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A Wreath for Emmett Till: One Book One Hartford

By Kerri Provost

October 18, 2012

The images of Emmett Till’s unrecognizable, horribly brutalized body have not been locked out of public view since his murder in 1955. Mamie Till, his mother, insisted on an open casket funeral so the world would have to be witness to the violence that had been done to the fourteen-year-old.

The image is one that should elicit a strong response. A natural response would be to ask why. How, in a country that prides itself on freedom and sanctity of life, could this have been possible?

The photographic evidence of what people are capable of doing to one another should provoke a sense of horror in anyone who looks upon it. Important life lessons are often uncomfortable.

Ripples of that horror continue as one learns (or recalls) that the men who later confessed to the murder had been acquitted after only an hour of deliberation.

But this part of American history is all too often skipped in high schools. Though the curriculum at this level is supposed to focus on 20th and 21st century events, teachers are permitted to review earlier material when “necessary,” and with that, students are routinely exposed to the American Revolution and Civil War repeatedly, leaving little time for more recent history. Events, however, like One Book One Hartford can help to fill in the gaps for those seeking more than one is offered at school.

One Book One Hartford launched at the beginning of the month with the opening of exhibits in the Hartford Public Library and its branches. In the hallway of the third floor of the downtown library, there is a large display of memorabilia and documents belonging to archivist and collector Bill Costen. These cases contain historical documents, photographs, and ephemera like political buttons and magazines, documenting the life and death of Emmett Till, but also the larger context the Civil Rights Movement’s story.

Discussions of A Wreath for Emmett Till, a book of poetry by Marilyn Nelson, have already begun at several branches. Upcoming book discussions will take place on October 20th in the downtown library, October 25th in the Park Street branch, and October 29th in the Twain branch.

Four films related to this time in history will be shown in all. Free At Last:Civil Rights Heroes will be screened at the Blue Hills and Albany branches on October 23rd and 25th respectively. This film tells the stories of Emmett Till, Medgar Evers, Viola Liuzzo, Jimmie Lee Jackson, and the “Birmingham Four.”

Through early November, various programs for all ages will be offered. Antoinette Brim will be leading a poetry writing workshop to coach participants in how to write about difficult subjects. There will be a discussion group about Jim Crow laws and racial segregation, and another about race relations in the 21st century.

Nzinga’s Daughters, a five woman ensemble, will perform stories and songs in the Center for Contemporary Culture on the first Saturday in November.

Marilyn Nelson’s book reading and signing on November 8th will be free and open to the public. Besides authoring the book chosen for this autumn’s One Book One Hartford, Nelson was the Poet Laureate for the State of Connecticut from 2001-2006. This event requires no registration and will take place in the Center for Contemporary Culture in the downtown library.

One Book One Hartford will then wind down, wrapping up when the exhibits close on November 10th.

There are, however, pieces missing from an otherwise extensive exhibit displayed as part of One Book One Hartford. Originally, a photo of the deceased Till was installed on the third floor of the downtown library’s exhibit, but was later removed after the Hartford History Center’s curator found it and other images inappropriate because there was no explanation provided for them. She said that students pass through this area, including a recent group from Miss Porter’s School.

In this case, Costen and a librarian put together the exhibit. Given the lack of historical context, the curator said, an institutional decision was made to take out images such as those of lynching victims out of the hallway exhibit. The decision was backed by Matt Poland, the library’s CEO, who said that parents and caregivers should determine when their children are ready to view such materials, and “photographs of tortured and murdered young black men” displayed in the hallway on the same floor as the children’s library “would have been, in my firm opinion, the height of irresponsibility.”

No explanation was given by the Hartford History Center curator as to why the library could not create labels giving context to the images capturing violent and shameful pieces of our nation’s history.

Just steps away, in the ArtWalk Gallery, there are portraits of nudes on display. A small sign is posted cautioning parents and guardians to preview this exhibit and decide whether to permit their children in the space. In the case of the Civil Rights exhibit, no warning sign was posted, though the Hartford History Center’s curator said such a step “could be” taken.

The possibility of bringing the removed panels into the enclosed Hartford History Center and having archivist Bill Costen speak about them was also presented.

Any of these options would allow library patrons, many of whom are City taxpayers, to be able to decide for themselves and their families what materials they would like to view.

Reprinted with permission of Kerri Provost, author of the blog RealHartford. To view other stories on this topic, search RealHartford at http://www.realhartford.org/.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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