The horribly disfigured body of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old black boy from Chicago who was killed in Mississippi in 1955 for allegedly whistling at a white woman, is a never-ending nightmare for the Pittsburgh, Pa.–reared renowned author and essayist John Edgar Wideman. “It took me decades before I could honestly and truly, without censoring my gaze, look at that picture,” he says, in reference to a famous and disturbing photograph of Till’s mutilated body. “It scared the cowboy crap out of me.”
Wideman is discussing Writing to Save a Life: The Louis Till File, his 21st book, a new nonfiction work coming from Scribner in November. Wideman is a recipient of the MacArthur “genius” grant, two-time winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award for his novels Sent for You Yesterday (1984) and Philadelphia Fire (1990), and the second African-American Rhodes Scholar (the first was Alain Locke, the “godfather” of the Harlem Renaissance). He has spent his life writing eloquently about the terror and hope, the promise and peril, of the African-American experience. His books have engaged that experience profoundly, comingled with Wideman’s own successes and sorrows, which include a brother and a son in prison for murder. And with Till’s ghost hovering over him, Wideman asked himself a question: what about Till’s father?
Louis Till grew up an orphan in New Madrid, Miss. He met Emmett’s mother, Mamie, in Argo, Ill., and was drafted into the Army during World War II, shortly after Emmett was born. Near the end of the war, Till was court-martialed for assaulting, raping, and killing two women in Civitavecchia, Italy. He was imprisoned with the iconoclastic author Ezra Pound, who immortalized Till’s plight in his poem The Pisan Cantos. Till was 23 when he was executed for the crime in 1945, 10 years before his son was killed.
With the release of Writing to Save a Life, his first book of nonfiction since his 2003 travel memoir, The Island: Martinique, Wideman has answered his question about the father of Emmett Till. “I lived with this manuscript for almost a dozen years, and lived with it longer than that, if I go all the way back to the time I saw the 1955 photo of Emmett Till,” he says.
As Wideman writes in the book, Louis Till was a victim of three wrongs: “wrong color, wrong place, wrong time.” He was subjected to “judicial asphyxiation,” a black man “guilty of being nobody.” And the final insult? Ten years after Till’s trial, the proceedings were mysteriously made public during the appeal phase of a second trial of the exonerated murderers of Emmett, poisoning public opinion and the jury with a racist logic that essentially said, like father, like son. The prosecutors failed in their attempt to retry Emmett’s murderers on kidnapping charges, ending Mamie’s hopes for justice at a time when black lives seemed to matter even less than they do to today.
Wideman resurrects Louis Till’s voice using his court-martial and trial, and using Mamie’s autobiography, using a montage of memoir, research, and imaginary dialogue. Through the author’s literary resurrection, we encounter a Till who is “not a particularly tall man,” who was a boxing-gym rat, and who at times was abusive to his wife. He was a man of few words, even at his trial.
One of the most poignant passages in Writing to Save a Life is about the sad fact that Till was not able to give Emmett “the talk,” the somber sit-down discussion many black fathers give their sons about dealing with the police and with the ways of white folks. “If Louis Till had been around to school his son, Emmett, about the South, about black boys and white men up north and down south, would Emmett have returned safely from his trip to Money, Mississippi, started public high school in Chicago, eluded the fate of his father, maybe even become successful and rich?” Wideman asks. “But his father’s fate was to never be around to protect, advise, and supervise his son; it is the fate of the father and son to orphan each other always.”
For Wideman, Till’s quirks and character hit close to home. “I saw my father’s character in Louis Till,” he says. “My father was a veteran. He fought in World War II. He was a patriot. On the other hand, he had no illusions whatsoever, about how Uncle Sam had mistreated him and other black soldiers. My father was intelligent and closed-mouthed. He knew a lot more than what he was ever going to tell you. And that’s the quality that distinguished Louis Till.” Wideman extended and elaborated on his complex relationship with his father in his 1994 memoir, Fatheralong: A Meditation on Fathers and Sons, Race and Society.
