Of wolf whistles and death

Posted by Sappho on October 10th, 2007 filed in Memory, Race, Sexuality


When I hear the compliment’ry whistle
That greets my bikini by the sea,
I turn and I glower and I bristle,
But I happy to know the whistle’s meant for me!

“I Enjoy Being a Girl,” [[Flower Drum Song]], 1958

“We were never able to scare him. They had just filled him so full of that poison that he was hopeless.”

J. W. Milam, speaking for the record to William Bradford Huie, for an article published in Look magazine in 1956, about his role in the brutal murder of fourteen-year-old [[Emmett Till]], a murder for which he had been acquitted.

“Roy Bryant and J. W. Milam did what had to be done, and their courage in taking the course they did is to be commended. To have followed any other course would have been unrealistic, cowardly and not in the best interest of their family or country.”

One of the letters received by Look magazine in response to their article.

Things you miss when you’re on vacation: Last week, Tallahatchie County Leaders apologized for Emmett Till’s murder trial.

I’ve heard that many people these days have never heard of the case (though I remember it as one of the few horrors of racism that I actually heard about when still a child, probably younger than Till was when he died). So here are the facts: Emmett Till, a fourteen-year-old black boy from Chicago, was visiting an uncle in Mississipi. Outside the store owned by a young white couple named Roy and Caroline Bryant, he boasted to a group of black boys, including some of his cousins, about his white girl friend in Chicago. The boys expressed disbelief, and one of them dared him to ask Caroline Bryant for a date. He entered the store, had a conversation in the course of which he is said to have addressed her as “Hey baby” and let out a wolf whistle, and she chased him away with a gun. That evening, Roy Bryant and J. W. Milam kidnapped Emmett Till from his uncle’s house, killed him, and mutilated his face beyond recognition. His uncle testified in court to seeing the two men kidnap his son, but an all white jury acquitted the two men. They had only recently been acquitted when they were interviewed by Look magazine, and, in that interview, acknowledged killing the boy. For much more information on the case, see EmmettTillMurder.com. There’s also an Emmett Till blog.

Auguste, reacting to the apology at Pandagon, writes:

You think it’s annoying that stories about Till’s death always seem to feel it necessary to mention that Till “allegedly” whistled at a “white woman”?

and produces a quote from a freaky racist web site where someone actually tries to argue in earnest that “it cannot be denied that Till was lynched for what would now be called the sexual harassment of a white woman,” and therefore, well, you know, our site doesn’t advocate lynching, but

Actually, I thought the reason stories about Emmett Till’s death always mention the whistling at a white woman was to underline just how trivial was the offense for which a child was killed. I’ve always seen it as more along the lines of “he killed his wife, and all she’d done was to burn the dinner” than “the teenage girl was raped, but, well, she was wearing a halter top and short shorts.”

Commenters at Pandagon, though, reference an old controversy about Susan Brownmiller’s Against Our Will, a seminal radical feminist work on rape. Writing in the 1970s, [[Susan Brownmiller]] produced a work that received much feminist praise, but also some criticism (from Angela Davis, among others) for its treatment of the Till case. Brownmiller had written,

We are rightly aghast that a whistle could be cause for
murder, but we must also accept that Emmett Till and J. W.
Milam shared something in common. They both understood
that the whistle was no small tweet. . . it was a deliberate
insult, just short of physical assault, a last reminder to
Carolyn Bryant that this black boy, Till, had in mind to
possess her.

which strikes me as a surprisingly harsh description of the act of bravado of a child, barely into his teens, posturing for his friends.

Because, really, of course it’s rude for a boy, of whatever race, to whistle at a woman, of whatever race. It was rude for Till to whistle at Bryant. It was rude for the teenage boys I visited on a high school exchange trip in Bonn, boys about Till’s age, to take Mardi Gras as an occasion to shout sexual compliments at every woman in site. But sometimes “boys will be boys” really is the right attitude, not in order to leave childish rudeness unchecked, but in order to give kid sized responses to kid sized offenses. The wolf whistle is the young teenage boy’s equivalent of a preschooler calling an adult “poopy face” – equivalent, if not exactly in motive, in that people very young are still working out adult boundaries in something new to them. In a sensible world, you scold the child. Maybe bar him from your store and tell his uncle why, if he sasses back when he’s scolded. But you’d no more expect him dead than you’d expect the preschooler to be killed for playing around with new words about excrement.

