The Emmett Till Trauma in US Fiction

Psychological Realism, Magic Realism, and the Spectral

by Martín Fernández Fernández (Author)
©2023 Monographs XII, 152 Pages


This book analyzes the various ways of coming to terms with the Emmett Till case in US fiction. The 1955 lynching of the fourteen-year-old black youth in the Mississippi Delta raised a cultural trauma in the US collective imaginary that particularly pierced the African American community, later resulting in a recurrent motif that this monograph conceptualizes as the Emmett Till trauma. This motif has historically permeated the whole spectrum of US society, springing up in manifold ways and artistic manifestations, but why does it continue to reverberate with such prominence nowadays? And which strategies have the different communities been adopting to cope with it over the years? This book seeks in literature the answers to these central questions, as it analyzes the ways in which several social groups come to terms with the Till trauma, focusing on the three major novels inspired by the tragic incident: Bebe Moore Campbell’s Your Blues Ain’t Like Mine (1992), Lewis Nordan’s Wolf Whistle (1993), and Bernice L. McFadden’s Gathering of Waters (2012). The critical analysis of these three novels is imbued with a theoretical framework mainly based on trauma theory but also influenced by spectrality studies and black studies. Such a theoretical framework allows exploration of the hidden intricacies of the Till case and its traumatic impact on the broader US society, with special emphasis on its aftereffects within the African American community, in the first single-authored monograph on the infamous lynching in literature.
"Carefully theorized and persuasively argued, this study is the most comprehensive account we have of the haunting presence of Emmett Till in the American literary imagination. Attuned to hidden intricacies, Martín Fernández Fernández makes a convincing case that fiction provides us with the expansive space we need to work through historical trauma, enabling us to mourn properly across generations while at the same time exploring opportunities for progress and healing. Anyone interested in this lynching, and the vast literary response it has inspired, would do well to give this study the close attention it deserves."
—Chris Metress, Professor at Samford University; Author of The Lynching of Emmett Till: A Documentary Narrative
"This book successfully links the events of the Emmett Till case to recent historical episodes and the Black Lives Matter movement triggered by them. It is a thoroughly documented study that manages to present in a straightforward and accessible manner the historical and mythical significance of a case that still today haunts the US collective memory. The overwhelming evidence, the soundness of the argumentation, and the clarity and accessibility of the writing make of this monograph a valuable addition to our understanding of the African American experience, as well as the complex texture of the US as a nation."
—Manuel Broncano, Professor of American Literature, Texas A&M International University
"Martín Fernández Fernández locates the forever wound of black child murder in the crevices of America’s racial fault lines in his study The Emmett Till Trauma in US Fiction. More than just a recounting of the gruesome killing of fourteen-year-old Emmett Till, Fernández Fernández’s thoughtful study traces the ways Till’s murder has been memorialized in speculative fiction. Mythology, magical realism, and creative license provide ready avenues for the explorations of familial retribution, spiritual redemption, and communal healing in the bloodlines of both impacted families in the Till saga."
—Carol E. Henderson, Vice Provost for Diversity and Inclusion, Chief Diversity Officer, Emory University; Professor Emerita, English, Africana Studies, University of Delaware

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1 The Emmett Till Case: Origins, Background, Trauma
  • Chapter 2 Through Psychological Realism: Bebe Moore Campbell’s Your Blues Ain’t Like Mine
  • Chapter 3 Through Magic Realism: Lewis Nordan’s Wolf Whistle
  • Chapter 4 Through the Spectral: Bernice L. McFadden’s Gathering of Waters
  • Conclusion
  • Works Cited
  • Index


My first acknowledgments go to Xunta de Galicia, the European Social Fund, the Spanish Ministry of Universities, and Next Generation EU for providing me with generous financial support for the writing of this book. I would also like to express my gratitude to the research group Discourse and Identity (ED431C,2019/001, Xunta de Galicia) and the project USRACEBODY (PGC2018-095687-B-I00, AEI/ERDF, EU) for funding my trips to the conferences that I attended during these years, and for providing me with human and material resources that greatly contributed to this monograph.

My heartfelt thanks and immense gratitude go to Dr. Constante González Groba for his sage advice and inestimable assistance over the years. His insightful comments on the early versions of this book have proved invaluable for its final completion. None of this could have been achieved without his guidance. Of Discourse and Identity, I would particularly like to thank the coordinator of the group, Dr. Laura Lojo Rodríguez, for her kind support over the years. At the University of Santiago de Compostela, I also want to thank my former colleagues in Discourse and Identity and the Department of English and German Philology, as well as the team of librarians, and staff José Luis Fernández Castro.

My immense gratitude also goes to Dr. Tiffany Willoughby-Herard for bringing me the opportunity to spend my research stay at the University of California, Irvine, and for her inspiring feedback on what later became the second section in Chapter 1. Many thanks to every of the members of the “Words of World Survival seminar” for including me in such a necessary and stimulating academic experience. At UCI, my thanks go to Dr. Salvador Zárate, Robert Escalante, and Jennifer Choy for being of immeasurable help from my very arrival at the School of Humanities. For welcoming at his home and treating me like family from the beginning, I want to express my sincere gratitude to Joe Klema.

