Living Memory: Mary Watkins and Emmett Till, the Opera

About three months ago, just about everyone engaged with the opera world noticed the blip on the radar of the universe that was the backlash against Emmett Till, the Opera. The uproar was over the background of the librettist (essentially, that she’s White) and a narrative– ostensibly about the traumatic and horrific murder of the 14-year-old boy accused of harrassing a White woman – that instead turned out to focus mostly a fictional White character. The essential consternation those who protested the opera expressed is that White people should not be allowed or enabled to profit by retraumatizing Black people and worse, center themselves as protagonists in these narratives.   

At my first exposure to this commotion on my morning Instagram scrolling ritual, I was immediately in agreement with this protest. And appalled that after the tragedies of anti-Black hate crime and violence of 2020 which were followed by all these businesses’ and organizations’ declarations of commitment to anti-racist and equitable practices– after all that, we would still be having to have these conversations. 

Then I remembered that only a day before that, a remarkable woman I met during our run of the production, Poetry for the People: The June Jordan Experience, had shared with me that her dear friend was the composer of this opera about Emmett Till. And I saw in her email the photo of Mary D. Watkins– a graceful looking senior woman with silver hair in its natural texture.

 I double checked. Is this the same opera? What woman are they talking about? 

It was the same opera. But they were obviously talking about a different woman– the librettist, not the composer. And what an interesting team under the circumstances.

After being forced to stop and think, I then couldn’t help but wonder, wait– what does Watkins think about this? And why is there no mention of her or her perspective in this public rebuke? I found it ironic that in an objection to centering a fictional White woman in the story of Emmett Till’s murder, the same group of people were effectively also centering a real White woman in this Black woman’s creative and professional success. It was hard for me to imagine that a woman of considerable education and musical caliber– who certainly experienced her share of explicitly sanctioned discrimination– would choose, without integrity of character or thought, to contribute to a work that was unquestionably racist and problematic. 

So why are we left wondering? Where was her voice in this and what were her thoughts on the play on which this opera was based? Having had the privilege of knowing her friend, I circled back to see if I might have the opportunity to inquire of her views myself. Thankfully, she obliged me and I am glad to share her thoughts in this blog. Granted, the typical attention span of the contemporary renders this very old news. And still, it is my belief that it behooves us to sit with living memory–our own and that of others– while we have the chance. 

I will note that there is an article featured by NPR as well as The Washington Post on this opera and its backlash. I still felt dissatisfied with the amount of coverage and attention given to Ms. Watkins’ point of view in proportion to Coss, the librettist, and a bassoonist affiliated with the Black Opera Alliance who is quoted extensively, but made no contribution to the work itself. Their perspectives are certainly part of the dialogue— but they’ve somehow managed to drown out the voice of Mary Watkins.

I first asked Ms. Watkins to share a bit about her journey into this project. She shared that she’d developed a love for opera composition through her first work based on Fannie Lou Hamer’s work and sacrifice through the civil rights movement, Dark River. More specifically, she cared deeply about telling these stories of American history and our continued fight for justice and equality in this nation. Some connections of hers who were connected with arts organizations in New York connected her with them and their efforts to produce an opera about the story of Emmett Till back in 2013. Another team of librettist and composer for this project had fallen through, leading them to then explore the possibility of modifying the award-winning play written by Clare Coss, Emmett, Down in My Heart.

Ms. Watkins traveled to Tucson, where she met Coss and saw the play while in production. “I thought the play was very good,” she said, recalling the day the news of his murder was announced. Emmett Till was only one year younger than she. And she remembered thinking to herself, “how could they do this to a child?” The play was an inspiration to her to engage her composition skills again to tell this story— from a different perspective.

It was this perspective, however, that was a major part of the problem folks had with this opera. I asked what she thought about this version of the narrative and its having been told by and from the perspective of a White woman. 

“I had no problem with it,” she said, sharing a bit of the experience Coss herself had, which inspired the story she constructed. Coss also lived through this incident, a college student at the time, and was shaken. She attempted to discuss this horrifying event with her fellow students, but no one would engage. This was an isolating and confusing experience for her, and she eventually left the university which left her with a certain disdain and disappointment for the complacency of which White Americans have been guilty and by extension complicit in the many crimes against BIPOC humanity in this nation and around the world. The story of the play, which does center a White woman who hears the young boy’s screams from a distance and chooses not to intervene or phone the police, is meant to illuminate this particular problem of silent resignation with the White community that has persisted over the decades.

