Is there anything more annoying that getting that book that will almost certainly be an essential part of your Works Cited/Bibliography only to discover that there is no index!? We all know that we can not read every single book we cite from cover to cover. We don’t have the time, and quite frankly, we don’t always have the patience! Therefore, when someone tells you that you should read the bits about the theme of X in Book Y it is natural to flip to the back of the book and check the index unless all the information is contained in one or two chapters. Of course, with Google Books at our fingertips it can make the search through an index-less book a bit easier. But we all know the limits of the preview. Oh, how cruel the world can be!
Quite simply, indexes speed up the research process. We cannot always rely on chapter titles, or even book titles, to tell us exactly what a given book discusses. Often, these cleverly punning chapter titles are fun to read, but give little away about their actual content. A well-stocked index can lead the researcher to the sections s/he needs while at the same time giving an overall flavour of the book and demonstrate connections between various subjects addressed within which may even lead to full cover to cover read.
Something almost as frustrating as no index at all are name indexes…..no themes, keywords or other issues….just names! That’s great if you are looking for a person, but otherwise what is the point! Therefore, not only should all academic books have indexes, but they should have fully comprehensive indexes that cover all the potential needs of the reader. Academic books are being priced more and more out of reach of many scholars. When you scrape together a week’s rent to buy that must-have new monograph or edited collection an index is at least a small and useful consolation prize.
I am moved to write this post after watching Rory O’Neill’s speech in the Abbey Theatre. O’Neill’s speech follows on from comments he made about homophobia on the Saturday Night Show which prompted RTE to pay out €85,000 to the Iona Institute Catholic lobbying group.
O’Neill’s description of oppression in Ireland is familiar to many of us. His account of standing at a pedestrian crossing and feeling the need to check one’s self due to the expectation that a slur or an object (or both) is about to be hurled out of a car in his direction is something that I can certainly relate to. From the time I cut my hair short I quickly realised that a segment of the population is unnerved, even insulted by the sight of a woman daring to appear in public without long Rupunzalesque locks, heels and a pretty dress. I stand at every pedestrian crossing holding my breath, cringing inwardly, waiting for one of the following: “dyke,” “muff-diver,” “lezzie,” “fag,” “fanny licker.”
According to the powers that be, RTE, Iona, the government, it is wrong to talk of such oppression, and worse to claim any hurt from being on the receiving end of it. Apparently those most damaged by homophobia are the perpetrators rather than the victims. I find this hard to believe when I think of the many times I have been publicly accosted. I find it hard to believe that the car full of giggling strangers who don’t know my name, who I am, or what my sexual orientation is ride off into the sunset feeling worse than I do.
I remember sitting on a bus when an inebriated man twice my size towered over me and proceeded to tell me that all I needed to be set straight was a real man, and that he would come to my home and show me exactly “what a real man could do.” I remember hurrying away from that bus to the safety of my Fiancé’s car and feeling so thankful that I was going home with an evolved gentleman.
I also remember being offered a job on condition that I change my hair to “something more suitable for dealing with the public.” I turned it down.
I could recount so many instances where I have been made feel terrified and oppressed due to my gender and the way in which I choose to present myself to the world. Do I really believe that for each one of these instances a group of repressed Catholics are flagellating themselves amid throes of emotional agony due to homophobia? No. How could anyone?
RTE have donated to €85,000 to continued oppression against those who do not conform to conservative Catholic “values.” I can express this from the safety of my laptop; but Rory O’Neill took a very brave and necessary stand in the Abbey Theatre. For that I salute him and will feel less alone the next time I stand at a dreaded pedestrian crossing.
Over the Christmas break I binge-watched several “teacher movies,” one of my regular holiday hobbies along with re-reading the Little Women series and the Harry Potter collection. I never had a Mr Keating (Dead Poets Society) or a Ms Gruwell (Freedom Writers). I certainly had several good, even excellent, teachers throughout my education, but never one who made the classroom a site of potential for major personal and social transformation.
