The Distance Between Heartbreak and Rage

“If you think you know enough to say this poem / is about good hair, I’ll correct you / and tell you that it’s about history / which is the Blacksmith of our tongues. / Our eyes. Where you see misunderstanding /…I see the waterlogged face of the fourteen-year-old boy. /…I do not feel sorry for you. No. I think only that when a man / is a concept he will tell you about the smell / of smoke. He will tell you the distance / between heartbreak and rage.” Ross Gay. 

Carolyn Bryant Donham, the white woman who accused 14-year-old Emmett Till of accosting her and prompted his lynching in 1955, died on Tuesday at 88. And no, this article is not about how I am happy that she finally died. Death is not a happy thing. 

But I am tired, tired of not being surprised that Ms. Donham and her husband were not charged with Emmett’s death. Hell, I am more surprised that they even saw the inside of a courtroom. America continues to murder its Black citizens with impunity, and it is about time it stops. 

On August 31, Mr. Bryant beat Emmett until both of his wrists were broken, until some parts of Emmett’s skull were crushed and others crumbled. Mr. Bryant beat Emmett into such an unrecognizable pulp that his mother’s only point of identification was a silver ring on his finger. After the brutal beating, Mr. Bryant tied a 75-pound metal cotton-gin fan to Emmett’s throat with a barbed wire, shot him, and tossed him into the Tallahatchie River like he was a sack of garbage. All in the name of protecting Carolyn Donham. She was the catalyst in Emmett Till’s death. Yet for the past decade, she has receded into history, despite the cries of many. I will not let her stay there.

After all, Emmett wasn’t the first and, as frustrating as it is to admit it, he won’t be the last. To that end, Carolyn Donham’s death serves as a reminder of how far we still need to go. Her death reminds me of the constant ignorance, prejudice, arrogance, and misunderstanding that pervade our social structures. The metaphorical lynching rope that literally killed Emmett extends through American history and into today. It has been there since the days of slavery; it has passed through the deaths of George Floyd, Aura Rosser, Breonna Taylor and countless others; and it is still around the necks of every African American in this nation. Although Black people only make up about 13.4 percent of the population, they make up 22 percent of fatal police shootings, 35 percent of individuals executed by death penalty, and 47 percent of victims where assailants are wrongfully exonerated, according to the NAACP. Unaddressed systemic racism has simply changed its revolting form and continued the generational enslavement of Black citizens.    

After all, we have built a history of racial prejudice, starting with chattel slavery in the 1600s but infecting us today in the form of police brutality, workplace discrimination, and countless other systemic obstacles to African American success. This is a history that we now have to dismantle, system by system. America did this to itself, and it’s about time to right these wrongs. 

Donham’s life should be a cautionary tale for the white Americans that decide to above their privilege. But it is not. She gets to die, without having served any time in prison, and without truly facing the consequences of her actions. She should have died after serving what is close to a life sentence, constantly remembering the life of the 14-year-old boy that she essentially killed. The boy she threw away, like he didn’t have loved ones, like he didn’t deserve to see the first man walk on the moon or live to adulthood. And perhaps there is a God that will deliver justice in the afterlife. But I am not satisfied with that, and neither should you be. 

America simply needs to do better. We need to continue to address the racial bias in the criminal justice system — through eliminating mandatory minimum sentences, reforming cash bail,  addressing racial profiling, or all of the above and more. We need to invest in our minority communities, especially our Black and Brown communities, to provide equitable opportunities and ensure policies and programs are responsive to their needs. These are just a few steps, and in no way are they easy steps. It will take a collective effort to dismantle the systemic prejudices that America is built on, but that’s no excuse to not try.

Emmett Till’s mother should not have had to make the decision of having an open-casket for her 14-year-old son’s funeral. But she knew the government would not help her, and the only way to get her son’s story out there was to have his cold corpse captured through photography, so that she could not be refuted or framed as a liar. Emmet Till should have outlived his mother so that he and his family could bury her in 2003. And if it were to still be the case that Emmett’s mother outlived him, she should be crying not because of the injustices of the world, but simply because she loved her son and was sad to see him go. 

For too long has the mistreatment of Black people in America gone unseen and unheard, like the smell of smoke. I hope you feel my heartbreak. I hope you feel my rage. I do not know what else I can do anymore to make you understand.