Watkins also goes on to say that with respect to storytelling of racism and American history, she does not ascribe to any hard and fast rule with regard to who tells it and how it’s told. “There’s something to learn from [every] point of view and there are allies who can also tell these stories as they’ve experienced it. We should be discerning, [and] you can’t deny someone their experience.”

I asked Ms. Watkins what she felt audiences should take away from having seen this work. Essentially, she believes it’s important for Americans to acknowledge the fact that systemic racism, racial violence and hate crimes affect everyone negatively, not only the Black individuals and communities who indeed are repeatedly traumatized when they occur. Part of what perpetuates this injustice is the willful blindness on the part of White citizens to the harm it inflicts upon the whole of society, including them. “It could have been anyone,” she said. 

Ms. Watkins did express her reaction to the criticism of opera in the NPR article, stating she felt insulted at the presumption that she had no contribution of meritable thought to the work she did in composing this opera. She expounded in our conversation to say that the uproar was a lot of “bandwagon” noise from people who “don’t know what they’re talking about.” Watkins called the call-out “irresponsible” and “embarrassing.” And the “judgement and trash talk,” she said, was not merely embarrassing to her, but an embarrassment for the Black artist community as a whole. “Don’t speak out without information… I understand the anger, but stop and think.”

Having heard from Mary Watkins herself about her entire experience— from the news of the murder she remembers herself from childhood to this moment of her artistic expression under scrutiny to the point of her omission— I, myself claim more questions than opinions. To form a meaningful opinion, I as well as any other person concerned with the matter will need to see the opera for myself. And if and when I should have such an opportunity, I’ll first be celebrating the accomplishment of yet another phenomenal Black woman using her gifts to shine a light of truth in a spirit of Love on one of America’s original sins.

4 comments

  1. Thank you for sharing your interview and Ms. Watkin’s point of view. I agree that racism and bias affects all of us negatively. The sooner we allow everyone to face their own truths and honestly and openly confront their experiences with it, the sooner the healing begins.

  2. Oh, the racial morass. I know opera only to the point of remembering the phrase, “It ain’t over ‘til the fat lady sings,” so I am unfamiliar with the work in question. I am not, however, unfamiliar with Emmett Till and the long, sad story of race in America, and of the two questions posed at the outset of this post, I would say what difference does it make that the librettist was white? The story was there to be told and only if it was told would it live in the collective consciousness of America. So go tell it on the mountain, be you Black or White. Making a White person a central character, however, is more problematic, because what White people qualify as a central character here? The lying clerk who accused young Till? The mutants who kidnapped and tortured, then murdered him? No, we are familiar with their stories, and we don’t want to hear it. This reminds me a bit of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” the classic book and movie. It is a work of racial injustice in its most extreme form, the result being a Black man being unjustly convicted of killing a White woman, then himself killed by a mob. But who is the narrator? A white child. Who is the “hero”? The White lawyer who represented the accused. Black voices are seldom heard. Black people do nothing to help themselves. So how far does this go to call for racial justice? Not as far as it might. Let us hear about this or Emmett Till, if it’s in the form of a first-person narrative, from someone like Jesmyn Ward. White people might be lauded for unearthing such stories, but no matter how many miles someone like myself, a White person, might walk in the shoes of Blacks, they aren’t Black, and the Black experience hasn’t shaped them. It is much more complex than the undeniably true and often paraphrased statement by Rodney King: “Why can’t we all just be friends?”

    1. Yes, there are many questions- again, which one can’t effectively answer for this opera unless and until they’ve had the chance to see it for themselves. It is indeed tiresome to be continually inundated with Whitewashed narratives of racism etc., and at the same time, just because a White person tells a story doesn’t necessarily make it Whitewashed. When we’re telling the truth, every perspective is essential to the whole narrative— and we need to make sure there is a balance in accurate and authentic storytelling. This is a work in progress for all…

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