Nikki Giovanni Brings Emmett Till to Life in New Orleans PDF Print E-mail
By Ariel Johnson -- Black College Wire   

Silence filled Loyola University's packed Roussel Hall as poet Nikki Giovanni transformed herself from a petite, 62-year old woman into a black teenager hanging out with his cousin, Emmett Till, 15, who was visiting from Chicago. The audience listened to the story of this smart-dressing, stocky young man known for being a prankster and braggart, despite his speech stutter.

The Xavier Herald
Nikki Giovanni
In moments, students attending the 25th annual Martin Luther King Jr. Week of Peace convocation Jan.19, 2011, in New Orleans traveled with Giovanni back to Aug. 28, 1955, and a grocery store in rural Mississippi. The audience of primarily young African American women and men sat on the edge of their seats, fully enveloped in Giovanni's re-creation of Emmett Till's murder.

They listened to the horrific details of what led up to the young man's brutal slaying—he was beaten, shot, his body chained to a cotton gin mill fan and dumped into the Tallahatchie River—and of the boy's grief-stricken, defiant mother who demanded her son's bloated, decomposed body be displayed at his funeral.

Segregated, Deep South

Giovanni appealed to the audience to remember the events of the past that helped pave the way to where we are as a nation today. She visibly slipped into character to tell to story that ignited the Civil Rights Movement:

A group of black teenage boys walked down the dusty streets of Money, Miss., to the grocery store where Emmett bought bubble gum and sweet-talked a white woman to show his cousins how Chicago folks get down. Emmett was a classy dressing boy from up North, who had no understanding of what it meant to be subservient to whites. He didn't lower his head to avoid eye contact or say yes sir, yes mam, to whites.

The night of his innocent prank, there were flashlights and loud knocks demanding Emmett's great-uncle, Moses Wright, to release the boy—or everyone in the house would be killed. His great-uncle knew that night would be the last he saw his great-nephew. The white men took him, beat him, and Emmett's screams were heard throughout the town. Once these men saw the horrendous results of their actions, they knew they had to get rid of the body.

So they paid 10 cents to an old black worker who wouldn't ask any questions to find them a cotton gin mill fan. The men tied it around his neck and dumped Emmett Till into the Tallahatchie River in hopes that no one would discover what they did. Unfortunately for them, the fan just wasn't heavy enough and his corpse was discovered, with one eye gouged out, his head split by the blow of an ax, and his body swollen beyond recognition from three days floating in the Tallahatchie.

Emmett's mother, Mamie Till, recognized her boy, lowered her head in sorrow, and had his body shipped by train from Mississippi to Chicago. She initiated the biggest Civil Rights demonstration of the time by holding an open-casket funeral, "So the world can see what they did to my boy.'"

Ariel Johnson writes for The Xavier Herald , the Xavier University of Louisiana student newspaper, which originally published this article.


Posted Feb. 05, 2011
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