Profesor of English and Honors, Grand Valley State University
When Hate Vents its Fury
Imagine a conversation between two murdered teenagers, victims of hatred who meet in a place called Memory, a place where they are no longer pursued by the brutal forces that stole their lives.
What might they talk about? And more importantly, what might we learn by eavesdropping on their conversation?
These questions and many others are posed by playwright Jane Langhart Cohen in Anne and Emmett, her provocative drama which stages an imaginary meeting between Anne Frank and Emmett Till -- two young victims of hatred who died in obscurity, yet whose lives are today remembered all across the globe.
Nearly everyone has some understanding of Anne Frank’s story and, at least among the generation that fills my classrooms, where many know the outline of what was perpetrated against Emmett Till. His murder in August 1955 at the hands of two Southern racists became a pivotal moment in the civil rights movement of the 1950s, one comparable in its effects to the arrest of Rosa Parks on a Montgomery bus several months later.
Anne and Emmett succeeds because it imagines the Chicago boy and the Amsterdam girl on the same stage for ninety minutes, allowing us to engage them together, to contemplate just how these two young people were enveloped by history’s maelstrom.
Anne’s famous diary convinces many young readers that they know the author, though her life and death in Europe remains alien to them, so that transforming her into a “relatable” American teen seems a disservice to her memory. Similarly, Emmett Till’s fate in the Jim Crow South requires a leap of imagination for those with no memory, let alone experience, of legal segregation, though studying American history or reading To Kill a Mockingbird may lessen the gap between their knowledge and Till’s story.
Yet for all the distance between the worlds of Anne and Emmett and our own, the continuing stains of racism and anti-Semitism which destroyed them add a measure of urgency to setting their stories side by side.
No doubt some viewers of the play will object to drawing parallels between genocide and 1950s Mississippi barbarism, but asserting the Holocaust’s incomparability has not prevented its misuse. To link it to another event, I think, is justified when the connection enhances understanding of both, providing what critic Michael Rothberg calls instances of “multi-directional memory.”
Aligning the crimes of Nazi Germany to those of the Jim Crow South can in fact deepen our understanding of the larger forces which engulfed both Anne Frank and Emmett Till.
The Nazis, for example, often cited lynching in the South as evidence of the need for a more “orderly” and legal solution to the so-called Jewish question. And when W.E.B. Dubois, noted author of The Souls of Black Folk, who had declared “the color line” as the issue of the 20th century, visited the ruins of the Warsaw Ghetto, he came away with a new view of the race problem, “one that cut across lines of color and physique and belief and status and was a matter of cultural patterns, perverted teaching, and human hate and prejudice.”
While watching the streamed version of Anne and Emmett last year, I was especially struck by their youth.
Maybe it’s the sophistication of Anne’s prose, or the alleged sexual affront that enraged Emmett’s murderers, but we too easily forget that both were just children when they died.
For decades Anne Frank has signified all Holocaust victims. But a small memorial in the conservatory at Meijer Gardens, dedicated to her memory and to the 1.5 million murdered Jewish children, poignantly reminds us that in the hells of Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, she was only 15 years old. Similarly, the slaying of Emmett Till, though often placed within the larger pattern of lynching across the South, obscures that he had just turned 14 the month before his murder.
Anne Frank alone amidst the dead and the cold winds at Bergen-Belsen. Young Emmett Till facing the adults about to drag him into the suffocating heat of an endless night. These haunting scenes not only warrant comparison, but warn us of a human evil which cuts across matters of race, religion, gender, and ethnicity — when hate vents its fury upon children.
Anne and Emmett will be staged on March 24, 2022, at 7 p.m. in the Loosemore Auditorium on GVSU’s downtown Pew Campus. Admission is free and no tickets are required.
Rob Franciosi is a professor of English and Honors at GVSU where he teaches courses on the Holocaust and American Literature.