Emmet Till Murder
Rewriting History: The Murder of Emmett Till in Lewis Nordan’s Wolf Whistle
Lewis Nordan’s Wolf Whistle is probably the best known fictional account of the murder of Emmett Till for racist reasons in 1955. Although Nordan does preserve the main lines of the true history in his book, the story is far from being a mere historical description. Wolf Whistle is not, as one would expect, a grave story that chills through its realism. Instead, Nordan employs a widely-used postcolonial style, in which historical facts, magical realism and a very rich symbolism blend effectively. Naturally, these story-telling techniques help to create a complex reality that manages to rewrite history in a meaningful way by pinpointing the tensions behind the actual historical conflicts.
Wolf Whistle retraces the murder of Emmett Till, a fourteen-year-old black boy who had come from Chicago to Money, a small town in Mississippi, to visit his relatives. Nordan maintains the main events that actually took place: Emmett, named Bobo in the story, is tortured and lynched after having supposedly whistled at a white woman in a shop. The real case of Emmett Till is considered one of the main events that triggered the Civil Rights Movement that took place a few years later. Not only was this a case of ghastly murder based on race hatred, but the two criminals that committed it, Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam, were acquitted after the trial despite their obvious guilt. In an attempt to draw the public’s attention to the great atrocities committed in the name of race hatred, Emmett’s mother, Mamie Till Bradley exposed the mutilated body of her son in an open casket for four days, to let the press take pictures and to let the world see the reality. Nordan keeps the main events as known by traditional history but also enriches the text with elements and techniques that shed a new light on the real story.
Wolf Whistle achieves much more than traditional history could in this case precisely because it recreates the past and the people that had taken part in this event. The past in enlivened through the story and the racial and social tensions existing in the South at that time can be thus better understood. There are numerous techniques and devices that the author employs to give shape and meaning to the historical context. Nordan is especially able to do this because he was almost the same age as Emmett Till and grew up in a town which was very close to the place where these things took place. His familiarity with the people and the place allow him to recreate the story in a realistic but also very symbolic way. As the author himself emphasized, his familiarity to these events created a feeling of responsibility in him, as a member of the white community that, in a way, shared the guilt with the two murderers for discriminating against the black community. Nordan also emphasized that the book, as a final product, actually surprised him as an author because it played with elements of the fantastic: “It was not the Emmett Till story but a phantasmagoria based upon history’s broadest outlines…. Animals spoke, nature wept, dead eyes saw, monsters and angels roamed the Delta flatscape on some other planet…. I had become a magical realist, and was grateful to Latin America for making me possible.” (Taylor, 443) the magical realism that the author employs may seem to distance the story from the plain historical facts, but what it actually does is to recreate that reality and complete the factual events with the sociological and human aspects. According to Art Taylor, Nordan’s technique of magical realism is especially significant since he uses it to outline the crucial and dramatic moments of the novel: “Through magical realism, Nordan found himself finally able to untangle that reality and to forge some peace with the past. Throughout Wolf Whistle, magical realism appears at moments of extreme tension or outright horror.” (Taylor, 448) as Taylor observes, through the use of magical realism, Nordan manages to reclaim the past and arrange the events in a new, significant light: “The act of rewriting the official history is a means of reclaiming the past and achieving a different future. Throughout Wolf Whistle, Nordan has used moments of magical realism to play with the contours of narrative time, to place the events of this novel within a historical continuum, and to establish them as integral to that history both by looking back toward the origins of modern Southern society.”(Taylor, 449) Punctuated by symbolism and magical realism, the narrative becomes authentic precisely because it is a vivid description of the human and social reality. Nordan thus brings new events and new characters to give shape to this reality. The character of Solon Gregg who is most likely J.W. Milam in reality, is very complex and very significant. His attitude towards the black community is a pertinent example of the problems underlying racial identity. Moreover, his cruelty towards his own family and the attempt for revenge on the part of his son Glenn are important additions to the initial story. The way in which Sally-Ann Montberclair (the character that stands for Carolyn Bryant, the woman that Emmett Till supposedly whistled at) is portrayed is also very significant, as she is far from appearing respectable. Other characters, such as the slightly disabled white boy, Smoky Viner, serve to emphasize important aspects about race as well.
The event that triggers the tragedy in the book is also emphasized through the author’s additions and through his use of magical realism as a story-telling technique. Thus, the episode is rendered through Solon’s perspective. Solon’s prejudices and supremacist racial attitude are all the more significant since he is himself discriminated because of being poor. As a poor white man, Solon is part of the “white trash” class as Montberclair himself will emphasize. Discrimination thus becomes something that is perpetuated and transmitted from one group to another. Solon is discriminated by those holding a superior social status and he, in his turn, discriminates against the black community out of the need to reassert his identity. Interestingly, as he observes the white lady coming into the shop, Solon is far from regarding her as an emblem of the feminine ideal. At the time, the South had a well-known cult for this feminine ideal of the Southern woman, who was supposed to be extremely untainted and highly respectable. But Sally Anne Montberclair is almost indecent as she walks in the store seemingly wearing only a trench and her slippers, with her hair disheveled and without wearing any make-up. Solon notices all this and his thoughts towards her are decisively not those of respect: “She won’t wearing no makeup, eyes looking like a raccoon, make you want to kiss her right on the durn mouth.” (Nordan, 26) Moreover, when the white lady openly declares her purpose in coming to the shop- buying some tampons- the erotic reaction of the men towards her becomes even more evident. All this changes however when Bobo comes in the shop to buy two packages of gum and whistles the lady after having been challenged by his friends outside. Solon and the other men that hear him become suddenly enraged and prone on protecting the integrity of the white lady that had been threatened by the boy’s indecency. From Solon’s attitude and his speech it is evident that what he needs actually is to reassert his racial superiority in front of the black boys. As Brannon Costello indicates, Solon feels the need to emphasize his “whiteness,” which is used here as a special right to superiority: “Solon uses the defense of the ideal of Southern white womanhood — in the person of Lady Sally Anne Montberclair, Poindexter’s wife — that his sister has disrupted- to reaffirm his ‘whiteness,’ and he uses Bobo, a fourteen-year-old African-American boy from Chicago, as a foil.”(Costello, 215) These additions that the author makes to the initial story are therefore very important as they point to the general atmosphere in the South at that time, and to the prejudices and race hatred that was the general mood of the time.
