After “Open Casket”: What Emmett Till Teaches Us Today

"To stand before Till’s casket was an emotional experience. It also brought some retrospective clarity to the biggest art controversy of 2017."


Artist Parker Bright protesting against Dana Schutz‘s “Open Casket” painting at the Whitney.
Artist Parker Bright protesting against Dana Schutz‘s “Open Casket” painting at the Whitney.

They found Emmett Till’s casket in 2009. It was under a tarp in a shed in Burr Oak Cemetery, outside Chicago. When they opened it, possums scurried out.

The casket had come out of the earth five years earlier. The U.S. Department of Justice had reopened the case of Till’s lynching in 1955 in Mississippi, and investigators had determined there had been no autopsy at the time. Once the procedure was finally done, Till was reburied in a fresh coffin, and the original one forgotten and left to decay.

Today, you can pay respects before the restored casket in the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. It anchors a two-room exhibit devoted to Emmett Till that has the air of a shrine. You traverse an anteroom with historical information and images, then enter the sanctum. The casket’s lid is open, as it was for the four days in September, 1955, when tens of thousands of mourners filed past it in the Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ on Chicago’s South Side.

Back then, Mamie Till had famously insisted on displaying her son unembalmed and unretouched, his face grotesquely mutilated and swollen, just as his killers, Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam, had made it. Unsparing photographs of the viewing and funeral ran in two Black publications: the national weekly Jet and the local Chicago Defender. They are often credited for galvanizing the freedom movement. Now, one of those photographs, showing Till’s destroyed face, lies beneath glass at the head of the open casket in the museum. You must stand on tip-toe and crane your neck to glimpse the image. The exhibit has the stillness and power of a martyr’s mausoleum.

President Obama inaugurated the “Blacksonian,” as the NMAAHC was promptly nicknamed, on September 26, 2016. The museum has been a major attraction ever since, with timed-entry tickets snapped up months in advance. I did not get the chance to visit until last fall, on a warm Monday in October, nine months into the Trump administration. The museum was thronged with African-American families, European tourists, school groups. Ferrying us down to the galleries, the elevator operator — Black, like almost all the staff I saw — let us know that the Emmett Till exhibit was the only part of the museum where photography was forbidden. This was at the request of Till’s family, she explained.

To stand before Till’s casket in this space was an emotional experience. It also brought some retrospective clarity to the biggest art controversy of 2017. A few months earlier, a painting titled Open Casket, by Dana Schutz, appeared in the Whitney Biennial. An abstracted rendering of Till in repose, emphasizing his tumefied head, it drew explicitly on the funeral photographs. It caused an immediate furor. Protesters stood vigil in the museum gallery. Four dozen artists and writers signed an open letter that called for its removal from the Biennial and recommended its destruction. The debate that ensued spilled out from art publications into the broader cultural conversation, with critics trading heated takes in major newspapers and magazines.

It seemed that the cultural milieu was about to engage with a crucial topic: Black pain under violent white supremacy, how artists and museums addressed it, and how viewers experienced this material. But almost immediately, the focus blurred. Argument shifted to the entitlement, or otherwise, of white artists such as Schutz to deal with Black subjects; and from there, to the ethics of taking down or destroying a work of art. Soon the debate coagulated into charges and countercharges that sketched the lumpy generalities of the culture wars: Who is allowed to make what? Why can’t white artists engage Black material? Is censorship ever justified?

Missing from this was Till himself. A rich and specific literature on the impact of the visual record of his life and death, the work of Black scholars, poets, and critics, went mostly unaddressed. His actual casket, and the method of its display in the Washington museum, did not come up at all (aside from a single passing mention by Roberta Smith in the New York Times). It was a striking collective omission, as if the cultural arbiters saw no link between the two viewing experiences. Till’s story, they seemed to imply, was a settled matter. Schutz’s painting and its reception had value as a case study — of cultural appropriation, of artistic liberty, of censorship, of curatorial practice, of institutional policy.

In the material presence of Till’s casket, the debate over the painting read like an elaborate act of avoidance — in the current climate, a critical failure. Till died in 1955, but historians are still studying details of the case, and some important testimonials are only now coming to light. His memory is intensely political, not least in Mississippi, where historical markers in his honor are recent, and frequently vandalized. He exists not only as a symbolic precursor to Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, and other Black boys and men fallen to recent racist violence, but as a contested subject. All this went unaddressed, as if existing on a separate plane, while the debate over Open Casket inexorably moved its focus to the white artist’s position and the absolutes of free speech.


