I’m reading a book that is affecting me so much that I can only read it in small doses. It’s a young adult book which I only read because H’s 5th grade teacher warned me that they were probably going to read it and she wanted my opinion about whether they should and if they do she wanted me to be prepared for H’s reactions. Let me summarize for you.

Based on a true story, the main character Hiram returns to Mississippi to visit his grandfather during the summer of 1955. While he’s there, a 14 year old black boy he has befriended named Emmitt Till is kidnapped, beaten, tortured, mutilated and murdered for speaking (maybe “flirting”) with an adult white woman. The woman’s husband and another man are put on trial. The book is told from the perspective of Hiram, who struggles with whether he should speak up, whether he could have defended or warned Emmitt, and whether he should testify.

What is outstanding about the book is the internal struggle happening in Hiram.  For the record I’ve told the teacher that I think they NEED to read this book.

What is alarming, bringing tears to my eyes, is the absolute justification of white people in the book. There is a repeated attitude of the boy getting what he had coming for disrespecting the whites, for being “out of line” and for “not knowing his place”. These were acceptable reasons to kill a boy! It’s a startling reminder of where our country was not that long ago. This happened within my (fairly young) parent’s lifetimes. That a black person’s life was less valuable, less worthy, less everything. Certainly black lives were worth less than white anger and white fear.

Then this morning, it struck me. This sounds eerily familiar. This is now. Yesterday and today.

A white man fired on a car full of black boys because of their “thug music” in a public place and their refusal to turn it down, killing Jordan Davis. He drove away, drove home and ordered a pizza. To fire 10 shots, drive away and resume life as normal you have to think you were doing what was right, right? It has sounded to me like the justification of “they didn’t know their place”. And I’m hearing people defend him. Of course it’s reminiscent of Trayvon Martin and how he was in a place where someone thought he didn’t belong – based solely on his skin. I’m going to contend that we can’t be surprised about these kinds of events while white people are still using and accepting the defense that a person’s race is a reason to be scared of them. And we can’t be surprised as long as disrespect or “he didn’t know his place” or “he was out of line” or “he needed to learn” are valid reasons to kill someone. Again, black lives are worth less than white anger and white fear.

As a side note, some people are arguing the legal nature of these cases, the logic of the jury, the arguments made or the charges brought. My response to you is this: If you believe for one second that a black man shooting at a car full of white boys wouldn’t have been found guilty on all counts (and probably assigned the death penalty) then you are beyond naive. If you believe that a black man stalking, engaging and shooting at a white teenager walking down the street in a neighborhood where he didn’t seem to belong wouldn’t be found guilty on all counts (and also probably assigned the death penalty) then you are beyond denial. It comes down to this: whether the person of color is the victim or the aggressor, theirs is the life we prefer throw away. Even when we have to be hypocrites to do it.

Rosa Parks, when she refused to move from her bus seat, sparking a nationwide civil rights movement, said that it was Emmitt Till’s death a few months before – and the freedom of his murderers – that made her do the thing she hadn’t done before, that it caused her “to participate in the cry for justice and equal rights.” His death is little talked about, but motivated one previously unknown woman’s action, thus sparking a movement.

I want to know who will be the one person, one previously unknown person, who will do the thing they haven’t done before. I want to know who will now stand up and participate in the cry for justice and equal rights. I want to know who will no longer buy into being scared of a skin color, who will stop believing that a whole group of people are worthless. You or I could be this generation’s Rosa.

Emmitt and You and I.
Tagged on: