Memories Full of Bullet Holes: On Emmett Till and Saint Augustine

Money, Mississippi

 

Robert Hodges, seventeen years old, was checking trot lines from the water’s edge when he first saw Emmett Till’s feet break the surface of the Tallahatchie River. The rest of Till’s water-logged, mutilated body remained submerged from the weight of a cotton gin fan tied around his neck, hung up on the river bottom.

“Everybody knows what happened to Emmett Till in 1955,” Terrell tells me in front of his home in Glendora, Mississippi, just up the unpaved River Road from the muddy riverbank where Hodges first discovered the body. Terrell points to a sign marking the spot. It’s painted bright purple, labelled “The River Site.”

It is riddled with bullet holes.

I am not sure if Terrell is right. I don’t know if everyone knows what happened to Emmett Till, but around here they do. This corner of the Mississippi Delta has become a sort of crossroads of memory, where at least two currents of American culture intersect: the vigilant who want to keep alive the memory of Till’s violent lynching, and those who don’t. Despite its local significance here, “crossroads” may not be the best metaphor; a “roundabout” might be more apt, since the cycle of remembrance-oblivion seems to go around and around from everlasting to everlasting. Almost as soon as the Emmett Till Interpretive Center puts up a sign, it is shot up. As recently as three weeks ago, the Jackson Clarion-Ledger reported that the sign had been shot up for a third time, just thirty-five days after being re-erected.

As a whole, the South is a sprawling tourist site for students of Civil War and Civil Rights, a region where conflict seems to sprout up as involuntarily and irrepressibly as kudzu. But these two historical battles represent a more deeply-rooted conflict here, between alternative memories, competing accounts of history, and contradictory attitudes toward the past.

The South is torn between at least two (and probably many more) versions of history: on the one hand, the view expressed by the passage from Willam Faulkner’s Requiem for a Nun—“The past is never dead; it’s not even past”—a text cited with such frequency that it’s become almost as clichéd as a kudzu metaphor. On the other hand, there is the view expressed by an anonymous North Carolinian in the late V.S. Naipaul’s travel memoir, A Turn in the South: “We have had too much of the past.” Sometimes these two conflicting attitudes co-exist in the same town, the same neighborhood, or the same person.

A short film about the site, which I made last month while in Mississippi:

*  *  *

I’m no student of numerology, and I am not—I don’t think—natively superstitious. But lately the number 828 has been popping up with strange frequency.

Emmett Till was lynched on 8/28/1955. He was fourteen. In 1961, A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin began planning for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom to take place two years later. They eventually settled on the date: 8/28/1963. It was no coincidence that eight years to the day from Till’s murder, Martin Luther King, Jr., stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington and and proclaimed that, one hundred years after The Emancipation Proclamation, “the Negro is still not free.”

8/28 is also the feast day of St. Augustine of Hippo, a bishop and theologian from north Africa, one of the four great “Doctors” of the early Latin church. Augustine died on August 28th, 430, and his legacy remains wider, deeper, and more contested than perhaps that of any other figure in church history. He was an unusually prolific and imaginative thinker and writer. His first complete masterpiece, The Confessions, is by some accounts an early landmark in the genre of memoir. The book is a work of memory, but it is also a treatise about memory. After retracing the story of his life—or rather the story of God’s grace through Augustine’s life—for nine books, Augustine suddenly takes what seems to many to be a sudden turn, an optional detour from juicy autobiographical narrative into a highly abstract mini-treatise on the nature of memory. 

This is the point at which many people stop reading The Confessions. The first nine books are well-trod, but the final four are like unpaved road into a dense forest of metaphysical speculation. “Proceed at your own risk,” seems to be most teachers’ advice. But avoid at your own risk, too, because you’ll miss out on lines like: “Late have I loved you, beauty so old and so new.”

In Book Ten, Augustine pauses to reflect on what he has just done, to ask, what is this capacity that we have to recall—and forget—our own past? A student and teacher of rhetoric, Augustine used classical images of memory as a “great cavern” or a “vast hall” or stomach of the mind,” all common tropes in the ancient (and very popular) “art of memory” in the Latin West. For Augustine, memory was one of the most essential, and most mysterious, faculties of the human soul. “This power of memory is great, very great, my God,” he writes. “It is a vast and infinite profundity. Who has plumbed its bottom?” 

We are all sites of carefully curated memories, which often serve something less than a full and honest picture of ourselves. “I myself cannot grasp the totality of what I am,” Augustine writes. We are unfathomable, sometimes terrible, mysteries to ourselves:

“The human mind, so blind and languid, shamefully and dishonorably wishes to hide, and yet does not wish anything to be concealed from itself. But it is repaid on the principle that while the human mind lies open to the truth, truth remains hidden from it. Yet even thus, in its miserable condition, it prefers to find joy in true rather than in false things.”

It’s almost as if Augustine is talking about Emmett Till, and the way we (mis)remember him. Or not remember him at all: Till did not figure at all in my own education, and only later did I come to learn the details about his killing. It seems easier to hide from the truth about what happened to him, and the conditions that brought about his murder and led to his killers’ acquittal, and how those conditions still benefit some and harm others. The good news, for Augustine, is that we all naturally desire truth, even if it brings pain, because falsehood and deception are their own sorts of bondage. There is freedom—and joy—only in truth.

Salvation—literally, “well-being” in Augustine’s language—consists, at least in part, in a healed memory, a restored, unvarnished, #nofilter account of oneself. Salvation, in other words, subsists in truth.

So Augustine’s Confessions are an exercise in recollection and remembrance, gathering and putting back together the pieces of a fractured existence and offering them as a prayer to God, a confession both of waywardness and of gratitude.

Because regions are comprised of human beings, public memory in the South is always conflicted, too. Sometimes it is a confusing mixture of affirmation and inaction. As a teen I listened to the “I Have a Dream” speech repeatedly—especially its more stirring, unscripted bits near the end—but failed to ask what it might have to do with Emmett Till, what it might have to do with my city, what it really might have to do with me.

The remains of Bryant’s Grocery in Money, where Emmett Till met Carolyn Bryant, his accuser

*  *  *

828 is also my area code.

It’s come—strangely—to be shorthand for where I am these days, for the weird convergence of places and stories that now constitute my life. 

When I was first really exposed to The Confessions, I had this sense: “where has this been all my life?” Lately, I am experiencing a similar sense about other figures and episodes in my city’s—and my own family’s—history. I seem to keep circling back on a question that I pass by over an over again like a signpost on a roundabout (Big Ben, Parliament): “why am I just learning about this now?” 

There was a time in my own life, not so long ago, when I tried to help young people try to make sense of Augustine’s words, and maybe—of their own lives. Now, I find myself trying to do as he did: putting the fragments of a dismembered self back together again, attempting to recover the unremembered pieces of a life that seem so eager to speed away from me. To get off the roundabout, onto a different road.

Augustine was after something similar: a whole and full self that included the memory of both regretful faults and great joys, and the conflict between them. “Which side has the victory,”  he said, “I do not know.”

So 828 is a kind of sign for all that: the convergence of these stories, in this particular place, this area code, this moment in my own history. A shorthand for an urgent need to tell a fuller story of myself. Yet another draft, another revision, but one that includes Emmett Till and other people and truths that previous versions of myself left out. A reminder of all the signs I might have missed, ignored, built up or shot down.

 

 

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