My school education did not include Emmett Till’s shooting, beating, and death by two white men in Mississippi.
I first learned about this despicable brutality from A Wreath for Emmett Till (Marilyn Nelson, Philippe Lardy, publ. Clarion Books). It was selected for a Printz honor and a Coretta Scott King honor in 2006. The book is unforgettable.
Then I read a poem included in J. Patrick Lewis’ When Thunder Comes: Poems for Civil Rights Leaders (illustrated by Jim Burke, R. Gregory Christie, Tonya Engel, John Parra, and Meilo So, publ. Chronicle Books), which is fashioned as an elegy for Mamie Till’s son Emmett. That poem (and the book) are also unforgettable.
And now there is Angela Joy’s Choosing Brave: How Mamie Till-Mobley and Emmett Till Sparked the Civil Rights Movement. The Montgomery Bus Boycott took place three months after Till’s funeral, Mamie’s choice to have her son’s horribly disfigured body viewed at the wake.
Here we learn about Mamie’s childhood, her family moving north to Chicago from Mississippi during the Great Migration. In Argo, Illinois, Mamie graduated at the top of her class, the first African American to do so.
The author describes Mamie’s bravery, in small ways and large ways, in descriptive, affecting free verse that brings the reader’s emotions into full focus. We are rooting for Mamie, as she makes choices when awful challenges are set in her path. Her father abandons their family, her husband abandons Mamie and Emmett, Emmett contracts polio … these are soul-affecting roadblocks. And still she accomplished so much with her life.
She didn’t want Emmett to visit his grandparents in Mississippi because of the Jim Crow laws. Emmett insisted. It turned out that she was right to be afraid.
All of this is described for the reader in words that are just-right, heart-felt, sharing enough about Mamie Till’s life to help us know that she continued to choose brave. “Yet still today, we whisper her name.” She was a remarkable woman.
Janelle Washington, the illustrator, shares her research and choices for the bold graphics: “To create images of Mamie’s life, I wove her story using negative and positive spaces by cutting black paper and layering tissue paper underneath to add color.” It’s stark and it’s effective. “The colors throughout represent skin tone and convey feelings of bravery, sadness, and hope from Mamie and her family.” Indeed.
This is a moving book, a powerful blending of writing and illustration that creates a book you will take to your heart and to your resolve.