Racial Unity Through Mitleid: Lewis Nordan, Emmett Till, and the Five Stages of Grief in Wolf Whistle


In “Grotesque Laughter, Unburied Bodies, and History: Shape-shifting in Lewis Nordan’s Wolf Whistle”, Harriet Pollack explains that Lewis Nordan grew up in the same county in which Emmett Till was murdered. At the time of Till’s death, Nordan was fifteen-years-old, just one year older than Till. Till’s murder made Nordan realize that the white Southerners, including himself, were culpable in the death of all African Americans that were being murdered in the South. Unable to emotionally process this issue at such a young age, it took Nordan thirty-eight years and the loss of two sons (Pollack, 173-174, 186). The combination of Nordan’s personal history and the history of the South created an uncomfortable realization of the connection of Till’s murder and Southern heritage in Nordan’s mind. In “Growing Up White in the South”, Nordan confesses: “In the directionless fictional histories of the characters of Wolf Whistle, there are hints of what happened in my own history, and perhaps in the history of all human beings—death, heartbreak, betrayal, lost love, and lost hope” (299). Nordan drew on his own emotional suffering, recognizing his connection with Mamie Till-Mobley’s grief, and was able to return to his past and end his nearly four-decade long silence on the murder of Emmett Till. This emotional connection with Till and Till-Mobley will be expanded on through an explanation of the term “Mitleid” and the five stages of grief—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Wolf Whistle lays the landscape of great loss through the five stages of grief as they are experienced by a young school teacher, Alice Conroy. It is through the acceptance of the grieving process, turning away from racism, and continuing to discuss the nonlinear past that American culture can begin to bridge the racial divide that exists within the United States.

Nordan’s emotional connection with Emmett Till’s history created a sense of Mitleid within him. “Mitleid” is a German noun that reflects a communal feeling requiring one person to bond with another. In English, Mitleid can be translated as “compassion”, “pity”, “sympathy”, “mercy”, “commiseration”, and “charity”. “Mit” is the dative form of “with” and “Leid” is “sorrow”, “grief”, “distress”, or “affliction” (Langenschiedt’s, dict.cc). To feel Mitleid is to experience a bonding moment over the afflicted person’s experience and a willingness to share the burden and take on the emotions ourselves. There is no direct English translation that encompasses Mitleid, for it requires more than sympathy or compassion; it requires that the suffering is acknowledged and validated as real. Additionally, Mitleid would not support the idea of a “white savior”. White Americans who practice Mitleid would not be there to rescue African Americans, because that would require being above them. Mitleid equalizes the levels, bringing the high lower and the low higher in order to find a middle ground where both parties can equally support one another in their suffering; united in mutual support and respect for one another.

