This past weekend, the film Marshall opened in theaters starring Chadwick Boseman. Marshall chronicles one case in the early career of former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. The case, prior to the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case Marshall presented before the high court and won, saw him defending a black man (played by Emmy winner and breakout star of ‘This Is Us’, Sterling K. Brown) falsely accused of raping a white woman in Connecticut in 1940. Watching this little-known case in Marshall’s career play out on film, one cannot help but to recall how similar cases of false rape accusations of black men by white women have been portrayed in film (Rosewood comes to mind) and in literature. While rape is one of the most horrific crimes globally, in the United States, charges of rape levied against black men in the 20th century did not need to be true, and almost always resulted in death.
The most disturbing of these happened in 1955, in Money, Mississippi, when a 14-year old from Chicago named Emmett Till was kidnapped, tortured, killed and dumped in the Tallahatchie River. Till never physically assaulted anyone; he only went to buy some gum in a store that was owned and being run by a white woman, alone. The media called it “eyeball rape,” (one of Till’s eyes was gouged out by his assailants), where even looking at a white person in a way that made them feel uncomfortable was considered a crime in the deep south under Jim Crow. Accounts have varied over time, but the facts remain: Till had a picture in his wallet of himself and his friends at his integrated Chicago school, upon leaving the store he spoke to the woman, Carolyn Bryant, and a whistle was heard leaving his lips before he left. What has been called a “wolf whistle,” it seems was a strategy Till learned to help modify the impact a stutter had on his speech. When he had difficulty with particular syllables and began to stammer, Till was taught to breathe in and whistle it out to help him focus and enunciate clearly. So, what may have sounded like “Bye, baby,” may have actually been “B-b-b-bye” followed by a whistle.
In court testimony, Carolyn Bryant testified that Till grabbed her by the waist and said he had “been with white women before.” It took a jury of men, all white, 67 minutes to find Till’s murderers not guilty; one juror later said it took them less than five, but they stopped before rendering their verdict for a soda break. The FBI also questioned Carolyn Bryant and knew she had perjured herself, but chose not to get involved. In January of 2017, 62 years after he was killed and his murders set free, Bryant admitted to Timothy B. Dyson of Duke University that she had, in fact lied, and Till did nothing to her that warranted what happened to him at all. The murder of Emmett Till was not only shocking because of the details of the case and the callousness with which southerners regarded black lives; it was mostly shocking because Emmett Till’s mother let her son’s casket be left open, his mangled corpse photographed so “the world can see” the horrors of lynching and racially motivated crimes. She not only wanted the country to feel her pain and to stop running from its racist past and present, she also wanted to challenge people to eradicate the disease before it could poison future generations.
It was the death of this child that Rosa Parks has said influenced her decision to refuse to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery in December of that year. It was this death that inspired Bob Dylan’s 1962 classic The Ballad of Emmett Till, and it was likely this death that inspired one of the greatest literary works of that century, Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird. Lee’s book is a coming-of-age story about a young girl whose father defends a black man falsely accused of raping a white teen in the deep south. The book is filled with the images and language of its time, and it is not pleasant; much of it, including the death of Atticus Finch’s client, Tom Robinson, is disgusting — but so is racism.
‘Mockingbird’ has been considered controversial upon publication (for mentioning rape), and in the years following the Jim Crow era. As a result, it has been banned many times over. It broaches topics and uses languages that most would rather forget are a part of an ugly history; but it is OUR history. We are all affected by its legacy. Still, parents want to protect their children from as much of the world as is possible and it was a parent who led to Lee’s classic being banned (again) in Biloxi, Mississippi, not too far from where Till had been murdered in 1955.
The Biloxi school district has banned Lee’s masterpiece as part of the 8th grade curriculum because the language made some of the students uncomfortable and a parent complained to the local school board. The Board’s Vice President Kenny Holloway told the Mississippi Sun Herald, “It’s still in our library. But they’re going to use another book in the eighth-grade course.” Students had been in the middle of reading the book when the complaints about the book’s use of the ‘n-word’ prompted action by the district.
This is not the first time a parent has complained to a district about the language in Lee’s book. In 2004, a North Carolina student felt uncomfortable with the language as his class read from the book aloud and he, being the only student of color in his classroom, was unnerved by hearing his classmates read the racial slurs aloud. He made a shirt with passages from the book that included the word, saying “if it’s good enough for the book, it’s good enough for the shirt,” and was sent to the principal.
