In the words of Lisa Borden in her 2011 book, The Alphabet of Avoidance: Simple Solutions to Immediately Replace ‘Bad’ Habits with Something Better…or Even, Nothing at All, “If you aren’t outraged, then you’re just not paying attention.”
Charlottesville, Spike Lee, the quilt-making lady I met in Glendale, California a few months ago, and a few thousand others got it wrong. They keep getting it wrong. Because of the respect that comes to a fighter when they are killed in the fight, many Black fighters have been reluctant to say anything, not wanting to besmirch Heather Heyer’s name, especially while it now sits high on 4th street. This is not to say we’ve had no interest in righting the wrong because we do, as the stakes are high if we completely ignore it. Heather’s participation in the fight that’s been happening in Charlottesville since equality became an option for its Black residents is greatly appreciated, like the participation of the other allies who fought alongside us from the beginning, but she is no martyr. This is what they got wrong.
Legendary radio talk show host, Joe Madison, a Black man, known to his public as The Black Eagle, spoke at an NAACP banquet in Charlottesville, Virginia on Friday September 28 and called Susan Bro, Heather Heyer’s mother, “the Mamie Till of the 21st century” and smiled during the standing ovation brought about by his malarkey. Though I wasn’t present, I imagine those clapping, and especially those standing, either (1) had no idea who Mamie Till was or the son she lost, which would be insanely disappointing since anyone attending a NAACP banquet should be fully aware of this Mother (in every sense of the word) of the civil rights movement, and (2) were white self-professed allies who feel they’ve been validated by a Black man so respected, he was made a keynote speaker. Joe was 6-years-old when Emmett was murdered, therefore old enough to remember Mamie, her fight, and surely, if he thinks hard enough, the sounds her words made climbing over the lump in her throat. At the funeral of Mike Brown, I listened to Lezley McSpadden’s words fight equally hard to escape her mouth while standing over the body of the son she lost to a man no different than Emmett’s murderers. I can’t fathom fixing my lips to make such a comparison. I was in Canada when I got the call from a friend who’d been in the room, outraged, and I wanted to reach for Joe and ask if and why he’s not yet tired of sacrificing the value of Black folks for white approval.
“Lord, take my soul,” Mamie cried out when she reached the Chicago train station where Emmett’s 14-year-old body had been shipped. Carolyn Bryant lied, saying she feared for her life when Emmett walked into the store to buy gum and whistled at her. Her husband, Roy Bryant and his brother, JW Milam, picked up Emmett then tortured him, shot him in the head, wrapped him in barbed wire, and attached his body to a 75-pound fan, and threw him into the Tallahatchie River. This is the body Mamie greeted, horrified. This is the body Mamie demanded others examine at the open casket funerals. Those who could not make it to the Southside of Chicago would see her boy’s body in magazines and newspapers. She made them look. She began a movement.
What we need to get right here is that Mamie’s boy was not an ally. Emmett’s participation in the fight was not optional. Emmett’s activism and protest against the inequitable system built long before he walked the streets of Chicago and Money, Mississippi wasn’t an act of survival, whether he knew it or not. Whether Emmett knew his happiness was revolutionary or not. Emmett’s death was not caused by a scared white man who’d later beg forgiveness, but by a mob that later admitted the murder was to warn other Blacks.
And like her son, Mamie could not escape the protest and the fight. When I think of her, I think of those folks running through the streets of Spain being chased by the bulls and those folks who stand along the fences, safe, pushing the runners back into the race each time they attempt to leave, even if it means they may die. Of course, all those in the safe zones aren’t pushing. Some are enjoying the show, some are figuring out how to help, and some may reach in when it’s easy in an attempt to pull out the endangered runners. Mamie, of course is the runner, the bulls and the pushers represent every oppressive force Black folks have faced in America since 1619. Heather, her mother Susan, and all white allies are on the fence. I have to say this isn’t a perfect analogy because runners, the real runners in Spain, volunteer. The Black fighters do not. When a fence sitter reaches in to help a runner but accidentally falls into the race and dies after being trampled by a bull, we should pay our respects, but we must not make martyrs of them.
They’ve managed to put a white face on a very Black struggle. They always manage to do this. That infamous “they.” Black folks in Charlottesville were tired of racism; been tired of racism. Black folks like Zyahna Bryant, the sole author of the petition to remove the extremely racist statues, decided to fight against it. A Black man, DeAndre Harris, a fighter, gets his head bashed in during this fight, and he gets a warrant for his arrest. A white girl is killed by the same men who bashed in that Black man’s head and she’s a hero whose name will sit high. They’ve done this.
Mamie Till’s legacy, like the legacy of my Black grandmothers, grandfathers, uncles, cousins, parents, and friends who fight everyday to survive and just be, will not be fouled by the words of Joe Madison. I’m sure Heather Heyer was an amazing woman. I’m sure Susan is amazing as well, but if she wants to be a beneficial part of this movement, she needs to reach her hand in when necessary and not take credit for being a runner.