Mitleid is not a stagnant point in time, nor is grief. The five stages of grief can happen in any order and we can experience most of the stages more than once. In “Stages of Grief, Loss, and Bereavement”, Dr. T.A. Olasinde states: “The five stages are Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance. They are tools to help us frame and identify what we may be feeling. Everybody does not go through all of them nor are they in a prescribed order” (105). Racial disunity in America is the same. Progress has been made over the last few hundred years, but it is a slow progression that regresses some as it moves forward. Mitleid, grief, and racial disunity involve the past, present, and future in any given moment. In Wolf Whistle, Alice sees the symbolic stars and shepherds at the birth of Jesus Christ, the end of segregation, events during the Civil Rights Era such as the bombing of a church that killed four young girls, the march led by Martin Luther King Jr. from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, the murder of Medgar Evers, and, in an interesting combination of true history and fiction, the murder of Emmett Till. All of these were “names, faces, geographies not yet known to her, for in the extremity of her pain and need, linear time disappeared and became meaningless, blood running alongside lost hope in the streets of many nations” (17-18). In “Gothic Undercurrents in the Novels of Lewis Nordan”, Mary Carney writes of the moment when Bobo’s, the Emmett Till figure in Wolf Whistle, body is discovered: “the murdered teenager and the swamp rats create a harmonic convergence of past and present suffering” (8). The suffering, or, the grief, is not a singular moment in history, but is representative of the nonlinear timeline of racial inequality and tension in the United States, a history extending back to the beginning of the nation. James Baldwin, in “White Man’s Guilt”, opines: “the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do” (1). The history of America is carried within every American and, through our subconscious, affects Americans’ attitudes and actions at any given point in time. The essence of what it means to be American is directly affected by America’s history as much as what is happening in the present. This means that the long, complicated history of racial disunity is irreconcilably interlinked with both the present and the future of American identity. As Matthew Ferrence explains in “Breaking the Filibuster of Race: The Literary Resonance of the Emmett Till Murder”, some racial issues may be considered resolved and in the past, but others will continually arise as quickly as a solution is found. This happens “because the tendrils of racism and white supremacy have grown outward in all directions, physically and temporally” (58), which can be traced through literature, both fiction and nonfiction, and “singular events like the murder of Emmett Till might reemerge in other places and times, as the haunting faces of our dreams” (58). Lynching and other forms of murder have greatly affected America in the past, it continues to affect it in the present, and will continue to affect it in the future. There is no escaping the past; it is a part of who we, as Americans are. However, there is the hope of working through America’s grieving process in order to reach the point of Mitleid and become a more unified and compassionate nation.

In Wolf Whistle, Alice Conroy is a prime example of the denial of ingrained racism. According to Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her text On Death and Dying: “Denial functions as a buffer after unexpected shocking news, allows the patient to collect himself and, with time, mobilize other, less radical defenses” (35). When someone experiences a loss, the initial realization of the loss causes emotional defenses to come up to protect the emotional and mental health of the person experiencing the loss. Alice sees the image of Bobo in the raindrop, but she, at that point, cannot face its racist implications. Racism is not emotionally healthy; it damages both parties, destroying relationships and causing the culture to have a codependency with racism and segregation. Alice is in denial of these racial issues. Nordan writes: “Her eyes would not hold to the spot. She looked away quickly, and then, when she looked back, she couldn’t locate that particular raindrop again” (80). At this point in the story, Alice denies the issues and cannot focus on them, because she is not yet ready to deal with the reality of her culture. When she catches a glimpse of the horrors her culture has produced, her instinct is to turn her face away, rather than confront the problem directly. This is common amongst white Americans; we are unsure how to confront the idea of white guilt, because it is uncomfortable to think that we can be blamed for something we did not do. Yet the culpability does not arise from having committed the act ourselves, but from turning our eyes away when a glimmer of inequality is observed out of the corner of our eye. We might turn our eyes back later, considering that, perhaps, something should have been done to prevent the injustice from happening, but by then it has been deeply buried. The problem must be confronted in the moment, rather than denied and left to blend in with the other “raindrops”. It is a form of denial, because the truth is so difficult to deal with that it must be shrouded in fiction in order to deal with it, in order to avoid the anger and depression that would arise from directly facing such a painful truth. This can also be a form of bargaining, which will be discussed in more detail later. However, this is not necessarily a mistake, at first. When dealing with particularly difficult situations, events that would drive painful pangs to our very core, the initial denial that shrouds facts in fiction is an important part of the grieving process. The human mind places protective barriers around itself to keep incomprehensible loss from destroying it. Denial can be the writer’s act of Mitleid, for it acknowledges that the reader might have his/her own loss that must be gently approached in a slow reveal, rather than coldly confronted with harsh reality.

