An artist statement/sermon about a pivotal day in American history.
Ἰησοῦς οὖν ἰδὼν τὴν μητέρα καὶ τὸν μαθητὴν παρεστῶτα ὃν ἠγάπα, λέγει τῇ μητρί, Γύναι, ἴδε ὁ υἱός σου. εἶτα λέγει τῷ μαθητῇ, Ἴδε ἡ μήτηρ σου. καὶ ἀπ’ ἐκείνης τῆς ὥρας ἔλαβεν ὁ μαθητὴς αὐτὴν εἰς τὰ ἴδια.
“Jesus upon seeing his mother and the disciple nearby whom he loved said to his mother, ‘Woman, behold your son.’ Then he said to the disciple, ‘Behold your mother.’ And from then on, the disciple received her as his own.”
– Matthew 19:26-27 (my own translation from Novum Testamentum Graece, Nestle-Aland 26th edition. © 1979, Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, Stuttgart;)
In John’s account of Jesus’ crucifixion, Jesus says to his mother, “Woman, behold your son.” We read this and often assume that Jesus is referring to “the disciple whom he loved” as her “son” because of the disciple’s physical proximity to Mary and the fact that he then says to the disciple, “Behold your mother.” It’s probably not a flawed assumption, but it’s an assumption, nonetheless. The text gives no indication that Jesus is speaking of the disciple here. He very well may have been speaking of himself. If my child simply said to me, “Look at your daughter,” I can’t imagine I’d be looking around at anyone nearby. I’d fix my eyes on my child, the one I birthed and raised, especially if she were in distress.
What does it take to fix one’s eyes on a dead or dying child, particularly when their life has been taken by a form of violence designed to repress and terrorize your community? What could Jesus have been asking of his mother at that moment? What strength would she have to tap into to honor this instruction?
One mother who may have had an idea of what Mary experienced was Mamie Till-Mobley. On Saturday, August 20, 1955, she took her son Emmett Till to the Central Station at Twelfth Street in Chicago. There he boarded the City of New Orleans to visit family in Mississippi. She was apprehensive about this visit because Mississippi was a dangerous place for a young Black boy, especially one who didn’t know its social codes. She tried to convince him not to go and instead join her and Gene Mobley, her companion and Emmett’s father-figure, on a family vacation. After assurances from her uncle that Emmett would be looked after, she agreed to let him go. As Emmett ran to catch the train, his mother called after him to kiss her goodbye, ominously asking “How do I know I’ll ever see you again?”
Eight days later, her worst fears were realized when she received word that Emmett had been kidnapped. After a three-day roller coaster of phone calls, telegrams, and appeals to politicians and the media, he was confirmed dead on Wednesday, August 31, 1955. The 14-year-old had been found in the Tallahatchie River, mutilated with a gunshot to the head and a cotton gin fan tied to his neck with barbed wire.
My Approach to This Work
The pietà is one of the most recognizable Christian art themes and depicts Mary, Mother of Jesus, grieving over her murdered son’s body. I created my piece with that tradition in mind. It’s a diptych — two paintings designed to be viewed as a single work of art — and recalls the events of another fateful Friday.
A word about the use of names in this statement: Historically, proper titles and honorifics were/are withheld from Black people to debase us. As I recall this important story, I am committed to using honorifics when referring to its subject. Mamie Till-Mobley used different last names throughout her life. Whenever I place her in the time of her son’s murder, I will refer to her by the name she used then, Mrs. Bradley. When I recall something she said or did later, I will use Mrs. Till-Mobley. I understand this interchange may be confusing to my reader, but I find it an important exercise in respect. Know that I am speaking of the same incredible woman.
Friday, September 2, 1955, Mrs. Bradley returned to Central Station in Chicago to retrieve her son’s body. It arrived on the City of New Orleans, the same train that carried him to Mississippi just two weeks earlier. I draw from Jesus’ words to his own mother and beloved disciple in John 19:26-27 to tell the story of a woman who, like Mary, lived a very public nightmare that changed the world.
Mrs. Bradley is the only figure I’ve rendered in color in both panels. Along with manipulating the reference photos’ composition, I treat her this way to focus the viewer’s attention squarely on her. I center her both literally and figuratively. Painting her in color distinguishes her from her surroundings (for those who can see colors) and reinforces her Blackness. What happened to her son was meant to reach far beyond him. Like every other before and after it, this act was an act of racialized terror against Black people. Her Blackness is of import, so I chose to depict it as fully as possible.
