Thursday, September 3, 2015

Mississippi, ruins, and history

Back in late August 1955, was it a beautiful, golden evening like tonight when Emmett Till went into Bryant's Grocery Store?  Did it feed his good spirits, make him flirt - maybe on a dare - maybe whistle at - the young woman behind the counter?  Were the roads quiet, and empty, and idyllically unlike his home town of Chicago, with fields stretching away in the warm summer's light over the other side of the railway tracks, like today?

It wasn't that night that he was murdered, but a couple of nights later - taken away from his uncle's house, beaten up, shot in the head, his body dumped in the Tallahatchie river, weighted down with a 70 lb weight from a cotton gin, tied to him with barbed wire.  When his terribly mutilated body was found, his mother insisted that it be sent back to his home city, where he was displayed, and photographed, in his open casket.

I deeply wanted to visit Money, Mississippi - some ten miles north of Greenwood, where even tonight there was a group of thuggish looking white guys with confederate flags demonstrating outside the courthouse, urging Mississippians to Stand Firm (I thought one wanted to hurl a flag pole through my car window when he saw me taking their photo ...).  Greenwood - site of so much activity during the Civil Rights movement - clearly still has its violent divisions.  I show photos of Till's body in classes on race and photography, juxtaposing them with invariable white-authored lynching photos (and yes, probably, they should come with a trigger warning - but I want them to shock - that's the point).  But - in showing them, I've also strongly and badly felt that I've been objectifying Till.  So I wanted to come and pay my respects - not at the site of his murder, wherever that might have been, but at the location where it all started to go so horribly wrong.

And these ruins?  They're some 100 miles further south, and are of the Windsor Plantation house - built in 1859-61 (hardly great timing), by Smith Daniell, who only lived there a few weeks before he died ... But (and despite what some would-be knowledgeable blowhard was telling his companion as I was making to leave), the house wasn't destroyed by General Sherman, but by some careless person back in 1890, who didn't fully extinguish the cigarette that they were smoking on their third floor balcony.

There's a great deal of Mississippi history summed up in the gaps between these two ruins.

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