An interdisciplinary journal about regions, places, and cultures of the US South and their global connections
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  • Substantiation

    And the way the jury chose to believe the ridiculous stories of the defense. . .
    —Mamie Till, 1955

    . . .with truth absent, hypocrisy and myth have flourished. . .
    Look, January 1956

    The sheriff says it wasn't Till we pulled from the river,
    that man was as white as I am, white as cotton
    blowed by the cotton gin fan that weighed him down,
    looked like he'd lain there weeks, not a kid at all.
    He was a stranger just out of Money, recalled
    by a store clerk, a hobo, and a crossroad guitarist.
    The reporter finds them at the once abandoned crossing.
    They say it's like the sheriff says, came up one night,
    headed Clarksdale way, another one, hat pulled down,
    right behind. Three days later, the bluesman says,
    a plague of starlings gathered into little boys
    those who fished and found the dead man's foot.
    The reporter stares into his cataracted, cotton eyes.
    He cannot find them, no matter where he looks.

    *

    The sheriff says this man's killer is on the loose
    and a killer emerges, a child watching from a sleeping porch
    catches a rustle in the bushes and soon everyone
    is on the hunt while in the courtroom someone
    is wondering about this poor murdered's family,
    who's missing him, and the next day his father appears
    unknown for work, his name on the payroll,
    then gets to work at a machine no one's ever seen,
    and someone is weeping on the Tallahatchie's bank,
    a little girl who wished her mother would die
    whose mother died at the hands of this stranger
    she's followed till he stepped in the river and disappeared.

    *

    The reporter asks for Too-Tight Collins at Charlestown jail
    and the sheriff says Who? The reporter asks why he's got him
    and sees the bullet on his tongue. Asks directions back
    to Greenwood, finds himself down Greenville way instead.
    Takes back roads back to Mound Bayou, wrong wrong turn
    to Parchman Farm where guards rifle from the woods.
    A change at the Eavesdrop Inn then he's bent picking cotton
    in a field. Come sundown, he hobos Sumner way and squats
    at courthouse windows where the sheriff shuffles cards
    for a blind man and the defense team. At a levee camp that night
    he asks for whiskey and she gives him a cup of names.
    He wires his paper that he's gone catfish fishing
    on the Tallahatchie, that he won't be coming home.

    *

    The defense says Till's alive and well on Detroit streets
    and someone's sure they've seen him, just off the train
    from Memphis, porters smuggling him out the back
    and now he's walking incognito, a worn fedora raked
    to shade the one eye. A cruiser eases through the streets,
    searchlight in doorways, the driver white,
    dressed like a cop but for the rope marks at his throat,
    the bullet in his eye. He has a mushmouth accent,
    talks water when he speaks, slept in a box from Greenville
    to Chicago under another man's name, a name
    he's ready to give up now. If Till is alive and well,
    he can't rest in Burr Oak Cemetery, will cruise
    where he's been said to be on the Detroit streets
    where everyone knows he's coming
    since he whistles like a train on the way out of town.

    *

    They say it was darker than a thousand midnights
    in the cabin, that they couldn't find him in the dark.
    They say that Moses brought him out at last,
    that someone else was in the truck to say
    that it was him that did the talk at Money.
    They say they took him for a ride, to rough him up,
    scare him on a river bluff then let him go.
    They say they let him off near Glendora,
    never seen again. They say Ain't it like a negro
    to swim the river with a gin fan round his neck.
    They say it was hog's blood in the truck
    what Too Tight washed. They say
    they never burnt no shoes, it was a barbecue.
    They say that Too Tight never worked for them,
    they never heard of Willie Reed. They say
    they never meant to harm the boy, that they didn't do a thing.

    *

    The defense says Mamie Till knows her son's
    alive and well, that she knows the body isn't his.
    That her lawyers came in weeks ago and dug a body up
    and used it for their own. That they've found fresh graves.
    That a Yazoo City widow found her husband's gone
    and Lazarus ain't walking back through Eden,
    Greenwood, Itta Bena. That Jesus Christ ain't come.
    Every Leflore County lawyer can't be wrong.
    One juror says he knows it, seen rights workers
    take their shovels out along the roads at night.
    That Sheriff Strider's right. That it's the northern poison
    got this all stirred up. That though a black might be
    fool enough to swim with a gin fan round his neck,
    this one wasn't one. That they should sit a while
    and drink a pop, to make it look right, look real.

    *

    In the nervous ward, Reed remembers Milam with the gun
    asking did he hear anything. Reed remembers saying no,
    he didn't hear anything, anything. Remembers not hearing
    the beating and the crying in the shed behind Milam's.
    Remembers not thinking, they beatin' somebody up there.
    Remembers not passing the shed, not hearing the beating.
    Remembers not remembering Milam not coming out,
    not asking if he'd heard. Remembers not
    not remembering on the stand, not not whispering
    the court reporter not not recording his not
    not remembered memory. Not not getting on the train.
    Not hearing anything, anything. Such quiet now.

    *

    Now hypocrisy can be exposed; myth dispelled.
    Look, January 1956

    The reporter hears Bryant's been bragging
    how he got away with murder. A few months back
    no one could make them, now they're seen
    at the cabin, at the bridge, their alibis are gone.
    The stranger emerges from the river then disappears.
    The little girl's mother rises from her grave, home
    just in time for dinner. Emmett Till boards a freight
    in Detroit and hobos to his grave outside Chicago.
    The crossroads station and its clerk disappear again
    and the hat disappears. Anywhere else, the reporter
    would have been called to the disappearing,
    but here there's nothing to say. Bryant's smile
    broadens as he retells it, how they were heroes,
    how they murdered Till. When the Look comes out,
    the town already knows. No one ever speaks to them again.

    *

    When the contractor guts the courthouse basement,
    the fan and the transcript are laid out on the street.
    Junkmen salvage metal, and the papers warp and tear
    in the rain. Starlings pick through the gutters' wreck
    and weave typescript fragments into their nests.
    Emmett Till watches, enwreathes their broods.
    Milam wakes up early each morning when the riot
    in the pear trees begins, starlings wolf-whistling
    for food, or just repeating what they've heard.
    One pair has woven strips of Look Bryant spreads
    throughout the woods. In twenty years no one's come.
    He opens a shotgun on the starlings' calls each morning
    and they spray like smoke or blood. But they regather
    and whistle overhead and shit back shot as they fly.

     

    Published in A Murmuration of Starlings (2008).
    Text may vary slightly from the video reading.

    Published: 1 April 2008
    © 2008 Jake Adam York and Southern Spaces