About Open Casket. The topic is apparent if you know the photos. The face, oversize and distorted, is a whirl of thick brown strokes, infused with a red undercurrent that duly evokes blood. The impasto accentuates the head’s swollen, uneven volumes. The artist has clearly studied the black-and-white photographs, but she has abstracted the details, and colorized the scene. A white shirt covers the torso. Edges of a black formal jacket cloak the shoulders. The head rests in a field of gold, suggesting a pillow, but also a halo. There is a red rose, the painter’s addition, upon the casket’s rim. The viewer’s position is looking down into the casket — interested and intimate.

“I made this painting in August of 2016 after a summer that felt like a state of emergency,” Schutz told Artnet after the furore broke out. She cited videos of police killings of Black men — she did not name them, but the deaths of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge and Philando Castile in St. Paul would have been fresh at the time — as well as mass shootings and racist rallies. “The photograph of Emmett Till felt analogous to the time: what was hidden was now revealed.” In a later statement, Schutz invoked Mamie Till: “I don’t know what it is like to be black in America but I do know what it is like to be a mother,” she said. “My engagement with this image was through empathy with his mother.”

In April 2017, three weeks into the furore, the New Yorker published a profile of Schutz by Calvin Tomkins. Clearly long in the works, it covered her whole career but the magazine framed it to address the controversy, with the title “Why Dana Schutz Painted Emmett Till.” In this telling as well, references to Till that Schutz heard in media discourse around police and vigilante killings of young Black men stuck in her mind. The article emphasized Schutz’s hesitancy and misgivings, as expressed in a conversations with Tomkins both before and after making the work. “I’ve wanted to do a painting for a while now, but I haven’t figured out how,” she told him at the outset. “It’s a real event, and it’s violence, but it also has to be tender.” Later she asked: “How do you make a painting about this and not have it just be about the grotesque? I was interested because it’s something that keeps on happening. I feel somehow that it’s an American image.”

Tomkins met Schutz again after the painting first showed, without incident, in Berlin. “I don’t know if it has the right emotionality,” she told him. “I like it as a painting, but I might want to try it again.” She withheld the painting from sale; she did not redo it, however, and the Biennial’s co-curators, the independent curators Mia Locks and Christopher Y. Lew, selected it with several other of her works for the show. “I knew the risks going into this,” Schutz told Tomkins after the fracas erupted, quoted at the profile’s end. “What I didn’t realize was how bad it would look when seen out of context. Is it better to try to make something that’s impossible, because it’s important to you, and to fail, or never to engage with it at all? I just couldn’t do it any other way.”

“Black bodies in pain for public consumption have been an American national spectacle for centuries,” the poet and essayist Elizabeth Alexander wrote in the journal Public Culture in 1994. “This history moves from public rapes, beatings and lynchings to the gladiatorial arenas of basketball and boxing.” Prompting Alexander’s essay, titled “‘Can you be BLACK and Look at This?’: Reading the Rodney King Video(s),” were the 1991 video of King being beaten by L.A.P.D. officers that ignited the Los Angeles riots (or rebellion), and television news summaries of the ensuing trial, held in Simi Valley after the defense won a change of venue, and that found four officers not guilty. The King video was as ubiquitous as pre-Internet culture allowed. Terms used at trial to describe King — “buffed-out,” “bear-like,” “like a wounded animal” — would echo later: for instance, in the former Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson’s description of eighteen-year-old Michael Brown, whom he killed: “like Hulk Hogan,” “a demon,” “grunting.”

“In each of these traumatic instances, black bodies and their attendant dramas are publicly consumed by the larger populace,” Alexander wrote. Her words only bear more force in today’s visual culture, where images of anti-Black violence by agents of the state or its self-styled deputies circulate from phone to phone at high speed. It is a more plural culture, with lower barriers to counternarratives and new digital spaces for contestation. But the core distinction that Alexander identified remains: “White men have been the primary stagers and consumers of the historical spectacles I have mentioned, but in one way or another, black people also have been looking, forging a traumatized collective historical memory which is reinvoked at contemporary sites of conflict.”