There has been much debate over the last 24-hours since the Biloxi decision. When I first retweeted it, I did so using, in quotes, the title of a song by Nina Simone that is very much about the unique brand of racism Mississippi seems to own: “Mississippi Goddam.” One of my younger Twitter followers, one who doesn’t know a world where a Barack Obama could never be president, asked me why a school district would take such action. I responded, simply, “because it is Mississippi.”
Books were always around in our house, my parents stockpiled books the way some people stockpiled food before Y2K; but books WERE food to them — food for the brain. I read a lot of books about the civil rights movement before I even got to middle school and some of the images from those books of dogs biting children, to Congressman John Lewis being beaten as he marched in protest in Selma, to watching members of a Birmingham church pull the bodies of 4 girls from under its rubble, still haunt me today. Unlike most kids, I didn’t fear the Boogie Man, I feared people in the south who could look at a child like me, and like my own, and think we deserved to die.
I do understand where the young man in North Carolina was coming from because I know what it is like to be the only person of color in a classroom, in an office or in a meeting; I have been in that position many times, too many times to think about or count. It is very uncomfortable. Being called a racial slur is no picnic, either. When I moved to South Carolina in 2000, I, unwittingly, drove down Gervais Street in Columbia the day they removed the Confederate flag from atop the dome of the statehouse to the grounds (the flag was removed for good in 2015 after a state senator who fought for its removal and eight others were killed by a white supremacist will in Bible study). Racism is painful, particularly when you are the victim of it. However, we are at a place in time where we are seeing what happens after a period of honeymooning with our “post-racial” selves. Because he was a dream that most could not fathom in their lifetimes, the election of President Obama brought the discussion of race to the forefront and covered it up at the same time. We delighted in how we evolved only to find, particularly this year after Charlottesville, that we’ve evolved very little, if at all.
I am not naïve. I know that racism happens everywhere, no state is exempt from it. I was born in Connecticut in the mid-1970’s not too long after the Black Panther trials in my hometown of New Haven. My mother attended segregated schools in South Carolina until she was 10. All of my grandparents are from the South. My maternal great-grandmother was very active in her local chapter of the NAACP and my great-grandfather, who passed away in 2005 at age 96, fought in WWII, yet the Voting Rights Act was not ratified until 1965 – he was 56. I lived in the South as an adult, my daughter in many ways is still a daughter of the South. My visits, though, as a child were infrequent, so I do not know what it is to grow up there, but I know this: shielding our children from racism will not protect them from it. It is too entrenched in the fabric of this nation. The best we can do is prepare them for it, and while that sounds like a cop-out to some, it is a matter of survival for many of us. As a black parent, there is no “when” of exposing your children to the evils of bigotry; it’s not something you get to chose to do, it’s something you HAVE to do if you want your child to come home to you alive instead of in a box; and even then, they aren’t 100 percent safe.
I can imagine how it must feel to have your classmates read this slur aloud. What I wonder is if they did so without taking a pause of discomfort before reading it. If a child can read that aloud as if it is part of their regular, everyday vernacular, then I would say that is the bigger problem. By taking this book out of the curriculum, Biloxi students are missing the opportunity to learn something about themselves, what they have been taught and what all is possible in the world.
In my first course as a professor of Sociology in Tennessee at age 23, I was given a textbook where the front inside cover and back inside cover had all male sociologists and all were white. I asked my students if they noticed anything striking about that inside cover; they didn’t, why would then when I was the only person of color in the room? I told them and I told them that I was going to be all-inclusive in what we read and ditched the book in favor of peer-reviewed articles published by a diverse group of social scientists, including Mamie and Kenneth Clark, whose doll tests served as the basis of the Brown case Marshall won in 1954. After that first class, an older student (older than me, mid-50’s, born in the South), told me he had to drop my class because he didn’t think he could learn anything from “a young, black gal.”
I said, “okay,” and signed his withdrawal slip.
It bothered me, but I think I was too ambitious at that age to be deterred. The next day, one of my students (also a little older, but not much) told me her dad was in the Klan (maybe people feel they can open up to me about their racism, I don’t know). After that declaration, I asked her how that impacted her as a woman. She was shocked because no one ever asked that question before, but that was all it took. Fifteen weeks later, after the final exam, that student came to me and said after being in my class and reading the various articles, journals and books, she realized that everything her father had taught her wasn’t just wrong, it was an abomination. She also told me that she was expecting a baby and that she didn’t want her baby around the hate, and it as going to stop with her. The things she read changed her outlook on the world and about people. That is the power of the written word.
Biloxi is denying their students that power.