In many ways films like Dead Poets Society (1989), Dangerous Minds (1995), Mona Lisa Smile (2003), Freedom Writers (2007), Precious (2009) and The English Teacher (2013), while at times a little far-fetched, often represent the ideal that many young teachers dream of embodying when first faced with the daunting task of education. These films depict teachers, sometimes very naïve ones, attempting to engage with students who are completely close-minded or cut off from education due to society and/or personal circumstances. Entire classes filled with 20+ students await every opportunity to blatantly ignore or undermine their ever hopeful educator, and ultimately the teacher gently breaks down the barriers and forms incredible bonds with her/his former aggressors. Many “teacher movies” present us with protagonists who go against the grain of the institution or the advice of their loved ones to educate their unruly students, often to the detriment of their careers and/or relationships.
These mavericks and miracle workers were the bread and butter of my younger self as I dreamed of a humble spot at the top of a classroom to call my own. I wouldn’t be so daring as Mr Keating to invite my students to climb upon my desk for fear of injury; my delicate stomach would keep me from riding the biggest roller-coaster with my students à la Ms Johnson; although, I have always dreamed of delivering a hearty rendition of the “[t]here are no victims in this classroom” scene from Dangerous Minds! However, I think the fighting spirit of these teachers against all manner of obstacles reflects at least some of the whats and whys of teaching.
Taking money from our own pockets to fund materials and reward students is a reality. Caring enough about a student to visit their family is a regular occurrence. Managing to get through to the most unruly students does happen. Unfortunately, as is portrayed in Dead Poets Society and Dangerous Minds, losing a student to the insurmountable stresses of their particular situation is a real possibility.
For all their melodrama these movies pinpoint many of the hopes and fears we teachers feel:
- To inspire our students, even one, to make positive changes in their lives
- To educate them about important issues in the world
- To give them tools to navigate the ups and downs of life
- To instill moral values and independent thinking.
- That our guidance may ultimately fail them
- That the ABCs and 123s of a curriculum will not be enough to prepare them for the outside world.
A life-altering educational achievement like the one we see unfold in Freedom Writers is certainly rare. However, re-watching these films time and again always reminds me of the many reasons why my own education has always been of such value to me, and the many things I wanted to bring to the classroom. One of the best moments I have had as a teacher was a student telling me that I was one of the key reasons she chose to pursue a degree in English. This, and the many assignments that reveal that a student has really got what you were trying to teach them are the many everyday satisfactions that we can take from our role in the classroom.
It has been several weeks since I last posted here and a lot has happened in that time revolving around academic writing and poetry. First, November was Academic Writing Month (#AcWriMo). I managed to reach just under 7,000 words, less than last year, but not to shabby nonetheless. Of course, #AcWriMo is so much more than a frantic burst of writing energy, it is a global collective of scholars sharing the experience of academic writing, encouraging one another, providing hints, tips, and support along the way. I made some new connections and garnered some useful tips to help me through this final stretch of my doctoral studies.
I also had the pleasure of being involved in a wonderful event called Poetry Kitchen: Alphabet Soup for the Soul which took place in University College Cork on the 5th of December. This event sought to raise funds, food, hats, scarves and gloves for Cork Penny Dinners, one of Cork’s oldest care-giving organisations. My colleague, Niamh O’Mahony and I asked a number of writers in the university to deliver short readings on the theme of food, sharing, meals, etc. We had a host of staff and students wowing the crowd with their creative talents. Moreover, we raised a large amount of donations: €314.60, 123 items of food and almost 70 hats, scarves and gloves.
In other news I have been busy jumping for joy following the news that my favourite poet, Lorna Dee Cervantes will be visiting UCC next June to give a poetry reading and launch her new collection, Sueño, as part of a 2-day research symposium on the subject of “Pathways, Explorations, Approaches” in Mexican and Mexican American Studies. The CFP is still open for this and it promises to be a very exciting event! Cervantes’s visit is particularly exciting for me given that half of my thesis is dedicated to an analysis of her work. Hearing her read is going to add a whole new dimension to my understanding of her poetry!
So, that’s all my news and excuses for not posting as regularly as usual here! Hopefully you think they are good ones – I certainly do! Regular musings shall resume shortly!
