The present illuminates the past—but can’t provide resolution—in this generation-spanning meditation on injustice.
Wideman (God’s Gym, 2005, etc.) initially conducted his research to inform some fiction focusing on Emmitt Till, the 14-year-old boy who was kidnapped and murdered in 1955 for allegedly whistling at a white woman. “Though today Emmett Till is generally viewed as a civil rights martyr,” writes the renowned author, “the shabby trial that exonerated his killers, and the crucial role played by Till’s father in the trial have largely disappeared from the public’s imagination.” It is the life and death of father Louis Till that obsesses Wideman, in a manner that blurs the distinction between fiction and nonfiction. During World War II, Louis was executed for rape and murder in Italy, a case based on another black soldier’s turning informant to escape prosecution and on shaky testimony from Italian women. Even after Emmitt’s accused murderers were acquitted, there had been the opportunity to try them on the charge of kidnapping, until a supposedly confidential file on the hanging of Louis became public knowledge: “With this information about Emmitt Till’s father in hand, the Mississippi grand jury declined to indict…for kidnapping.” There are many layers of meaning in this book, especially regarding the identification of Wideman with Emmitt, both of them 14 when the author saw a photo of the dead boy’s battered face, and the narrative expands into a meditation on black fathers and sons, the divide and the bonds, the genetic inheritance within a racist society. The author also explores the relationship between truth and fiction, since he believes the case against Louis can be read as fiction, and he composes his own fictions to counter it. He suggests that Louis was mainly guilty “of being the wrong color in the wrong place at the wrong time” while admitting that he has no more proof than military officials did.
A book seething with the passion and sense of outrage behind the Black Lives Matter movement that also traces specific roots of the movement’s genealogy.