On this day, August 28, 1955, Emmett Till, a 14-year-old black teenager from Chicago, was kidnapped, tortured, and brutally murdered in Mississippi, for allegedly “flirting” with a white woman (who later denied the story).
His mother, Mamie Till, insisted on a open-casket funeral. Horrifying images of his drowned body were published, and were a major factor in galvanizing the Civil Rights movement.
His murderers were acquitted of any wrongdoing. They later confessed to the crime.
Laurie’s Memory Landscape photograph “Handkerchief” includes the last year he was alive, and invokes her memories of that time and of how little has changed.
On this day eight years later, a quarter of a million people gathered in Washington to demand change. Martin Luther King gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech that day.
Many of the gains of the civil rights movement have been dismantled. Black men and women face fear of white violence (both police violence and civilian racist violence) every day in America. The struggle waxes and wanes.
Rest in power, Emmett Till. Rest in power, too many to name. Black lives still matter.
Last weekend, we were both at FOGcon, and Laurie presented her Memory Landscapes project in a Saturday evening panel, which Debbie (of course!) was on. Attendance was small, which gave us the gift of intimacy. “Audience” and “panelists” gathered around a table with the artist, to look closely at the work and talk about what we were seeing.
Laurie says: “Since the election, I had been thinking that I would have to put Memory Landscapes on hold, or at least move much more slowly on it, because I felt such a drive to focus on directly political work. What this panel reminded me is that the Memory Landscapes project is political work. It’s about my life, during which I have always been deeply involved with politics and the world. It’s also about the things that have changed in my life and the things that have not changed. It’s about political struggle, and political pain and joy, along with all the other aspects of my life.”
One Memory Landscapes image we looked at was “Handkerchief,” which speaks directly to the murder of Emmet Till in 1955 and the murder of Trayvon Martin in 2012. By linking these two deaths, Handkerchief invokes the never-ending stream of young black men’s violent deaths in the intervening years, and links both murders to Laurie’s world, to the political struggles of the 1950s, and much more.
Here’s Laurie again: “Watching the people at the panel interact with these memories, I realized I can’t stop working on Memory Landscapes. Not only is this shared political work, it offers people an opportunity to allow and access their own stories (personal and political) in an entirely new way. When we tell stories in any form of text, or in a linear narrative such as film, we impose a structure on them. We change them by their nature from an associative chain to a structured tale with a beginning, a middle, and an end. In this work which I invented to be the best mirror of my own memories that I could devise, something more happens than my being able to express my own memories in the way they work. Other people start experiencing their memories this way too: they take my framework and apply it to their own lives and to the interaction of my political history with theirs.”
We are both huge fans of narrative, even though we understand the ways in which it is false by nature. Narrative is one thing that got us where we are today. False but compelling narrative is one of Donald Trump’s great strengths, and one of the great strengths of his surrogates, who are our enemies.
Suzy McKee Charnas, in her first novel, Walk to the End of the World, said “New stories must be told in new ways.” Audre Lorde said “The master’s tools will not dismantle the master’s house.” What the panel reminded Laurie, and perhaps taught the rest of us, is that Memory Landscapes is a new kind of storytelling which applies to old stories as well as to new ones. And perhaps it will be a new tool to dismantle the house that cannot stand.