The brutal abduction and murder of 14-year-old
African American Emmett Till
in Mississippi on August 28, 1955,
galvanized the emerging Civil Rights Movement.
Martin Luther King, Jr. called his murder
“one of the most brutal and inhumane crimes
of the 20th century.” –Biography
But what I don’t know is your favorite color, or
your favorite bubble gum flavor. I don’t know if
you liked winter days, if you ever left the imprint of
your body in the snow to make an angel. And I want
to know the song that you couldn’t stop listening to,
singing it in your head, over and over. What was the
song? I want to know the games you liked to play, if
you ever climbed a tree, swam in a lake, looked up
at the night sky and made a wish. And I want to
know who you thought you might become. Your
mother told us you were good at science, that you
loved art. I wonder if you had lived, would your
masterpieces be in a gallery or maybe you would
have kept them to yourself—hidden treasures in a
notebook, or maybe you would have been an art
teacher. Or maybe you would have been a baseball
player. I am told you were good at that, too. So
many talents, raw and pliable. There is a tale told of
you baking a cake for your mother and you were
young and boy and not good at baking, but still, you
loved your mother, so you tried. The cake did not
taste good at all, and that became a family joke. Had
you lived, you might have gotten better at baking.
And maybe you would have become a renowned
pastry chef and every time you’d be interviewed,
you’d tell the story of the horrible cake and you’d
look back at how far you’d come, at how much
you’d grown. Maybe. These are things I do not
know. But I do know you were not just a Chicago
boy meeting Mississippi, not just a whistling boy, a
kidnapped boy, a brutalized boy, a bloated boy with
a ring on his finger, not just a boy in an open casket,
not just a buried boy, a gone boy. You were a boy
with a favorite dessert, a favorite place to play, a
favorite joke to tell. You were a boy with a favorite
song—a song that you couldn’t stop listening to,
couldn’t stop singing it in your head, over and over.
What was the song? Had you kept living, maybe
you would sing us that song, teaching us the
original version. By now the song would be
remixed, new verses added, but still the same.
And the record keeps spinning, scratched and stuck
on the chorus. So many verses etched in the vinyl.
So many unfinished songs.
Your name, the refrain: Emmett Till. Medgar Evers,
Martin Luther King, Jr., Henry Dumas, Fred
Hampton, Mulugeta Seraw, Amadou Diallo, Sean
Bell, Aiyana Jones, Oscar Grant, Trayvon Martin,
Jordan Davis, Renisha McBride, Michael Brown,
Eric Garner, Michelle Cusseaux, Akai Gurley,
Tanisha Anderson, Tamir Rice, Tanisha Fonville,
Ezell Ford, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, Sandra
Bland, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Stephon
Clark, Botham Jean, Aura Rosser, Atatiana
Jefferson, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George
Floyd, Rayshard Brooks
and this is to say, since you were taken away from
us, so much has changed and everything is the
same. But always, your name is spoken. Like a holy
chant, a rally cry, a prayer. We cannot, will not
forget you. You are the song stuck in our hearts.
And the record keeps spinning, spinning.
Copyright © 2020 by Renée Watson. This poem was originally published in The Emmett Till Project. Reprinted by permission of the author.