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By Jorge E. Ambacher
“Rosemary for remembrance,” Shakespeare wrote. With those words, Marilyn Nelson begins her powerful elegy poem “A Wreath for Emmett Till.” Through her 15 powerful stanzas, Nelson recalls the crime that shocked the world in 1955.
Emmett Till, a 14-year-old African American boy from Chicago, was brutally beaten, tortured, and shot by a white mob in Mississippi after a white girl accused Till of “offending” her.
As Nelson recalls the monstrous events surrounding Till’s murder, she uses flowers and nature to guide her powerful message of justice. “What should my wreath for Emmett Till denote?/ First, heliotrope, for justice shall be done./ Daisies and white lilacs, for innocence./ The mandrake: horror (wearing a white hood, or bare-faced, laughing).”
Sadly, many of our youth today do not know Emmett Till’s name. Out of all my classes, roughly 50 students, none knew about Till. Although many students know who George Floyd is and respect movements pursuing justice, such as Black Lives Matter, almost none are educated about the troubled history of America.
History is inescapable. History is a part of us and will always influence our present. It is no marvel that students have not heard of Till, George Stinney or other African Americans – but more importantly Americans – because the textbooks they have studied refuse to revisit nightmares of American racism.
Students are educated about slavery, Jim Crow Laws, and the civil rights movement. Nevertheless, students are not forced to reckon with the history that is a part of them, regardless of their ethnicity. Our youth today witnesses injustice daily, whether across the border or through news headlines while perusing social media. How exactly can our youth respond to injustice? How exactly can our youth educate themselves about past injustices and therefore reckon with their history?
Revisiting Nelson’s “A Wreath for Emmett Till” in her powerful collection of poetry “Faster than Light,” she brilliantly uses history to guide most of her poetry. Her elegy dedicated to Till powerfully introduces her strong and articulate poetic voice. Nelson also dedicates her poetry to
the Tuskegee Airmen, the Sweethearts of Rhythm, and to Fortune, a slave whose skeleton was used by his master, Dr. Preserved Porter, as a teaching tool. Indeed, Nelson contemplates every facet of American history, using poetry as a means of reckoning.
Therefore, Nelson highlights in “A Wreath for Emmett Till,” how history (more explicitly, white history) has drowned Emmett Till’s name. Nelson contemplates a world where Till would have thrived, and a world where he would have been remembered fondly:
“Let America remember what he taught./ Or at least let him die in a World Trade Tower/rescuing others, that unforgettable day, that memory of monsters, that bleak thought.”
Nelson’s powerful hypothetical while inciting 9/11 reveals the “Janus face” that America has. Indeed, I cannot recall another event in contemporary American History where everyone in America – regardless of the color of their skin or background – was united.
Tragedy bridged every American on 9/11. It is infuriating that through the myriad of tragedies in the early 20h century, especially all those souls who lost their life because of the color of their skin, cannot be remembered as we remember victims of terrorism.
Students and our youth are not to blame for being uneducated on such aspects of American history. Therefore, as I pondered a lesson regarding Emmett Till, Nelson’s poem proved more powerful and more evocative than just a simple Britannica read.
As my creative writing students read Nelson’s powerful poem, they were forced to contemplate the horrors surrounding Till’s world and the contemporary horrors America still faces. Moreover, through poetry, students educated themselves on American History. I couldn’t help but think what if every history lesson proved poetic?
“My country, ’tis of both thy nightmare history and thy grand dream,/ thy centuries of good and evil deeds,/ I sing.”
Indeed, poetry is history, and history is poetic. Homer’s epic poems are still relevant today. Poetry and history are synonymous because poetry is creating an original and creative response to daily events that trouble or delight the human psyche.
After reading Nelson’s poem, students researched a historical event where justice was denied. A common theme for many students is the saddening femicides that have plagued Mexico for too long.
While reading my students’ poems, their pathos is palpable through every line and every metaphor/simile. Students not only brilliantly responded to history but used poetry as a means of responding. What better way to reckon with history than through the most evocative means of writing?
Once students are put in the shoes of those who were denied justice, of those whose names have been forgotten and bleached by history, they begin to understand and empathize. Above all, students understand that by responding to history and using their own beautiful thoughts as a means of justice they are indirectly loving.
By preserving the memory of those who were denied justice, students immortalize the voices of the voiceless in their own unique voice. It takes love to research, ponder, and respond to tragedy. It must take love, because, although such themes may be morbid and prove disquieting, something deep inside their heart is telling them that they must respond.
Therefore, students are practicing justice in its grandest form. After all, as Cornel West emphasizes, “Justice is what love looks like in public.”
Indirectly, it is beautiful to be a witness to creation daily through my students’ powerful prose and poetry. It is a blessing to witness the next generation of poets and activists that will change the world one word, one metaphor, one simile at a time, making history.
“We can speak now, or bear unforgettable shame. Rosemary for remembrance,” Shakespeare wrote.
Jorge E. Ambacher is the English Language Arts and Reading, ELAR, teacher at Father Yermo High School.