A section of Alexander’s essay focuses on Till. She cites authors who have devoted whole works to him — Bebe Moore Campbell, Toni Morrison, Gwendolyn Brooks, Audre Lorde — and others who relate in their memoirs how his story shaped their development: Charlayne Hunter-Gault, Shelby Steele, Muhammad Ali. The photographs are at the core of this influence. “Pictures of his limp, watersoaked body in the newspapers and in Jet, Black America’s weekly news bible, were worse than any image we had seen outside of a horror movie,” Hunter-Gault wrote. In Louisville, a teenaged Ali felt “a deep kinship,” then anger, on seeing photos of Till in Black papers. “In one he was laughing and happy,” Ali wrote. “In the other, his head was swollen and bashed in, his eyes bulging out of their sockets” — in fact, one was gouged out and gone — “and his mouth twisted and broken. His mother had done a bold thing.” Alexander concludes: “The Emmett Till narratives illustrate how, in order to survive, black people have paradoxically had to witness their own murder and defilement and then pass along the epic tale of violation.”

Alexander’s essay barely surfaced in the debate around Open Casket. Nor did a literary-psychological analysis of the photographs by Fred Moten in his 2003 book In the Break; nor did any of the earlier writings on Till that Alexander cited. Still, the influence of her line of argument was apparent in the protests and critiques. Soon after the Biennial opened, the artist Parker Bright took up vigil before the painting, BLACK DEATH SPECTACLE marked on the back of his shirt. (Other protesters soon joined him.) Writing together in The New Republic, Josephine Livingstone, the magazine’s culture writer, and Lovia Gyarkye, an editorial staffer at the New York Times, cited Claudia Rankine on Mamie Till’s decision (using Mobley, her then-married name). “Mobley’s refusal to keep private grief private allowed a body that meant nothing to the criminal-justice system to stand as evidence,” Rankine had written. This made possible the act of witnessing that Alexander identified as a thread of survival. “By controlling the way that his body looked, Mobley was able to define its legacy,” Livingstone and Gyarkye wrote. “Although he was taken from her, the way lynched Americans were taken from their families, she was able to invert the final stage of public murder, which is spectacle. Her action was both brave and a strikingly effective piece of visual rhetoric, accomplished in the depths of appalling grief.”

By this point, the artist Hannah Black had written the critique of Open Casket that would draw the most ire. Her letter, originally posted on Facebook, added to the critique of spectacle a dose of blunt political economy. “The painting should not be acceptable to anyone who cares or pretends to care about Black people because it is not acceptable for a white person to transmute Black suffering into profit and fun, though the practice has been normalized for a long time,” she wrote. Mamie’s act made Till “available to Black people as an inspiration and warning. Non-Black people must accept that they will never embody and cannot understand this gesture.” Evidence for this was that “Black people go on dying at the hands of white supremacists, that Black communities go on living in desperate poverty not far from the museum where this valuable painting hangs.”

Might Open Casket transcend the spectacle? Impossible, Black argued, from the moment Schutz chose to focus on Till’s dead body. “Non-Black artists who sincerely wish to highlight the shameful nature of white violence should first of all stop treating Black pain as raw material,” she wrote. Simply painting “a dead Black boy” did not clear the threshold. “The subject matter is not Schutz’s; white free speech and white creative freedom have been founded on the constraint of others, and are not natural rights.”

Other critics emphasized how, in basing itself on the photograph but then altering Till’s likeness, the painting did a form of violence to its subject. “Schutz has smeared Till’s face and made it unrecognizable, again,” Livingstone and Gyarkye wrote. For Hrag Vartanian in Hyperallergic, “the artist appears to have absolved herself by refusing to implicate herself in the image, preferring to let the history of the image, and her painterly additions, make her case for her.” “What Dana Schutz has done is to take that unobscured violence and make it abstract,” the scholar Christina Sharpe, the author of In the Wake: On Blackness and Being, told me in an interview for Hyperallergic. “Mamie Till wanted to make violence real. And that thing — white supremacy, violent abduction, murder — that Mamie Till wanted to absolutely make clear is abstracted in Schutz’s work, and in her defense of the work.” Later, the artist and critic Coco Fusco, writing in support of Schutz, would criticize this position as an undue attack on abstraction in art, as opposed to a discrete point about the Till imagery.