But sexual harrassment? Not even. Sexual harrassment is: 1) a sexual approach, plus 2) unwelcome, plus 3) you can’t escape. Bosses can sexually harrass subordinates, because the subordinates are trapped. Coworkers can sexually harrass coworkers, because you can’t fire your coworker, and may not be able to freely leave your job. Even customers may be able to sexually harrass you, if your boss doesn’t have your back and insists you put up with whatever the customer dishes out. But there has to be power there – power this child, Emmett Till, just didn’t have over the woman at whom he whistled.

True, part of the reason you would, in an ideal world, scold young wolf whistlers, regardless of the races involved, is that you want them to learn respect young, so they don’t become sexual harrassers when they’re older and some of them actually do have the power to harrass. The fictional Chinese-American sexpot in [[Flower Drum Song]] may be “happy to know the whistle’s meant for me,” but you don’t want real, non-fictional boys to think a woman’s glowering and bristling is all for show.

Till’s world, though, was nothing like that world, and, in the end, he was killed, not simply because he was a child who had been rude in a petty way to an adult (though that would have been bad enough), but because he was a black boy who, even under threat of violence, refused to acknowledge that he was the inferior of a white man.

If Brownmiller claims a parallel between Till and his attackers in attitudes about possessing women, the Look magazine article suggests a different parallel – neither the boy, nor the man whose wife he had offended, was willing to appear a coward. In Till’s case, that meant he “had to fire or fall back” when taunted that he didn’t have the nerve to ask that “pretty little white woman in the store” for a date. In Bryant’s case, it meant something far grimmer:

During Friday afternoon, Roy reached the store, and shortly thereafter a Negro told him what “the talk” was, and told him that the “Chicago boy” was “visitin’ Preacher.” Carolyn then told Roy what had happened.

Once Roy Bryant knew, in his environment, in the opinion of most white people around him, for him to have done nothing would have marked him for a coward and a fool.

Bryant and Millam, having made up their minds that doing something meant kidnapping the boy from his uncle, claimed to Look that they hadn’t meant to kill the boy; they just found him unrepentant. Reading their account, it’s not hard to see why. By their own account, they didn’t tell a boy, “hey, that’s my wife you were making advances to,” or that he should respect his elders, or that you don’t say “Hey baby” to strange women, or anything else that would give him a way to back down without acknowledging himself inferior by birth. Because his inferiority was exactly the point they wanted to defend. So they threatened to kill him for being a “nigger” who didn’t know his place with white women. Someone older and wiser might have taken the insult and come out badly injured, but alive. But Till, still too much a child to believe that he could be killed for such a thing, and too proud to say he wasn’t anyone’s equal, responded, or so his killers claimed, with angry bluster. He wasn’t anyone’s inferior. He had “had” white women. His grandmother was white.

I think I might well have reacted the same, in his shoes, and at that age. I was a “good” teenager, and mostly even a mild-mannered one, but still one determined not to back down to insult. Since I was a white child, in Westchester in the 1960s and 1970s, the worst this ever got me was being hit on the playground. If the rules were suddenly changed on me, as they were for Emmett Till when he travelled from Chicago to Mississipi, would I really have been able to figure it out, so young, before it was too late?

Or maybe the child wasn’t even as defiant as described; this was, after all, the account of the killers, once they’d made sure the child was no longer around to speak. Regardless, their motives show through clearly enough.

Milam: “Well, what else could we do? He was hopeless. I’m no bully; I never hurt a nigger in my life. I like niggers — in their place — I know how to work ‘em. But I just decided it was time a few people got put on notice. As long as I live and can do anything about it, niggers are gonna stay in their place. Niggers ain’t gonna vote where I live. If they did, they’d control the government. They ain’t gonna go to school with my kids. And when a nigger gets close to mentioning sex with a white woman, he’s tired o’ livin’. I’m likely to kill him….

And so, by killing a child to teach a lesson to “niggers” to stay in their place, Millam and Bryant fueled a reaction that helped ensure that exactly the things they most feared would come to pass.


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