When Socrates said, “I decided that it was not wisdom that enabled poets to write their poetry, but a kind of instinct or inspiration, such as you find in seers and prophets who deliver all their sublime messages without knowing in the least what they mean” he could have been talking about Joseph Ross, whose observational poetry touches on deep societal wounds, forcing us to look deeper, with an intent on healing.
In 2012, Joseph Ross won the Enoch Pratt-Little Patuxent Review Poetry Contest with “If Mamie Till Was the Mother of God.” Sixty years have passed since the killing of Mamie Till‘s 14-year old son Emmett in 1955 in Money, Miss. She allowed his mutilated body to be displayed in an open coffin during his funeral service, where mourners recoiled at the sight of his wounds. Emmett’s death came to symbolize both the brutality and racism in the South. Some days it feels as though we haven’t much improved as a society when it comes to equality.
Little Patuxent Review: What prompted you to ask that question, “If?” What led you to Mamie Till?
Joseph Ross: It fascinates me when ordinary people make extraordinary decisions. That’s what Mamie Till did. She was a mother—not a policy-maker or a politician. She wasn’t a strategist. Just a mother. Yet, she had the sense that the world needed to see “…what they did to my boy.” This caused her to choose a clear top for her son’s casket. So the world would see. Perhaps it was a way of sharing her sorrow with others. Perhaps she thought of it as a small bit of justice. She wanted the world to see her son, Emmett. She made a profoundly important personal decision into one that had extraordinary public consequences.
Her courage becomes evident when we realize that she could not have known the impact of that decision. Many credit that decision, the photograph of Emmett Till’s body, as a powerful spark in the civil rights movement. She could not have known this would happen. Her simple desire that her son be seen opens the world to the brutal racism of the American south in the 1950s.
The word “If” also fascinates me. It might be the most important word in this poem. It suggests a different reality than the one we see and it opens a poem into wide and unseen spaces. “If” asks the reader to suspend normal thinking and go elsewhere, into the imagination, into what could be, that is not. I love that word.
LPR: I love this Maya Angelou quote, “Love recognizes no barriers. It jumps hurdles, leaps fences, penetrates walls to arrive at its destination full of hope.” Your poetry stares problems in the face, yet offers hope, salvation. What are you trying to achieve with “Mamie Till?”
JR: I am trying to tell her story. To lift up the decision she made as the courageous and maternal decision it was. In a way, Emmett Till’s death — and Mamie Till’s decision that brought his murder to the world — has become an icon for all the African American people killed with impunity in America. Sadly, there is an unbroken line of African American people murdered in America — from slavery to lynchings to Jim Crow — and their murderers have rarely been held accountable. The men who killed Emmett Till joked about it and admitted their role in the murder to LIFE magazine. But they were never convicted.
In some ways, the death of Emmett Till and the decision of his mother become a kind of symbol for all those deaths. We hear echoes of Emmett Till’s murder in the murder of Trayvon Martin and the acquittal of his killer. We sadly hear echoes of Emmett Till’s murder far too often these days.
LPR: How did you select the poem’s structure and why?
JR: I chose a tight and lean structure because the details of Emmett Till’s death are enough. They need no enhancement. So I was able to work into the poem various details about his age, the Tallahatchie River, the barbed wire that held a cotton gin fan to his neck. Those details don’t need anything but a lean mention because their own horror is plenty.
I also decided on the litany form because I think it works well with the “If” idea. The litany is a prayer form, using strong images, sometimes titles, and repetition. Often a priest or prayer leader will invoke the first part of the litany and the people will respond with a repetitive response. Think of the Litany of the Saints. A leader invokes the saint’s name and the people say “Pray for us.” I wanted this poem to take the horror of Emmett Till’s death and his mother’s decision and to place those in the unusual place of Mary, a revered figure among some religions. The tight, litany form, using couplets, seemed to work. I hope it did.
LPR: Sixty years after Emmett Till’s murder, the mothers of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, and Sandra Bland must be causing you to ask what kinds of “If” questions. What are you asking yourself?
JR: These days, I ask myself what role white privilege plays in my life. How is it alive in me? I know that it is, and I have to reflect on what I am doing about it. I ask myself why, as you note, after sixty years, do we still see Black people murdered with impunity? Why does it seem that Black lives do not matter?
I think the answer to that question is that while many of our laws have changed and the civil rights situation, in general, is better than in the 1950s, white privilege is still present. Most white people, myself included at times, don’t see our privilege, but it’s still here. In fact, not seeing it, seems to be one of the sure signs of privilege – it’s a benefit to which one is blind.
For example, I hear my Black students talk about being followed in stores and harassed by police. I have never been followed in a store. I have never experienced a security person thinking I might steal something. I don’t “look” like the kind of person who would steal, right? That’s white privilege right there. I benefit from it all the time.
