Saying His Name

Introduction to Saying His Name

Terrance Hayes explores how Emmett Till has become a haunting, powerful figure in Black poetry—and Black public grief—through the work of 10 important poets. Subscribe to the PSA newsletter for more in the Saying His Name series and to keep updated with the PSA.

Some years later, after the American dictator was imprisoned for his reign of kaleidoscopic abuse, Gwendolyn Brooks was hired to teach him poetry at the prison. She arrived every Sunday on a bus full of other great poets being transported to speak with the poetry-starved tyrants of history. Lorca had stepped from the bus into the dreams of a fourteen-year-old Joseph Stalin. Biggie Smalls spoke with Robert E. Lee during a long train ride to Appomattox. Sylvia Plath, Gertrude Stein, Jean Toomer, Pablo Neruda could be seen waving from the bus windows. When Gwendolyn Brooks sat with the dictator at the prison, she had a thick folder of every Emmett Till poem ever written. Emmett Till was a name the dictator only half recognized. There had been during, before and after his reign too many such souls to remember. They spent maybe half a millennium of Sundays discussing each poem. Every time the dictator missed the point. Brooks was patient, but one day, she had an idea. She tasked the dictator with writing his own Emmett Till poem. The poem would need to have as many shades as “Emmett Till” by Wanda Coleman. It would need to feature a crown of sonnets inspired by “A Wreath for Emmett Till” by Marilyn Nelson, and an allusion to “Riddle” by Jericho Brown. He would need to memorize and recite “Afterimages” by Audre Lorde until her syntax filled the veins of the poem. Kind Miss Brooks told him he could sing Bob Dylan’s "The Death of Emmett Till” acapella anytime his writing hand grew tired. If he doubted a white person could author a rich Emmett Till poem, she suggested he begin with “Substantiation” by Jake Adam York. However long it took him to draft this poem, it should take twice as long to revise it. “When you are done though,” Brooks said to the dictator, “you will be released from prison.” Brooks left him with her sheath of infinite Emmett Till poems as a resource, gift, and permission. Have you written your Emmett Till poem?

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