For the past few weeks, one of my students has been working on a poem responding to “Emmett Till’s Glass-Top Casket” by Cornelius Eady. Eady’s poem may not be from 2012, but it is painfully relevant. Which is to say, Emmett Till was younger than Trayvon Martin, but only by three years.
In 1955, Till was visiting relatives in Mississippi when he was accused of catcalling a shopkeeper. The shopkeeper’s husband and brother-in-law kidnapped the teenager, tortured him, killed him, then dumped him in a nearby river. When his body was recovered, it was returned to Chicago where his mother insisted on a public funeral. The mother also insisted on a glass covering for the coffin, so that the public could bear witness to the horrors inflicted on her young son.
The speaker of Eady’s poem is the casket itself (now on display at the Smithsonian). The casket explains, “Once I held a boy who didn’t look like a boy. When they finally / remembered, they peeked through my clear top. Then their wild surprise.” And what did they do? Did they recoil from the bloated, mutilated body? Perhaps some did, but they also rallied, bringing well-deserved scrutiny to Mississippi’s race relations.
Eady’s poem begins, “By the time they cracked me open again, topside, abandoned in a toolshed, I had / become another kind of nest.” The coffin had become a haven for possums, creatures renown for their ability to play dead. But racism is alive and well no matter what sleepy-eyed dreamers might pretend. It is time to crack open Emmitt Till’s coffin once again and admit that we haven’t come as far as we should have in the last fifty-seven years.
“Emmett Till’s Glass-Top Casket” was published in the April 5, 2010 issue of The New Yorker.