An Elegy for Emmett Till in 10 Parts by David Ehmcke

by Leslie Anne Mcilroy


I. Bring the boy. Open the casket. Let them know what they have done to you. You were not the first.
You will not be the last. Young Emmett, who would have known that your body would be made into a prophecy?

II. When your body sunk to the bottom of the Tallahatchie, did you become the water? Did you become another nutrient, another enabler, another brown boy forced to feed the thirsty mouths of poplar trees.

III. I have written this poem time and time again. They are different names, same ending. Emmett, I wonder, if you were here today, whether you’d be shot on the street and left to die like an animal. I imagine we would mourn your death with hurricane tears. How familiar mourning will become, but isn’t that just what being black is? Being witness to just another dead boy left to rot in the street.

IV. Emmett, you live in every brown boy that falls prematurely to the ground. Your face is seen in the barrel of a gun, in the tears of a little girl, in a mourning mother’s eyes.

V. You and I come from different worlds, but I’d like to say that we would be no different in spirit. We are different shells, same message inside our throats. Through the water of the Tallahatchie your soul flows into me. I will take all of your unapologetic movement and make your voice heard. I will not let the memory of you drown and die.

VI. There was a photograph of you positioned unfamiliarly in a clean, black suit on the cover of Jet Magazine. If I didn’t know any better, I would’ve said it was Michael, Trayvon, Jordan, Freddie ...

VII. When the policemen knocked, did your mother know what they were going to tell her? Did you shed a tear when they could only recognize your body by the white of your teeth?

VIII. Was your brown boy buoyancy not enough to keep you afloat? The seventy pound cotton gin fan massive enough to bring your body down. Was your skin too much like the soil? They thought it must be returned to the earth. They thought it must be used to grow strange fruit. You will teach them that the dirt they walk upon is rich with black history. You will teach them that you will not erode.

IX. Could you tell that the waters of the Tallahatchie were saturated with ignorance? Could you taste the shame in every mouthful of unsolicited water? Emmett, you are but a fish in these thrashing waters. You died in the river, left it cleansed, renewed, fresher .

X. Even now, your story remains loud and necessary. Your head held high is still a cautionary tale being told for generations to come. Your ugly,  mangled flesh continues to illustrate warning. Young Emmett, you were not the first. You will not be the last. Close the casket. Never forget.


Photo of David Ehmcke

Photo of David Ehmcke

David Ehmcke hails from Sioux City, IA where he can commonly be found sloppily eating a doughnut or avidly reading The Washington Post. Often, he writes about social issues in the United States and politics of the body. Wholeheartedly, he believes that poetry has the capacity to be more effective than policy and hopes he inspires his readers to make an impact on their communities.