The tragic killing of Trayvon Martin, the black seventeen-year-old who was mistaken for a prowler by a self-proclaimed Neighborhood Watch guard and gunned down, has me thinking of Emmett Till, another black teenager killed many years ago. Both boys were killed after innocent shopping expeditions. Emmett’s “crime” was supposedly whistling at a white woman while Trayvon’s (according to Fox commentator Geraldo Rivera) was wearing a hoodie. Emmett’s killers escaped justice and, given Florida’s “stand your ground” law that allows you to shoot someone if you feel yourself threatened, Trayvon’s killer may as well.
Emmett’s horrendous killing in 1955 helped spur the Civil Rights movement. Perhaps Trayvon’s killing can get us to start to doing something about our increasing laxity regarding guns and gun violence. But that’s for the future. At the moment, we can only mourn a beautiful life snuffed out.
Many poems have been written about Emmett, just as poems may some day be written about Trayvon. Here’s a simple one by former Connecticut poet laureate Marilyn Nelson, written in 2005 50 years after the event, that focuses on Emmett’s youth. Which is what grabs us about Trayvon as well.
Emmett Till’s name still catches in my throat
By Marilyn Nelson
like syllables waylaid in a stutterer’s mouth.
A fourteen-year-old stutterer, in the South
to visit relatives and to be taught
the family’s ways. His mother had finally bought
that White Sox cap; she’d made him swear an oath
to be careful around white folks. She’d told him the truth
of many a Mississippi anecdote:
Some white folks have blind souls. In his suitcase
she’d packed dungarees, T-shirts, underwear,
and comic books. She’d given him a note
for the conductor, waved to his chubby face,
wondered if he’d remember to brush his hair.
Her only child. A body left to bloat.