Emmett Till, White Subjectivity, and Immortal Controlling Images

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By Spencer Spotts

In August of 1955, fourteen-year-old black teenager Emmett Till had been visiting family in Mississippi when Till was accused by two white men, J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant, of whistling at Bryant’s white wife, Carolyn Bryant, at a local store. A few days later, Till was abducted by Milam and Bryant, brutally murdered, and then disposed into a river. In court, Carolyn had elaborated that Till had made “verbal and physical advances towards her.” Even with sufficient evidence against Milam and Bryant, they were still found not guilty. However, more than sixty years later, Vanity Fair reports that a new book by Timothy Tyson includes a 2007 interview with Carolyn in which she admits to lying about Till’s verbal and physical advances. While the case of Emmett Till has been analyzed for decades by critical race scholars, there is obviously a temptation to re-interpret and re-analyze the Till case now. However, I advocate that we carefully engage in our “new” analyses, because if theories from critical white studies are applied, we can understand the case of Till – including the recent explicit claim of guilt by Carolyn – as anything but “new” or “shocking.”

Evoking the work of Patricia Hill Collins, the initial case of Till’s death relied heavily upon a history of controlling images about black men, and in particular, their sexuality – especially in relation to white women. Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic explain that early images of black male slaves depicted black men as “never overtly sexual” and that any “potential to be a sexual and economic competitor was minimized by portraying him as an object of laughter” through the use of blackface (171). However, Delgado and Stefancic later note that during the Reconstruction period, “sexuality denied to uncles and mammies found a crude outlet in a new stereotype of the recently freed male Negro as brutish and bestial…ready to force sex on any white women” (171). This new controlling image was originally used by white supremacists (be it white jurors or the KKK) during this time period to justify any violence enacted upon black men. It continued to inform how white people conceptualized themselves through blackness, and through an Other that plagued white American subjectivity and law even fifty years later, when Till was murdered.

Furthermore, Till’s death and court case effectively functioned to uphold Carolyn’s whiteness. Even Tyson, the author of the new book The Blood of Emmett Till, writes that the case “went a long way toward ruining her life.” Regardless of what has been theorized prior to the 2007 interview, Carolyn has now openly admitted to her role in the murder of Till, and yet her innocence is still protected and prioritized. Thomas Ross writes in “Innocence and Affirmative Action” that “the ‘innocent white victim’ triggers at some level its rhetorically natural opposite, the ‘defiled black taker’” (28). Ross argues that the existence of whiteness and its innocence relies on blackness and “the unconscious racist belief that the black person is not innocent in a sexual sense” (31). If we apply the history of controlling images about black men’s sexuality as noted by Delgado and Stefancic, the deconstruction of innocence rhetoric by Ross, Carolyn’s comments, and more importantly, Tyson’s writing of Carolyn, we should not be surprised but instead further warned about the power, strength, and seeming immortality of controlling images and their formative roles in the construction of white subjectivity.

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