In the spirit of Halloween I have come up with three simple costumes inspired by 19th century American short stories. Whether you are a somewhat troubled trickster or a passive treater there’s something for everyone.
For the more passive trick or treater…..
Rip Van Winkle! Yes, this guy is really easy. He comes from a short story of the same name by Washington Irving. Set before and after the American Revolutionary War, it follows Rip as he falls into a deep slumber atop the Catskills after drinking some mysterious liquor among a group of complete strangers. He awakens years later to find that his family and friends have died and America’s allegiance has switched from King George III to George Washington.
To dress up as Rip, all you need to do is find a comfortable spot on the outskirts of your town donning a full beard and a glass of something potent. Then simply have a nice snooze and awaken in the depths of confusion.
For those who would like to be the conscience of their loved ones for one night only……
The Tell-Tale Heart is the costume for you. The short story of the same name, penned by Edgar Allan Poe, features “a tell-tale heart” which is the manifestation of the narrator’s guilt having just committed murder. The heart begins with a subtle throb and grows to a maddening beat, leading the narrator to admit his guilt and invite the police to tear up the floorboards and reveal his crime.
Simply find or construct a good heart costume and glare at the shiftiest of your peers for the duration of Halloween. To achieve the ultimate Halloween trick though, try squeezing beneath the floorboards (or furniture if more comfortable) of your guiltiest friend’s home and making throbbing noises every time they enter the room!
Finally, for those of us who like to be “part of the furniture” so to speak….
Try The Yellow Wallpaper! Again, this costume idea comes from the short story of the same name by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. The yellow wallpaper adorns the bedroom of a young woman who is confined there by her husband due to what he calls “a temporary nervous depression – a slight nervous tendency.” Today, we call this post-natal depression and have more humane methods of treating it rather than locking women up like prisoners with nothing to stimulate them but the four walls of their cell.
If The Yellow Wallpaper is the costume for you all you need is the right shade of clothing and a good lick of matching body paint. Then stand against the nearest wall and blink disconcertingly at passersby.
A colleague shared the above image with me and I was reminded of so many books that have drawn me in to the point where I feel like I’m part of the narrative. For me, the trauma comes from having to let go of immersed narrative experiences. Women and girls in literature like George Kirrin, Jo March and Buffy Summers diluted my awkward childhood and teen years with soothing images of independent tomboys with attitude and ambition.
It started with The Famous Five series. Of course I wanted to be George, a tomboy whose family and friends accept her to the point where they are happy to forego her real name, Georgina, allow her to wear boy’s clothes and crop her hair. I remember begging my mother to allow me to chop off all my goldilocks like George (didn’t work!). I felt utterly ruined by my name, Donna, which means “lady” – no name for a relentless tomboy!
Later it was Jo March of Little Women, the 19th century tomboy whose independent spirit captured my imagination! Again we have a character who adopts a masculine version of her name, crops her hair, uses slang, earns her own living and almost always rejects society’s expectations of her. As well as this, the matriarchal household was of great appeal to me, not having any sisters.
As a teenager Buffy the Vampire Slayer was a revelation – a female superhero who banishes her abusive boyfriend to hell, repeatedly saves the world from annihilation, and has a witticism for every situation. Of course this may seem like a deviation from the literary theme of this post. But one look at my Buffy book collection should assure the reader otherwise!
Not only did these women protagonists reassure my growing sense of self, but they encouraged me to read more and I have no doubt that they played a significant role in shaping my education and career choices to date. Then imagine my disappointment when I re-read The Famous Five last Christmas and found myself thinking what a petulant child George was – I guess this means I am getting old…
However, I had my annual Little Women indulgence this summer followed of course by Good Wives, Little Men and Jo’s Boys. As always I was Jo, annoyed by Meg, bored by Beth, impatient with Amy, but warmed by the enduring Jo. Often readers comment on Jo being a sell-out for marrying. While it was probably the case that Louisa May Alcott may have compromised with the ideals of her contemporaries with this plot decision, one must not forget that Jo refused to settle for less than a man who respected her as an independent, intellectual equal. Let us also remember that Jo was the main breadwinner and head of the family in Little Men and Jo’s Boys.
