Sympathy for the ‘White Devil’?

The Mystery Man from Lost Highway (David Lynch).

Oh the lines are long and the fighting is strong
And they’re breaking down the distance between right and wrong.

– Bob Dylan, “Ring Them Bells,” Oh Mercy

Recently, the story of 14-year-old Emmett Till surfaced again. Like most stories about Black people who die well before their time at the hands and knees of mighty whitey brutes, we Lefties wrang our sopping hearts out to dry for a few days, Bob Dylan wrote a song in 1962 (?) to engage the folkies, and a hue and cry went up, at that time of his song, for Civil Rights legislation to get its ass in gear. Emmett Till died in 1955, a year before I was born. But what happened to poor Emmett? Depends on who you ask — it’s a parallax view!

Everybody seems to agree that he came down to Mississippi from Chicago and went into a store and bought a drink and said sumpin to the proprietress and all hell broke loose. James Henry Harris, author of Black Suffering and N: The Forbidden Word, recalls it this way:

This, too, is the place of fourteen-yearold Emmett Till’s murder for exercising his freedom of speech by purportedly saying, “Thank you, baby,” to the wife of a white store owner in Money, Mississippi, after receiving his change for purchasing a soda. Those three words caused him to be hunted down like a dog—like an animal, like a slave—and beaten and bludgeoned to the point of pulverization. His mangled body was then restrained by a seventy-pound cotton-gin fan around the neck before being dumped in the Tallahatchie River to be carried by the currents to a place of no return. But by the providence and justice of God, his body turned up to be displayed by his mother to the entire world. This is likely the truest account.

Or you could go with the struggling young Bard from Duluth’s folkie version sung more or less to the tune of “House of the Rising Sun.” Check out Dylan’s account, which is pretty good. Dylan is a Jew! And they know lots about diasporic suffering, so Blind Willy Grunt’s version is heartfelt indeed:

But Dylan’s song, sadly, was drowned out that folkie year by the Cuban Missile Crisis in October.

A few weeks ago, a story appeared and disappeared in the MSM about the discovery of an unpublished memoir titled, I Am More Than a Wolf Whistle, by Carolyn Bryant, the woman Emmett was said to have uttered, “Thank you, baby.” According to an NBC report:

In the text of the copy obtained by NBC 5, Bryant Donham sticks to what she testified during Till’s murder trial. She said that Till whistled at her after grabbing her hand and waist and propositioning her inside the store, points that have been repeatedly disputed by Till’s surviving family members who witnessed what happened that day.

The FBI also was given a copy and I have filed a FOIA to get hold of it, but I felt compelled to eschew (gesundheit) the expected lengthy delay in hearing back from the FBI by filing my report now.

1955 to 1962 is a long time to go from heart-wringing to do something about it, even writing a song, but America had some killing to do first. Cuba was on our mind. The CIA was bent, and then bent on killing Castro — hell, one operative wanted to make his beard fall out so he’d lose face with his people. Are revolutionaries that fickle? Crazy shit! So crazy that off-Broadway produced a play. But like Mose Allison said back then, In America, You don’t need to go to off-broadway / to see something plain absurd… (Mose’s)

Then the Russkies put nukes down Cuba way and we had ourselves a scare-a-thon face-off. “We” won — phew! The Pentagon wanted to invade, but had they done so, writes Daniel Ellsberg in The Doomsday Machine, “we” would’ve found out that they also had tactical nukes that they would have used against the invaders. We would have all gone boom boom. Two chances. Well, so someone decided, fuck it, let’s kill Kennedy instead, and they did and we wrung dem bells again, and LBJ, who liked to expose himself in the White House, teared up and got some sympathetic civil rights legislation passed. Emmett’s tragedy was duly noted by LBJ in the White House.

And soon African-Americans (so called because their forbears had been forcibly transported from Africa as slaves to the new world by Mighty Whiteys with Moby Dick complexes) had the right to vote — so long as they had IDs and could write and sing Dixie. Look away, mother fucker. And that’s exactly what the nation’s done since boo-hoo Kennedy was killed. Because we got strange fruit Emmett Tills falling out of the canopies in America. Leading to the conclusion that the Mighty Whitey is crazy.

Maybe the guy who said it best was the guy who Edward Everett Hale inspired his story “The Man Without A Country” from, Clement Vallandigham. He was a former Congressman who spoke out against Abe Lincoln’s draft to fight the South (and slavery) durimg war and was deemed treasonous and handed over to the Rebels, who didn’t want hiom, eading to hs escape to Canada. For some reason, he was a moral lesson for what happens to the unpatriotic. In Hale’s story, after a trial similar to Vallandigham, a fit of pique leads to his being sentenced to exile on a ship for 56 years. Anyway, though Vallandigham didn’t support the nation’s first draft, he detested slavers, and noted of them:

There are two white races in the United States, both from the same common stock, and yet so distinct — one of them so peculiar — that they develop different forms of civilization, and might belong, almost, to different types of mankind.