After Alice could no longer ignore the reality of her culture, she moved on to this second stage of grief: Anger. Kübler-Ross states: “When the first stage of denial cannot be maintained any longer, it is replaced by feelings of anger, rage, envy, and resentment” (44). In the courtroom scene, Alice looks down from the balcony, where she is sitting with her class of fourth-graders, and sees a sea of white faces surrounding the eyewitness to Bobo’s murder, Uncle. She passionately exclaims to herself: “All those white people down there! White! Even to Alice it looked like an abomination of some kind. White, white, bird dookie, white, it was sickening, a pestilence!” (226). The irony in this passage is that Alice had just moved her class into the balcony pews, where “she was taking up seats that other colored people might have sat in, since the courtroom was segregated and there might well be a ton of black folks with just as much right” as the fourth graders and Alice to sit in those seats (225). Wrapped up in Alice’s anger towards the injustices of the white southerners is a firm denial that she, too, is part of the problem. She cannot contain her anger at the injustice that the murderers have been set free. She is forced to confront the racial issues in America and how unjust it is, which directly speaks of how Nordan felt about those very same issues.

The third stage of grieving, that of bargaining, is shown by Nordan through Alice eventually leaving the South. Kübler-Ross writes: “If we have been unable to face the sad facts in the first period and have been angry at people and God in the second phase, maybe we can succeed in entering into some sort of an agreement which may postpone the inevitable happening” (72). Alice could remain in the South, if only it would leave its racial prejudice behind. Alice realizes that this is not a viable option, as the South will not let go of its racial prejudice. Rather than facing the problem, though, Alice begins to renegotiate the bargain by convincing herself that leaving the problem behind and pretending it does not exist will help her find a hopeful place to make a home for herself. She forms this bargain after seeing Bobo’s mother in the courtroom. If she could leave the South, then perhaps she would be able to avoid the racism that was inherent in the culture. Alice thinks to herself: “Maybe it was true that life was better outside the South. Maybe, somehow, the world really was a place of hope and light, if only the geography were different from what Alice knew about. Well, it couldn’t be any worse” (243). She strikes an inner bargain, ultimately leaving the South at the end of the text, believing that this will make her life better, perhaps enabling her to be happy and settle down. This represents how, culturally, she cannot adhere to the racist ideas found within the South. However, this does not solve the racial issues of the South. Leaving it behind only ignores the problem and allows us to slip back into the stage of denial. The problems do not go away simply because we have walked away from them. The problems must, instead, be confronted with Mitleid so that a valid and permanent solution can be discovered.

The next stage of grief portrayed in Wolf Whistle is that of depression. This can be seen through the Blues music woven into the fabric of the novel as a whole, but is best portrayed by the depression that Alice experiences due to the loss of her lover. Alice lives in a world of fantasy, but when she is confronted with her separation from her lover she imagines him at home with his wife. Nordan pens that Alice “saw that Dr. Dust’s wife loved him and so this made Alice sad” (81). She feels the sadness, or depression, because she is beginning to move on from bargaining, denial, and anger and is confronting the fact that she will have to let go of her married lover and find a way of repairing the damages it has caused in her life. Later, this sense of loss and sadness is observed by the magical moment of Bobo’s spirit observing through a part of his murdered body; his eye dislocated from its socket. Bobo “saw a young schoolteacher. She was walking home from school, her heart filled with sadness. In this woman’s heart Bobo saw the pain of hopeless love” (181). Although it is healthy to understand the necessity of letting go of toxic relationships and realize that our object of affection is damaging us, it is still extremely difficult. Kübler-Ross writes of depression that it is a necessary stage in loss, even if the loss is a positive one. She asserts that in speaking with someone who is sad over a loss: “It would be contraindicated to tell him not to be sad, since all of us are tremendously sad when we lost one beloved person. The patient is in the process of losing everything and everybody he loves” (77). Alice felt that she was losing everything she loved, but she is, by extension, losing her detrimental relationship to the South’s racism and moving on to find emotional healing. The end result is positive for Alice and the rest of the United States (as a whole, not just in the South), but even letting go of something extremely unhealthy and damaging can be painful. It is still a great loss, because it is the loss of a cultural element that is deeply ingrained within the culture. It is a matter of breaking apart the culture and rebuilding it, which is extremely painful and would naturally bring about the grieving process. There is a deep depression that arises from losing a cultural heritage, just as there is a deep depression that arises from losing a lover. Yet, this depression is a very necessary stage in the movement towards emotional health, cultural stability, and social Mitleid.

