Wednesday, April 20, 2016

His Soul is Rising: Visiting Scholar Michelle Martin's Lecture

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?

The prevalence of violence in our society, from gut-churning brutality in in TV shows like “Game of Thrones” to grim news reports saturating radio shows and news stations, is considered a norm, while also having a numbing effect on our minds. Michelle Martin’s research is focused on how Y.A. texts are engaging young adults more than ever, especially historical fiction about Emmett Till’s lynching. One such book is Chris Crowe’s Mississippi Trial, 1955 and the historical nonfiction companion Getting Away with Murder: The True Story of the Emmett Till Case. These intricate texts of blackness, she notes, are a critical site of resistance and transformation and, thus, important mediations between young readers because they combat sensationalism and clear up inaccuracies surrounding the trial and Emmett Till himself. Bringing this awareness to picture books, on the other hand, is more difficult. Poet laureate Marilyn Nelson wrote A Wreath for Emmett Till as a narrative poem especially for young readers in the the Italian sonnet style, in an effort to try to find the right words without mitigating the reality of Emmett Till’s death. It serves as a remembrance of Till’s murder, his mother’s loss, and the memory of other countless victims that suffered through these atrocities. It’s worth noting that these sequences of sonnets are interlinked and called a “crown of sonnets”—a heroic “crown” for Emmett Till that harkens to the wreath in the book’s title.

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!

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