As a poor white, Solon is moreover envious and frustrated when he sees the black boy wearing better clothes than his own. His close observation of the boy’s attire is significant because it focuses on the external appearance and the power this can exert from a social point-of-view: “Wore him a white shirt, too, like a natural man, Bobo did […] had him a tie knotted up and the collar, tied it his ownself […] and a wide-brimmed felt hat pushed back on his head, and a big-ass gold ring look like a walnut on his finger.” (Nordan, 23) the clothes, like the color of the skin, have the power to change the statue of an individual in society. Feeling his identity threatened, Solon needs to reassert his “whiteness,” which, in his view, has to make him infinitely superior. Thus, Nordan does not only give an account of this main event in the true story of Emmett Till, but adds important information about the characters involved to stress the reality of the social tensions that existed at that time in the South. Besides the extensive use of magical realism, Nordan also employs several “blues strategies” to structure his narrative, as Baker points out: “In Wolf Whistle, Nordan uses several blues strategies, not the least of which is the blues technique of playing through the break, to explore the interracial implications of the Emmett Till story.”(Baker, 48) the blues technique is also important because it is obviously used as a means of recreating the story within an African-American tradition. Actually, at the very moment of Bobo’s fatal whistle, there is a blues singer on the porch of the store that accompanies the events with his music: “The blues singer on the porch sang that he had to keep moving to stay out of the path of the blues, he sang that the blues were falling all around him like hail… there was a hellhound on his trail, a hellhound on his trail.” (Nordan, 31) the blues therefore contextualize the story even more, while laying a special emphasis on the African-American tradition. The narrative itself seems to swing and pace in the rhythm of blues sometimes, and Nordan is thus able to recreate the atmosphere and reassert the African-American identity.
As the story proceeds towards the kidnapping and the murder of the child, Nordan makes even more use of magical realism. Thus, relying on the basic facts of Emmett Till’s mutilation, Nordan recreates the image of the tortured body with one of the eyes knocked from its socket. The dead eye is able to see the world in a whole new and wonderful way, that the child himself couldn’t have seen: “The eye that Solon’s bullet had knocked from its socket […] saw the world as if his seeing were accompanied by an eternal music […] saw what Bobo could not see in life, transformation, angels and devils, worlds invisible to him before death.”(Nordan, 175) the wonders seen by the dead eye are significant because they allude at the way in which such a dreadful and violent act of murder can affect our perception of reality and bring to attention the fundamental aspects of reality. The finding of the dead body again prompts an explosion of magical realism in the narrative. Thus, the whole of nature seems to be affected and to suffer, and the image of the mutilated body suddenly transforms into that of the living, bright boy, innocent and hopeful: “The atmosphere rarified. Birds fell from the air. Cattle toppled over in a field. Car motors stalled on the highway. The body of the Bobo-child, dressed in a heavy garment offish and turtles and violent death, reversed all its decay, and flesh became firm once more, eyes snapped back into sockets and became bright, bones unbroke themselves, feet became swift, laughter erupted like music, and bad manners and disrespect and a possessive disdain for a woman became mere child’s play, a normal and decent testing of adolescent limits in a hopeful world.” (Nordan, 208-209) Through the use of magical realism, Nordan emphasizes the effect that the image of the murder and of the pictures published in magazines with Emmett’s mutilated body has had on human consciousness in general. Trough these devices therefore, the author hints at the aftermath of the dreadful story and the wave of awareness that it managed to create towards the incredible injustice done to an innocent boy.
Lewis Nordan employs therefore numerous narrative devices and additions to the original historical account of the events accompanying the murder of Emmett Till so as to complete the factual reality with the social and the human aspect that would be harder to understand otherwise. His narrative therefore is not only a historical account but a recreation of the past, which helps to shed light and meaning on the real events.
Baker, Barbara a. “Riffing on Memory and Playing Through the Break: Blues in Lewis Nordan’s Music of the Swamp and Wolf Whistle.” Southern Quarterly, Spring 2003
Costello, Brannon. “Poor white trash, great white hope: race, class, and the (de)construction of whiteness in Lewis Nordan’s Wolf Whistle.” CRITIQUE: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 45.2 (2004): 207(17)
Metress, Christopher. “No Justice, No Peace’: The Figure of Emmett Till in African-American Literature.”MELUS, vol. 28, 2003.
Nordan, Lewis. Wolf Whistle. Chapel Hill: Algonquin, 1993
Taylor, Art. “Magical Realism and the Mississippi Delta.” Mississippi Quarterly, Vol. 57, 2004