Mamie Till’s Memorial

22 Aug

she wanted the world to see what they had done to her baby, Emmett. so as we quickly approach the day Emmett was violently violated and killed (August 28), i want to consider again the religious ethics that prompted his mother’s — Mamie Till-Bradley — desire for the world to experience the death of her son. of course, we already know that death is anything but uncommon. it is but a part of what we call life, it is the culmination of such lived experience and behavior. death is not unique of itself, so we must know that Till-Bradley was not celebrating the death of her son. thus when she declared that she wanted the world to see, it was not death itself, but a particular aesthetic, a specific mode of violence in which she and her son lived, that she wanted to display for the world. that is, she wanted the world to see the way folks would go about murder, the evacuative nature of such violence and the sorta havock it produced on flesh and blood. she wanted the world to see what violence does in the world, how it bloats and mottles, how it distends and reeks in order to prompt us to engage with others another way.

an active member of Evangelistic Crusaders Church of God in Christ, Mamie Till-Bradley was pentecostal and i want to consider her openness to what Anthony Heilbut describes as “the blackest of institutions,” i.e., black pentecostalism, opens up for Till-Bradley in terms of a very specific enactment of black feminist care [of her son, for her community [and community is not fictitious or mythical]] and critique of the world that would allow such violence and violation to occur.

can we think with her? experience her grief? Emmett’s mythic whistle turned

cotton gin
70 pounds
barb wire tied
noose neck
throw in water
clench teeth

(maybe he was dead already?  but)

clinch teech
underwater, underneath
the sound, the sound of
breath stolen
life stolen
mississippi?  goddamn.

1955 saw her son’s demise and it took several days, and several phone calls in order for Till-Bradley to convince the municipality of Money, to return Emmett’s body to chicago.  and we know that the return of the body to chicago was nothing short of an attack on the senses.  so much so that it is said that Emmett’s body could be smelled blocks away from where it emanated. can you hear her?  screaming?  crying?  the loss of her son.

mississippi?  goddamn.

she wanted the world to see what happened to her son, so she decided to have an open casket at the funeral: There was just no way I could describe what was in that box. No way. And I just wanted the world to see.”  what does this open casket and her pentecostalism have to do with each other?  hers was the same sorta pentecostalism that was only gaining a bit of popularity in 1955, from which many mainline black churches — baptists, ame zions, methodists — were distancing themselves.  this was the same sorta pentecostalism that was getting people kicked out of their homes for joining up with the “holy rollers” and the “sanctifieds…”  in other words, this wasn’t a popular sect at all, and the disdain often functioned by way of an indictment against the emotionalism, the tears, the running and shouting (not to be confused with hollering) around and in the church.  and of course, these emotive bursts are not reducible to pentecostalism, though i’d argue that in a cultural worldview, pentecostalism is thought to be constituted by these seemingly excessive physical, embodied practices.

what does this religiocultural experience for Mamie Till-Bradley have to do with her desire for a radical, excessive, emotional openness?  not just an openness to the horrors of the world?  she was, to be sure, a black mother.  and Moynihan’s report was soon to come, the “pathologies” he’d happen upon were previous to that “report” (1965).  black motherhood was always conceived as something of an impossibility.  she was also radically open to display, to showing that was at the same time, always already more than merely showing, more than merely visual. and if we think about the song that i oft deem egotistical for a church to sing —you can’t join it, you’ve got to be born in it– with Till-Bradley’s public display of her son in mind, one wonders what the relation of this particular kind of seeing that necessitates hearing is to being born into a movement, rather than merely joining it.  that is, i do believe that the work of social justice is not about merely declaring yourself a part of it.  but it takes a transformative posture, an ennobling force, some state of ultimate concern that evacuates a sense of individualism and joins one to community to struggle together.