Dr. Susana Jiménez Placer, Dr. Urszula Niewiadomska-Flis, and Dr. Carme Manuel Cuenca read an early version of this book and provided me with precious insights, for which I am immensely grateful. At the University of A Coruña, I am especially grateful to Dr. Begoña Simal González for welcoming me so kindly into the faculty, and for including me in the research project L&G2 (ref. PID2019-106798GB-I00/AEI/10.13039/501100011033). Many thanks to my colleagues in L&G2 for their generosity and help since my incorporation into the project, John Barlow for his astute suggestions on the introduction and the conclusion, and Kelly Rickert for very kindly ceding his Emmett Till artwork for the cover. At Peter Lang, my sincere gratitude goes to Dr. Phil Dunshea and Abdur Rawoof, as well as the whole team, for their professionalism and generous assistance throughout all the stages of the publication of this book.

Finally, I cannot express enough gratitude to my parents, Celia and José Antonio, and my little brother Marcos for being always there for me; to my dear friends in Santiago and further latitudes for keeping me sane; and to Estela for joining me on the way and bringing her light into my life.


On June 22, 2020, The New Yorker magazine featured a powerful cover in memory of George Floyd, created by acclaimed artist Kadir Nelson. Floyd’s infamous murder at the hands of an abusive Minneapolis police officer on May 25, 2020, had sparked clamorous protests across the US, and Nelson’s artistic response sought to encapsulate the social outrage that the case had generated. The top of the cover shows the solemn face of Floyd staring directly at the viewer, while the rest of his body is composed by images of men, women, and children who bear witness to the long history of violence inflicted on black people in the US. Entitled “Say Their Names,” Nelson’s artwork brings together the faces of recent victims such as Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and Trayvon Martin alongside murdered civil rights icons such as Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar Evers, and Malcolm X. This depiction of the history of racist violence on Floyd’s body also includes visual references to the police beating of Rodney King, the march from Selma, Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the Tulsa race massacre, and the horrors of slavery. As Michael Cavna noted in his article for the Washington Post, Nelson himself described the cover as a “memorial to all of the African Americans who were and continue to be victimized by the long shadow cast by racism in America and around the globe.”

The anti-racist demonstrations against police brutality that followed Floyd’s death were already passionate and widespread when, on August 23, an unarmed black male, Jacob Blake, was shot seven times in the back by police authorities in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Two days after the incident, members and representatives of Blake’s family gave a press conference in which Letetra Wideman, his younger sister, evoked the collective experience of the African American community in verbalizing her pain and anger:

So many people have reached out to me saying they’re sorry that this has been happening to my family. Well, don’t be sorry, because this has been happening to my family for a long time, longer than I can account for. It happened to Emmett Till, Emmett Till is my family. Philando [Castile], Mike Brown, Sandra [Bland]—this has been happening to my family. (Specter)1

Unlike the other victims named here, Blake did not lose his life, although he might never walk again. Yet thanks to his family and community, his story has created a strong will for change and justice, this in the name of the long list of victims of racial violence. In light of this ill-fated theme in US history, it is particularly revealing to focus on a single name, one which has become deeply ingrained in the African American collective imaginary, invoked repeatedly by victims of racial violence and civil rights activists alike in their struggle for racial justice and equality. This name is Emmett Till, and indeed his face can be also seen on Nelson’s celebrated New Yorker cover.

Emmett Till’s gruesome murder has not ceased to haunt the African American collective imaginary since the fateful day of August 28, 1955, in the Mississippi Delta. Two southern white supremacists kidnapped the fourteen-year-old black youth in the middle of the night, and brutally lynched him in a barn for allegedly flirting with or whistling at a white female storekeeper a couple of days earlier. The horrific nature of Till’s death, along with the controversial acquittal of his killers, followed assiduously by millions of US citizens through the media, gave rise to a mythical narrative that has left an indelible mark on the broader US collective imaginary. Since his lynching, the memory of the young Till has continued to be voiced at rallies, memorials, the arts, storytelling, and in social movements. And, despite almost thirty years in which the academic world did not respond to the heinous incident, his story eventually became the focus of study for many scholars from different disciplines and cultural backgrounds.


XII, 152
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2023 (July)
Emmett Till trauma lynching racism spectrality white supremacy trauma theory Civil Rights Movement US fiction Martín Fernández Fernández The Emmett Till Trauma in US Fiction Psychological Realism, Magic Realism, and the Spectral the US South African American literature southern literature
New York, Berlin, Bruxelles, Chennai, Lausanne, Oxford, 2023. XII, 152 pp.

Biographical notes

Martín Fernández Fernández (Author)

Martín Fernández Fernández is a Margarita Salas Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of A Coruña (UDC), Galicia, Spain. In July 2021, he earned his PhD in Literary and Cultural Studies of the United States from the University of Santiago de Compostela (USC).


Title: The Emmett Till Trauma in US Fiction
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166 pages