Have you read Scott Russell Sanders’ “The Men We Carry in Our Minds”? The essay begins with a conversation between Sanders and a friend, a woman named Anneka. He remarks to her, “This must be a hard time to be a woman…. They have so many paths to choose from, and so many voices calling them.” Her reply–that she feels bad for men–surprises him. She explains: “The women I know feel excited, innocent, like crusaders in a just cause. The men I know are eaten up with guilt.” I’m wondering who these men Anneka hangs out with are as she tells Sanders, “I wouldn’t be a man for anything. It’s much easier being the victim. All the victim has to do is break free. The persecutor has to live with his past.”
The rest of the essay unpacks that, considering class in a way that makes the essay very teachable to poor white students who struggle to understand intersectionality, but it’s that line about how being the victim is easier than being the perpetrator that has stuck with me. I don’t think it’s true–I’d rather have your $1 than my 77 cents, and I suppose black people would like to be the ones living longer, wealthier, healthier, and safer–but I get the point. Of course, we suffer moral injury when we hurt others, but this isn’t just about a person’s individual past but our collective pasts, not just the history of your family or mine but of the white people to whom we are related if not through genes then through inherited privilege.
What we do with those histories is one question. What we aren’t allowed to do with them is another, and that’s the one you focus on with the example of Dana Schultz’s painting of Emmett Till in his casket. Protesters have blocked the painting from view, and some African American artists have called for the painting by Schultz, a white woman, to be removed from the Whitney and destroyed. (I had to pay careful attention to my own immediate response to the call for the destruction of the painting. It was, not surprisingly, a big “F-Off, Liberal Fascists.” Then I had to think about what I would need to feel in order to want to destroy a piece of artwork, for me to overcome my love of free speech. If I assume that Schultz’s protesters also love the First Amendment, then what do they have to be suffering in order to throw it aside?)
Above, a photo of Mamie Till crying over the casket of her son, 14-year-old Emmett, who was murdered by two white men after being accused of whistling at the wife of one of them. Both men were acquitted of the murder by an all-white jury and later admitted to committing the crime.
Schultz was kind, if a bit naive, in her response. She said: “I don’t know what it is like to be black in America but I do know what it is like to be a mother. Emmett was Mamie Till’s only son. The thought of anything happening to your child is beyond comprehension. Their pain is your pain. My engagement with this image was through empathy with his mother.”
But, of course, Mamie Till wasn’t just a mother; she was a black mother to a black son. How close can a white woman who mothers a white son be to a black woman who mothers a black son? Is that answer different today than it was in the summer of 1955 when Emmett Till was murdered? Can her pain belong to anyone but her? If so, how far beyond black motherhood can it travel?
Art helps us bridge our differences, which is why fascists hate it and why kids who read Harry Potter are more empathetic than those who don’t. But, of course, we have to walk across the bridge it provides, too, exercising what Michael Eric Dyson calls our “civic imagination” and doing what you call “empathetic shovel-work.”
We will never do it perfectly, because our experiences do not correspond perfectly with the experiences of other people, and we can’t always guess which of our differences may matter. We can only be gentle in our efforts to understand, hoping that others will gracious in accepting our attempts but also recognizing that we may be forestalled. And when our efforts–as white people trying to get the hang of this–are rejected, we need to respect that it could be that those who are rejecting us are smart not to trust us.
That might sound discouraging for white people trying to address their history of hate, but there is good news. You don’t have to have the same experience as someone or someone else to right; you don’t even have to feel empathy to do right. You don’t have to have daughters to think sexual assault against women is wrong. You don’t have to have a child to cry for Emmett Till or Alan Kurdi–or to oppose racial violence, war, and oppression.
It’s actually pretty easy to feel for Mamie Till. The harder work for white people is to own up to feeling like JW Milam, Roy Bryant, and Carolyn Bryant, to turn our eyes away from Till’s body, as rendered in photographs and painting, and to turn them toward ourselves, our own histories, and our own complicity, today, in actions and systems that kill black children.
Yesterday, the Jackson, Mississippi Clarion-Ledger reported that the Justice Department is considering reopening the Emmett Till case. In his last days in office, President Obama signed an expansion of the Emmett Till Civil Rights Crimes Reauthorization Act of 2016, which authorizes the FBI to investigate Civil Rights cold cases. White people should, of course, cheer this on–while remembering that we are the reason these crimes happened.
To learn more about the life of Emmett Till, consider engaging the Emmett Till Memory Project.