Thursday, August 28, 2014

Emmett Till and the Star: Coming to Terms with Racism in the U.S.A.

My son is one of the three greatest lights of my life. His innocent devilry, his spontaneous dances, his tender embraces, they are precious beyond what words can express. As most parents do, I wish for his safety in a world full of so many ills: violence, hate, ignorance, bitterness, racism and war. My son is mixed, but most of the world will see him as black. I know at some point he will brave that big, wide world, and probably will unwittingly come face to face with some of those ills. And I also know that as a black male, the beauty of his character, the joy in his heart, and the purity of his intentions will often come second to the color of his skin. It hurts to know this, and it's something I think about every day.

I live in Seminole County, Florida, the location of that terrible incident in which Trayvon Martin, an unarmed teenager, was murdered by the "neighborhood watch" while walking home from a convenience store where he'd just bought some candy. He was pursued because of his appearance, and when he was hassled, he did what most teenage boys would do - he gave attitude right back. And he died for it.

Trayvon Martin Rally

Two years ago a black teenage boy, Jordan Davis, was shot to death by a middle-aged white man at a gas station in Jacksonville, Florida because the kid was playing his "rap-crap music too loud." The shooter said that after confronting the teen and his friends in their car, he felt threatened by them, and decided to "take matters into his own hands." A gun was never found in the kids' car.

Just a few weeks ago Michael Brown, yet another unarmed, black teenage boy, was shot and killed by a police officer in Missouri after he was stopped for allegedly walking in the street at midday. The nation cried out in anger at the injustice. There were vigils, and marches, and the National Guard was called in. People wanted answers, and none of the answers being given were satisfactory.

The reality is that there is a deep-seated fear running rampant in this country: a fear of black men. Why? They might steal? They might be aggressive? They might have a gun? They might be gang members? They might be drug dealers? I want to fault the media for some of this, but it's not just the media - it's a far larger, deeper, more subtle and destructive sickness. We've come far since the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, but not quite far enough.

Emmett Till

So I was sitting on my couch this afternoon, and I started thinking about Emmett Till, the 14-year-old boy (do I have to say "unarmed" again?) who was mutilated, shot, and sunk in a river in Mississippi in August of 1955 for the crime of allegedly whistling at a white woman. 1955. My mother was 3 years old. Segregation was still alive and well, the post-Civil War Jim Crow Laws still very much in effect. In 1955 anger and outrage was spreading across the country, and the Emmett Till murder was one of the great catalysts for the difficult, and at times deadly, work that followed in the fight for equality in the '60s.

I started thinking about that terrible tragedy, and about all the terrible tragedies that have occurred over the years and of late. I thought of how much I love, and fear for, my son, and how much hope I have that by the time he's 17 or 18 years old the world is at least a fraction kinder than what it is today. I decided to read on this issue.

I pulled four cards: one for Emmett, one for his murderers, and one for the energy of the environment at the time of his death. I pulled a final card to better understand the overarching impact of what happened to him.

Card 1: Emmett - 8 of Wands reversed
Card 2: His murderers - Fool reversed
Card 3: Energy at the time of death - 5 of Swords
Card 4: Overarching message: Star

Mythic Tarot
Juliet Sharman-Burke, Liz Greene, Tricia Newell

The 8 of Wands sent a lot of input my way. I sensed the desire to run away, but the inability to do so. Even the images on the cards lent something to that feeling: notice how all of the movement across the three main cards flows to the left. I noticed the dolphins trying to swim away from the other two cards - there is a quality of innocence there that has been turned on its head, been corrupted.

The Fool reversed as representative of Emmett's murderers seemed so sadly perfect. This is a card (and orientation) that speaks of ignorance, folly, and, in this case, a deeply dangerous recklessness. These were truly fools, acting out of a misplaced sense of anger and insult and hate. At least two grown men were involved in the apprehension, torture, and murder of a boy barely in his teens. It doesn't get much more senseless than that.

I call the 5 of Swords "the bully card." In the Mythic Tarot a figure brandishing five swords looms aggressively over what appears to be a young boy. That the menacing figure is an angel was not lost on me - most hate crimes stem from a sense of one party being "divinely righteous" and the other party being "less than." What happened to Emmett Till was certainly the most severe form of bullying, and what happened later in the courts was simply a continuation of that wicked mistreatment. Emmett's killers were tried by an all-white, male jury of peers (at this time in history African Americans and women were not permitted to serve jury duty), and after a deliberation that lasted barely longer than an hour, they were found to be innocent. Later they publicly admitted to the murder, and were even paid to share their story with the press. Bullies even to their own end.

Mythic Tarot
Juliet Sharman-Burke, Tricia Newell, Liz Greene

When I pulled the Star as the overarching message I had a split second of confusion, and then everything made sense. I spent a while feeling out which deck was "right" for this reading, and it took me some time to settle on the Mythic. I'm so glad I did. This version of the Star carries profoundly significant meaning for this particular topic. In this image Pandora has opened the chest that contains all the evils of the world. As they fly outward and past her on their way to plague the world, there is an angelic star shining in the background, assurance that no matter what ills befall the world, there is always hope, always a light to be found that will help guide us onward toward healing and clarity. Love has not abandoned us, even in the darkest hour of night. When I saw the Star, I saw hope for humankind. I saw Emmett Till's mother, who made a point of leaving his casket open so that the whole world would see what had been done to him. She couldn't tell people what had happened. It was an act so brutal that words were meaningless. And because she was brave enough to show the world her son's face, a deep wave of smoldering anger spread forth across every state, and there was no turning back from the fight for equality.

It was that fight that, ten years later and after many more sacrifices, brought about the Civil Rights Act, the Fair Housing Act, and the Voting Act - three major bills that changed the face of human relations in this country. All of that was for the good, but as I sit here on my couch watching these terrible news stories, and thinking about my son, I wonder if it will ever be enough. The Star is a beacon of hope that we're heading in the right direction. No matter how much hate we confront, no matter how many more battles there are to fight (and let me tell you, there are so very many!) the light of truth will never cease to shine.

In Martin Luther King's own words during his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech:

"Yet when years have rolled past and when the blazing light of truth is focused on this marvellous age in which we live - men and women will know and children will be taught that we have a finer land, a better people, a more noble civilization - because these humble children of God were willing to suffer for righteousness' sake."

I will believe in that - for me, for my son, for my husband and daughters, and for the world - and keep moving forward.


  1. This post has brought tears in my eyes. I can imagine how you, as a mother of such a wonderful boy, must be abhorred by these brutal acts. The only thing I can say is I share your hope for the future beause that is all we can do: Hope and pray for better times

    1. Thank you, Ellen <3 I think if all the good hearts and minds work together, we can make real change in this world!

  2. I'm new to your blog and this post brought me to tears. It also renewed a commitment within me to do justly and love mercy. Thank you for your thoughts.

    1. Thank you so much, Gigi, for your words, and for stopping through :)