Thursday, March 12, 2009

Poetry Choice: Biographical Poetry

While studying the Civil Rights Movement with young adults, there is one event which brought the reality and horrors of being a young blackman, to the attention of the nation. No discussion on Civil Rights Movement could be complete without the heart-wrenching story of Emmett Till. This fourteen year old, whose gruesome death, brought attention of the difficulties of blacks in the south. And can now be used as a catalyst for conversations on the Movement and current topics on diversity and inclusion.

Marilyn Nelson’s treatment of Emmett Till's short life through poetry lends itself to extended discussions. The book is written in sonnet form, which can also be used in advanced English classes.

I have chosen a poem that emphasises the fear of that time.

Emmett Till’s name still catches in my throat,
like syllables waylaid in a stutterer’s mouth.
A fourteen-year-old stutterer, in the South
To visit relatives and to be taught
the family’s way. His mother had finally brought
that White Sox cap; she’d made him swear an oath
to be careful around white folk. She’d told him the truth
of many a Mississippi anecdote:
some white folks have blind souls. In his suitcase
she’d packed dungarees, T-shirts, underwear,
and comic books. She’d given him a note
for the conductor, waved to his chubby face,
wondered if he’d remember to brush his hair.
Her only child. A body left to bloat.

Nelson, Marilyn, and Philippe Lardy. 2005. A wreath for Emmett Till. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Further information on Emmett Till and the climate of the time can be found at

Further Reading. "The Murder of Emmett Till."1999-2003. American Experience. (accessed 3/13/2009)

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