Posts Tagged ‘John Edgar Wideman’

h1

Finally, Some Time To Read

February 8, 2009

I can’t remember where I first heard about this book, probably on http://community.livejournal.com/literary quotes – which is where I got the idea for this blog – but I suddenly decided I had to have it. I usually don’t look twice at books that boast they have the 10 Best or 100 Things ____ Should Know Before ____ or anything like that, but in my mind, I imagined this collection of the best creative non-fiction stories/essays to be like my bible, worn out and dirty from the times I’d thumb through it, searching for the inspirational quote about advice to young writers or the description that freezes my eyes and I have to stop reading until they unfreeze so I can finish it. No, a library book wouldn’t do, I had to have this book for keeps. I bought it with my mom’s Kepler’s bookstore on a very rainy day. I forced myself to drive because I want to work at Kepler’s one day, my dad in the passenger seat telling me where to go. I had to ask someone who works there exactly where it was and she handed me the version with the other cover but I craved the cover with the worn out notebooks, curved from time and use. I went back to the shelf where she got it from and fortunately found the version I wanted. It’s superficial, sure. So what.
I have read two of the stories so far and am on the third. I believe that each word written by the respective authors are all perfectly and meticulously phrased. My English teacher once said that The Great Gatsby doesn’t have a single extraneous word in it and that’s how I feel about this collection so far. Now that I’m done with the lugubrious and tedious Crime and Punishment, which really is “indescribable agony”, as one critic said, I can get back to my far more enjoyable books waiting for me to read them.

How can you not want to devour this book just by looking at its cover? If the excerpts havent won you over, I dont know whats wrong with you.

How can you not want to devour this book just by looking at its cover? If the excerpts haven't won you over, I don't know what's wrong with you.

Excerpt #15:
Emmett Till’s murder was an attempt to slay an entire generation. Push us backward to the bad old days when our lives seemed not to belong to us. When white power and racism seemed unchallengeable forces of nature, when inferiority and subserviency appeared to be our birthright, when black lives seemed cheap and expendable, when the grossest insults to pride and person, up to and including murder, had to be endured. No redress, no retaliation, no justice expected. Emmett Till’s dead body, like the body of James Byrd just yesterday in Texas, reminded us that the bad old days are never farther away than the thickness of the skin, skin some people still claim the prerogative to burn or cut or shoot full of holes if it’s dark skin. It’s no accident that Emmet Till’s dead face appears inhuman. The point of inflicting the agony of his last moments, killing him and mutilating him, is to prove he’s not human.
And it almost works. Comes close to working every time. Demonized by hot-blooded or cold-blooded statistics of crime, addiction, disease, cartooned, minstrelized, criminalized, eroticized, commodified and stereotypical representation, the black body kidnapped and displayed by the media loses all vestiges of humanity. We are set back on our collective heels by the overwhelming evidence, the constant warning that beneath the black skin something other lurks. A so-called “lost generation” of young black men dying in the streets today points backward, the way Emmett Till’s rotting corpse points backward, history and prophecy at once: This is the way things have always been, will always be, the way they’re supposed to be.
The circle of racism, its perverse logic remain unbroken. Boys like Emmett Till are born violating the rules, aren’t they? Therefore they forfeit any rights law-abiding citizens are bound to respect. The bad places – ghettos, prisons, morgue slabs – where most of them wind up confirm the badness of the boys. Besides, does it hurt any less if the mugger’s a product of nurture, not nature? Keeping him off the streets, confining him in a world apart, is what matters, isn’t it? (31-32)

Excerpt #16:
Instead of the nightmare one night, this is what I dream.
I’m marching with many, many men, a multitude, a million men of all colors in Washington D.C., marching past the bier on which the body of Emmett Till rests. The casket, as his mother demanded, is open. I want the world to see what they did to my baby. One by one from an endless line, the men detach themselves, pause, peer down into the satin-lined box. Pinned inside its upright lid a snapshot of Emmett Till, young, smiling, whole, a jaunty Stetson cocked high across his brow. In the casket Emmett Till is dressed in a dark suit, jacket wings spread to expose a snowy shroud pulled up to his chin. Then the awful face, patched together with string and wire, awaits each mourner.
My turn is coming soon. I’m grateful. Will not shy away this time. Will look hard this time. The line of my brothers and faterhs and sons stretched ahead of me, behind me. I am drawn by them, pushed by them, dsteadied as wse move each other along. We are a horizon girding the earth, holding the sky down. So many of us in one place at one time it scares me. More than a million of us marching through this city of monumental buildings and dark alleys. Not very long ago, we were singing, but now we march silently, more shuffle than brisk step as we approach the bier, wait our turn. Singing’s over, but it holds silently in the air, tangible as weather, as their bright sun disintegrating marble buildings, emptying alleys of shadows, warming us on a perfect October day we had no right to expect but would have been profoundly disappoitned had it fallen out otherwise.
What I say when I lean over and speak one last time to Emmett Till is I love you. I’m sorry. I won’t allow it to happen ever again. And my voice will be small and quiet when I say the words, not nearly as humble as it should be, fearful almost to pledge any good after so much bad. My small voice and short turn, and then the next man and the next, close together, leading, following one another so the murmur of our voices beside the bier never stops. An immensity, a continuous, muted shout and chant and benediction, a river gliding past the stillness of Emmett Till. Past this city, this hour, this place. River sound of blood I’m almost close enough to hear coursing in the veins of the next man.
In the dream, we do not say Forgive us. We are taking, not asking for, something today. There is no time left to ask for things, even things as precious as forgiveness, only time to take one step, then the next and the next, alone in this great body of men, each one standing on his own feet, moving, our shadows linked, a coolness, a shield stretching nearly unbroken across the last bed where Emmett Till sleeps. (44-45)

-Looking at Emmett Till by John Edgar Wideman from In Fact: The Best of Creative Nonfiction [edited by Lee Gutkind]