Roberta Smith, the New York Times critic, enjoyed the painting. “Ms. Schutz has been faulted for ‘abstracting’ Till’s gruesome wounds, yet her sliding brushwork guides our eyes away from them, suggesting a kind of shocked visual reflex,” she wrote. Linking Open Casket to another painting in the Biennial, The Times Thay Ain’t A Changing, Fast Enough!, by the Black artist Henry Taylor, that depicted the imminent death of Philando Castile (with a white hand holding the gun visible in the frame), Smith argued that both works possessed “a monumentality and a hand-wrought physicality that photographs generally do not attain.” The New Yorker’s Tomkins, in his profile of Schutz, was impressed as well. Open Casket is “a very dark picture — but it’s not grotesque,” he wrote. “The horror is conveyed in painterly ways that, to me, make it seem more tragic than the photograph, because the viewer is drawn in, not repelled.”

The obvious question — which viewer? — might have challenged assumptions about art audiences (or highbrow magazine readers), and offered a chance to bring more explicitly into the conversation the specific interpretive history and visual culture surrounding the Till photographs. But the train had moved on by then. Almost as fast as Hannah Black’s letter circulated, the debate shifted from her argument to her proposed remedies. Black demanded the Whitney remove Open Casket, and asked that it not be “entered into any market or museum.” But she also offered the “urgent recommendation that the painting be destroyed.” The call for removal and destruction proved the lightning rod that would alter not only the course but ultimately the subject of the debate.

“We all encounter art we don’t like, that upsets and infuriates us,” Roberta Smith began her survey of the situation two weeks after the Biennial’s opening. “This doesn’t deserve to be exhibited, our brains yell; it should not be allowed to exist. Still, does such aversion mean that an artwork must be removed from view — or, worse, destroyed?” She compared the criticisms of Open Casket to the objections of some older Black artists to the early works of Kara Walker, and to Rudy Giuliani’s campaign against Chris Ofili’s painting of the Virgin Mary partly made from elephant dung. She pointedly brought up the existence of Black artists and writers who were — in the words of Clifford Owens, one of them — “not down with artists censoring artists.” Smith raised an Instagram post by Walker that seemed to allude to the controversy, in which Walker pointed out that “the history of painting is full of graphic violence and narratives that don’t necessarily belong to the artist’s own life.” Still, Smith noted, “the injured black body is a subject or image that black artists and writers have increasingly sought to protect from misuse, especially by those who are not black.”

The most wide-ranging and sophisticated defense of Schutz was Coco Fusco’s essay in Hyperallergic, a long piece that brought up the history of anti-racist art by white people; the galvanizing outrage the Till photographs produced in many non-Black viewers; and the laudable authenticity of Schutz’s intentions, moved by the spate of police killings. “I would never stand in the way of protest, particularly an informed one aimed at raising awareness of the politics of racial representation,” wrote Fusco, a veteran of past battles such as the much-reviled 1993 Whitney Biennial, a cauldron of provocative art about racial and ethnic identities in which she had performed in a cage wearing a stereotypical Native American outfit. Still, Fusco drew a firm line. “I find it alarming and entirely wrongheaded to call for the censorship and destruction of an artwork, no matter what its content is or who made it,” she wrote. She added: “Presuming that calls for censorship and destruction constitute a legitimate response to perceived injustice leads us down a very dark path.”

The idea of destruction made some critics of Open Casket hesitate as well. When I raised the question with Sharpe, who had signed onto Black’s letter, she demurred. “I don’t have a strong personal stand on the destruction of the painting,” she said in our interview. “But I respect Hannah Black’s … call for the painting to be destroyed.” Livingstone and Gyarkye suggested reading the open letter’s call to destroy Open Casket not as the work of “book-burners doing the work of censorship,” but as a “call for silence inside a church. How will you hear the dead boy’s voice if you keep speaking over him?” Their logic was awkward but their instinct wasn’t off. Not only Till, but a whole historiography and critical stream relating to his death and depiction, were getting lost in the hubbub, covered in a cacophony of cries of cultural appropriation and counter-claims of illiberalism and censorship.

Illustration of this drift came in an essay by Zadie Smith in the July 2017 issue of Harper’s, reviewing Open Casket and the film Get Out. The first part, on the film, was astute and sophisticated, but the second part, ostensibly on the painting, was mostly an odd digression on mixed-race identity. Smith aimed her focus on Hannah Black. Neither she nor Black, she noted, were African-American; both were non-American (indeed, both are British) and mixed-race, or “biracial” in Smith’s term. Having seeded the implication that this somehow affected Black’s critical standing, Smith then brought up her own children with her white husband. Would they some day be judged “too white to engage with black suffering”? Smith noted the Biennial contained plenty of work by Black artists, and that other white artists had depicted Black suffering, including one work she’d seen in the Whitney. (Not in the Biennial, though she did not make this clear.) As to Open Casket, therefore, Smith found it hard to see “why this painting was singled out.”

