Looking at Emmett Till--Glaring at New Orleans
Looking at Emmett Till—Glaring at New Orleans
By Amani Jabbar-Esa
In his essay, John E Wideman speaks about the horrible 1955 murder of Emmett Till. Growing up an African-American, I also grew up aware of the horrific dehumanization of Emmett Till. I have also seen his picture, long ago in a documentary. However, unlike Wideman, the picture never “haunted” me. I suppose I grew up feeling “safe.” My parents instilled in me a feeling of self-worth and shielded me from most of the realities of present day racism. I guess I grew up believing that the days of lynching, disregard for black life, and blatant bigotry were over…and then hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans.
One day, several days after Katrina hit New Orleans, I sat watching the news. I found myself near tears, as I watched footage of the filthy conditions in and around the Super Dome. I continued to watch as they showed a young mother holding her infant child, and joining in a chant. “We need help,” was the crowd’s chorus. I felt as though I was viewing conditions in a developing nation. Could this be America? Could this be the very city that I had grown up in?
I began to vent to a friend of mine from New Orleans, over the internet. I can’t believe what’s going on over there, I typed. Can’t they get them out of there any
faster than this???
Don’t you get it, he replied, they don’t care about those people. This whole thing is racist!!!
Racist? The thought that race was the reason why the authorities weren’t coping with the Katrina faster had never crossed my mind.
Do you really think that they are leaving them there because they are black?? I felt incredulous.
Yes, he replied. Yes I do.
My friend’s comments stayed with me throughout the day, and continue to cross my mind from time to time. You see, my friend is Lebanese. He is gray in a country of white and black. I felt hopelessly naïve. In his essay Wideman writes, “Emmett Till dies again and again because his murder, the conditions that ensure and perpetuate it, have not been honestly examined. Denial is more acceptable to the majority of Americans than placing themselves, their inherited dominance, at risk” (33).
Immediately following Katrina, many reports came out of New Orleans about some blacks there developing a mob mentality, raping and looting in the streets. The New Orleans Police superintendent was quoted as stating, “"The tourists are walking around there, and as soon as these individuals see them, they're being preyed upon. They are beating. They are raping them in the streets." However these reports later proved to be unfounded. Later the superintendent stated, “"We have no official reports to document any murder. Not one official report of rape or sexual assault." There is another example that was shown on television. The host showed one picture of a white couple taking food and supplies from a store and the caption said, “Couple takes supplies from store.” The host compared this picture to another that showed blacks taking from a store and that picture referred to the act as “looting.” As Wideman questions, “Does a photo document or fabricate an event? Is life composed of facts or a constructed fiction?”(47)
In the days following Katrina, the reality of some of the cities poorest inhabitants left to sit in their own filth for days was transformed. Instead of feeling sorry for these poor souls, many in the media twisted the truth and painted a none-to-pretty picture of petty violence, rape, and mass hysteria, where there was none. In the days following Katrina one might be lead to think, as Wideman states sarcastically, “Hey maybe black people really ain’t worth shit, just like you’ve been hearing your whole life”(36).
Many people died during and after Katrina. At least some deaths can be contributed to the slow response. It saddens me that for a moment in time lives were so “expenendable.”
As Wideman states, “Young black boys [ and woman and children] are still being cut down as relentlessly as Till’s murderers cut short his life—nobody’s fault, everybody’s fault a deep, deep fault that remains in our national psyche” (46).
No one knows if the response to Katrina would have been better if the victims had not been poor and black. All we can do is speculate and conjecture. However, as I read Wideman’s essay, this is all I could think about. I don’t know why many people, including my sister, where left without food and water for days. What I DO know is that this incident is a national shame, and as such it deserves to be examined, written about and, most importantly, not forgotten.
 Katrina: Rumors, Lies, and Racist Fantasies By Slavoj Zizek, In These Times. Posted October 31, 2005. http://www.alternet.org/katrina/27442/