Scott Woods: See No Racism, Hear No Racism, Speak No Racism
On Emmett Till, KKK flyers in Worthington, the Vanderelli Room vandalism and the ubiquity of emboldened white supremacy
“Till,” a dramatized biopic of one of the most notorious hate crimes in American history, the murder of Emmett Till, will be released in October. The film will recount the 1955 incident in which two white men kidnapped and killed 14-year-old Till while he was visiting family in Mississippi. They committed their crimes in response to an accusation by a white woman, Carolyn Bryant Donham, claiming that Till had whistled and grabbed at her in the street.
If you’re white, you probably have to be of a certain age or political lean to know that story. If you’re Black, period, you grew up hearing about Till, whose death lit a fire under the burgeoning civil rights movement. It isn’t just history to us; it’s a cautionary tale. “Always be mindful of where you are” and “Never get too comfortable in strange places” is good advice for anyone, but when you’re Black in America, it’s not advice. It’s a rulebook.
A case can be made that such art sits squarely at the intersection of education and entertainment, if a movie about such a story can be called entertainment at all. The extent to which it is one or the other comes down to the viewer, though I maintain that some stories should never be entertainment, and Emmett Till’s is one of them. What I can tell you for sure is who this movie is for. “Till” isn’t for Black folks. It’s for white folks.
I suppose there is an education to be found in such a film, though books and journalism still work just fine, and come without the packaged drama of a fictionalized biopic. My greater concern is for white folks and how such fare often serves as absolution, a stand-in for doing actual anti-racist work. White people are frequently OK with knowing bad things happen. They tend to be less OK with changing anything around them to address such realities. Knowing a heavy thing frequently feels like an accomplishment unto itself. It’s heavy, so carrying it around is often mistaken for work and struggle. It's much easier (and cheaper and efficient and self-satisfying) to settle for having a conversation as a goal.
And yet, Carolyn Bryant Donham is escaping almost 70 years of justice as I write this. It has been determined several times over, and by her own admission, that she lied about Till’s interaction with her. Not only has she never been charged with a crime, last week a grand jury declined to indict her when an unserved arrest warrant from 1955 was uncovered earlier this year. Bryant Donham, who is 88, will likely go to her grave a free and untested accessory to murder.
Last Saturday, Franklinton art gallery the Vanderelli Room had its Black Lives Matter mural vandalized and other artwork on the property defaced with white supremacist branding. Two days later on Monday, residents in a predominantly Black section of Worthington found recruitment flyers for the Ku Klux Klan in their mailboxes. Yesterday graffiti similar to what was found at the Vanderelli Room tagging was discovered on a wall at Tuttle Park. Such displays of racism are rare, but the breeding ground for it is almost remarkable in its typicality. A lot of people in Columbus are outraged by such acts, but most are unsurprised. It’s not like we didn’t know that white supremacists live and work here, though it’s clearly time to interrogate why they are activating publicly at the rate they are now.
I will tell you that, as someone whom such terrorism targets regularly, it’s hard to not be overly pessimistic about it all. Even if I did not personally know people involved in each of the above incidents, I’d take such actions personally. I was raised on the story of Emmett Till. I know the price not paying attention in white spaces costs. This latest development in the Till case seems untenably unfair, a slap in the face of even the potential for Black justice. It is yet another rock on the mountain of examples Black people will point to about the true nature of our relationship with this country, which at this stage of the American experiment white people understand completely, yet do too little about.
It is common to the point of banality to say that racism doesn’t go away simply because you don’t feel its effect. We should do away entirely with the notion that if you’re not on the business end of some bigot’s spray can, or worse, you’re clear of the reach of white supremacy. We should accept that racism is an everybody problem, even when Black people are not in the room to point it out to you. Especially in those moments, really. Watching a movie isn’t going to fix this problem. At some point you’re going to have to do something real, something that changes how bad things are done or how they manifest. You can keep trying to run from acknowledging the extent to which racism is embedded in our society, but you’re only going to run out of breath and tennis shoes. The racism we’re witnessing is not new. It is emboldened. And something about what we’re not doing as a community is making that happen.
Scott Woods is a poet, cultural critic, essayist and founder of the arts nonprofit Streetlight Guild.