Finally, Buffy has become even more dear to me in the wake of the current Twilight-infused Fifty Shades of misogynist mania – need I elaborate on these books’ shared message on the importance of having a boyfriend who abuses and infantilises you???
I recently read a post by the Thesis Whisperer that asked, “what is your edge?” In this time of economic crisis and job scarcity how can you as a doctoral candidate use your unique strengths to gain a career that suits your skills if not your research interests. This post came to me during a crisis. I was internally panicking about my future and whether or not I was being taken seriously by friends and family outside of academia. I realised that most people outside of my academic colleagues and friends do not understand what I do, what my everyday work life involves and why I am doing it. This reveals a problem with outreach. Many people assume that a PhD student will immediately get a lectureship upon finishing their studies, that this is a streamlined, easy progression. The reality is that more and more people are pursuing doctoral research, and there are less academic jobs available to us,. Therefore, we often have to investigate other options. Realising this can be scary, stressful and worrying. Trying to explain or even justify this to others is very difficult.
The Thesis Whisperer states that passion follows skill, and when I examined my own skills this became a very relevant statement. Aside from the obvious ones like writing and research, PhD students develop a variety of useful skills during their studies. Over the course of my PhD, for example, I have organised a number of events: conferences, a book launch, and art exhibition. The first time round, I was unsure. I asked lots of questions and made some mistakes. Since then I have become more efficient at organisation and I really enjoy it. I relish the opportunity to do so. I am naturally a multi-tasker and event management gives me the chance to put that side of my personality to good use.
Since beginning my PhD I have become more immersed in social media. I use Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, academia.edu, and I blog. I use these outlets for publicity, debate, conversation, learning and outreach. On several occasions I have been asked to live blog and tweet at events like workshops and conferences. Through this I have developed an ability to process and disseminate vast amounts of information quickly while at the same time engaging with the public who interact with the events via social media. I suppose this is a digital and/or communication skill. It is certainly a skill that I am passionate about and one I hope to put to good use after completing my doctoral research.
So, taking these two examples from my own experience, I now realise that when people quiz me about what I do and why I bother, I have more to offer than just a bumbling explanation of form and genre in Chicana poetry. I can in fact tell them about the transferable skills that I have developed, skills that are applicable to any number of careers, and that show the diverse value of doing a PhD.
“Jus’ and ol’ Graveyard Ghost”: Past and Present in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath and Bruce Springsteen’s, “The Ghost of Tom Joad.”
*This was originally published in my MA in American Literature and Film Research Journal (March 2010)*
“You can get killed just for living/ In your American skin” – Bruce Springsteen “American Skin (41 Shots)”
This post examines the continuing relevance of John Steinbeck’s social and cultural vision in The Grapes of Wrath. It shall be argued that this novel which follows the Joad family’s trek across the Southwest in search of employment during the 1930s Depression has an ability to be transferred into other genres and socio-cultural issues at different times in America following its original publication in 1939. Indeed, Gavin Cologne-Brooks states that “something in Steinbeck’s vision crosses boundaries and transcends the mere text” (159). Thus, the central focus of this paper shall be on Bruce Springsteen’s song, “The Ghost of Tom Joad” and its social and cultural links with Steinbeck’s novel.
Firstly, it is necessary to briefly discuss the protagonist of both the novel and the song in question, Tom Joad. During the course of the narrative Tom steadily becomes a radical activist figure, inspired by both Preacher Casy and the struggle of the migrant worker community. H. Kelly Crockett actually refers to Tom as Casy’s “resurrection” at the end of the novel (198). Therefore, it can be contended that there is a sense of longevity about the character of Tom.