For V., it is difficult to imagine even wanting to be a slaver, which is the same as being a brute or savage or Duane Clarridge type. No empathy at all. Other people are things to be commanded and manipulated for self-burnishment.

In the recent HBO horror series, Lovecraft Country, there’s a scene in “Jig-a-Bobo,” a late episode that sees Black blues singer, Hyppolyta, confront Christina, a white wraith-like witch who has been donning a Nordic-looking white male body to hump Hippolyta, consensually (it’s complicated), about how she feels after the recent funeral of Emmett Till:

Hippolyta: A 14-year-old boy was beat and shot to death, then tied with barbed wire by the neck to a cotton gin fan and cast into the Tallahatchie River.

Christina: [matter of factly] I know.

Hippolyta: But do you care? At all?

Christina: You want me to say Yes.

Hippolyta: I don’t want you to say anything. I want you to feel what I feel right now. Heartbroken. Scared. Furious. Tired. So f*cking tired of feeling this way over and over. And I want you to feel alone and shameful, ’cause I’m here, feeling this, and you will never understand it. I want you to feel guilty ’cause…For feeling safe next to you and your privilege”.

Christina: No.

Hippolyta: What?

Christina: I don’t care about Emmett Till….

Hyppolyta might be interrogating all whites about their souls and substance. Most of us would answer Yes, we care – each and every time there is another Black Man Down. Christina answers honestly, but gets to work thinking more about it.

In this scene in which Hyppolyta questions Christina’s ability to feel the suffering of others (or, at least, of Blacks), soon confirmed explicitly by the latter. But that’s not the end of it. Later in the same episode, Christina pays some crackers to do to her what was done to Emmett Till, in one of the more bizarre scenes in the whole series. We watch as they beat the living sh*t out of her, choke her with a coil of barbed wire, tire her feet to a weight and dump her in the Tallahatchie River, where she sinks. The thugs leave, and a few moments later, Christina crawls back onto the pier sobbing, seeing, understanding.

The problem is with her motivation for gaining this empathy function. Like a drowned witch at Salem, she floats up where innocence fails. And she desperately wants to connect emotionally with Hyppolyta in order to procure missing pages from a book of magic spells that would make her perhaps unstoppably evil. And you remember, as you watch, that in Salem they were deemed witches if they came back up from the drink on their own. The empathy test is a failure because the motivation is monstrous, not to gain humanity. White devil indeed. O, the travails of “Black” magic. And it’s a black magic by whites played out every four years at the presidential election — even with Obama, who Black Agenda Report called “the more effective evil” whose racial cachet became a book of spells that allowed taxpayers to be okay with the TARP bailout of Wall Street at the expense of Obama’s Hope campaign promises to lay down some cash on social spending.

There’s a place of seeing in Montgomery, Alabama called The Legacy Museum. It’s located on the site of a former slave auction market. The full exhibit is called The Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration. The exhibit title suggests the continuum of imprisonment of the Black self in America for more than 400 years. In the museum, there is an eerie and strange display of jars in half light that vaguely reminds one of the Vietnam Memorial. The jars are filled with the dirt under the feet of Black lynching victims in the South. In a New Yorker piece about the museum, Allyson Hobbs and Neil Freudenberger describe the site this way:

Between the fountain and the Alabama River, the Legacy Museum occupies a building that was once a warehouse for human chattel. Just past the entrance, a ramp slopes down to five “slave pens,” behind which ghostly holograms in nineteenth-century costume tell their stories. Visitors huddle around the pens and listen closely, as the figures speak in hushed tones. The effect is authentic—maybe because this is a building where such scenes took place, and the testimonies are those of real people. The ghostly prisoners include two children dressed in white nightshirts. “Mama!” they cry. “Mama?” And then politely, calmly, the older child, as if he knows that everything depends on his ability to hold it together, asks, “Have you seen our mother?”

This is a remembrance of Black suffering for Black people and, ostensibly, a test of empathy for whites. But see the case of the wraith-like Christina above.

The hologram exhibit was also seemingly responsible as an inspiration for “Black History Museum,” an episode of the hit Netflix series, Black Mirror, in which the hologram of a condemned killer is presented to visitors who are given the opportunity to pull a switch that electrocutes the condemned man. The visitors are almost exclusively white and all are depicted as wanting to pull a switch to see the man die agonizingly. Empathy for the white devil? I think not, the episode Jim-crows.

Often today it seems we are heading in the wrong direction — “time is running backwards” –when it comes to rescuing our humanity from flames of moral relativity. Incredible as it seems, there are more and more whites who would throw that switch than who would come to terms with their privilege and its genocidal implications. The apart-hate system in America is growing, not narrowing, and we badly need, as equal Americans, a truth and reconciliation path that forces us to face the sadism of our social politics, such as with Critical Race Theory. As the “dying” Bard from Duluth sings, Ring them bells for all of us who are Left. The AIs are connecting with the psycho- and sociopaths that Vallandigham describes and soon they’ll be no Left left, as we hurdle toward a new Dark Age.


John Kendall Hawkins is an American ex-pat freelancer based in Australia.  He is a former reporter for The New Bedford Standard-Times.