Sunday, May 21, 2017

The Blood of Emmett Till

Timothy B. Tyson, The Blood of Emmett Till (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2017), 291 pages.  Index, bibliography and notes.  

The story is well known.  In 1955, Emmett Till, a fourteen year old boy from Chicago travels to Mississippi to spend the summer with relatives.  He says something to Carolyn Bryant, a clerk in a small grocery store and whistles at her as she goes out to fetch a pistol from her car.  Till is later kidnapped in the middle of the night, brutally tortured, killed, and his body is dumped in a river.  We know so much about this story, compared to other lynchings, because of Till's mother.  She refused to let the story be buried.  She insisted that her son have an open casket funeral.  She contacted Chicago black community leaders who helped spread the word around the world, creating a media event.  Soon, Emmett Till is a well-known name, synonymous with lynchings.  

Much of this story has been told many times.  What is new with Tyson's account is his interview with Carolyn Bryant.  Even after reading the book, we still don't know exactly what happened between Emmett and Carolyn inside that grocery story.  However, in the interview, Carolyn admits he didn't grab her around the waist.  She doesn't remember all what what was said that evening.  There have been so many years and the stories been told and retold, leaving her questioning what was said.  However, one thing she is certain of, "Nothing that boy did could ever justify what happened to him."(7)

Carolyn's husband and brother-in-law were arrested shortly after Till's body was discovered by a fishermen.  Their trial brought reporters from all over the world along with an African American congressman from Detroit.  The trial became a showcase of life in the segregated South. (They had to have separate reporter tables in the courtroom for African-American press).  Although there were irregularities in the handling of the case, such as the Sheriff visiting a key witness to suggest that he think about what he testifies in court, the trial itself goes smoothly and appears fair.  Yet the jury only deliberated a short time before returning a not-guilty verdict.  Although many expected the verdict, most knew the men were guilty and a few years later, with them safe from another trial, they admitted as much.  Most of the the African-Americans who testified in the trial, in fear for their lives, immediately leave Mississippi and relocated up north.  

In telling the story, Tyson doesn't just show the horrifying conditions of African-Americans in the South.  He tells of the conditions in the North, especially in segregated Chicago, where Till grew up.  There are also questions left hanging such as what happened to the two black men who worked on the plantation Carolyn Bryant's brother-in-law ran, who helped subdue Till in the back of the truck as they rode around in the early morning hours looking for a place to do the terrible deed.

Although the book is well written, it is not an easy story to read.  Yet, it is a story that needs to be told and retold.  This event only happened a little over sixty years ago.  In the Epilogue, Tyson attempts to bridge the events in 1955 with the current “Black Lives Matter” campaigns.   As a member of the dominant culture, this book provides interesting insights into what other have had to endure not that long again.

This is the third book I've read by Timothy Tyson. The first was Democracy Betrayed: The Wilmington Race Riot of 1898 and It's Legacy, which he co-edited with David Cecelski. In 2007, I read and reviewed Blood Done Signed My Name. Tyson seems to have a thing for books with blood in the title, yet sadly much of the racial history of our country is stained with blood.

Monday, May 15, 2017

A hectic trip to New Jersery and Florida

Supposedly I’ve been on vacation for the past week… a vacation that involved driving to Princeton, New Jersey for my daughter’s intercollegiate regional regatta for crew.  She’s a coxswain.  The regionals were on Lake Mercer, where the Olympic Teams practice.  Her boat was pretty beat up (they had a girl with a broken ankle and another with knee problems), so they didn’t do well, but they made it.  For her to be on the varsity team as a freshman was something of which I was proud.  I also enjoyed the cooler weather!

Her boat gaining on a competitor (they didn't quite overtake them)

Old canal house with tollbooth
While she and her team got ready, I spent the day walking along the Delaware and Raritan Canal, enjoying the beautiful dogwoods reflecting in the water.  I also ran into some folks I knew at Princeton and who invited me to a lecture on John Calvin’s piety.  I jumped at the opportunity and was blown away by the speaker, Dr. Else Anne McKee.  I was familiar with some of her work, but this was the first time I was able to hear her in person.

The regatta was on Friday.  We had planned to take several days to make it back down to Stetson, in Deland, Florida, but my daughter got a frantic text saying that she had to be out of the dorm by Sunday!   So instead of a leisurely trip south, stopping to see things, we drove like crazy.  I am now not feeling very rested, but I don’t have to be back in the office until Thursday, so maybe I’ll be able to do something fun.  Enjoy some photos:  

Towpath and canal


The dogwoods were beautiful (ours was too, two months ago!)

Friday, May 05, 2017

Empire of the Summer Moon

I haven't been around blogger much since April, but I have a few books I've read that I should review (whether or not I get around to all of them is debatable).  This was a book I read for a men's book club I'm in.  It was interesting.  

S. C. Gwynne, Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History (New York: Scriber, 2010), 371 pages that include an index, notes and a bibliography.  Aloes included are plates of photos, book group discussion questions and an interesting chapter in Gwynne’s new book on Stonewall Jackson.

The relationship between Native American tribes in the American West changed dramatically in the 17th Century with the rise of the Comanche.  Prior to the Spanish colonization of Mexico, horses were unknown in the Americas.  Over time horses that escaped Spanish farms and missions or were abandoned from expeditions began to breed and flourish in the high grasslands to the east and south of the Rocky Mountains.   Although most tribes learned to domesticate horses, utilizing them for transportation, the Comanche learned to fight from the horses.  Their strategy changed the power structure as a formerly non-important band of Native Americans began expanding their territory in what is now Texas, along with parts of Oklahoma, eastern Colorado and northern New Mexico.  They pushed out Sioux, Paiute, Apaches and other tribes and their fierceness keep the Spanish and later the Mexicans from their territory.  This book tells their story along with the story of early Texas history.
After independence from Spain, the Mexican government found itself at struggling with its northern territories.  Its missions in Texas were often being attacked by Comanche raiding parties, which eventually led to the Mexicans inviting American farmers into the area in hopes that they might create a buffer from the Comanche.  What happened, instead, is that the Americans would seek and eventually gain independence from Mexico and form a new country, Texas, which then had to deal with the Comanche problem.   