Indeed, the character’s subsequent reincarnation in Springsteen’s 1995 song, “Ghost” is a testament of Tom’s enduring cultural and social significance. For the singer, the radical spirit of Tom lives on in the American Southwest where similar issues of migrant workers and the associated social injustices are still taking place today. Springsteen himself states in a 2007 interview, “if you go to my hometown, in Freehold, there’s tremendous Hispanic influence, and that was California fifteen years ago. So when I wrote ‘The Ghost of Tom Joad’ and wrote a lot about what was going on, it felt like ‘This is what the country’s going to look like in another ten or fifteen years.’ All those immigration issues that people are trying to ride right now to wherever they think they’re going were all in the news and in your face in the early Nineties in California.” (Levy). Even in other songs like “American Skin (41 Shots)” Springsteen shows an awareness for the plight of the underprivileged and the underrepresented immigrant communities in America.
Additionally, the music video for “Ghost” expresses the links between the past and present, novel and song. Firstly, it is shot in black and white, evoking a sense of the past and a nostalgic atmosphere. The entire video is a photo montage of the American Southwest. All of the images are contemporary. However, a person could easily mistake these images for the work of Depression Era
photographers, such as Dorothea Lange whose photography also provided inspiration for the film version of Steinbeck’s novel. Additionally the perspective of the video is from a rear-view mirror in a car. This technique is suggestive of travel whilst watching the vacant landscape pass by. The emptiness of the Southwest and the symbolic presence of the road evoke the same atmosphere of migration and hopelessness that one senses when reading of the Joad families trek across the Southwest. In my opinion, the message of this music video, and indeed of the song lyrics, is that America has as little to offer its working class citizens today has it had during the 1930s. Springsteen explains that the song is “about people trying to find their way in, but somebody won’t let them in. Or they can’t find their way in. And what are the actions that leads to?” (Corn 24).
Moreover, in terms of the performer himself, Springsteen is widely considered a working-class hero, a rebel whose songs reflect the dark, gritty, hidden corners of America and American identity. Concerning his influences Springsteen states, “the people I loved — Woody Guthrie, Dylan — they were out on the frontier of the American imagination, and they were changing the course of history and our own ideas about who we were” (Levy). This folk influence is certainly evident in “Ghost.” The acoustic style, the simplicity of the harmonica, and Springsteen’s low, husky voice certainly summon up Guthrie and Dylan. The simplicity of the sound also emphasises the bleak and desolate tone of the song.
The lyrics of “Ghost” are influenced by Grapes, thus linking contemporary America to the Depression Era. For instance Springsteen sings,
Now Tom said ‘Mom, wherever there’s a cop beatin’ a guy
Wherever a hungry newborn baby cries
Where there’s a fight ‘gainst the blood and hatred in the air
Look for me Mom I’ll be there (Ghost).
These lines are inspired by Tom’s original speech to his mother in the novel: “Wherever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever they’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there” (495). In choosing to recreate this visionary speech, Springsteen is stirring up the essence of Tom’s activist spirit. The singer clearly believes that a radical icon like Tom is still needed in the contemporary Southwest as he croons,
the highway is alive tonight
But nobody’s kiddin’ nobody about where it goes
I’m sittin’ down here in the campfire light
Searchin’ for the ghost of Tom Joad” (Ghost).
Guthrie’s influence on the song is also evident in the lyrics. Guthrie’s folk ballad, “Tom Joad” gives biographical sketch of Steinbeck’s activist character. The lines,
wherever little children are hungry and cry,
Wherever people ain’t free,
Wherever men are fightin’ for their rights,
That’s where I’m a-gonna be, Ma.
That’s where I’m a-gonna be
bear a striking resemblance to Springsteen’s “Ghost” (Guthrie). Thus, Guthrie’s concern for the dispossessed and under-represented communities in America in during the mid-twentieth century is shared by Springsteen today.
Additionally, Springsteen parodies George H. W. Bush’s well-known 1990 speech in which he talks about “a new world order” (Address). The president calls for “a new era — freer from the threat of terror, stronger in the pursuit of justice, and more secure in the quest for peace. An era in which the nations of the world, East and West, North and South, can prosper and live in harmony,” and a world “where the strong respect the rights of the weak” (Address). In contrast, Springsteen states sardonically,
Welcome to the new world order
Families sleepin’ in their cars in the southwest
No home no job no peace no rest (Ghost).