This blithe evacuation ended the critical cycle. The matter of Open Casket was never settled. The painting stayed up for the duration of the Biennial, with some added wall text noting the objections, and a message from Schutz confirming that she did not plan to sell it. In the summer, Schutz had an exhibition at Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art; it did not include Open Casket, but some local artists and activists petitioned the ICA to cancel it on grounds that she profiteered off exploitation. Their initiative went nowhere.

By then, the art world had moved on to new flashpoints. In May 2017, Scaffold, an installation by Sam Durant slated for the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, drew objections from Native activists for its reference to the gallows on which the U.S. hanged 38 Dakota men in Mankato, Minnesota, in 1862. Durant listened, agreeing after talks to cede the work for the Lakota elders to destroy. (In this instance at least, destruction — and the interactions that led to it — became part of the work itself. But we view differently the mutability of an outdoor installation from that of a painting in a museum.) In October, the Guggenheim removed several works from its Chinese contemporary survey following objections to their use of animals. In December at the Met, Thérèse Dreaming, a 1938 painting by Balthus, took flak for its portrayal of a girl with underwear showing, given the painter’s reported taste for preteens. More generalities: Should art not disturb?

Assessments of 2017 in culture presented Open Casket as a kind of keynote for these controversies. For Julia Halperin and Javier Pes at Artnet, Schutz’s painting ignited “conversation about cultural appropriation, censorship, and who has the right to depict another’s suffering.” In the Los Angeles Times, Carolina Miranda counted it as the first salvo in a “maelstrom” of debate on race, gender, and power that forced a welcome reckoning on art institutions but “threatened to limit the freedom with which artists and writers conceive and experiment.” In her review of “10 Cultural Battles that Ruled 2017” in the New York Times, Jennifer Schuessler linked Open Casket to Get Out and Detroit, another of the year’s big movies, as triggers of debate over “who gets to tell a community’s story.”

“The Schutz painting and the debate around it are already a historical unit, one that seems new to the art world, and one that will change things,” Roberta Smith had written just ten days after the Biennial opened. But what was the takeaway? Through the fracas, Schutz maintained a low profile, declining to engage directly with her critics. The Whitney Museum kept quiet as well, letting the independent curators, Locks and Lew — both Asian-American — take the heat, for instance at a rowdy public discussion in April organized with Claudia Rankine’s Racial Imaginary Institute. The curators seemed caught off guard by the animosity Open Casket generated. Its inclusion, they wrote in a statement, acknowledged “an “extremely consequential and solemn image in American and African American history.” Schutz’s painting, Locks told the New York Times, functioned in part as a way of “not letting Till’s death be forgotten.”

Yet that was never the danger. Perhaps the New York-centric art world had forgotten about Till, and now, confronted with him, preferred to look away. But the fury over the painting only added to what was, in fact, a busy year in Till’s afterlife.


In Mississippi, you can drive through the Delta, along flat roads between catfish ponds and cotton fields. It’s all mechanized now, quiet and eerie, just the odd crop-duster buzzing overhead. You can pull over near a rickety church, walk into the cotton, pick a few bolls for yourself under a ruthless August sun. You might pass Parchman Farm, famous from the blues. It is still the state penitentiary, where John Lewis spent thirty-seven days in 1961 after he used a “white” bathroom in Jackson. These days it houses more than three thousand inmates. As you near a line of trees marking the presence of water, the sign at the bridge might say Tallahatchie. You may recognize the name of the river in which they dumped Till’s body after they mutilated him, shot him, and tied him with barbed wire to a heavy cotton-gin fan.

For fifty years there was not a single memorial to Till in Mississippi. Since 2005, private and public efforts have seen commemorative markers placed at key sites: the location of Bryant’s grocery store — now a crumbling ruin — in the hamlet of Money, where Carolyn Bryant claimed Till propositioned her; the riverbank spot where his mangled body washed up; the old courthouse in Sumner, where an all-white jury acquitted the confessed killers, who went on to lead unbothered lives. These markers are periodically defaced or riddled with bullets. Vandals shredded the one in Money in June 2017.

