Let the People See: Emmett Till, and Why They Don’t See

A new book about Emmett Till, Let the People See, [i] aims to explore “not just history but memory”.  Elliott J. Gorn says Emmett Till’s story “keeps resurfacing in unexpected times and places …  [and] like the dark Tallahatchie river, gives up its secrets in its own time”. It’s not true.

Stories don’t give up secrets in their own time. History reveals secrets when we care about what those secrets explain. And the relevant sort of caring often involves loss and sacrifice.

Gorn writes that “how people have told the Emmett Till story over the years depended upon why they were telling it”.  Of course. But he explains the meandering of historical memory as if it’s just that: meandering.

Till, 14, was abducted, beaten and shot in August 1955, his body sunk in the Tallahatchie River. His mother, Mamie Till Bradley, insisted on an open casket because she wanted to “let the people see what they did to my boy”.  It was the “first great media event of the Civil Rights movement”.

But it is no surprise that Till disappeared until 70s feminist Susan Brownmiller brought the story back through sexual stereotypes. Angela Davis’ exposure of such lies was not a twist of the Tallahatchie River. It was political struggle. Davis sacrificed for an uncomfortable truth: that some in a “free” society are non-people, killed with impunity.

And there’s the rub. Davis fought for truth. North American academics typically don’t believe in it, at least not moral truths.[ii] They talk about “myths and fictions”: stories that come and go, like bends in a river. Easy.

Gorn’s aim is to take Till’s story seriously. But he gives truth and spectacle the same status. The book ends at the Smithsonian. A chapel-like room hosts a memorial casket described as “profound”, “sacred” and the “holy of holies”. Spectacle is easy. Truth, when it matters, is not.

The truth about truth is that you cannot discover it – that is, you cannot learn what you did not previously expect – without loss and sacrifice. This is because what you expect is part of what you live and who you are. It limits imagination. It’s why George Orwell said popular opinion is a greater threat to freedom of thought and expression than authoritarian government. [iii]

Jean Paul Sartre knew it. In “Black Orpheus” (1948), an essay about Caribbean and African poets, Sartre said Europeans would not understand such poetry just by reading. Sartre knew, because he read Marx—and philosophers of science now know very well – that how we understand depends on who we are.

And who we think we are, which may be wrong. We may, for instance, have a false idea about our superiority. It may be presupposed, that is, lived, not recognized, just taken for granted. If we also maintain the false belief that we are free when we look to ourselves, living “from the inside,” we live lies: about ourselves.

We live lies and call it “freedom”.

Thus, Sartre wrote in a preface to Frantz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth that “liberal hypocrisy” hides from Europeans not just the dehumanization of others but that of Europeans. Reading Fanon, Sartre wrote, we know “step by step, the dialectic that liberal hypocrisy hides from you and is as much responsible for our existence as for [that of the colonized]”.

It is a dialectic well-known to philosophers from the South. They weren’t necessarily Marxist, but they couldn’t help noticing that the individualism of the North does not promote the development of individuals. This is precisely because, as argued by the between-centuries Cuban philosopher, Enrique José Varona, it hides the very dialectic Sartre mentions: between individuals and society.

Varona noticed a paradox: liberal individualism denies individualism.[iv] This is because when you are ignorant of dialectic, you think of yourself in social terms without knowing you do. You define yourself according to social expectations, ignorantly: You look “inside” and start from there.

You don’t know lo humano. It takes work. Varona knew this because he knew imperialism. He and independentistas before him – José Agustín Caballero, Félix Varela, Luz y Caballero, Martí – knew what Sartre pointed out in mid-twentieth century: that “liberal hypocrisy” hides a dialectic crucial to truth.

That truth was about them: their humanity. And it is about Emmett Till.

Till died in a society driven by greed and profit. That’s one truth. But it is also true that, more than sixty years later, that society still calls itself “free”, falsely. Even its fiercest critics, calling themselves “anti-authoritarian”, call it “free”, knowing full well that it’s the only place on the planet where kids regularly shoot classmates dead while studying in school.

Hatred is not freedom for the simple reason that it destabilizes the mind. You can’t think clearly. It’s known by philosophers in many cultures. A new book, Leadership and the Rise of Great Powers (Princeton University Press April 8, 2019), drawing on (Chinese) realist philosophy, acknowledging – god forbid – moral truths, argues that humane leadership helps explain international influence.

Unfortunately, the author, Yan Xuetong, thinks more adequate ideology – replacing liberalism – will come from the US. It is not likely. It will come from the South. Varona, and those of his anti-imperialist tradition, centuries-long, have had more direct experience with lies that matter: about lo humano.

In “Black Orpheus” Sartre describes Caribbean and African poetry as a “hymn by everyone for everyone”. That is, the message is universal, containing truths. Anti-authoritarian liberals don’t hearthatstory, which is aboutstories, and how some – about freedom, for instance – are lies.  The reason is the arbitrary authority, mostly denied and unrecognized, of those who equate spectacle and truth.


[i] Oxford University Press, October 2018

[ii] E.g. Dallas Willard, The Disappearance of Moral Knowledge

[iii] 1943. The freedom of the press. http://orwell.ru/library/novels/Animal_Farm/english/efp_go

[iv] E.g. Enrique Ubieta Gómez Ensayos de identidad (Havana 1993) 172f.

Susan Babbitt is author of Humanism and Embodiment (Bloomsbury 2014).