At the end of August 1955, Emmett Till took a train to Chicago, the City of New Orleans, to visit his family in Mississippi. On September 2, 1955, another train brought back his body. The teenager was tortured, shot and thrown into the river. John Edgar Wideman was the same age that year when he discovered in a magazine the horribly mutilated face of the murdered black kid. This image has haunted him all his life. For a long time, he was collecting press clippings and archives in preparation for a book on Emmett Till, now known as a civil rights martyr.
"Black rabbit fungus"
His project has evolved. The trial of two murderers Roy Bryant and J. W. Milam in Sumner, Mississippi, had been closely followed. The jury, composed of twelve whites, had deliberated less than an hour to decide on a scandalous acquittal. We have forgotten, says Wideman, how much Emmett's father played a crucial role. Before the end, Louis Till "Arises like a fatal black rabbit pulled from a disastrous white hat". Leaks from his confidential military file revealed that the US military had tried him for rape and murder committed in Italy, and hanged on July 2, 1945. A "guilty and criminal" death was somehow whitewashing the murderers of Emmett. John Edgar Wideman was going to leave the son to investigate the father. "All the words that follow obey my deep need to shed some light on the American darkness that separates the black fathers from their sons, the darkness in which fathers and sons lose each other." He was also going to leave the Till to talk about the Wideman.
The whole story is constructed on several levels: the collection of the trial of the murderers of the son, the investigation to identify the personality and the course of the father, the life and autobiography of the mother, Mamie Till, and the report itself from the writer to his experience. One day, Wideman receives the famous confidential military file that made the Till case a crime unpunished. He puts it on a table without opening it and goes to another room. His thoughts wander and he remembers a warm Thanksgiving family with his sister, to walk towards the negative balance of the present. Towards his own lost father, his brother in prison and his rage. The file he has just received is more than fifty years old, and it presents itself as a closed affair, "Like a good old-fashioned novel". The African-American already knows the statement and the outcome. "Soldiers Till and McMurray are sentenced to death for being the wrong color in the wrong place at the wrong time." In this army, which advised not to mix the black and white contingents, the colored soldiers were considered as second-class citizens. And all black men were guilty of wanting to rape white women.
"I oblige myself to resume at the beginning. To resist this ignoble story. Resist the reality that this bundle of documents stapled. Even if my resistance only confirms an irreparably damaged reality. " What is the truth? Where does the lie begin and where does the lie end? It highlights an igbo proverb from the novel The world collapses from Nigerian Chinua Achebe. A proverb that Louis Till could not know since the book was published thirteen years after his death. "There is no story that is true …" The truth does not look like the truth. Faced with what has been built on reality, the writer chooses to create fiction and to somehow revive Louis Till. "I take the risk of allowing my fiction to penetrate the true story of people. And for the sake of equality, I let people's stories impinge on the truth of mine. " He brings back to life the boxer, the violent husband, the soldier, to his Italian prison, not far from that of the poet Ezra Pound.
It is the remnants of the past that bring out the pain of knowing lies buried forever. Wideman finds the trace of Louis Till in Interpreter, the historian Alice Kaplan, in which she describes the square of the cemetery of Seringes-et-Nesles (Oise-Aisne American Cemetery), where lie 96 American soldiers qualified as "dead without honor". About the tomb number 73, that of Louis Till, she writes: "History has retained only the tragic fate of his son." On the spot, the biographer-novelist is overwhelmed with emotion: "The story of Louis Till, that of his son Emmett, mine, that of my father, my family, could begin or end there. By a story of stolen sugar. By a flight that claims the price of blood. By rage. Resignation. sorrow. Mourning. By ancient bloody lies convulsing deep within me. A cry that I repressed. The cries of the dead without honor in boxes at my feet. Lost names. Lost faces. " Beautiful, painful story Write to save a life exhume the ghosts whose existence has served as an example to support an unequivocal reality. The novelist to replay the scene.
John Edgar Wideman Writing to save a life, The Louis Till file Translated from English (United States) by Catherine Richard-Mas, Gallimard, coll. "From all over the world", 224 pp., 20 €.