Emmett Till traveled from Chicago to Money, Mississippi, in August 1955 to spend time with his great uncle Reverend Moses Wright's family. Days into his visit, he was kidnapped from his uncle's home, beaten, shot in the head, weighted down by a seventy-pound cotton gin fan, and thrown into the Tallahatchie River--for allegedly whistling at Carolyn Bryant, a white woman.
1980: I sat open-mouthed before the photograph in JET magazine of Emmett's gruesomely deformed body lying in an open casket. The article commemorated the twenty-fifth anniversary of his murder. I was so distraught that my mother had to spend much of the night calming me while also making the crime personal so I would never forget. She never would. She was eight years old (my age at the time of the JET magazine feature) when Emmett was murdered, and felt first-hand the fury and lamentation that had served as a crucible for insurrection: the civil rights movement. Emmett was only fourteen years old.
My theater piece Emmett Till a river began its gestation many years ago with "The Poet, 1955," a poem I had written about "a mansion of a boy / whose rooms we must fill" and his mother, Mamie Till ("and the radiance of her voice ... full rising"). Since that 1980 encounter with Emmett's photograph, his death had remained in my memory, and for years I had wanted to create something epic for my say about him and the circumstances of his murder. I had envisioned a stage work with music, but I had yet to find a container for the work, a reference, a form. Musical theater was too light, opera too excessive.
What form was absolute in its meditative presentation and nearly absent of consolation? What was capacious enough for the audience's own culpability--not in Emmett's murder, specifically--but in violence enacted daily on their (and my) watch? Beyond that, what approach to language and dialogue could withstand, enforce, and protect the utter speechlessness surrounding this murder?
In 2000, after completing the course work for a master's degree in music, I moved to rural northeastern Japan. I lived in Tono, a small town surrounded by mountains, rivers, and rice fields. It was there that I realized how geographic distance from America was not only good for my safety and shelter as a man--especially as a black man--but also for my creativity. I could meander and ponder without the daily racialized worry that, upon seeing me, a white person would draw me into that person's own terror. And that I, not the other, would come to harm. I thought of James Baldwin, who in the late 1940s left New York for Paris for fear he would become fatally injured or forced to injure someone else. I believed that he experienced in his Paris years what neither of us could ever truly experience in the country of our birth: repose.
But perhaps just as important as this newfound psychic and physical emancipation was an awakening to the Japanese and...
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