Several years ago I read the award-winning book A Wreath for Emmett Till by Marilyn Nelson. Unbelievably it was the first book I'd ever read about the young boy whose murder triggered the Civil Rights era. Not only was it the first book I'd ever read about the boy and the aftermath of his death, it was the first time I'd ever even heard about him. It shocked me at the time and saddened me that I had such a poor education up to that point.
When I was in high school, when everyone should learning about world and US history (or whatever country's history), I was being treated to an experimental form of education where we sat around and talked about topics the teacher deemed important. Hey, it was the 1970s and a lot of counter-culture stuff was happening, so why not. Honestly it was a terrible idea. I missed so much. For example, in one of my college classes the professor brought in a speaker who talked about 'the Holocaust' and I didn't know what he meant. I was too embarrassed to ask. I did know a little about concentration camps but had never heard the term 'Holocaust' before. See what I mean about my limited education? Anyway, I tell you that story as an explanation of why I probably missed learning about Emmett Till.
Now in the 2020s, with book banning a big threat to a well-rounded education AGAIN, I am doing my best to rectify my poor education and help educate those of you who don't have a chance to hear about important events from our past by reading and blog-reviewing books on a host of topics.
Choosing Brave: How Mamie Till-Mobley and Emmett Till Sparked the Civil Rights Movement by Angela Joy, illustrated by Janelle Washington is an excellent place to start that reeducation. In this book, designed for middle grade children, we meet Mamie Till-Mobley, Emmett's mother. "Her story is a testament to the power of love and one woman's unwavering pursuit of justice. Mamie's fearlessly refused to let America to turn away from what happened to her only son [after being brutally murdered while visiting the South in 1955]. She turned pain into a legacy that ensured her son's life mattered."
After Emmett's father left the family when the boy was young, Mamie raised her son with the help of her own mother. Emmett contracted polio as a child, and Mamie helped him overcome his stutter, a visible reminder of the disease, by teaching him a work-around -- to whistle before speaking. (See page below.)
That technique may have been what caused the white people who murdered Emmett later to react so negatively to him. The woman told her husband that a black boy whistled at her. From that comment Emmett was hunted down, drug behind a car, murdered, and thrown into water. When his body was recovered, Mamie insisted that his mangled body be returned to her in Chicago, not buried in Mississippi. Then instead of burying him quietly herself, she opened his casket and invited everyone to come and see what was done to her beloved son. "For four long days, she let the people come: to bear witness, to mourn the son erased for the "sin" of a sound: a stutter, a whistle, a laugh." Reporters showed up, too, to document Emmett's pain and took a photo of a boy in his coffin...striking a match to start a flame for the Civil Rights Movement.
Last week I learned that Choosing Brave was selected as the Middle Grade Nonfiction winner for the Cybils Awards. Here is part of what the judges had to say about their choice:
When we think about injustices, like the horrific murder of Emmett Till in 1955, it can be tempting to focus more on the crime and less on the lives affected by it. In Choosing Brave: How Mamie Till-Mobley and Emmett Till Sparked the Civil Rights Movement, Angela Joy, and Janelle Washington concisely and thoroughly explain to young readers what happened to Emmett Till, yet they also show the time before his death, when his mother Mamie was a young girl persevering through a hostile world and difficult home life. And they show the time after his death, when Mamie spoke out and fought for change, and chose to open her son’s casket at his funeral so people could see what he suffered... This book connects Emmett Till’s death to racism and injustice today, providing a timely reminder of what we can never forget: the victims of these crimes are more than just victims, and we must join the people who love them in ensuring that these crimes never happen again. (Cybils Award Winners.)
Choosing Brave also won two YMA Awards in January for its excellent illustrations (Caldecott Honor, Steptoe Illustrator winner.) (YMA Awards.) It is truly a book worthy of your consideration and time. I highly recommend it.
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