ON A HIGH PLATFORM in the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., sits a glass-topped casket. The museum’s deputy director, Kinshasha Holman Conwill, has called it “one of our most sacred objects.”
The casket once held the body of 14-year-old Emmett Till, an African-American boy from Chicago who, while visiting family in Mississippi in the summer of 1955, reportedly whistled at a white woman named Carolyn Bryant at a country store. A few nights later her husband and brother-in-law kidnapped Till, beating and murdering him before fastening a heavy industrial fan to his neck with wire and throwing the body into the Tallahatchie River. The local sheriff ordered Till’s body to be buried the same day it was found. Instead, one of Till’s great uncles intervened and made sure the body was returned to his mother in Chicago.
Mamie Till-Mobley allowed photographers from Jet and Ebony magazines to take pictures of Till’s mutilated face and insisted on an open casket and public viewings. Tens of thousands filed by Till’s broken body.
The first time I saw Amy León, she was standing in a church that was about to explode. Or had already exploded — I couldn’t tell. I was watching the music video for her song “Burning in Birmingham,” a reenactment of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing that took the lives of four black girls on Sept. 15, 1963 in Birmingham, Ala.
So there was a gloom and reverence with which I walked through the first three levels of the museum, and with which many of the people around me also seemed to travel. We were in the presence of ruins from days when black bodies were treated like cattle and felled like sugar cane crops. We were staring at the adornments of Ku Klux Klan members, at shards of glass from the 16th Street Baptist Church, and we were doing so only days after yet another police shooting of yet another unarmed black man. Death was in the air, and we were the bereaved.
My father is white, and has lived a different story. My son was the same age as Trayvon Martin when Martin was killed in Florida in 2012. My white teenage son lives a different story. But when I got on a flight early on Sunday morning following the verdict, I was seated next to an African-American woman with six children. The weight of the verdict was on her face, and she showed me a photo of her three sons, all wearing hoodies, for whom Martin’s death and the subsequent verdict hit very close to home. This is their story.