ED GORDON, host:
Explaining Emmett Till's murder to children in 1955 wasn't easy. It's still hard to find the right words when teaching about such a brutal death. Marilyn Nelson is the poet laureate of Connecticut. Her narrative poem "A Wreath for Emmett Till" has been published as an illustrated book for young readers. Nelson told NPR's Farai Chideya about the lingering effects of Till's death on her and on the country.
FARAI CHIDEYA reporting:
Emmett Till's murder was obviously very painful for African-Americans and for many Americans, in general. It showed the world how African-Americans were being treated in this country. What impact do you think it had on the psyche of this nation?
Ms. MARILYN NELSON (Poet Laureate, Connecticut): Many people still remember their first introduction to Emmett Till. I've met a lot of people who remember seeing the photograph of him in Jet magazine when they were children. So I think it's had a tremendous impact. It certainly was a galvanizing moment in the beginning of the civil rights movements.
CHIDEYA: How did it impact you personally? How did it reach you? How did you first hear about Emmett Till?
Ms. NELSON: I think my parents sheltered us from it when I was a child. I was nine years old when this happened. And I think my parents put away our issue of Jet magazine that week because I don't--I know I didn't see those photographs. But Emmett Till's name, as a victim of lynching, did come to my awareness when I was a child, and so I was aware of it and frightened by it. It was a glimpse into the most violent heart, I think, of '50s America.
CHIDEYA: You mentioned that as a child, you didn't see the pictures, but you were still frightened, and you were writing this poetry series for children.
Ms. NELSON: Yes.
CHIDEYA: Is it too much for them?
Ms. NELSON: I hope not. This book is published as a young adult book, not as a children's book. And when I was working on it, I took it to a group of eighth-graders in a middle school near where I lived, and they were shocked. They had not heard the story. They wanted to talk so much that they had to get special permission to spend an extra hour with me when the class period ended. The images that I've written about in this poem are not as violent and horrendous, I think, as seeing the photograph of Emmett's mutilated face would have been to other young people who saw that when they were children.
CHIDEYA: So what did these students get out of your work? I'm presuming that you read to them before you spoke.
Ms. NELSON: They wanted to talk about injustice and racism and contemporary injustice and bigotry. They were very aware of things that are going on right now in the United States, and they were very eager to discuss their images of the world.
CHIDEYA: So do you feel that you had to restrain yourself creatively in any way to try to make this speak to young readers, knowing that they might not have the capacity to listen to the most graphic descriptions of what happened to Emmett Till?
Ms. NELSON: No, I don't. I wouldn't have wanted to write the most graphic descriptions anyway, and I didn't feel constrained. I wrote the poem I needed to write, and the only modifications that I made for young people had to do with adding notes at the back so that they would understand some of the allusions. There are several literary and cultural allusions which I think they might not get. So I added notes explaining them.
CHIDEYA: It sounds like this work of yours is a great teaching tool about language as well as about history. In writing it, did you view yourself as a historian, considering that these young students didn't seem to know much about what you were talking about?
Ms. NELSON: Of course, I'm telling a story from history, but for the Emmett Till book, I only glancingly tell his story. The poem goes on to talk about other what I think are related things. It's about the lynching of Emmett Till, but it's about lynching in general. One of the sections of this poem says, `Thousands of the oak trees around this country groaned with the weight of men slain for their race, their murderers acquitted in almost every case.' So there's a lot for young people to chew on in this poem and a lot for teachers to pick up if they're interested in pursuing that.
CHIDEYA: Marilyn Nelson is the poet laureate of Connecticut and the author of "A Wreath for Emmett Till."
Thank you for joining us, Marilyn.
Ms. NELSON: Thanks so much for having me.
CHIDEYA: Farai Chideya, NPR News.
GORDON: You can hear Marilyn Nelson reading from her poem on our Web site at npr.org.
That does it for the program today. To listen to the show, visit npr.org. If you'd like to comment, call us as (202) 408-3330. NEWS & NOTES was created by NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium.
I'm Ed Gordon. This is NEWS & NOTES.
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