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They Will Hate You, but Tell the Story Anyway: Carolyn Bryant Donham, Emmett Till, and the Importance of Memoir
Carolyn Bryant Donham died on Wednesday, age 88.
Donham played a pivotal role in one of America’s most enduring and symbolic tragedies: the murder of Emmett Till.
You know the story: a 14-year-old Black boy from Chicago comes to visit his rural Mississippi cousins for the summer. One afternoon, Emmett Till and his companions stop into a small grocery store. Words are exchanged with the young white woman behind the counter; perhaps, Till wolf-whistles at her. The 21-year-old-woman, then Carolyn Bryant, doesn’t tell her husband – but someone does. Emmett Till is kidnapped by Roy Bryant, Carolyn’s husband, and his half-brother, J.W. Milam. Till is beaten and shot to death, and his body thrown into a river.
Both men will be acquitted at trial. They will later admit to the killing. One dies in 1980, the other in 1994. Only Carolyn Bryant Donham will live into our current age of anguished, angry reckonings.
Carolyn Bryant Donham Dies at 88; Her Words Doomed Emmett Till, says the New York Times. The Washington Post is less fulminating: Carolyn Bryant, elusive accuser in the lynching of Emmett Till, dies at 88. Emmett Till’s hometown news station is still less polemical: Woman at center of Emmett Till's 1955 lynching dies at 88.
You can search on Twitter for more febrile and grotesque celebrations of an elderly woman’s death.
Carolyn Bryant Donham, 2004
That Donham was still alive until days ago is, of course, one of those reminders to the young that the past is less distant than it appears. The murder of Emmett Till and the rapid acquittal of his murderers remains within living memory. To my friends on the left, Donham’s death represents a missed opportunity for justice. When activists last year discovered an unserved 1955 arrest warrant for Donham tucked into a courthouse file folder, they demanded she be slapped into cuffs. Grand juries and sheriffs declined on a host of reasonable grounds, and Donham died peacefully in hospice. Twitter, howling in anguish at earthly justice denied, comforts itself with the thought that Mrs. Donham is even now encountering unspeakable agonies in hell.
I’m not writing to defend or rehabilitate Carolyn Bryant Donham. I acknowledge I have a deep-seated and not particularly admirable compulsion to reflexively defend the indefensible. I wanted to be a criminal defense lawyer when I was a boy. Now, I ghostwrite memoirs. And I was very interested to learn this week that Carolyn Bryant Donham wrote a memoir, but not one she intended to see the light of day in her lifetime.
In 2009, Bryant Donham dictated a manuscript to her niece. The single-spaced, 109-page typed document was given to the Southern Historical Collection at the University of North Carolina, with instructions that it was to remain sealed until 2036. To the truly modern mind, the wishes of those who donate to archives should be measured against the archivist’s assessment of the donor’s moral character. Good people who did good things get to see their requests honored. Moral trainwrecks — like a white woman who accused a Black teen of misconduct — are by definition undeserving of dignity or privacy.
In 2022, someone at the archives gave a copy of the manuscript to the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting. The Center describes itself as “a nonprofit news organization that seeks to empower citizens in their communities by informing and educating the public, exposing dark deeds.” When you weigh an old woman’s wishes against the public’s inexhaustible appetite for “exposing dark deeds,” any self-admiring journalist worth his or her salt would be gleeful at the chance to publish a purloined manuscript.
I have only read the excerpts from the manuscript that the MCIR chose to publish. I recognize that it is possible to have a wide variety of views about Carolyn Bryant Donham, and that reasonable people can disagree as to her culpability and whether she should have ever faced prosecution. I do not know what actually happened in the Bryant Grocery Store that August afternoon in 1955, and neither do you, but I agree with Donham’s conclusion in her own memoir that nothing Emmett Till did or said justified what was done to him.
I understand why Donham did not want the memoir published in her lifetime. She was keenly aware that she was reviled and hated. She didn’t want to be a symbol of innocent white womanhood, and she didn’t want to be a symbol of the devastating consequences of casual bigotry, and she knew that in her lifetime, the media and the culture would never permit her to be anything other than a symbol.
Like anyone whose life is defined by a single moment, Donham ached to provide context, to place one terrible afternoon when she was 21 into a larger story. Anyone who has been vilified, or placed on a pedestal, longs to be seen in full rather than only in part. The compulsion to write a memoir is rooted in the deeply human need to be understood. A good ghostwriter or editor will guide the memoirist between the Scylla of self-justification and the Charybdis of self-loathing, and from what I can tell, Donham’s niece did her best in this regard.
We are not all Carolyn Bryant Donham, but like her, we are all known only in part. Our children see us as parents; our exes see us as disappointments; our colleagues see us as reliable – or not. Memoir is the chance to say, “You know me for A, B, and C – but my life’s alphabet has many more letters, and those letters matter too.”
I don’t know how the world will judge Carolyn Bryant Donham in 2036. I do know she was right to write a memoir, because it is always good whenever possible to tell our stories, as fully as we can. That does not mean sharing all our fleeting bitternesses, or the sordid details of embarrassing escapades. Memoirs are not for settling scores, or for serving up titillating anecdotes to prove that a now-staid old person was once a wild child. Memoirs are about saying, “Here is a little more of me than perhaps you knew, and maybe you will find something of yourself in it as well.”
When I was a graduate student at UCLA, I was a teaching assistant for an American History survey course. The class covered the Pre-Columbian period to the end of the Civil War. The professor didn’t teach the second half of the survey sequence, which covered 1865 to the present. She told us why: Imagine going to see a great painting, like the Mona Lisa. Imagine you walk into the museum blindfolded, and someone guides you until your nose is pressing against the glass that covers the painting. The blindfold is removed. Can you see the painting? Of course not. You’re too close. You need to step back, first one step, then more and more. Only with distance is the truth revealed. The same thing is true with history.
I was a medievalist. That made a lot of sense to me. The modernists grumbled, but the professor was right: time and distance clarify. Living memory elucidates, but also blinds. When we are too close, we see only a little very clearly, and that “little” becomes defining. 1955 is still too close, and Carolyn Bryant Donham knew that in her lifetime, no one would want to hear her side. The world had already decided who and what she was; standing too close to the painting of that grocery store in Money, Mississippi, they saw only hate and bigotry. To ask them to see more would merely provoke still greater outrage. Perhaps, in time, Donham hoped, they would see more. The occasion of her death is still too soon. We are still much too close to the painting.
We will, someday, see in full. Until then, write the story. Always, always write the story.