Bush’s dream of equality and justice is squashed and scorned in “Ghost.” Just as the Joads suffered among the multitudes of displaced migrant workers it is now the plight of Mexican, Asian and Chicano/a communities instead of “Okies” that Springsteen is writing about.
The cartoon above, taken from the SouthWest Organising Project’s blog, expresses the irony that Springsteen protests against. We are presented with a group of Mexican migrant workers building the U.S-Mexico border in the background whilst a fat, greedy banker-pig slyly whispers to Uncle Sam a plan to exploit the workers and then oust them from American soil after they have built a barrier against their homeland. This capitalist neglect of worker’s rights is exactly what Tom wants to rebel against by the end of Grapes, and it is exactly what Springsteen highlights as he sings in search of Tom’s radical, activist spirit. Springsteen says of the political aims of “Ghost” that “there is a part of our population whose lives and dreams are declared expendable as the price of doing business” (Corn 22). This is the reality of Bush’s “new world order” (Address).
To conclude, this paper has argued that Grapes can cross boundaries in a society that upholds so many social, political, and physical borders. Clearly, both Steinbeck and Springsteen share a similar social consciousness. The message of Steinbeck’s Depression era novel is translated smoothly into the genre of song without losing sight of the social and cultural issues that are still deemed significant in America today by Springsteen. Hence, Springsteen evokes the past to effectively express the present situation.
Bloom, Harold ed. John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. NY: Infobase, 2007. Print.
Bush, George H. W.. Session of the Address Before a JointCongress on the Persian Gulf Crisis and the Federal Budget Deficit, 1990-09-11. George Bush Presidential Library and Museum. Texas A and M U. 1990. Web. 17 Jan 2010.
Cologne-Brookes, Gavin. “The Ghost of Tom Joad: Steinbeck’s legacy in the Songs of Bruce Springsteen.” John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. Ed. Harold Bloom. NY: Infobase, 2007. 159-169. Print.
Corn, David. “Bruce Springsteen Tells the Story of Secret America.” Mother Jones Magazine. (April 1996): 22-6. Google Book Search. Web. 12 Jan 2010.
Crockett, H. Kelly. “The Bible and The Grapes of Wrath.” College English 24.3 (1962): 193-99. JSTOR. Web. 14 Jan 2010.
Guthrie, Woody. “Tom Joad.” The Official Woody Guthrie Website. The Woody Guthrie Foundation, n.d. Web. 12 Jan 2010.
Levy, Joe. “Bruce Springsteen: The Rolling Stone Interview.” Rolling Stone Magazine. 1038 (1 Nov 2007): n. pag. Rolling Stone. Web. 14 Jan 2010.
Springsteen, Bruce. “American Skin (41 Shots).” Bruce Springsteen. Thrill Hill Prod., 2009. Web. 12 Jan 2010.
—. “The Ghost of Tom Joad.” Bruce Springsteen. Columbia Records. 1995. Web. 12 Jan 2010.
Steinbeck, John. The Grapes of Wrath. London: Penguin, 2000. Print.
I join the masses in shock and horror at the not guilty verdict in the George Zimmerman trial. Zimmerman was on trial for the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin on the 12th February 2012 in Florida. Martin was a 17 year old black teenager and was unarmed when he was shot twice by Zimmerman. The shooting and trial has sparked international outrage and a race debate that continues to gain momentum. Soon after the shooting I was added to a Facebook group: “Bulletins from Post-Racial America” which defines itself as follows:
A wave of optimism and hope after the candidacy and election of President Barack Obama in 2008 has generated some assertions that America is now in a post-racial period of decreased racial tension and discrimination. However, the facts of ongoing racism and oppression in a nation built on slavery clearly indicate that America is not yet void of serious discrimination, racial violence, and deep prejudice. This group sets out to share daily (or almost daily) posts that offer evidence against and crucial discussion of the theory of a post-racial America. We will ask questions about the realities of race relations, state and police violence against people of color, and the economic realities of being a person of color in America. We take as our starting point, March 20, 2012, the twenty third day after the shooting of Trayvon Martin, a 17 year-old black boy from Sanford, Florida. Martin’s killer, George Zimmerman, walks free without arrest all this time later despite having shot and killed the young boy who was armed carried nothing but skittles, an iced tea, a hoody, and a “really suspicious” look.
