Chelsey K. Shannon
Note: This piece is an excerpt from the zine Trace Chasing: Race, Place, Time, and Emmett Till, soon to be carried by Brown Recluse Zine Distro.
As an international student in Senegal, I soothed my homesickness with The Simpsons and so made Home there, too.
About every other week, my dad would Come Home, and about every other other week, he would Leave. His career rooted in the translocating of cruise ships, so was measured my time, Home and Gone the twin stone tablets of my days.
As I traced the places of Emmett Till’s life and death, my body took me through space and space took me through time.
When I’m passing through Memphis, the woman who rings up my fried catfish meal tells me to hold on because she’ll get me an “inkpen” to sign the receipt with, said in just the way my dad used to say it, as his dad from Memphis must’ve used to say it, and just this visit my uncle told me that the grandfather I never met grew up in the country around Memphis, which changes everything, space-sense-wise. When I drive through some of that country to get to Mississippi, I want to roam there, too, and find it—there is some Home for me here, if I can sniff it out. // After my trip I’ll learn that not only do I have living family in this area, but the oldest ancestor I can trace is my great-great-great grandmother Nancy, who was mother to Whit, who was father to Tony, who was father to Lester, who was father to Blair, who was father to Chelsey. Nancy and Whit were both enslaved in Tennessee outside of Memphis, belonging to a doctor of Scots-Irish extraction whose surname, Shannon, I still carry.
On the subject of his Mississippi trip, Mamie Till-Mobley speculated in her memoir:
“When Emmett crossed over into Mississippi, there surely must have been something familiar to him. Not something he recognized with his eyes, but something he felt deep within his soul…Even in Argo, even in Chicago, Mississippi was still a place we were desperately trying to escape. Why had my son wanted to go back there so badly? What was this deep longing that he felt?”
My dad died when he was away, too, in the U.S. Virgin Islands. His body had to be flown Home.
I can still remember the things in The Simpsons that would get him weak, his body quaking beside me in the oversized armchair we’d share.
When Mose Wright went Home the night of Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam’s trial after surely one of the longest days of his life, he slept in his truck instead of his bed.
The condition of the diasporic subject can be described as innately paradoxical: there is a looking backward to the inaccessible ancestral homeland, and a looking forward to this “new” place and time, whatever they may be. Two qualitatively dissimilar textures colliding. The seam is Home: when home was once had and then since been lost, home turned from a positive to negative presence. Now, it is defined by its absence, and so it is a void signifying need: the need to build, the need to re-root, the need to find stability and membership and meaning.
And when a need is great, and when the people in need are oppressed, that need becomes a liability.
That is: Black people’s human need for Home has been, is, and will continue to be used against us.
After the South betrayed him, Emmett’s body was sent by train back to Chicago, where it was received in the station by his mother Mamie Till-Mobley, she who in vertiginous grief waged a bureaucratic battle to have her son’s body sent Home to her.
Home as an inviolable refuge from the outside world is a comforting illusion, and this is true in a particularly painful way for Black people, many of whom having seen too much to indulge in that belief.
But I allow myself it this night, pulling up after five hours in the car from Mississippi to New Orleans, where I first ever arrived by train, which I caught at Chicago Union Station.
My home now is like my childhood home in some ways: dark wood, bright colors on the walls. My neighborhood seems impossibly lush after the grit of rural Mississippi. My home is much the same; it’s a “cottage” and it’s there, munga faa. My dog, who’ll greet me ardently, is inside. Some of my chosen family is inside, and they will listen to me tell the story of my whole day—everything I can say with my words, sitting there, glasses off, because sometimes it’s easier to say the truth to the white people I love if I’m not seeing them seeing me. But nungi fii.
How difficult it is to articulate the truths of the body in this way—the body being, to whatever end, our most fundamental and violable Home.
So my Home / body moves through and records time; with the help of space, it travels back in time, from my father to my grandfather, to Mamie Till-Mobley and Emmett Till and Mose Wright back to my father, born four years after Emmett Till was lynched, my grandmother waiting for the right time to try and get pregnant again, create another Black body, another Black home in that same world that Emmett Till was just forced from.
Imagine doing that for generations over and over.
Black people are phenomenal.
The sacrosanctity of home is a myth, but not its sacredness; I won’t stop thanking Spirit for the refuge of mine.
* * *
In Wolof, a prevalent indigenous language in Senegal and other West African countries, the common greeting can be translated to English this way:
Nanga def? How are you?
Mangi fii (rekk). Yow, nanga def? I am here (only). How are you?
Mangi fii (rekk). I am here (only).
Suma waa kerr, naka nga def? Your household, how are they?
Munga faa. Yow, ana sa waa kerr? They’re there. Your household, how are they?
Munga faa. Alhamdulillah! They are there. Praise be to God!
Alhamdulillah! Praise be to God!
What gets me the most is mangi fii, and the optional rekk: I am here, certainly, just like for Alice Walker’s Celie, this is ultimate enough to account for whatever else might be going on: I am here, in this body before you, living and breathing, holding down my current point in time and space. And if I am here only—mangi fii rekk—well, all the more incredible: I am here only. I honor the limitations of my physicality to claim, indeed celebrate, the fact that I can only be here before you in this precious briefness of “now.” And so we can look each other in the eyes, and exchange wishes of wellbeing and care for one another, and for all those we each love. Inquiries beyond waa kerr include yaay (mother), jigeen (wife), goor (husband), xarit (friend), xale (child). In an extravagant greeting, you could go on and on thanking for our lives, for our living and being.
The thing is, in Mississippi, I am not there only. Maa ngiuma faa rekk.
My body is not only, radically, in this time and place of rural Mississippi, June 2018. I am also in semi-rural Ohio, June 2018, and also in rural Mississippi, August 1955, and also in Cincinnati, 1983, when my parents met, and Cincinnati, 1959, when my father was gestating and then born. I am also in Memphis in the 1940s, when my grandfather left, and also rural Mississippi, 1860, when Black people were still enslaved, and also on 1-19 through rural Mississippi, November 2014, when my roommate and I drove South with my car packed full of my things, finally NOLA-bound.
Chicago 1955, when Emmett Till’s funeral was held, in the pew with Mamie Till-Mobley, in the public visitation queue
Dakar 2013, when I stood at the “point of no return,” where the enslaved boarded ships that crossed the Atlantic.
Chicago 2010, when my high school creative writing class caught the same City of New Orleans train Emmett rode South for his summer trip, and on which his body was shipped back north after he was lynched some two weeks later, and etc., and etc., and etc., all of this coursing through my one living body, sending me forever and everywhere, thank Spirit, thank Time, thank Living, Amen, Alhamdulillah…
Chelsey K. Shannon is an editor at the University of New Orleans Press. As a teenager she published the memoir CHELSEY: My True Story of Murder, Loss, and Starting Over. Her work has appeared in The Plentitudes, Autostraddle, Cosmonauts Avenue, Stellium Literary Magazine, and Salon.