With its time-hops in narrative, poetic wordplay and blurred lines between fact, fiction and memoir, reading John Edgar Wideman’s new book, “Writing to Save a Life: The Louis Till File,” is to ride shotgun in his tricked-out time machine to a familiar destination: the jagged fault lines of America’s racial divide.
Yet by looking at the life and death of Louis Till — the father of Emmett Till, 14, arguably the nation’s most famous lynching victim — in the era of Black Lives Matter and the disproportionate incarceration of African-Americans, the trip is very much rooted in the present.
Through flashbacks and self-examination, however, Wideman also wrestles with notions of black masculinity, race and justice in America, as well as the bitter truths and consequences of his own abusive, no-account father. That includes two of the author’s own relatives now serving hard time in prison: his younger brother and his son.
The book is largely centered on the eerie, sins-of-the-father parallels between Louis, whom the U.S. Army tried, convicted and executed in Italy during World War II for the rape-murder of a local woman, and Emmett, who was kidnapped, beaten and killed by a gang of white men in Jim Crow-era Mississippi on a rumor he’d wolf-whistled at a white woman.
While his son’s brutalized, disfigured corpse helped ignite the civil rights movement, the hanging of Louis largely went unnoticed; capital punishment for African-American soldiers in World War II was so common that in a remote French cemetery for dishonored U.S. troops, most of the deceased are black. But his surprise resurrection helped snuff out justice for his son and put both of them back in their places, subjugated to whites even in death.
“As a writer searching for Louis Till, I choose to assume certain prerogatives — license might be a more accurate word,” the author writes in an early disclaimer, warming up the time machine. “I assume the risk of allowing my fiction to enter other people’s true stories. And to be fair, I let other people’s stories trespass the truth of mine.”
The search begins with the lesser-known aftermath to the 1955 trial of Emmett Till’s killers, Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam, who were acquitted by an all-white jury. International demands for justice, spurred by photos of Emmett Till’s mangled face photographed through a glass-topped coffin, grew louder on news the jury deliberated less than an hour, including a lunch break.
As federal investigators prepared to step in, Louis Till’s criminal file was leaked to reporters. The disgraced soldier’s execution a decade earlier triggered like-father, like-son victim blaming, pouring cold water on the Mississippi case.
That’s where Wideman leans into Louis Till’s story, and explores his own.
His thin service file has few details — a boxer, Till enlisted during the war to avoid jail time in the states, served in a segregated transport unit and ended up in the stockade after the murder was discovered in Livorno, Italy. His 1945 court martial and hanging was more like a kangaroo court, based on a rushed military investigation, suspect witness identifications, coerced trial testimony and Till’s own bad reputation.
Like the Mississippi men who murdered his son on hearsay (and, arguably, the police officers who killed Philando Castile, Sterling Brown and other African-American men in recent years), the Army was Louis Till’s judge, jury and executioner, and due process was merely an afterthought.
Lacing the threads of Louis Till’s life together with his own hardscrabble upbringing in Pittsburgh’s Homewood neighborhood, Wideman recounts their commonalities (abusive fathers and just-getting-by families, straining against racism both systemic and internalized) and makes a pilgrimage to Oise-Ainse, France, hoping to find wisdom or solace in the dead soldier’s tiny, numbered grave.
Not surprisingly, the writing in Wideman’s book, which imagines conversations Louis Till might have had and fills in the blanks of his criminal case, is both sublime and familiar, taking readers from 1950s Mississippi to 1940s Illinois (aka “Little Mississippi”) where Emmett’s parents met, to the European theater, to Homewood’s corner barbershop, skipping through eras and weaving a fact-based literary narrative.
At the end of the time-travel journey, however, Wideman leaves us with one inescapable conclusion. When it comes to race in America, as the French might say, plus ça change: The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Joseph P. Williams, a former assistant managing editor for the Star Tribune, is a senior news editor for U.S. News & World Report.
Writing to Save a Life: The Louis Till File
By: John Edgar Wideman.
Publisher: Scribner, 193 pages, $25.