Earlier this week, I stood in front of what was left of Bryant’s Market, the little grocery store where Emmett Till had the encounter that led to his 1955 lynching in Mississippi. Then I sat in the judge’s seat of the Sumner County Courthouse where Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam were acquitted of the kidnapping, mutilation, dismemberment, and disposal of the 14-year-old boy’s body. I’m on a civil rights tour that began with a visit to Medgar Evers’s home and includes a stop at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, the site of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, a walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, and a visit to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, which honors more than 4,000 Black people who were lynched.
At the end of each day, I am inspired by the resilience of Black people. I also am emotionally exhausted and left to ponder not just the physical abuse, but the systemic economic, legal, and human disenfranchisement of my people that continues today. On Tuesday, President Biden signed the Emmett Till Antilynching Act, finally making lynching a federal hate crime.
I was not quite a year old when Emmett Till was accused of whistling at Roy Bryant’s wife, Carolyn. I was nine when Medgar Evers was assassinated in Mississippi, just months before those four girls — my contemporaries — were killed when the Ku Klux Klan bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. I don’t remember when I first understood that if you are a Black boy rumored to be flirting with a white woman, you could get maimed and killed, or that registering people to vote could get you shot like a dog in the driveway of your own home or that a lot of white folks could think it OK to bomb your church on a Sunday morning. I don’t remember when I learned these things, but the knowledge has been in my bones for a long time.
Rage runs deep. I am reminded of this as I ponder our nation’s cruelty, juxtaposed against the popular conversation about Will Smith slapping Chris Rock at the Oscars.
Let me be clear, I am in no way equating the horrors that Bryant and Milam visited on Emmett Till, his mother, the community of Money, Mississippi, and Black people across the nation. Nor am I giving Smith a pass. But since these two events have consumed my consciousness the same week, I can’t ignore some of the ways in which they have converged.
In a rambling speech/apology that Smith offered as he accepted an Academy Award for his lead role in “King Richard,” Smith defended himself by insisting that he was protecting those he loved. In addition to his wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, he added his “King Richard” costars: Aunjanue Ellis, Saniyya Sidney, and Demi Singleton. He even included Venus and Serena Williams, whose father Smith had portrayed in the film, as among those whose love and care he was committed to. I don’t buy it. Smith was not defending the honor of these capable and fierce women; he was nursing his own pride.
In his memoir, “Will,” Smith writes about harboring feelings of cowardice for years after failing to defend his mother from his father’s physical abuse. I imagine those feelings and that rage is so potent that no amount of memoir writing or talking with Oprah or hashing it out at the Red Table could exorcize it. I’m sure Till’s Uncle Moses Wright felt the same helpless rage as he watched those white men drag that teenaged child out of his house. I’m sure Wright felt even more powerless after bravely identifying the lynchers in the courtroom, only to watch them walk free and later brag about their evil doings.
Black people carry around a lot of trauma, and very often we express it in ways that don’t make sense to others or at times that shock people or make people laugh or tweet or suck their teeth. But that anger, even when it is misdirected, is real.
After my tour group left Mississippi, we headed to Little Rock, Ark., where we visited Central High School and met with Elizabeth Eckford, who was spat on, kicked, and threatened with hanging when she tried to integrate the school. She was 15. She’s 80 now. I asked her what she does with her rage.
“I don’t feel rage,” she said. “I do feel resentment.” She acknowledged that she suffers from PTSD and that for decades, she said, she didn’t talk about the extent of the abuse she and the other Little Rock Nine suffered inside that school. “I had no one to talk to.” Listening to her speak, watching her poise and stoicism, reminded me of US Supreme Court nominee Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson’s endurance during the Senate Judiciary hearings as she fielded one insulting question after another. I found myself praying that Jackson wouldn’t snap, and at the same time imagining her going off, like “Luther,” president Barack Obama’s anger translator, played by Keegan-Michael Key.
In his 1951 poem “Harlem,” Langston Hughes asks, “What happens to a dream deferred?” This week, my question is, what happens to rage repressed?
When I consider Will Smith’s behavior in the context of a singular event, my reaction is that it was over the top and immature. Maybe Rock’s joke about Pinkett Smith’s hair was insensitive, given her struggles with alopecia. Initially, Smith laughed at Rock’s joke. Once he caught his wife’s stone face, instead of a public display of testosterone, I wish he had tried a little tenderness toward her.
There are far too many graves and prison cells filled with Black men who were either victims or perpetrators in situations in which someone felt dissed. So I give Rock props for not escalating the situation. I’m sure he’s experiencing some residual anger of his own, and I hope he finds an outlet for it.
Whether we are conscious of it or not, Black people carry the rage of the lynchings of Emmett Till, Medgar Evers, Trayvon Martin, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and the four girls at 16th Street Baptist in our hearts and in our bones. I carry the resentment of Elizabeth Eckford and the rest of the Little Rock Nine. I carry the sorrow for Sandra Bland, and Breonna Taylor. I am aggravated by the dog whistles and microaggressions that Black people encounter every day.
Hughes asked, “What happens to a dream deferred?” I don’t believe it dries up “like a raisin in the sun.” I do believe that it “festers,” “stinks,” and often “sugars over like a syrupy sweet.” But left unchecked, it will explode. One way or another.
There are more than 46 million Black people in America. That’s a lot of little powder kegs waiting to detonate like that bomb at 16th Street Baptist.
The once ever-affable Will Smith is just the most famous.
Elaine C. Ray is a writer based in Stanford, Calif.