Wideman describes himself as a “spirit wanderer, playing with fiction, nonfiction, documentaries, memoir, trying to figure out by doing them, where they fit in [my] imagination.” His love of books began in grade school in the Homewood section of Pittsburgh. “The teacher would leave me in charge to regale the people with stories. I was already reading comic books, Gold Classics,” he says. “The whole idea of spellbinding, of being an entertainer, being the center of the stage, making up words, that let me know that writing is nice.”
Wideman also developed a life-long affair with basketball, which he would write about in loving detail in Hoop Roots. He was the star player in Pittsburgh’s Peabody High School and was an All-Ivy forward for the University of Pennsylvania, which he attended on a Ben Franklin scholarship. After graduating in 1963 with a B.A. in English, he was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford University in England, graduating in 1966 with a degree in 18th-century literature, after which he attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop for one year. He taught English at Penn in the school’s Black Studies department the year it was established, with a particular emphasis on W.E.B. Du Bois’s great work The Souls of Black Folk.
“That book was kind of a keystone, a temple of black writing,” Wideman says. “And I taught it many times. I took it apart to see what was narrative, what was prophecy, what was philosophy, what was sociological research, what was historical and personal memoir—the loss of his first son. And when I did that, I was taking apart our tradition. I was trying to enact for my students, and for myself, what this thing called African-American literature consists of. Du Bois is certainly a voice which is incorporated in what I’m doing in Writing to Save a Life.”
Wideman’s first novels, A Glance Away (1967) and Hurry Home (1970), dealt with poverty and drug addiction in Homewood (which would be the setting for much of his fiction) and drew praise from critics who cited his debt to William Faulkner and T.S. Eliot. Throughout the years, Wideman’s output would be vivid and varied, from Damballah, Hiding Place, and Sent for You Yesterday (collected as the Homewood Trilogy) to Philadelphia Fire, his haunting and heartbreaking novel about the terrible 1985 burning of black homes in the predominately black Philly enclave of Osage Avenue, which was sparked by a confrontation between the police and the radical black group MOVE, and The Cattle Killing, another novel set in the City of Brotherly Love.
“A lot of people think the best work I’ve done was nonfiction—the Brothers and Keepers book,” Wideman says. “But I think of myself as a fiction writer. And I think if my work is put in perspective, all the books would be a continual questioning of what’s true and what’s not true, what’s documented and what’s not documented. Because those are the very issues that make such a huge difference between people of color and white people, and also bring us together.
So that’s what I was unconsciously or consciously pursuing in the Till book.”
Wideman’s moving 1984 memoir, Brothers and Keepers, a collection of letters to his brother, Robbie, who is serving a life sentence for murder, marks the divergence of their lives, which horribly foreshadowed the imprisonment of his son, Jake, who is also incarcerated for murder. “Survivor’s guilt comes, for me, at the moment I realize I’m walking out of the prison, and all of the men, who are just the same as me in so many ways, can’t walk out,” Wideman laments. “And somebody controls that transition between the prison, freedom and incarceration. And it’s not me. And I haven’t figured out a way to control the traffic. So in that sense, I’m implicit in the imprisonment of the men I’ve left behind. And that’s a certain kind of survivor’s guilt.”
But as bad as that is, Wideman has a lot to be thankful for. His other son, Dan, works for an information-technology company in North Carolina. His daughter, Jamila, a lawyer, was a basketball star in her own right who played in the WNBA and has published a book of poetry, Black. Wideman shares a house in France with his second wife. And he says, at the age of 75, that he’s “old enough now—I’ve been there, done that.” He adds, “I sold books for six figures a long time ago, when six figures really meant something. So it’s not about the money. It’s not about the payday. It’s about the satisfaction of doing it. And the hope that it would be shared. That’s what the writing’s about.”
Eugene Holley Jr. is a freelance writer who contributes often to Publishers Weekly.