To share a more complex example, my parents were able to buy a home back in the 1950s and pay off that home some years later. That enabled my family to build up a certain amount of assets that many Black families could never build because the rules about home ownership were different for Blacks. This is one of the points Ta-Nehisi Coates makes in his essay “The Case for Reparations” in The Atlantic. This is a privilege I have benefited from and rarely think about or see.
LPR: You recently read Baltimore’s own Ta-Nehisi Coates’ memoir, Between the World and Me. You shared reflections on your blog, excerpted here, “Coates uses a semantic move to describe white people in a way I find fascinating and freeing. Believing that race is a social construction that has been shaped in various ways over the centuries, nearly every time he refers to white people he writes of “…the people who believe they are white.” Or “…people who have been told they are white.” As one who has never been content with the term “white,” I am compelled by what he does in this regard. He forces the reader to see his “construction” language before he even gets to the word “white.” I, for one, am grateful for this. I will use that language in my own classroom.” Will you share more thoughts on this fascinating discussion on labels?
JR: I have never been comfortable with the term “white” because, in one sense, it doesn’t mean anything. My father’s family came to the United States from Italy. The Italian culture was alive in my childhood and yet, for many years, Italian Americans were not considered white. The category of whiteness had movable boundaries. However, where whiteness does have meaning is in terms of power and privilege. In one way, as I said, being white doesn’t say where you’re from. But being white does have profound meaning in terms of power. I really don’t think we can move forward in race relations in America, until those of us who have been told we are white, who have benefited from white privilege, can name and face those truths.
LPR: In 1999, Whoopi Goldberg wrote in Book her thoughts on labels, “Call me an asshole, call me a blowhard, but don’t call me an African American. Please. It divides us as a nation and as a people, and it kinda pisses me off. It diminishes everything I’ve accomplished and everything every other black person has accomplished on American soil. It means I’m not entitled to everything plain old regular Americans are entitled to. Every time you put something in front of the word ‘American,’ it strips it of it’s meaning. The Bill of Rights is my Bill of Rights, same as anyone else’s. It’s my flag. It’s my Constitution. It doesn’t talk about SOME people. It talks about ALL people — black, white, orange, brown. You. Me.” It seems that labels divide us. Can we get rid of them?
JR: I think we’re a long way from getting rid of labels. We’d like to—but that desire to be rid of labels can short-cut some of the necessary, honest accounting for the suffering our labels come from and create. With all due respect to Goldberg’s comments, it sounds a little like when people say they “don’t see” color. That’s just absurd. Everyone sees color. We might wish we didn’t. We might wish to be free of the associations we make with certain colors. But we have to see it, so we can name our response to it and then work to free ourselves from those responses when they are negative. If we don’t see it, admit we see it, and admit to the feelings that come from what we see, we will never get beyond them.
LPR: I’m reminded of The Class Divided experiment by Jane Elliott, where after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968, she split her class in two, separated by eye color to demonstrate prejudice. The impact that lesson had on those children, not only then but as they grew into adulthood, demonstrates the importance of staring down our prejudices. The LoveHasNoLabels campaign asks us to examine the bias within ourselves. In your opinion, how can we move past labels?
JR: America is a racist country. It’s something we have to work on. The burden is on those of us who believe we are white and we have to get honest about it. To say I have no bias isn’t true. What is important is that I recognize when I’m reacting in a way I may not like and take time to reflect on my automatic response, explore it and figure out where it came from. Then I can decide if I want to keep it. Or, how I can work to replace it with something else more useful to me.
If we explore more deeply the concept of “white,” we notice it is an ever-changing and fluent category, synonymous with the group in power. At various times, Italians, Irish, Jewish and Mexican people would not have been considered “white.” There’s no system for deciding, so it’s basically a useless label. I go back to Coates referring to “those who believe they are white” as such a compelling description.
As a teacher at Gonzaga College High School, I tell my students to not rush to conclusions, to listen to what’s being said, take information in and sit with it. There’s no need to lurch toward a decision. Wouldn’t it be great if we could listen to friends who are different than we are and have an honest conversation about perspective? To be able to ask someone, “How did you experience this?” and invite him to share a situation through his lens.
LPR: Mothers tell their children to “look for the helpers” if they get separated. Now there’s a statistic being floated around comparing fatal police shootings in the U.S. compared to England and Wales. What is your “If” question to this conflict?
JR: If we had a world where everyone felt confident telling their children to “look for the helpers” we would have a very different world from the one we actually inhabit. Many people of color do not tell their children to “look for the helpers” because “the helpers” have not traditionally been so helpful in their communities.
