Pamela Newkirk is the author of “Spectacle: The Astonishing Life of Ota Benga.”
John Edgar Wideman was 14, the same age as Emmett Till, when Till was abducted, beaten, shot, tied to a cotton gin fan and thrown into Mississippi’s Tallahatchie River for allegedly whistling at a white woman.
That was in 1955, and for decades the acclaimed author of the novel “Philadelphia Fire” and the memoir “Brothers and Keepers” remained haunted by the bludgeoned brown face of Till, captured in a photograph sanctioned by the boy’s mother. Mamie Till wanted the world to see “what they did to my baby,” but the two men tried in his death were acquitted. For Wideman, the plot thickened when he learned that 10 years earlier, the boy’s 23-year-old father, Louis Till, a World War II Army private stationed in Italy, was accused of rape and murder and hanged by the U.S. military.
The twin tragedies, both evoking the mythology of black male lust for white women, sent Wideman to the archives and Louis Till’s grave site in France in an attempt to reconstruct the story surrounding his court-martial, conviction and execution. The result is “Writing to Save a Life: The Louis Till File,” a searching tale of loss, recovery and deja vu that is part memoir and what-if speculation, part polemic and exposé.
At times melancholy, at others raw and rippling with rage, Wideman masterfully weaves together memory, history and archival documents with letters and conversations he imagines to capture the cruel irony of the Tills’ fate. He employs literary license to fill the void of the silences in the record. Pretending to be a fly on the wall of history, Wideman places himself on a boat of Confederate soldiers rowed by slaves and in Louis Till’s death row isolation cell in Metato, Italy. Wideman at times conflates dates, times and episodes to underscore that while throughout history the details and circumstances have changed, the fate of blacks has not.
But he returns again and again to the documentary facts of the Louis Till file, which he obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request with the U.S. Court of Criminal Appeals in Arlington, Va. But as he pores over the copious documents, Wideman struggles to sort out the truth. Time and again, he is thwarted by a jumbled chronology, conflicting testimony and a host of unasked questions that do more to muddle than to clarify what actually transpired. The military did not produce a murder weapon, nor did the victims provide positive identification of the suspects. Till’s voice also is missing from the file. Nonetheless, he was executed by “judicial asphyxiation” on July 2, 1945, and buried in a grave for dishonorable soldiers.
“Louis Till,” Wideman writes, “an orphan in his file, just as he’d started life as an orphan in New Madrid, Missouri. Guilty of being nobody long before a court-martial tries and convicts him, delivers his death sentence. He is born a colored orphan, and he dies one. A nobody. No voice, no room for Till inside or outside the file’s pages.”
Till was among the black soldiers who Wideman found were disproportionately convicted of rape. “The logic of southern lynch law prevailed,” Wideman says. “All colored males are guilty of desiring to rape white women, so any colored soldier the agents hanged could not be innocent.”
Wideman travels to the American Cemetery and Memorial in Oise-Ainse, France, and finds Till’s grave in Plot E, a cramped, secluded lot set aside for dishonorable and executed U.S. soldiers. Tellingly, 83 of the 96 identical 4-by-4-inch flat stones bearing only numbers mark the graves of African Americans. “No future is conceivable in Plot E,” he says, “only endless, gray repetition, unhappy flashbacks collapsing into more unhappy flashbacks.”
In his rendering, the fates of father and son seem as unremarkable as those of the countless black men today caught in a centuries-long cycle of mass incarceration and unprosecuted police killings. Given the vulnerability of black life, he says Louis Till could have easily been his own father, who served in World War II during the same period; and Wideman himself, young Emmett, who left Chicago to visit Southern relatives only to return in a box. “Him colored, me colored,” Wideman says, recalling his reaction upon seeing the boy’s mangled face in Jet magazine in 1955. “Him a boy, me too. Him so absolutely dead he’s my death, too.” At another point, he writes: “I’m afraid Louis Till might be inside me. Afraid that someone looking for Louis Till is coming to pry me apart.”
Whether recalling a family reunion when the misfortune of another relative comes to light or the tragedy that befell the Tills, Wideman is unsettled by the continuing defilement of black life. “Don’t start the count,” he writes. “The goddamn countdown. Lurid statistics a mantra of white noise. Nobody hears the appalling, shameful numbers anymore anyway. How many dead. How many trapped and dying. On principle I refuse to repeat the daunting statistics or say the word genocide. Suspicious of people who do and do nothing.”
During his inquiry, Wideman concludes that the truth is not determined by facts but rather by the whims and wishes of powerful whites. “Fair,” Wideman riffs. “When are facts fair. In a not fair world where facts are fictions, how could facts be fair. Why would they want to be. Even if they tried to be. In spite of such questions, I begin at the beginning. Read the file one more time. To be fair. To seek facts. To mix facts and fiction into something fairly believable.”
No matter how many times Wideman re-reads the file, the facts of Louis Till’s case elude him.
“I’m diminished by what I’ve learned,” he writes. “Any peace of mind I try to cobble together is mocked by power. Power that controls the record. Displays and deploys the record. Power that smirks at me. Power putting words in Louis Till’s mouth. Power imprisoning, executing colored soldiers, young colored men cut down war or no war. Power importantly clearing its throat, Hrrrrhumph, as it delivers the last word on Louis Till.”
The hand of power resurfaced when Louis Till’s file, stamped “Confidential” in 1945, was suddenly declassified 10 years later and leaked to the media. “Just in time,” Wideman writes, “to sabotage any likelihood a Mississippi grand jury might convene” and decide to try defendants J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant “on kidnapping charges.”
The well-timed revelation of Louis Till’s rape conviction planted the idea that the son was like the father and unworthy of justice. The men who were seen taking Emmett Till at gunpoint from his uncle’s home were exonerated. “The [Emmett] Till trial serves as an unacknowledged, abiding precedent. Again and again in courtrooms across America, killers are released as if colored lives they have snatched away do not matter.” By the end of Wideman’s investigation, the jagged pieces of fact and fiction and seemingly disassociated histories converge to form a devastatingly timeless portrait of black male desecration.
While too late for the Tills, Wideman says he seeks to somehow save others — his son, his brother, himself. If history is a guide, he will probably fall short. However, his haunting, provocative and inspired work nobly restores Louis Till’s plundered humanity while exposing the thread that holds centuries of seemingly isolated episodes together. In the process, we’re brought face to face with America’s age-old tolerance of injustice.
By John Edgar Wideman
Scribner. 193 pp. $25