Panel 1: “Woman, Behold Your Son”
The reference photo for the first panel was taken by the late David Jackson and published in the September 5, 1955 issue of Jet Magazine. In the photo, Emmett’s body lay in the foreground while his mother and Mr. Mobley look on from behind.
We should note that Jackson’s photo was taken later in the day on September 2nd, after Emmett’s body had been prepared and dressed by funeral director A.A. Rayner. This is actually the second time that day Mrs. Bradley had seen her son’s body, and by then she’d already determined his funeral would be open-casket. She wanted the world to see what she saw, though we still did not see the worst of it. Mr. Rayner worked on Emmett’s appearance against his mother’s wishes, but she ultimately appreciated the work he did. That work included putting Emmet’s tongue back in his mouth, removing an eye that had been pulled out of its socket, and sewing his head back together. What they initially saw was far more grotesque than the now-famous photos that catalyzed a movement.
In Death of Innocence: The Story of the Hate Crime that Changed America, the memoir Mrs. Till-Mobley wrote with Christopher Benson, she described viewing Emmett’s body for the first time and what she had to do to mentally prepare herself for what no one wanted her to see.
“Suddenly, as I stood there gazing down at the body, something came over me. It was like an electric shock. In fact, it was terror. I felt it through every bone in my body. I stiffened. The horror of this moment was as overwhelming as the smell had been before all this, and the sight of the box before that. And it was not because this body looked like something out of a horror movie. It was because I was getting closer to discovering, to confirming, that this body had once been my son. And I couldn’t let anyone in the room know what I was feeling right then. I didn’t want them to think even for a moment that I was not up to this. They might try to take this moment away from me. I couldn’t let them stop me from going through with it… I had a job to do.”
– Death of Innocence: The Story of the Hate Crime that Changed America, p. 134
With such a generous glimpse into the mind of a mother who had to do the unimaginable, we are better able to understand the complexity behind her gaze, which Time magazine described as “stoic.”
I decided to tighten in on Jackson’s shot so that all that’s visible on the canvas is Mrs. Bradley’s full face and upper body, the right side of Mr. Mobley, and just a portion of where Emmett’s head would have appeared in the photo. I gave particular attention to her eyes and the direction of her gaze, to convey the steeled resolve and crushing anguish of a grieving Black mother. She appears strong here, but she shouldn’t have to be strong. No one should be expected to exercise strength or composure in the face of this horror. But she understands that showing the kind of emotion this moment warrants will compromise others’ respect for her agency. She has to subvert their expectations to be there for her son.
This is a burden familiar to Black women who often navigate a world incapable of understanding our emotional composition. We are “strong,” therefore we must be unfeeling. If we do feel, our feelings are somehow out of place; we’re too “angry” or “unapproachable.” It’s a catch-22 for Black women; an emotional prison imposed upon us that at once denies and ridicules our humanity.
I wanted to give some attention to the dress she was wearing because she thought enough of it to describe it in her memoir. It was one of the few pieces in her wardrobe that she’d picked out and bought for herself at the time. Back then, her mother was still making most of her decisions for her. Additionally, she had come out of two abusive marriages that were imposed upon her by the norms and expectations of her community. She likely would have been married to Mr. Mobley by then. Yet, because Emmett witnessed abuses by his mother’s last husband, he was apprehensive about her remarrying even though he deeply loved Mr. Mobley. A woman with a newfound and fraught sense of independence and self-determination, she suddenly had to take charge of everything, and this dress was emblematic of who she’d become. So it was important to me to colorize the dress as much as I colorized her. Despite only having black-and-white photos for reference, I relied on her description to recreate it.