she wanted the world to experience what had been done.  the dismemberment, the disfigurement.  this was, in my estimation, a public theology of pentecostalism that became an important moment in the long history and tradition of black social upheaval.  to be sure, Emmett was not the first to be lynched and would not be the last.  but his moment served as a hinge of sorts.  Brown v. Board of Education took place one year previous but schools would not be desegregated until at least 1957 with the Little Rock 9.  i’d argue that Mamie Till-Bradley’s religiocultural, existential crisis that was bound up with an embodied religious experience is what made a movement that was already moving move further still.  that is, though movement for civil rights were underway before the picture of swollen, mottled body was circulated, that the desire for the world to see reverberated and echoed.  it made pentecostalism public, palpable, pleasurable.  it gave pentecostalism what it already had: the capacity to be transformative, to enact social justice.  but more, she gave the movement for civil rights an aesthetics that it already had.  pentecostal theology is about the emptying out of oneself in order to be filled with the Divine.  and this emptied fulfilling is noticed by way of movement, sound, dance, by the way one behaves and comports.  an aesthetic of excess is normative.  but the display of the image of her son was also about knowing that brutality does not take away the capacity to be filled and moved.  she should have been so hurt because of her son’s death that immobility would have been understandable.  but the capacity to move remained.  through it all…

of course, Till-Bradley was not happy.  she was not happy to have lost a son.  she was not happy to open a casket and have the world see.  but she did it anyway.  the old saints would call it “holy boldness.”  they’d say that in the face of the incalculable, regardless of the rejection from friends and family, that there was something down inside them telling them to go on ahead.  to keep moving forward.  i feel constrained to say i love this narrow way, glory hallelujah, i’m one of them today.


Till-Bradley knew something of a holy defiance that was not about happiness but that echoed pleasure.  of course, she loved her son.  she enjoyed her time with her son.  she wanted the best for him.  her display of his open face, by way of an open casket, was her giving the world the gift of her capacity to love.  she could not describe her love, so she gave something else: she gave the edge, the bruise, the image of what took him away.  she gave us the moment of her most ineffable and pointed coalescence of emotion.  the fact that she could not describe is not surprising.  so indescribablewords don’t go there, so maybe moaning will.  to give the world the image of her inability talk, to enunciate, to describe, to give the image of a moan?  it is to make visual the sound of moaning (and what i’m saying here, of course, is not new).

certainly, her love was not reducible to the photograph, or the image, or her tears.  but in those moments that we see of her, and in his stillness, his swollen body that she gave us to see?  therein we see the love of black mothers that Moynihan thought impossible.

what if we thought of excess as prompting thought?  Till-Bradley wanted us to see these images.  there is within them, i think, the energy of her love. there is within them, i think, the energy of her theological, existential position…a peculiar people, indeed.  something is internal to the image of Emmett that is also internal to Mamie Till-Bradley’s religious posture, a quickening and movement of the spirit, by the spirit towards justice. so, and of course, as we approach the day of Emmett’s death, the day when the love of Till-Bradley turned into a force of movement, we can not simply shed tears of a bygone time. James Craig Anderson’s recent death — in mississippi, goddamn — rehearses for us the ongoingness of racial animosity, hate and fear. times are still very urgent and i think Till-Bradley’s black feminist aesthetics of openness and movement still echo with us today, and still have the capacity to inform our resistance against these institutional and systemic forces that refresh and revise racism for a new era.

12 Responses to “Mamie Till’s Memorial”

  1. Claire Cramer August 22, 2011 at 12:57 PM #

    God damn. This piece blows me away.

    • ashoncrawley August 23, 2011 at 1:31 PM #

      thanks for reading and commenting, Claire!!! it’s appreciated!

  2. d August 22, 2011 at 2:21 PM #

    “you can’t join it, you’ve got to be born in it”

    I don’t think these lyrics are literal, they refer to being a born again in Christ, as written in John Chapter 3 of the Gospel, pasted below.

    1 There was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews:

    2 The same came to Jesus by night, and said unto him, Rabbi, we know that thou art a teacher come from God: for no man can do these miracles that thou doest, except God be with him.

    3 Jesus answered and said unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.

    4 Nicodemus saith unto him, How can a man be born when he is old? can he enter the second time into his mother’s womb, and be born?

    5 Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.

    6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.

    7 Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again.

    8 The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit.

    9 Nicodemus answered and said unto him, How can these things be?

    10 Jesus answered and said unto him, Art thou a master of Israel, and knowest not these things?

    11 Verily, verily, I say unto thee, We speak that we do know, and testify that we have seen; and ye receive not our witness.

