In 1955 two White men were acquitted in Mississippi for the murder of Emmett Till, a Black teenager from Chicago accused of whistling at a White woman. Appalled by the verdict television writer, Rod Serling of Twilight Zone fame, wrote a script for The United States Steel Hour called, Noon on Doomsday.
Serling’s script probed into the psyche of the “deep south” and indicted the small town as an accessory to murder. Because of previous clashes with censorship Serling changed his script’s victim from a Black boy to a Jewish man, but Serling didn’t alter his opinion of the men acquitted. The killer in Serling’s script was a, “neurotic malcontent who lashed out at something or someone who might be … the scapegoat for his own unhappy, purposeless, miserable existence.”
Serling discussed his script with a reporter. The reporter said it sounded like the Till case and Serling replied, “If the shoe fits.” Then the news services started calling Serling’s upcoming script “The story of the Till case.”
The White Citizens’ Councils throughout the south reacted to the news and threatened to boycott the network and sponsor. The network feared the threat and pulled Serling into their office.
Noon on Doomsday was gone over by thirty different people. The victim in the script was changed to an unnamed foreigner because any suggestion of a minority was too close to the Till case. The killer was not to be a psychopathic malcontent, but a good, decent, American boy momentarily gone wrong. Every word of dialogue that might be “Southern” in context was deleted and at no point was the word “lynch” to be used. No social event, institution, or way of life of “southern origin” could be indicated and they changed the setting from an undesignated location to a New England town.
It was this version that aired April 25, 1956. Serling admitted he completely surrendered to the censors in order to say something instead of nothing. That was the first artistic attempt to present some aspect of the Till case to the public.
Now, the latest artistic representation of Emmett Till was an abstract painting called “Open Casket” by Dana Schutz, a White artist, and her painting was recently exhibited in New York at Whitney Museum of American Arts 2017 Biennial.
Emmett Till’s mother had an open casket funeral so the world could see what happened to her son. Schutz stated she was inspired after listening to interviews of Emmett Till’s mother. Schutz said, “I don’t know what it’s like to be Black in America. But I do know what it’s like to be a mother … I made this painting to engage with the loss.”
But before the Whitney Biennial opened there was backlash. One Black artist asked the following questions, “Who is the audience for this painting? Does it help a new audience understand either emotionally or intellectually the complex set of factors all falling under the umbrella of White supremacy, sexism, and anti-blackness that led to this young person’s death?”
These are marketing questions of a propagandist, not of an artist that defines art as human creativity, but the inquiry encouraged a petition for the painting’s removal. It was suggested that the painting should be removed and destroyed so a White artist couldn’t profit by exploiting Black suffering. This logic also suggests that only Black artists can exploit Black suffering if there is money to be made. (I guess if one limits themselves to merely being a “Black artist” it’s necessary to have exclusive rights to the most profitable Black material.)
Protestors stood in front of the painting to block it from view from the museum’s patrons. The collective argument made was Emmett Till’s loss was not for Schutz to engage with because “White free speech and White creative freedom have been founded on the constraints of others and are not natural rights.”
This statement is beyond logic and any attempt to deconstruct its premise is a fool’s errand, but Rod Serling might have said, “…History repeats but when the culprits switch roles the motive for repetition is normally revenge, as Dana Schutz discovered after she entered The Twilight Zone.”
(J. Pharoah Doss is a contributor to the New Pittsburgh Courier. He blogs at firstname.lastname@example.org)
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