The Comanche were a warring tribe.  Their life consisted of raids, buffalo and horses.  They did not settle into permanent villages but constantly moved.   Unlike their northern neighbors, the Sioux and Cheyenne, the Comanche didn’t wear colorful bonnets of feathers, preferring a cap with buffalo horns.  The women did the hard work, setting up camp and cooking and preparing the killed buffalo.  The men were warriors and were fierce.  They were brutal to their captives, whether from another tribe or Anglo-settlers, often torturing both men and women.  Sometimes children would be spared and brought into the tribe, especially because the low birthrate among Comanche women (which probably came from their constant time on horses), but children of enemies were also often killed.

Gwynne tells the story of the rise and fall of the Comanche by framing it around the Parkers, an early Texas family that set up a settlement in West Texas adjacent to Comanche territory.  In the middle of a day in 1836, while the men were in the fields, a band of Comanche approached their homestead.  At first they seemed friendly, then they began to kill and took as captives several women and children.  One of the girls was Cynthia, who was nine.  She witnessed the murder, rape and torture of several other family members.  She would grow up among the Comanche and eventually marry one of the leading warriors.  Their son (a half-bred), would be the last great warrior of the Comanche and the only Comanche to be chief over the whole tribe (the Comanche tended not to have a hierarchical structure as they lived in bands and when someone wanted to lead a “war party” he would recruit from the various bands enough warriors who would look to his leadership for that event). 
Later, Cynthia and her Native American daughter would be recaptured, but she never fully integrated back into American culture.  The author points out that she had the misfortune to be “adopted” into two different cultures that were alien to what she knew (first into the Comanche life when she was nine and later back into a culture in which she’d forgotten when she was an adult). 

In addition to the Parker family, the book focuses on Cynthia’s son, Quanah.  He led the last of the war parties and, when he realized that he could never hold back the white settlers and with the buffalo gone, led the tribe into a treaty.  While on the reservation, he made a good life for himself as he raised cattle, but he was also very generous and when he died wasn’t wealthy.  He was also a showman who enjoyed hosting guests to his home, which was quite the change from the young warrior that was feared by the U. S. Army along with other tribes.

Gwynne makes that case that technology eventually bought about the Comanche downfall.  While the Mexicans and early American settlers tried to fight with muskets and long rifles, these were not very good weapons for close combat with a mounted enemy.  The Comanche warrior could shot 30 arrows in the time a person could reload a musket.  But just like the horse gave them an advantage over other tribes, the use of repeating pistols and rifles brought an advantage first to the Texas rangers (who fought like the Comanche, from the saddle) and later to the United States Army.   He also notes that the Comanche downfall was inevitable as their warrior culture wasn’t adaptable in a changing world.   
The two key groups at keeping the Comanche in check according to Gwynne were the Texas Rangers (who fought like the Comanche) and Ranald Slidell MacKenzie.  MacKenzie, an army general, was much more successful but less known than Custer, another graduate from his era at West Point.  Sadly, after serving on posts in the West, he ended his life in a mental institute. 

This was a fast read.  Gwynne is a journalist and his writing reflects his ability to tell a story. Some of the parts about the Comanche treatment of captives may cause the squeamish nightmares, but overall I found the book fascinating.  

Monday, May 01, 2017

2017 A-Z recap

April has come and gone and I completed the A-Z challenge again.   I placed the survivor badge on the side, but I don’t feel so much as a survivor as just being glad that I am done with the challenge.It was enjoyable to explore the mythology stories of the stars (along with an elementary amount of astronomy).  I tried to check out several different blogs each day, to see what other people were exploring.  I was amazed at the talent of the bloggers and a variety of themes.  I learned about a lot of new places on the world, picked up tidbits about reading, writing and editing, and gain inspiration and helpful hints of having a good life.  I also enjoyed getting to know more people in blogland.  There are four blogs that I would like to highlight.  These bloggers blew me away by their research:   

  • Sara C Snider wrote about magic and medicinal uses of herbs.  At first I was skeptical, as I hold about as much regard for magic as I do for using the zodiac for understanding life, but the post was fascinating and helpful.  
  • C. D. Gallant-King told us about weird and interesting facts about Canada.  He reminded me again of why I like that country so much.   
  • Tamara Narayan wrote about various conspiracy theories.  Although I knew there are a lot of paranoid people out there, I may have under estimated the numbers of such people. 
  • And from the other side of the world, Heidi from Australia also wrote about astronomy.  However, she took a more serious tack than me.  If you didn’t get enough science and math and heard too much of Jupiter’s sex life in my blog, check out her posts.  

A bit about my sources...  I have several star guides at home along with a neat sky app on my iPad.  On the app, if you click on constellations or stars, it will give you more information.  I also found some information online from Wikipedia,, and Constellation Guide.   And then there is a favorite book that was most used during the month, Julius D. W. Staal’s The New Patterns in the Sky: Myths and Legends of the Stars (Blacksburg, VA: MaDonald & Woodward Publishing, 1988). 

Next year…  I decided just a few days before April to join the challenge, but about half way through the month I found myself pondering what topic I might want to explore next April.  Right now I’m thinking that it might be ghost towns in Nevada, but we’ll see…  

Thanks to everyone who made the challenge enjoyable!