    12 If I have told you earthly things, and ye believe not, how shall ye believe, if I tell you of heavenly things?

    13 And no man hath ascended up to heaven, but he that came down from heaven, even the Son of man which is in heaven.

    14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up:

    15 That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life.

    16 For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.

    17 For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved.

    18 He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.

    19 And this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.

    20 For every one that doeth evil hateth the light, neither cometh to the light, lest his deeds should be reproved.

    21 But he that doeth truth cometh to the light, that his deeds may be made manifest, that they are wrought in God.

    22 After these things came Jesus and his disciples into the land of Judaea; and there he tarried with them, and baptized.

    23 And John also was baptizing in Aenon near to Salim, because there was much water there: and they came, and were baptized.

    24 For John was not yet cast into prison.

    25 Then there arose a question between some of John’s disciples and the Jews about purifying.

    26 And they came unto John, and said unto him, Rabbi, he that was with thee beyond Jordan, to whom thou barest witness, behold, the same baptizeth, and all men come to him.

    27 John answered and said, A man can receive nothing, except it be given him from heaven.

    28 Ye yourselves bear me witness, that I said, I am not the Christ, but that I am sent before him.

    29 He that hath the bride is the bridegroom: but the friend of the bridegroom, which standeth and heareth him, rejoiceth greatly because of the bridegroom’s voice: this my joy therefore is fulfilled.

    30 He must increase, but I must decrease.

    31 He that cometh from above is above all: he that is of the earth is earthly, and speaketh of the earth: he that cometh from heaven is above all.

    32 And what he hath seen and heard, that he testifieth; and no man receiveth his testimony.

    33 He that hath received his testimony hath set to his seal that God is true.

    34 For he whom God hath sent speaketh the words of God: for God giveth not the Spirit by measure unto him.

    35 The Father loveth the Son, and hath given all things into his hand.

    36 He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life: and he that believeth not the Son shall not see life; but the wrath of God abideth on him

    • s mandisa August 23, 2011 at 7:32 AM #

      Im not sure what is the purpose of sharing the Book of John, Chapter 3. Please shed some light.

  3. Asha August 22, 2011 at 5:35 PM #

    This is wonderful on so many levels. I read and reread every word. I’m still thinking about excess and a black feminist ethic of care. You are amazing.

    • ashoncrawley August 23, 2011 at 1:32 PM #

      thanks, Asha!!! i’m hoping this will be part of a chapter ……. one day … lol

  4. Claire Cramer August 23, 2011 at 1:34 PM #

    You’re welcome! Thanks for publishing such amazing writing. We love reading it here in Boston!

  5. lala August 24, 2011 at 8:31 AM #

    I read Mamie Till’s book ‘Death of Innocence’ and I highly recommend it. What a woman. Also it revealed Emmett had a stuttering problem and he was taught to whistle as a tool to loosen his speech….

  6. Linda Smith August 24, 2011 at 9:37 PM #

    This article is truly relevant to my study at this moment.Pandora Charms

  7. Jenne Mensah August 28, 2011 at 8:12 AM #

    Just want you to know that this was wonderful. Keep doing what you do!

  8. Andrea August 30, 2011 at 3:36 PM #

    Wonderful piece! But I think there is a part 2 or 3 here that talks about what happened to black Pentecostalism as it withdrew from the type of political confrontation through religious expression that is the hallmark of Emmett Till’s mother as well as another seminal event, the King’s mountain top speech. That speech was given before a COGIC Congregational that I think made his speech particularly expressive, or in today’s parlance, it was a place he could leave it all on the floor unlike in baptist or mainline churches. But to be specific to that of a black female, I think the era of this kind of engagement has been repressed through the “marry Jesus” and forgo happiness and a voice strain running through many post civil rights era COGIC congregations. I say this as someone having grown up COGIC.


  1. Remembering Emmett & Mamie  | Notorious S.H.E. - August 23, 2011

    […] breathtaking piece honoring Till and his mother Mamie.  These words are those of  ashoncrawley of The Feminist Crunk Collective. she wanted the world to see what they had done to her baby, Emmett. so as we quickly approach the […]

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