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“I really can’t recall whether I was up early on this particular day or whether I had even slept at all the night before, but I do remember selecting the dress I would wear to Central Station at Twelfth Street. It was one of only a couple I had there at Mama’s. It was a black sleeveless dress with beige figures, little geometric animals, one I had bought for myself. Mama was still making some of my dresses, even then. Black seemed like the appropriate thing to wear… Not quite a week before, I had told my girlfriends how much I wanted to bring Emmett home from Mississippi. But not like this. He would arrive on this day on the City of New Orleans, the same train that two weeks before had carried him away from me down to Mississippi for the adventure of a lifetime, one he had so looked forward to having. But I wasn’t greeting Emmett at the station; I wasn’t welcoming him home from his Mississippi vacation. I was going to claim his body.” – Mamie Till-Mobley, Death of Innocence: The Story of the Hate Crime that Changed America Citation: Till-Mobley, M., & Benson, C. (2005). Chapter 14. In Death of innocence: The story of the hate crime that changed America. New York: Ballantine Books. Citation for the audio in the video is as follows: American Experience; The Murder of Emmett Till; Interview with Mamie Till Mobley, mother of Emmett Till. Boston, MA: WGBH, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (WGBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-15-5717m04w8f #wip #workinprogress #art #artist #oilpaint #oilpainting #oiloncanvas #blackart #blackartists #blackartistsmatter #supportblackart #blackhistory #emmetttill #mamietill #mamietillmobley #artistsoninstagram #artistsofinstagram
Concerning Mr. Mobley, while I’m adamant about centering Mamie Till-Mobley’s narrative, I wanted to treat his grief with care and justice. In Jackson’s photo, we see that Mrs. Bradley’s focus is on her son’s body while Mr. Mobley is looking into the camera, and, by extension, at us. His expression is haunting and his emotion palpable, as he was perhaps the closest thing Emmett had to a loving father. I wanted to retain that penetrating gaze in this piece because I believe it calls us into the scene. We are challenged not to look away but to respond. He beckons us to move beyond voyeurism because there are no innocent bystanders here. As Mrs. Bradley beholds her son, Mr. Mobley beholds us.
And then there is Emmett. While I realize artists have attempted depictions of him in this state, and I’m sure they approached that work thoughtfully and with a desire to do justice to the subject, I believe that some things can’t and probably shouldn’t be depicted. The photos of his body are widely accessible and speak for themselves. They are already in their own words, are the results of his mother’s agency, and, in my opinion, do not need further interpretation. So in the lower right-hand corner of the canvas where his body appears in Jackson’s photo, I treated the area with a thick application of titanium white paint. I approached this part of the painting rather ritualistically, thoroughly cleansing all remaining pigment and oil on the palette before dispensing fresh paint, taking a palette knife, and smearing it over the area where Emmett’s body would have appeared. I was fastidious about it, almost as if administering a sacrament. I needed that area to look blank. No dimension, no nuance, and no traces of any other pigment. Just a pure, opaque, suffocating layer of whiteness, because whiteness is ultimately what killed Emmett Till.
Whiteness — the construction that hoards social and other forms of capital among those who are racialized as white — established the arbitrary rules Emmett’s mother was so worried he’d break, precisely because they were capricious . Whiteness decided that Emmett’s whistling, a canceling strategy his mother taught him to manage his stuttering, was an affront to Carolyn Bryant’s [white] womanhood. Whiteness gave Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam license to enter Mose Wright’s home in the middle of the night and abduct his nephew. Whiteness determined the boy should be buried without his mother ever laying eyes on him. Whiteness ensured that neither Bryant nor Milam would ever be held accountable in a court of law for their crimes. Whiteness enabled them to later openly admit to killing Emmett Till and sell their story for thousands of dollars. And whiteness permitted Carolyn Bryant to live more than sixty years in obscurity before admitting to a journalist that her testimony under oath was fabricated. Whether or not they escaped divine justice, whiteness shielded them from any form of earthly justice. Whiteness, as Ephesians 6:12 says, is a spiritual force. Bryant and Milam effectively had help carrying out their brutality. They didn’t own it by themselves.
Finally, the viewer will notice ethereal, human-like figures in the canvas’s upper left-hand corner. In an interview with PBS, Mrs. Till-Mobley spoke of a “visitation” she had the night she was told Emmett had been found. She was trying unsuccessfully to sleep that night when a cloud-like presence filled the bedroom, and she was raised to a sitting position. She understood this as an encounter with God, who spoke to her in a voice like thunder. Emmett was never hers, she was told. He belonged to God, and his job on earth was complete. She was also told she would be given “thousands” of children for the one who was taken from her.
Hearing her recall this encounter is chilling. And I wonder, who were the thousands? You could certainly say the thousands were those who participated in a movement animated by her refusal to let Emmett die in obscurity. You could say the thousands were the children she taught as an educator. You could also say the thousands are the children who continue to die from racial terror and extrajudicial murders. The thousands may include the mothers who, like her, refused to let the world off the hook when their children were taken — Lucy McBath, Geneva Reed-Veal, Tamika Palmer, Leslie McSpadden, Sybrina Fulton, and so many others. So much changed because of what she did, but too much remains the same. Who are the thousands? I don’t know, but I want to acknowledge them.
