the name Clement and the man returned the greeting with a slowly forming but finally huge grin, openmouthed, few teeth, a lingering gaze that fixed upon us, then inside us, then wandered far, far past us. A look telling me that everything familiar to me could instantly be unsettled and dissolve.
In 1955, about nine years after that encounter on the Homewood streets, I was 14 years old, and a photo of dead Emmett Till’s mutilated face entered my life with the same sudden, indelible truth as Clement.
Just in case you don’t recall, I’ll remind you that in 1955, Emmett Till, also age 14, boarded a train in Chicago to visit family in Mississippi. A few weeks later a train brought his dead body back to Chicago. Emmett Louis Till had been murdered because he was a colored boy and had allegedly wolf-whistled a white lady.
Over half a century later, I’m still dealing with the faces of Clement and Till. To provide background for a fiction I intended to write about Emmett Till, I saved excerpts from newspaper coverage of the trial of Till’s murderers.
Over sixty newspapers on hand in 1955 for the Sumner, Mississippi, trial. Thirty photographers popping flashbulbs, seventy reporters pecking away at truth on their typewriters. I was a bit surprised by how much national and international attention the trial had attracted. Not surprised to learn public interest had rapidly evaporated. Today Emmett Till is generally viewed as a civil rights martyr, but the shabby trial that exonerated his killers, and the crucial role played by Till’s father in the trial have largely disappeared from the public’s imagination. Silenced, the Till trial serves as an unacknowledged, abiding precedent. Again and again in courtrooms across America, killers are released as if colored lives they have snatched away do not matter.
As I read more about the trial, I discovered that the jury had deliberated less than an hour—sorry it took so long, folks . . . we stopped for a little lunch—before it delivered a not guilty verdict. For an American government waging a propaganda war to convince the world of Democracy’s moral superiority over Communism, intense criticism of the verdict abroad and at home was an unacceptable embarrassment. Federal officials pressured the state of Mississippi to convict Milam and Bryant of some crime. Since abundant sworn testimony recorded in the Sumner trial had established the fact that Milam and Bryant had forcibly abducted Emmett Till, the new charge would be kidnapping. Justice Department lawyers were confident both men would be found guilty.
Except, two weeks before a Mississippi grand jury was scheduled to convene and decide whether or not Milam and Bryant should be tried for kidnapping, Emmett Till’s father, Louis Till, was conjured like an evil black rabbit from an evil white hat. Information from Louis Till’s confidential army service file was leaked to the press: Emmett Till’s father, Mamie Till’s husband, Louis Till, was not the brave soldier portrayed in Northern newspapers during the Sumner trial who had sacrificed his life in defense of his country. Private Louis Till’s file revealed he had been hanged July 2, 1945, by the U.S. army for committing rape and murder in Italy.
With this fact about Emmett Till’s father in hand, the Mississippi grand jury declined to indict Milam and Bryant for kidnapping. Mrs. Mamie Till, her lawyers, advisers and supporters watched in dismay as news of her husband’s execution erased the possibility that killers of her 14-year-old son Emmett would be punished for any crime, whatsoever.
Revisiting trial testimony did not help me produce the Emmett Till fiction I wanted to write, but I did learn that his father’s ring was on Emmett’s finger when he was pulled dead out of the Tallahatchie River. The ring a reminder that Emmett Till, like me, possessed a father. A Till father I had never really considered. A colored father summoned from the dead to absolve white men who had tortured and shot his son.
While I gathered facts for an Emmett Till story never written, a second encounter with Louis Till occurred. In the mail I received an unsolicited galley of The Interpreter, a biography of the French novelist Louis Guilloux, author of OK, Joe!, a fictionalized account of his job as interpreter at trials of American GIs accused of capital crimes against French citizens during World War II. The Interpreter’s author, Alice Kaplan, used Guilloux’s experiences to examine the systematically unequal treatment of colored soldiers in United States military courts during World War II.
I found myself quite moved by Kaplan’s description of her pilgrimage to the grave of Private James Hendricks, hanged for murder by the U.S. Army in 1945, a colored soldier at whose trial Louis Guilloux had worked. Kaplan’s book took me 120 kilometers east of Paris, to a part of the countryside where the fiercest battles of World War I were fought—a gentle landscape of rivers, woods, and farmland, interrupted by an occasional modest village. I arrived with her at a massive World War I cemetery, with its iron gates and stone entry columns. Stood finally in a clearing enclosed by laurel bushes and pine trees reached by exiting the back door of the cemetery administrator’s quarters. The clearing contained Plot E, the officially designated “dishonorable” final resting place of ninety-six American servicemen executed by the U.S. military during World War II.
Situated across the road from Plots A–D, where 6,012 honorable American dead from World War I are buried in the main cemetery of Oise-Aisne, Plot E is quiet, secluded, seldom visited, meticulously groomed. A place unbearably quiet, I imagine, as I read Kaplan’s depiction of Plot E in The Interpreter and surveyed with her eyes an expanse of green lawn dotted with small white squares she discovers are flat stones embedded in the crew-cut grass. Four rows of stones, twenty-four stones per row, the rows about five feet apart, every white square engraved with a gray number, she writes.
