In August 1955, during a long-hot Mississippi summer, 14-year-old Emmett Till was tortured, brutalized, and murdered by two white men. Their racist motivation was explicit and public knowledge that they infamously bragged about their depravity to their friends and neighbors. They were white supremacists, although that almost exceptionalizes their brutality, because, at bottom, they were just white Mississippians.
When Emmett’s body was found in the Tallahatchie River, with his eye gouged out, a bullet in his head, and dragged to the bottom of the river with a cotton-gin fan tied to him with barbed wire, Southern authorities whisked it into a pine coffin and planned to bury him, and their depravity, in Mississippi.
His mother, Mamie Till, an unsung civil rights hero, insisted that her brutalized child’s body be sent home to Chicago—and that the casket be open. The picture of her, in a mother’s Sunday best, grieving over her son’s broken body became an international symbol of the uniquely American commitment to hatred of black people and the horrors this nation was willing to inflict on our bodies to remind everyone of it. But it certainly did not end it.
Emmett Till was not killed by the police. But the entire set of state actors—police, prosecutors, judges—the entire system of criminal justice designed to protect the sanctity of the individual and safeguard democracy refused to convict the two racial thugs, who publicly bragged about their joyous murder of this young black boy. We know that the killings of Trayvon Martin and Ahmaud Arbery at the hands of private American citizens are on a continuum of racial hate with the police killings of Philando Castile and George Floyd. And Michael Brown.
During the summer of 2015, Pulitzer-Prize winning poet Claudia Rankine published an op-ed in the New York Times about the American fetish for murdering black people, entitled, “The Condition of Black Life Is One of Mourning.” And it is. We mourn Emmett Till. We mourn his mother, Mrs. Mamie Till, who thought, that, if the nation saw what white hatred had done to her son’s young, tender body, perhaps we would stand up. We didn’t. Instead we ring the names of those who continue to be murdered by the state or by its inaction.
How many black bodies does it take for one black body to matter? Today’s moving pictures, captured on cell phones, have replaced the haunting tragic picture of Mamie grieving her lost son. For some, these videos function as the ultimate racial pornography—racial snuff films that fulfill their racial fantasies. What do they mean to the rest of us? We didn’t answer Mamie Till’s call in 1955. We didn’t answer the calls of any of the names we have rung.
If Claudia Rankine captures black life as a condition of mourning, Ellis Cose captures it as a state of rage. In his book Rage of a Privileged Class, he explores how professional black Americans experience life in a racist country that both needs and despises us. I cannot speak for my Washington University colleagues, but I suspect I am not alone in waking up many mornings with a sad, sick anger about America’s hypocrisy. Unlike totalitarian states that announce repression in their laws and values, the United States uniquely erected a nation at once committed to enslaving and brutalizing black people and announcing to the world its aspiration to be the first modern democracy and one built on the sanctity of the individual.
Mourning and rage. Grief and anger. Despair and damnation. It is yet another take on W.E.B. DuBois’s still prescient trope of black Americans’ double consciousness.
Sixty-five years after Emmett Till’s torture and murder, we are in yet another long summer of black death. I cannot say when it started, exactly, because black death in the United States never really ends. It more sort of rolls into hills and valleys and the hills are so high that the valleys begin to appear to be the norm.
In this last three months, since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have beheld almost every iteration of black death. We have seen the murderous racial neglect of health care systems; the disposability of so-called essential workers, disproportionately black; the emergence of racial comorbidities into the nation’s lingua franca. We also have seen the black death of our continued commitment to racial violence.
What would it mean for this season, for this unbearably blistering hot season of black death to end? It will only change because we decide that it is undemocratic. Un-American.
In her Nobel Prize lecture, Toni Morrison tells a story of an old, blind woman. A group of young people come to her to play a joke. They tell her they hold a bird in her hands and ask her if it is alive or dead. Because she is blind, they think she cannot see. She tells them, “’I don’t know ... I don’t know whether the bird you are holding is dead or alive, but what I do know is that it is in your hands. It is in your hands.”
Morrison’s old woman is right. The future is in our hands. Whether it lives or dies is our decision.
Some people call on us to deepen our commitment. Let me say this—we cannot deepen the commitment any more. The commitment cannot be any deeper. There is nothing else to say; nothing else to promise. I was heartened when Chancellor Andrew D. Martin shared that he hesitated to make a statement because he wanted action. We have to act.
Chancellor Martin has called Washington University to action. My colleagues are some of the smartest, innovative, and creative people I know. Our students’ brilliance and commitment to social justice inspires me every day. I have the privilege of working with university staff whose commitment to our mission and this community knows no bounds.
What would it look like if Washington University put the same energy into ending structural racism that we put into curing cancer? We helped to putting the Rover on Mars?
What if we put the same resources into bringing white supremacy to its knees? What if undergraduates came here to learn to major in anti-racism in the same numbers they came to major in pre-med? What if we gave the faculty the resources it needs to do path-breaking research on race and racism? What if we decided to invest in our Department of African and African-American Studies to make it best in class?
What if we dedicated ourselves to making our home, St. Louis, not a name on a list of racial violence and inequity but instead a model of a future of urban equity and democracy? What if we led the nation in finding models for police accountability and equitable policing? What if we acted on the resolutions we have made, the reports we have commissioned, and the initiatives that languish?
From our grief and rage there are only two options left—action or despair.
Adrienne D. Davis is vice provost of Washington University and the William M. Van Cleve Professor in the Washington University School of Law.