Panel 2: “Behold Your Mother”
The events depicted in the two panels happen in reverse chronological order. The second panel takes place as Emmett’s body first arrives at Central Station. The reference photo from the Chicago Sun-Times was one of many snapped as Mrs. Bradley collapsed at the site of the box[es] containing her son’s body. In her words:
“I looked up, saw that box, and I just screamed, “Oh, God. Oh, God. My only boy.” And I kept screaming, as the cameras kept flashing, in one long explosive moment that would be captured for the morning editions. It was as if everything was pouring out all at once. All the tension that had built up since Emmett left for Mississippi, all the fear that had grown in me since we had gotten word of his abduction, all the sorrow of a thousand people in that train yard, began bursting out of me. The box was huge. It seemed to me to be nearly half the size of the train car itself. Such a big box for such an itty-bitty boy. I couldn’t imagine how they ever thought they could have buried that huge box intact. It would have taken up nearly three grave sites. That’s the way it looked to me. At that moment, there was nothing in the world but that giant crate. Death to me was so much larger than life. It was overpowering. It was terrifying. It seemed that, if I could scream loudly enough, I could get that feeling out of me.”
– Death of Innocence: The Story of the Hate Crime that Changed America, p. 132
I have to say I remain awed by how generous she was in sharing this, not only in her memoir but in countless public speaking engagements and conversations with strangers. It seems that doing this would take an immense toll on anyone, and I have no doubt it took its toll on her many days. Yet, she refused to let us look away. She wanted us to see him. She wanted us to see her. It’s that realization that brought me to the treatment for this panel.
Again, Mrs. Bradley is situated at the center of the composition and depicted in color, but this time the people around her are rendered only in outlines. This is for a number of reasons.
- Losing someone as close as a child is a particularly lonely kind of grief. In that moment, Mrs. Bradley had a multitude surrounding, supporting, and holding her. But no matter how many people are there for you in your grief, none of them can ever take it away from you.
To be sure, this was everyone’s loss. The men seen in the composition included Bishops Roberts and Ford of the Church of God In Christ, Mrs. Bradley’s step-cousin Rayfield Moody, and Mr. Mobley, though there were many others in the space. All of them were grieving along with her. Yet, none of them were grieving quite like her. Emmett had but one mother, and she had but one child. There would be no more first-born son relationships for Mrs. Bradley. She was the one who labored through a breech birth that threatened the boy’s life and mobility. She was the one who nursed him through polio and coached him through the stutter it gave him. She was the one who protected him against so much that threatened him, and he, in turn, had become her protector. A profound loss despite the whole world sharing in her pain, she would still have to carry it uniquely.
Rendering the people around her in outlines communicates that loneliness. Everyone was there for her, but I can’t imagine it felt substantial enough. How could it have? There’s just no consolation for this kind of loss, at least not when it’s that fresh.
- In our greatest need, Black women too often find that the support around us is tenuous. When Mrs. Bradley shared the news with her family that Emmett’s body had been found, she described feeling a transfer of energy from her mother, who was the family rock, to her. She talked about the entire family collapsing into tears and horrific screaming. Their reaction is understandable, but she knew at that moment she couldn’t rely on any of them in the ways she’d come to expect. She would have to soldier through this mostly alone.
At every turn, someone sought to undermine Mrs. Bradley’s agency. The reporter who broke the news to her had to be coaxed out of the information, unsure of her ability to handle it. The state of Mississippi had every intention of burying Emmett the day he was found, as if no family would claim and mourn him. She had to fight them to bring his body home. She had to fight to open the nesting boxes sealed by the state of Mississippi. They sent him to Illinois under the condition that the boxes containing his body not be opened. Mrs. Bradley had no time for that. She hadn’t signed any agreements and was determined to see and identify her son. When she did, she found they’d packed his body in lime so that it would decay faster. The evils perpetrated against this woman and her child were endless!
No one thought she should view his body. Everyone was aghast when she insisted on an open-casket. Every decision she made was questioned, but she would not relent. And those decisions sparked a revolution that had worldwide reverberations.
My message is simple: Trust Black women. Listen to Black women. Vote like Black women. Support Black women. Amplify Black women. Or, at the very least, get out of our way!
Mrs. Bradley thankfully had “footsoldiers” in her corner. Mr. Moody leveraged his relationships with influential people to set things in motion and accompanied her to Bryant and Milam’s trial in Mississippi. Mr. Mobley loved her and her son and supported her lifelong mission to tell her story. Dr. T.R.M. Howard, Ruby Hurley, Medgar Evers — the list of co-conspirators championing her cause and the coalition that had formed around her were impressive. When we follow the lead and adequately support the leadership of the most ignored among us, we can turn the world in the right direction.