I accompany her, moving slowly up and down the slight slope, between the rows, because when you stand still, Plot E’s quiet is too enveloping, too heavy, too sad. I need to animate my limbs, stop holding my breath in this almost forgotten site where 96 white squares mark the remains of men, e83 of them colored men. What color are the 83 colored men now. What color are the 13 other men beneath their gray numbers. I think of numbers I wore on basketball and football jerseys. Numbers on license plates. Numbers tattooed on forearms. My phone number, social security number.
On page 173 in chapter 27, the final chapter of Kaplan’s book, she narrates in a footnote how she reaches number 73, the corner grave in row four that belongs to Louis Till. His story has such tragic historical resonance, she writes, then informs the reader of Private Louis Till’s execution by the army in 1945 for crimes of murder and rape in Italy, and that ten years later in 1955, Till’s 14-year-old son Emmett was beaten, shot, and thrown in a river in Mississippi for whistling at a white woman.
With research of Emmett Till’s murder fresh in my mind, I had wanted to inform page 173, inform Alice Kaplan the wolf whistle was only one of many stories, a myth as much as fact, though I didn’t speak to her then, in the shared quiet of Plot E whose silence I feared breaking even as I also understood I could not break it. Instead I raise my eyes from the page, my gaze from the photograph of a numbered white square of stone, and disappear, a ghost in the machine of a book, machine of my body. I do not speak to Alice Kaplan in Plot E. It’s not the time or place to discuss the wolf whistle’s problematic status. Not the time now to expand this anecdote about finding Louis Till in Kaplan’s book nor to talk about my own trip, years later, to the French cemetery. This is just a brief version of encountering Louis Till. Anyway, I believe the truth is more like he found me than I found him.
Dear Professor Kaplan,
In your account of a visit to Plot E of the Oise-Aisne American Cemetery and Memorial on Sunday afternoon in January 2004, you relate that the look-alike white gravemarkers were engraved with gray numbers and not names. How could you identify the person buried beneath a particular stone. More specifically, how did you know Louis Till was under stone 73. Had you obtained a directory, a guidebook, some official document matching names with numbers. If you possess such a source, where did you discover it. Would you be willing to share it. Does it contain facts about the dead other than names and numbers. Did you have in hand a map of Plot E so that you anticipated finding Louis Till’s grave at the corner of row four. Were you touched equally by the Till grave and the grave, number 13, of Private James Hendricks, the colored soldier whose trial you feature in your book about French novelist Monsieur Louis Guilloux, the interpreter at James Hendricks’s court-martial. Were you struck, Professor Kaplan, by the coincidence that both Mr. Guilloux and Mr. Till bear the given name Louis or by the resemblance between Guilloux and guillotine. Did you feel on the Sunday afternoon you explored Plot E that the life of each one of us no matter how tightly we clutch it, is an unanchored thread that does not guide us out of the labyrinth. I thank you in advance for any information you’re able to offer about these matters. Your book The Interpreter led me to Plot E of the Oise-Aisne American Cemetery and Memorial, and in a very real sense I have been wandering since in a limbo inhabited by shades of men buried there.
Several years after that letter—never sent—I was shaving and the TV news talking in another room announced a black father declared guilty of protecting his son. A carful of mad white boys rolls up to the black man’s suburban Long Island driveway and they demand he surrender his son to them because the son they say insulted the sister of one of the boys. A sexual, racial trespass, thus unforgivable, thus the son must pay. But the daddy, an old-time emigrant from the deep south, got a long memory, got him a little pistola cached away for just such emergencies. No. No. Never again. Get thee gone, ye whited sepulchers, he goes or says other words to provoke a predictable riposte such as, Nigger, you better move your scrawny old black nigger ass out of the way, boy, an exchange I imagine escalating rapidly to nastier imprecations and threatening gestures terminated abruptly by a single gunshot. One white boy down, bleeding on the black man’s driveway. The other boys in his crew rush him to the hospital, but it’s too late. He dies on the way, and this morning the breaking news: a judge has pronounced the black father guilty.
Familiar script. Offended white males go after black boy accused of molesting white female. Same ole, same ole Mississippi Till story repeating itself, but with the roles, the scenario sort of scrambled—north not south, day not night, black guy not white guy the one with a pistol in his hand, white accuser dies, accused black boy survives, and the court in this New York case declares black shooter guilty, not like Mississippi law declared the white shooter of Emmett Till innocent. This latest version of the script altered but not enough to obscure its resemblance to the original. Then the point would be lost, wouldn’t it. Just enough alike and different to appear as if festering ugliness between blacks and whites changes. Though it really doesn’t change, except maybe for the worse. This is what I heard from the TV in the other room as I shaved.
And getting even worse day by day it seems when I pay attention—one more colored victim declared guilty without a trial falls, fallen, falling dead, here, there, everywhere . . .
This text will not become the Emmett Till fiction I believed I was working on. All the words that follow are my yearning to make some sense out of the American darkness that disconnects colored fathers from sons, a darkness in which sons and fathers lose track of one another.
From John Edgar Wideman’s WRITING TO SAVE A LIFE, courtesy Scribner, copyright John Edgar Wideman, 2016.