Earlier last year, major new information had emerged about the events that led to Till’s lynching. Most accounts agree that Till made a sound like a wolf whistle upon leaving Bryant’s store. But Carolyn Bryant, who was twenty-one at the time, testified at the trial of Roy Bryant, her husband, and J.W. Milam, his half-brother, that Till had grabbed her and made obscene comments. She repeated this claim to the FBI when it reopened the case in 2004. In February 2017, The Blood of Emmett Till, a new book by the historian Timothy B. Tyson, revealed that Bryant had finally recanted her version, in an interview with the author in 2008. “You tell these stories for so long that they seem true, but that part is not true,” she told Tyson. There were calls to prosecute Bryant, but the statute of limitations for perjury has expired. Her own memoir manuscript is locked away at the University of North Carolina, and cannot be read until her death or 2035, when she would be 100.

Three weeks before the end of 2017, Donald Trump jetted into Jackson on a Saturday morning to take part in the opening of the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum, the first such institution in the country to be sponsored by a state — let alone a state of the South. His visit was swift and regimented to avoid embarrassment. He gave brief remarks at a small, closed ceremony, then was whisked out of the building and back to the airport. But his presence and the resulting protests — Congressman John Lewis, the civil rights hero, and his colleague Rep. Bennie Thompson, the local representative, withdrew from the event — took the focus away from the museum and gave its opening a sour taste.

Lewis and Thompson returned for an unofficial second opening, this time without Trump, in February 2018. I attended that event, and visited the museum. It is a remarkable place. The story it tells of the freedom struggle in Mississippi, by means of texts, artifacts, audio recordings, and video installations, is dense, detailed, and free of euphemism — proving wrong those who believed no Mississippi state-run institution would tell the true story. In one alcove, a three-channel video feature narrated by Oprah Winfrey relates Till’s story, all the way to Carolyn Bryant’s belated admission. (I watched with a high-school group from Holmes County, in the Delta. “She burning now,” one student commented.)

A display outside the alcove includes the original doors of Bryant’s Grocery. As relics of Till’s martyrdom go, the doors bear less spiritual weight than the casket in Washington. But their presence adds to the accounting under way in Mississippi, where civic figures such as Myrlie Evers — the widow of Medgar Evers, who was slain by a white supremacist outside their Jackson home in 1963 — and former governor William Winter have done hard reconciliation work for many years.

Schutz told Tomkins that she didn’t anticipate “how bad” her painting would look “when seen out of context.” But what was the context? Tomkins implied that it was the artist’s thought process, in all its ambivalence and sincerity. For Lew, the Biennial co-curator, the exhibition was the proper context — as opposed to the Internet, where small-scale images of the work circulated. “When you’re standing in front of the painting, it’s a powerful experience — deeply sad, mournful,” Lew told Tomkins. Did the context include the Till sanctuary in the NMAAHC, which opened after Schutz made the work but before Lew and Locks chose it, and which the critics left out of their assessments? Perhaps the context that truly mattered was white supremacy and anti-Black violence, especially now, under the Trump regime.

But the clues to another context are there in Mississippi — the dogged memory work; the defiant pursuit of understanding; the constant menace of violence; an elderly widow and her shame. And the ghosts, always the ghosts. No part of Emmett Till’s story is complete. It cannot be complete until America’s sins are expiated, that moment we dream of yet can never fully reach. In that context, what can one painting resolve or take away? Open Casket is an earnest, lesser entry. It will grow and find its meaning in the shadow of more searing material, such as Audre Lorde’s “Afterimages,” which reads in part:

His broken body is the afterimage of my 21st year
when I walked through a northern summer
my eyes averted
from each corner’s photographies
newspapers protest posters magazines
Police Story, Confidential, True
the avid insistence of detail
pretending insight or information
the length of gash across the dead boy’s loins
his grieving mother’s lamentation
the severed lips, how many burns
his gouged out eyes
sewed shut upon the screaming covers
louder than life
all over
the veiled warning, the secret relish
of a black child’s mutilated body
fingered by street-corner eyes
bruise upon livid bruise
and wherever I looked that summer
I learned to be at home with children’s blood
with savored violence
with pictures of black broken flesh
used, crumpled, and discarded
lying amid the sidewalk refuse
like a raped woman’s face.