As a student of American studies I have come into contact with many texts detailing racial discrimination and many instances of it in American history and in recent times. The term “post-racial” does not exist in my vocabulary. It seems to me that the not guilty verdict is symbolic of an ill in American society (and indeed the whole world!), a very visible wrong that has been engaged with, challenged, but not yet defeated: racism.
Following the Zimmerman verdict I thought about the case of Emmett Till, a black boy who was murdered in Money, Mississippi at the age of 14 in 1955. Originally from Chicago, he was visiting family when he was lynched by a group of white males for speaking to the white female proprietor of the local grocery store, Carolyn Bryant. Bryant’s husband Roy and his half-brother J. W. Milam arrived at Till’s great-uncle’s house where they took Till, transported him to a barn, beat him and gouged out one of his eyes, before shooting him through the head and disposing of his body in the Tallahatchie River, weighting it with a 70-pound (32 kg) cotton gin fan tied around his neck with barbed wire. His body was discovered and retrieved from the river three days later. Till’s mother chose to have an open casket and public service to show the country and the world the brutality of her son’s murder. His killers were acquitted by an all-white jury.
I am also reminded of a short story by Richard Wright that I studied during my undergraduate degree, “Big Boy Leaves Home” (1938). Big Boy, the black protagonist, and his group of friends decide to go swimming in a local pond. They are all naked and playing innocently in the water when a local white woman comes upon them. In disgust she calls for a nearby white man who shoots two of the four boys. Big Boy runs home and is quickly hidden by his family until he can escape the town the following morning. Over the course of the night Big Boy witnesses the lynching of one of his friends. The story ends with Big Boy being driven to safety the next morning as he reflects upon the murders of his teenage friends. The story highlights the volatile and bloodthirsty Jim Crow environment that black people had to endure in the early 20th century.
Bruce Springsteen’s “American Skin (41 Shots)” (2001) encapsulates the fear and anxiety of many parents in America right now who worry that their children are in danger of brutality and murder due to the colour of their skin. Springsteen sings:
41 shots, Lena gets her son ready for school
She says “On these streets, Charles
You’ve got to understand the rules
If an officer stops you, promise me you’ll always be polite
And that you’ll never ever run away
Promise Mama you’ll keep your hands in sight”
Well, is it a gun, is it a knife
Is it a wallet, this is your life
It ain’t no secret (it ain’t no secret)
No secret my friend
You can get killed just for living in your American skin.
The song is a criticises the prevalence of racial discrimination in the U.S. It directly references the New York City police fatal shooting (with 41 shots) of the unarmed Bronx resident Amadou Diallo in February 1999. The police suspected Diallo of matching the profile of a man wanted for rape. When he attempted to pull out his wallet they assumed he had a gun and opened fire killing him with 41 shots, 19 of which hit him. The officers were found not guilty of his murder. The words in the above verse of mother coaching her son to survive the inevitable discrimination that permeates the streets of America is deeply moving and emblematic of the poisonous nature of discrimination. Rather than being able to kiss her son goodbye and wish him a nice day, this woman must instead worry for his safety and provide him with the best advice possible to ensure his return home.
From the early 20th century to present, what has changed? Black men are still guilty until proven innocent. Mothers still worry whether or not their sons are going to return home alive. Killers are walking free under the assumption of self-defence, the assumption that they have the right and the necessity to defend with deathly force against black men and boys. The administrators of “Bulletins from Post-Racial America” are correct. We are not post-racial, not even close. We have not evolved, and boys like Emmet Till and Trayvon Martin will continue to be oppressed and shot at until justice systems begin to acknowledge the value of their lives and the futility their deaths. Boys like the fictional Big Boy and Charles will continue to have their youths distorted and even destroyed by the unwarranted abuse and danger they face by going about innocent games and journeys to school. The Zimmerman acquittal is the latest shame in a long legacy racial discrimination.