Friday, August 28, 2009

"If you're poor, you ain't got no government."

54 years ago today, Emmett Till was murdered in the small Delta town of Money, Mississippi. He was beaten and shot through the head. His body, weighted down with a cotton gin fan, was tossed into the Tallahatchie River. He was only 14 years old. The all-white jury acquitted the two men accused of the murder - those men later confessed, but due to double-jeopardy protection, they could not be jailed. One of the jurors had this to say about the jury deliberations taking only an hour: "If we hadn't stopped to drink pop, it wouldn't have taken us too long."

Marilyn Nelson's wonderful and heart-wrenching book, A WREATH FOR EMMETT TILL, tells this story in a heroic crown of sonnets remarkable for their formal precision, and their emotional truth. You can hear Ms. Nelson talk about the murder and read one of the sonnets over at this NPR site.

"Emmett Till's name still catches in my throat,
like syllables waylaid in a stutterer's mouth...."

(Read the rest here.....)

I'm not sure I would have chosen to post this today - I was thinking a lot about Karla Kuskin's recent death, of course, and thought I might talk about her work. But yesterday I watched a documentary called TROUBLE THE WATER, about people in the 9th Ward of New Orleans, and how our government lied to them and abandoned them, treating them like second-class citizens, and I realized that Saturday is the 4th anniversary of the day the Hurricane hit. Almost 2000 people died, many unable to leave because of disabilities or illnees or a simple lack of transportation. I hope everyone will watch this moving documentary - it's not as polished as Spike Lee's remarkable WHEN THE LEVEES BROKE, but there's something very appealing about how street wise the two people are who are featured, making their eventual conclusion about the "rescue" efforts even sadder. "If you're poor, you ain't got no government," says one. It seems we haven't come as far from Money, Mississippi as we like to think.

For Poetry Friday, I'm going to post the poem I wrote about the Hurricane and the people of New Orleans - the way we failed them has haunted me, in the same way Marilyn Nelson has probably been haunted by the way we failed Emmett Till. My poem was originally published in MARGIE: THE AMERICAN JOURNAL OF POETRY, Volume 5, 2006. It won the journal's Strong Rx Medicine Prize.


We sit on our roofs with axes while the homeland rises --
homeland over the grass and the roses,
over the rats up to their chins now in homeland,
over every step, every porch, every stairway to the attic--
homeland, homeland everywhere, how the dead saints float in it:

Grandfathers with bloated chests, and buttons bursting
from their shirts; grandmothers face down, all the scared dogs
drowning, and each weak-lunged recluse left behind
on a hospital cot in the homeland, and every orphan
placed under a domed haven waiting for all hell to break loose.

It's hot the way it can only be hot now, and some of us
are dead already, some of us wade waist deep, some wait
on our roofs with axes, and we are all of us flooded
up to our eaves in homeland: so rank, so fetid, such an empire.

The Poetry Friday round-up is headed up by Kate Coombs at Book Aunt.


  1. A lambent elegy, Julie, that ought to go in a cornerstone somewhere in New Orleans so that no one will forget.

  2. Thank you, Pat. And anyone who is reading this should know that Pat's poem about Hurricane Katrina was published in SURVIVING THE STORM, edited by April Whately Bedford and Judith Kieff, published by the Association for Childhood Education.

  3. What a powerful and brutally honest poem (so "rank and fetid" our homeland empire...)

    Haunting, indeed.

  4. Julie, your "post a comment" link at the bottom of your post is really hard to see. On my screen it is as black as the background. If I didn't know it was there in blogger I wouldn't know how to comment. Maybe it is just my browser but you might check it...

    Your poem is haunting and powerful. Thank you for reminding us of that horror and marking the anniversary. The whole gov. response to NOLA's (and all of our) tragedy is unbelievable still. Poetry expresses that so well.

  5. Julie,

    Thanks for reminding us of this terrible time in our history. I think what happened in New Orleans was emblematic of what's been going on in our country in the recent past--prop up the rich and forget about the poor and unfortunate...and the middle class

    Maybe we haven't come as far as we would like to think. I think we've been seeing a lot of racism bubbling to the surface since Obama became president.

    Excellent poem!

  6. You're right about our failing. I know a number of people who traveled to New Orleans and the Gulf Coast to provide help and support, and did a tremendous amount to help, but it was as much in response to the lack of organized support that came following the storm. Your poem is incredibly moving, as is the story and poem about Emmett Till.

  7. I'll try to fix that "post a comment" link color - thanks for the heads-up.

  8. There - I've adjusted the colors and now the "Post Comment" should show. Hmmm - yellow, blue, black. I have to get used to it!

  9. Still playing with the colors. If anyone can't read the "Post Comment" link, let me know....?