Growing up in the Mississippi Delta, the murdered Emmett Till was everywhere and nowhere, absent yet walking among us. I’ve been needing to tell this story for years.
Mr. Milton had a knobby little place in his jaw that tensed in and out whenever he was forced to answer my question, look at me, or even acknowledge my presence in class.
I understood why, of course. In the history of the human race, had anyone ever been as hopeless at math as me? Even the tutor Daddy hired to help had no idea what to do with me.
Today’s the day, I’d promised myself so many times at the start of Mr. Milton’s math class.
I’m really gonna listen this time.
Learn to solve for x like any normal person.
20 minutes later I’d snap out of a daze and realize two things:
- That water stain on the ceiling hadn’t changed, after all. It was definitely still a goat on a bicycle popping a wheelie.
- At some point the class had moved on from solving for x. There was a worksheet on my desk with word problems waiting for answers. Usually, I tried to figure them out in my own way — without a formula — but it almost never worked.
Not that this kept me from the top classes, such as they were. As one of the few white kids in the West Tallahatchie County public schools in the early eighties, grades didn’t matter much when it came to placement.
We sat in the sweltering junior high auditorium seats on the first day of school every year, the smell of bat guano in our nostrils, waiting to be called up to our groups. If you were white, you landed in homeroom A or B for sure, no matter what. Even if you were as dumb as Buddy Rich, or me, for that matter.
White privilege? We didn’t have a name for it yet, but this was the Mississippi delta. Of course white skin came with privileges.
Though some of us were more privileged than others.
Most of the other kids in the community —the children of Baptists and Presbyterians — attended Strider, the local segregation academy set up when the schools desegregated, the same year I started first grade. I’d like to think my parents sent us to the public schools on moral grounds, but I know better. It was about the money, simple as that. No way to afford private school on a preacher’s salary.
My daddy pastored the Sumner Church of God, and we lived in the parsonage next door. A literal stone’s throw from the Tallahatchie County Courthouse, where fourteen year-old Emmett Till’s murderers had been found not guilty by an all-white jury back in the 1950s. Emmett was from up north, and might have made the mistake of flirting with a white woman in a grocery store.
A few nights later he was kidnapped, beaten, shot, and tossed in the Tallahatchie River with a cotton gin fan tied to his neck with barbed wire. Later, after they’d been found not guilty, the murderers bragged about the deed in a magazine article, for which were paid $4,000.
Not that I ever heard Emmett’s name back then. It was only years later — college, actually — when I learned about the trial. It was the biggest thing that ever happened around here, but you’d never know it. I never heard the word lynching used, either, not once.
In church we worshipped a real Jesus with a real body. This Jesus, the one we adored, had borne the whip and the lash. Bruised for our transgressions, wounded for our iniquities. Nailed to a goddamn cross. But racial violence? We never quite made the connection between His tortured body and theirs.
Not that God didn’t love black people. Sure, he did. Didn’t we sing it every week in Sunday School?
Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight. Jesus loves the little children of the world.
But if God had wanted the races to mix, why did he make us so different to begin with? That’s the answer any white adult I knew would have given. Not that the question was ever asked. Who would dare?