Scholar Michelle Martin opened her lecture, “Lynching 101: Young Adult Primers on the Murder of Emmett Till, at SDSU’s Love Library with a sobering, bluesy ballad, “The Ballad of Emmett Till” from playwright Ifa Bayeza:
“Come on let me tell yuh the tale of Emmett Till / Though they put his body down / His soul is rising.”
Introduced by Dr. Joseph Thomas, who described her as “clear-eyed, elegant, and aesthetically nuanced,” Michelle Martin tackled the horrifying truth of the brutal 1955 murder in Mississippi—which helped spark the Civil Rights Movement—of 14-year-old Emmett Till. With 2016 marking of the 61st anniversary of Till’s brutal murder and the American political climate as divided as it has ever been, Martin described ways to include our country’s horrifying past of slavery and objectification in children’s literature. A line is drawn in considering the way that children’s texts often rework sensitive topics, such as racism, to be less authentic as an attempt to protect children. And with this, an inevitable question arises: How, then, does one tell the truth?
In the end, telling and retelling these stories—of Emmett Till, of Eric Garner, of Trayvon Martin—decreases the power of the perpetrators. The contemporary erasure or retelling of Black history is an unsettling commonality due to white privilege and speaks to a need for more accurate narratives of our history. And may those narratives start in young children’s books and young adult novels, and may they propel future generations into action.
Dr. Martin’s visit definitely gave the NCSCL some really intelligent ideas to muse over until next year’s visiting scholar. We thank her for her time and inspiration!