Encounters with Mamie Till: Reflection for Black History Month
In the past few months, I have had two striking encounters with Mamie Till. I have a bachelor's degree in African American studies, so this is not at all my first encounter or new information, but the experiences shook me in a new way. The first experience happened in front of her son Emmet Till’s coffin at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture. We visited the museum, not my first time, this past Fall. It was a random weekday in October and the museum was not crowded. I found myself standing in front of Emmet’s coffin, weeping audibly, and thanking Mamie for her strength, her wisdom, and her example of motherhood. In that moment my spirit felt renewed. Mamie’s strength was a gift to all of us. She reminded us that traumas that happen to any of us happen to all of us. Trauma erodes at the collective health of all of us, and Mamie’s transparency and vulnerability provided a disturbing look into the inner health of our society.
The second encounter happened while watching the movie, Till. During the portrayal of Mamie’s raw emotion when she first saw Emmet’s body, I felt a physical, guttural response, deep inside the pit of my stomach. Once again, I erupted in audible weeping. Sitting in the movie theatre with my family, I felt her pain as a mother, as a Black woman, as a descendant of slaves, as a student of the civil rights movement. Mamie’s quote: “The murder of my son has shown me that what happens to any of us, anywhere in the world, had better be the business of us all” should be the slogan of police reform movements, of mental health reform, of educational movements, of every institution that shapes our society.
Yet, a few days ago, a few days before the start of Black history month, the video of the murder of Tyre Nichols was released. I did not watch the video - vicarious trauma is real, but I was once again connected to Mamie Till when I was notified that the video had been released, and I wept, alone in my room.
I am reminded of Dr. Carter G. Woodson, the founder of Black History Week which turned in to Black History Month, and his quote “One should rely upon protest only when it is supported by a constructive program.”
In response to my encounters with Mamie Till, the release of yet another video of the manifestation of unhealed national trauma that results in the murder of a Black man, and fueled by the words of Carter G. Woodson, I am challenging myself to renew my focus on my work healing my community. I also challenge you to find a constructive way to channel your protest today. We are only as healthy as our weakest member of society. How are you making yourself and others better?