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White Silence and Responsibility

by Clare Coss


What is the role of the artist as we strive to understand issues that divide us? How do we recognize and care about the equality of others? What is my responsibility as a playwright?

As a child I journeyed back and forth between my parents in New Jersey and my grandparents in New Orleans. The collision with Jim Crow laws in the south, made me aware of white privilege in the north. White supremacy became obvious. I began to care about moral survival.

My imagination leads me to women characters who go where the silence is. They are drawn to confront inaction and tyranny, to confront fear, to find the courage to act.

In my new play, Emmett, Down in My Heart, a white teacher, Roanne Taylor, and Emmett Till’s mother, Mamie Till, are hurled together by the 1955 kidnap, torture and murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till in the Mississippi Delta. Roanne, distraught by her retreat into silence and the murderers’ fake trial, struggles with responsibility. Mamie Till, through outrage and grief for her son, transforms from a privately-led life to an active citizen for justice. Her insistence on an open casket sparked the modern civil rights movement.

In August 1955 when Emmett Till visited his cousins in the Delta, he entered a rigidly segregated police state. White supremacists ruled. They were in an ugly, angry mood that summer. A year before the U.S. Supreme Court had ended segregation with the Brown v. Board of Education decision. Robert "Tut" Patterson of Clarksdale, Mississippi, immediately founded the first White Citizens' Councils to stop anyone who tried to take anything away from them or change their way of life. The whites in power were determined to keep the Delta's majority black sharecropper population deep in poverty, living in substandard housing with substandard schools, dependent and in debt to cotton plantation owners and store owners.

In spite of Mamie Till’s lessons on how a young black boy must observe "race etiquette" in the South, her son did not fathom the depths of hatred, insane treachery and constant danger. He could not believe that his mother's warnings meant that he was not to look at, nor speak directly to, a white woman. The first rule of white supremacy was to forbid potential or direct contact between a black man and a white woman.

Accused of wolf-whistling at Carolyn Bryant, a young white woman storekeeper, Emmett Till was abducted at midnight from his great uncle's home. Till was tortured, murdered, and thrown in the Tallahatchie River weighted down by a hundred pound cotton gin fan. His naked body snagged on a drift of brush. A white teenage boy fishing off a bridge saw his feet bobbing up above the water.

Emmett Till's mother, Mrs. Mamie Till-Mobley, insisted on an open casket so the world could witness the horror of her son's barbarically destroyed face and head. Her courageous decision cast a floodlight of attention on the lynching of a child and on the trial at the Sumner County courthouse

The savagery committed against Emmett Till and the easy acquittal of his murderers were seen as the white south's answer to the Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education decision. Two local white prosecutors and a local white judge showed some degree of integrity at the sham trial. The white townspeople put up a wall of silence in response to their efforts.

Three months later, Rosa Parks said Emmett Till was on her mind when she refused to move to the back of the bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Emmett Till, lying broken and mutilated in his open coffin, was never supposed to be seen again. The river, the drift, the boy fishing on the bridge, his mother's decision create haunting images of Emmett speak to the divided soul of our country.

I first learned about the murder of Emmett Till when I was in my sophomore year at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. A chilling grief entered my heart for a boy lynched, upstream on the other side of the Mississippi River, not far from the L.S.U. campus. It was staggering to learn the white community had closed ranks and allowed the two murderers to go free. This brutal event and the absence of justice lived deep in my heart for decades.

Where do folks who speak out find the courage? Who is willing to take a stand that can cause one’s life to change? Who is willing to take time and be inconvenienced? Who is willing to risk her or his life in the cause of justice?

As the play began to revolve around these questions, the character of Roanne Taylor stepped on to the stage of my imagination and into the story, memory, history of Mamie Till-Mobley and her son Emmett Till. Set at dawn, in Roanne's kitchen, a year after Emmett Till was lynched, Roanne is haunted by Emmett Till's screams and by her insistence that there was nothing she could do. As she prepares her papers for the first day back at Drew High School, she cannot get his screams out of her head. She imagines Emmett Till and his mother together in her kitchen, as she has many times before. To dispel the image, she sings fragments from hymns. Mother and son recede for a moment, then return. Before Roanne can leave her bungalow for the classroom, her acute distress forces her to face Emmett Till, Mamie Till, his Aunt Lizzy and Uncle Mose and Cuz, her former students Carolyn and Roy Bryant, her own immobilizing fear, and her struggle for the moral courage to act.

The Jim Crow laws are gone; new laws call for equal rights. Mississippi State Senator David Jordan said, “We have the laws, now we have to change the hearts.” In recent years Emmett Till’s story has inspired countless works in many fields. My play is dedicated to this quest, to break the silences, to change the hearts. In this defining time, artists are called on to deepen our understanding of community as we work together to build a society devoted to equality, generosity, justice.

November 25, 2009

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Clare Coss is a writer, psychotherapist and activist. She serves as the Co-Poetry Editor of On The Issues Magazine. More information about the development and production of "Emmett, Down in My Heart" is available on www.clarecoss.com.

Also see "Birthers and Birchers: Hiding Behind Stars and Stripes" by Loretta J. Ross in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.

See "Mujeres Take Back the Culture With Old Photos" by Graciela Sanchez in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.


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