- I want to invite the viewer to fill the void inside the lines. I am intentionally trying to convey emptiness around Mrs. Bradley in this panel. There’s the emptiness of profound grief and lack of support, but also the emptiness of opportunity.
In Matthew 12:46-50, Jesus’ mother and brothers send word that they want to speak to him. Jesus asks, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” He points to his disciples and says that those who do the will of his Father in heaven are his mother and siblings. In the parable known as the “good Samaritan,” Jesus taught that being a neighbor is more about what you do for others and less about your proximity to them. John’s gospel proclaims that those who received Jesus were given the power to become children of God. And as he struggles with his last few breaths, Jesus establishes a familial relationship between his mother and disciple. Jesus was always turning the idea of family and relationship on its head. He came from a religious tradition that teaches that righteousness is determined by how one treats one’s neighbors, the vulnerable, and strangers. For him, family extends beyond blood relation, and community is something to be pursued and maintained. You are family by what you do, and your job is to expand your family and community as much as possible.
Behold your mother. Look at her. Take her in. See her anguish. How will you fill the void around her?
Are her cries for nothing? Were her loss and subsequent fight in vain? And if not, then why have so many joined her sisterhood? Why wasn’t Emmett enough? For that matter, why wasn’t Jesus enough? How much more blood is necessary?
We are still called to fill the gaps and repair the breaches that concentrate suffering and fragment the human family. Mrs.Till-Mobley has completed her baptism and received her reward. She has done her job, and now we must do ours. Are there mothers or siblings from whom you have hidden? Who are the mothers who have been crushed by grief because systemic evil was visited upon them and their children? Where and why is it still happening? Think on these things, and then act.
As I read Mrs. Till-Mobley’s memoir, it occurred to me that Emmett was well on his way to being a fine, upstanding man. He had overcome so many obstacles in his short life. He was industrious, reliable, and courageous in many ways. I can believe he was sent here to do a job, but I can’t help but wonder if God had other desires for Emmett. Given the trajectory of his life, he would have definitely changed the world, were he allowed to live. Had God not accounted for white supremacy? Did God not fully appreciate its tenacity, expecting more from humanity? Was God forced to work around the evil and obstinance of racial hatred? And if so, how much longer will God’s hopes and dreams be frustrated by a people who have the ability to end this nightmare but won’t?
Pietà is an Italian word translated as “piety” or “compassion.” The theme is poignant for me because American Christianity’s notions of piety are usually about orthodoxy. The vestigial influence of Puritanism leads us to understand piety as right doctrine, right behavior, and “decency and order.” Piety’s connotation with compassion is less apparent, however. I say this as a Black clergywoman laboring in a predominantly white denomination who too often has to explain to its members why/that Black lives matter. I see politicians appeal to the electorate’s religious values while calling those who protest extrajudicial murders of Black people “violent mobs.” Statues are more important to them than humans. Churchgoing Christians are as faithful in their support of these lawmakers as they are in attending service. American Christianity is dangerously apathetic or outright antagonistic toward we who are marginalized. How long will God be mocked like this?
Any notions of religious piety must have compassion at their core. Through this piece, I hope to inspire and generate the kind of compassion that creates equity and alleviates suffering. This piece is for Mary and Mamie Till-Mobley. It’s for every mother after them who sought justice for their murdered children. It’s for every mother in a detention center whose children were taken from them. It’s for the Black women who disproportionately die or experience severe maternal morbidity events while giving birth. It’s for Indigenous women whose communities mourn their disappearance without a consoling word from the rest of the world. It’s for incarcerated mothers and mothers who work to extract their children from the jaws of the judicial system. It’s for Black womxn on the frontlines of the fight for justice for all. It’s in gratitude to trans women, femmes, genderqueer and nonbinary siblings, and everyone whose social currency account may be in the “red,” but whose voice and power will not be silenced. When the tides of all these rise, everyone’s vessel will be lifted.
May it be so.
Many thanks to the Reverend Dr. Jamie Eaddy and the Reverend Kerri Allen for their careful and insightful guidance on this artist’s statement.
Deep gratitude to the Reverend Lisle Gwynn Garrity and the collective at A Sanctified Art for walking alongside this project and dreaming pathways for its use.
For Tamika Palmer, fellow Louisvillian and mother of Breonna Taylor. I pray for you without ceasing.
And for Mamie Till-Mobley, venerated ancestor and mother, whose power and loving spirit continue to shape us in the best ways.