LPR: You’ve just highlighted another example of white privilege, one that hadn’t occurred to me until you shared it. It’s tragic that people of color can’t rely on “the helpers” because their experience is so different. But there is good in this world, even good “helpers.” How do we bridge this gap?
JR: I was brought up that way, too. To look for “the helpers.” The distrust didn’t happen overnight, but rather came about via a critical mass of opinion based upon countless experiences. I believe we must have a massive overhaul of the system of policing in our society. Police officers must be trained in social work and then at least 95% of them must be disarmed. Our police force deals every day with an increasing array of mental health issues, like substance abuse and domestic violence. They, frankly, aren’t trained nor equipped properly to deal with all they face. Ever since 9/11, I’ve noticed an unhealthy worship or adulation focused toward all first responders, to the detriment of having healthy systems. Some philosopher once said, “Certainty is the enemy of wisdom.” We need more wisdom, less reactivity. At Gonzaga, we teach our students to question what they hear: What do I know? How do I know it? It’s a good model.
LPR: Death and killing, hatred and racism. These are ugly links in a chain by which we are slowly choking ourselves. You don’t shy away from these topics, yet your voice comes across as sage rather than judgmental. How do you achieve that balance?
JR: I think sometimes a poet can write about an awful situation and not add to the awfulness. I consciously tried to do that in “If Mamie Till Was The Mother of God.” I often tell my students that a poem can be beautiful without being pretty. When I was reading about the murder of Emmett Till, in preparation for the poem, I came across a man named Willie Louis. He was an 18 year-old Black man in Money, Mississippi who testified against the men who killed Emmett Till. After the trial, he had to leave Mississippi, move to Chicago, and change his name. He even had FBI protection for a time. I think you can tell his story, you can praise him, reflect on what he did, without writing judgment on those who killed Emmett Till. Tell the story of the righteous. That’s what some poems in Gospel of Dust, my second collection, try to do. The murder of Emmett Till was dreadful enough. It does not need any new horror.
LPR: Coal Hill Review wrote about you and your poetry, “What makes Ross stand out is his voice as much as his subject matter. His voice is wise and caring; it’s humanistic and loving, even towards those who’ve done terrible wrongs. Not to seem condescending, but Ross writes about things that matter.” How do poems come to you?
JR: Some years ago, I made a deliberate decision that most of what I write would involve themes of social justice and fairness. I am drawn to the places where humanity suffers. I think writing poems that try to honestly enter places of human suffering can be helpful. In the poetry world this is sometimes called “Poetry of Witness.” I think it’s an essential task for poetry today—to bear witness to the suffering we see.
A couple of summers ago, I read about Gilberto Ramos, a 14 year-old Guatemalan boy who died crossing the Texas desert. I was drawn to his story because it hurt me, personally. I was also drawn to it because it says something about all of us. We all yearn for a better life. We take risks for it, at times. And as a country with many resources, we are often small in our attitudes toward immigrants. So I was drawn to his story and wanted to tell it to a larger audience.
LPR: What keeps Joseph Ross up at night?
JR: Ha! I generally sleep pretty well. But like many people, I’m deeply concerned about the growing wealth among a very small few at the top of our economic ladder– and the growing poverty among the rest of us. I’m also very concerned with the state of race relations in America today. I worry when I see how differently our institutions treat people of color. I worry for young people when they’re endlessly on social media—which tends to elevate trivial things. There are powerful problems all around us and we have to be serious and smart and committed if we’re going to improve our country and our world.
The solution to police brutality isn’t going to happen on Twitter. It’s going to happen when thoughtful people get serious about it. I worry sometimes that we’re not creating thoughtful people. That, sometimes, keeps me up at night. I should add that I have the opposite feeling sometimes when I hear from former students who are doing great things in the world. I know many young people who do magnificent work in the world. There is always hope.
LPR: What are you working on now?
JR: I have a new collection of poems called Ache that I am trying to get published. It contains poems about human longing, yearning, aching. I am also working on a poetry project about Martin Luther King, Jr.
LPR: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
JR: I would just add that I am very grateful for the chance to reflect and write about the concerns present in “If Mamie Till Was The Mother of God.” That poem means so much to me—her story means so much to me—that I’m always glad for an opportunity to think and write more about her. Thank you for the opportunity.
Leo Buscaglia once said, “The person who risks nothing, does nothing, has nothing, is nothing, and becomes nothing. He may avoid suffering and sorrow, but he simply cannot learn and feel and change and grow and love and live.” Joseph Ross embodies active love, you can feel it when he reads his poetry and you cannot help but be affected by his words. They leave you changed.
Online Editor’s Note: You can learn more about Joseph’s work and where he’ll be reading next by visiting his website www.JosephRoss.net.