When history's restless ghosts flare up and spark news, books often satisfy the urge for a deeper perspective. The trouble is that ghosts are unpredictable; history books can go in and out of print before the spirits have their day.
Take the case of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old black boy who was abducted and murdered after supposedly whistling at a white woman in Mississippi in August 1955. When his mother ordered that his coffin remain open, so that the world could see his gouged-out eye, crushed jaw and bloated body, Till's murder became one of the first racially motivated crimes to receive national media attention, though no one was ever punished.
Over the decades, Till's legend has continued to inspire outrage and tributes, but few books about his case have remained in print. Even so, the University Press of Virginia undertook the publication of The Lynching of Emmett Till (Nov.), a provocative compendium of accounts from black and white newspapers that telegraph the mix of obfuscation and horror surrounding the case, as well as poetry, memoirs and fiction that testify to its enduring importance. The range of selections—which include an Eleanor Roosevelt column, a lost Langston Hughes poem and commentary by James Baldwin, Bob Dylan, Michael Eric Dyson and Howell Raines—effectively reveal how Till's brutal death has entered the collective social memory. Edited by Christopher Metress, an associate professor of English at Samford University in Alabama, the book is one of the press's two lead titles for the fall.
Though the press's assistant director, Mark Saunders, recognized the book might not be a candidate for instant commercial success, his pulse quickened when he learned that first-time filmmaker Keith Beauchamp was finishing up a documentary, The Untold Story of Emmett Till, that included witnesses to Till's murder who had never before testified. After hooking up with Beauchamp, Saunders called Max Rodriguez of the African-American book review QBR, who joined the effort to draw attention to the book and film, and brought New York University's Africana Studies department on board as the third sponsor of a launch event.
The film's November 16 premiere was preceded by a New York Times editorial by Brent Staples, calling attention to its potential to reopen the case and finally lay Till's ghost to rest. Within a week, NPR's Tavis Smiley aired an interview with Beauchamp and Till's 81-year-old mother, Mamie Till Mobley. Then ABC World News Tonight weighed in, highlighting another documentary by recent MacArthur award—winner Stanley Nelson, The Murder of Emmett Till, which also includes testimony from the newly discovered witnesses and will be aired in January on PBS's The American Experience.
Although no mention of Metress's book was made in that early coverage, Virginia has shipped its entire 3,500-copy first printing and returned to press for another 5,000. As the story has been picked up by other newspapers, such as the Washington Post, Metress's book has begun to receive respectful acknowledgment and more reviews are expected.
Virginia's efforts underscore how university presses—many dedicated to publishing works of African-American history—support the publication of their books despite budgetary constraints. It's also part of their mission to keep their books in print, which explains why half of the African-American history books now available are published by university presses, according to Ingram's database of active titles. In fact, the only other adult book about Till, Stephen J. Whitfield's comprehensive study A Death in the Delta, is available from Johns Hopkins, which picked it up when its original publisher, Free Press, opted not to reprint it.
If Till's case is reopened, there will be more books, from a variety of publishers. Random House has already signed up The Death of Innocence by Mobley with lawyer and author Christopher Benson, scheduled for next fall. But in the meantime, the UPs have the story.
Black Bookstores Depend on UPs
For many black bookstores, university press titles form the backbone of the shelves devoted to history, politics and sociology. James Fugate, the owner of Eso Won Books in Los Angeles, estimated that university press titles make up about 20% of his stock.
Some of Fugate's biggest Christmas titles are from the UPs, such as the series In Praise of Black Women, illustrated hardcovers that the University Press of Wisconsin has translated from the original French. Despite its $50 price tag, the first volume, Ancient African Queens (2001), has sold well as a gift book. Fugate has high expectations for the second volume, Heroines of the Slave Era (Dec.) and the forthcoming Modern African Women (Mar.). Another illustrated book that's done well is the University of Washington's two-volume compilation of paintings, The Complete Jacob Lawrence (2000), which retails for $150. Fugate's enthusiasm for UP titles has also helped him move less obvious titles, such as the University of Massachusetts's Against the Odds: Scholars Who Challenged Racism in the 20th Century (Nov.).
Like Fugate, Blanche Richardson, owner of Marcus Books in San Francisco, relies on the UPs to address topics of perennial interest. Though she acknowledged that many UPs "could spice up their jackets and titles and sell a few more books," she is committed to them. "I'll order the books, though they often cost $39.95 and won't ever come out in paper. I know they won't fly out of here like Terry McMillan, but we don't return them. They keep our history alive."