A WREATH FOR EMMETT TILL

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A Wreath for Emmett Till
Author: Marilyn Nelson
Illustrated by Philippe Lardy
Genre: Poetry, published in this format for young readers
Paperback Edition includes historical notes, sonnet notes, and artist notes
Source: Personal copy

“Forget him not. Though if I could, I would”

Marilyn Nelson is a poet whose work I have come to love more with each passing year. I first discovered her when I worked for a time with literature for K-12 students. Now that I try to write poems, I am in awe of her writing.

Any month is a good time to read the history of our country as it includes people of color. But the designation of February as Black History month reminds some of us to focus attention on the experiences of people of color in our nation.

The line at the opening of this post is from A Wreath For Emmett Till. Emmet Till was a fourteen year-old boy who was visiting relatives in Mississippi when he was dragged from his uncle’s house, beaten and lynched. Some accounts claimed he had whistled at a white woman. The sonnets Marilyn Nelson has written are more than a tribute to Emmet Till, more than a description of what happened, they challenge readers to better understand our world.

The sonnets are interlinked making one long poem. The last line of one sonnet becomes the first line of the next one. This group of poems is often referred to as a crown of sonnets. The author has written that the structure of the poems helped her deal with the pain of the subject.

“Emmett Till’s name still catches in my throat,” This line ends #3 and begins #4 sonnets.

“Let me gather spring flowers for a wreath.
Not lilacs from the dooryard, but wildflowers
I’d search for in the greening woods for hours.” From #10
She shares with us that she uses natural elements in these sonnets to contrast with the horror of what happened to this boy in 1955.

Reading this sonnet enables the reader to feel some of the emotion surrounding this young man who is part of the representation of unnecessary, tremendous loss of people of color in American history. Isabel Wilkinson writing in a opinion piece in a recent New York Times reminds us that in the years preceding the migration of southern blacks to points north “a black person was lynched on average every four days.” Today according to FBI statistics “an African American is killed by a police officer every three and a half days.” These ideas are difficult to comprehend.

A Wreath for Emmtt Till is a moving elegy, a way to honor those lost and in a strange way comforting to this reader. I love the words, the images, the rhythm and the illustrations in this book, a wonderful addition to any home library.

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