The fifth, and final, stage of the grieving process is that of acceptance. This is not a moment of letting go of a traumatic event or moving on to never feel any pain over the instance again. The grieving process does not necessarily end with acceptance, as the five stages of grief, as mentioned previously, are not linear. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross states: “Acceptance should not be mistaken for a happy stage. It is almost void of feelings” (100). This is a stage where we are objectively aware that we are going through a grieving process and can consider the stages intellectually instead of emotionally. This is where Mitleid can begin to form, though may not be fully realized. Acceptance can be portrayed best in the moment when Alice’s Mitleid begins to form as she identifies with the African Americans in the balcony of the courtroom. Uncle sits below, amongst a plethora of white faces glaring their hatred at him, for he is preparing to testify that Solon Gregg and Poindexter Montbeclair are the murderers of Bobo. Nordan writes:

Alice saw Uncle look at his unfriendly surroundings. All white people. Everywhere. White. Uncle looked right and he looked left. White, white, all white, nothing but white, so help me God. Alice wanted to call out to him: Up here! The colored people are up here, we’re up here, above you! Of course Alice was white herself, and not colored—nothing’s simple (227)

Shortly after this, Alice begins to wave her arms to draw Uncle’s attention to the balcony. Uncle recognizes the act of support for what it is, saying to himself: “Well, that was all right. Didn’t make no difference to Uncle where they sat, the other colored people. Didn’t make no difference to Uncle if some of them was white, and only children. Uncle was relieved to see them at all” (232). In this moment, Uncle is making a rational decision to allow Alice to racially identify herself with him, though she is white. Uncle recognizes the beginnings of Mitleid are being expressed, which brings a “spiritual relief and redemption that suddenly the thought afforded all who cared or dared to think it” (233). It is through these beginning stages of Mitleid that a brief moment of community is created. Alice has accepted the untenable racial issues in the South and can now begin to progress towards the attainment of Mitleid, and Uncle has accepted Alice’s identification with him. Alice still loves her culture, for that was what she had been raised to know, but she knew it could not be supported anymore. In the same way, many white Americans today have accepted that racial issues in the United States cannot be sustained. The grieving process began many years ago and continues today. Reaching acceptance does not mean the grieving process is over, it is simply a necessary part of it. It does mean, however, that white Americans can now accept the past and present issues, intellectually process through them, and begin to work towards an equal society based on Mitleid.

Mitleid creates a unity and equality between white Americans and African Americans. When Mitleid is practiced, oppression cannot be supported, because there is no longer disunity. In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Freire opines that “to divide the oppressed, an ideology of oppression is indispensable. In contrast, achieving their unity requires a form of cultural action through which they come to know the why and how of their adhesion to reality—it requires de-ideologizing” (173). The practice of oppression requires an ideology that one person is better than another, as was the dominate mode of thought amongst white Americans from the beginning of slavery, during the Civil Rights Era and, sadly, amongst some today. This issue has been rooted in the history of the United States since its conception, and it must stop. White Americans do not need to save African Americans from their mistreatment, either. This ideology is just as harmful, because it avoids the root of the issue entirely. Kübler-Ross exhorts: “I am convinced that we do more harm by avoiding the issue than by using time and timing to sit, listen, and share” (125). This does not require that white Americans come up with their own way of “saving” African Americans, nor does it require that either race pretends that the past never happened. It requires that the travesties of slavery, the long history of lynching, and the Civil Rights Era be acknowledged and that all address the issue of racial tension with open and honest hearts. It requires that white Americans practice Mitleid, which demands that we work towards unity and equality by listening to the tragic stories our culture has woven into America’s history and helping shoulder the burden of grief and suffering. In The Luminous Darkness, Howard Thurman explains this through a Christian ethic, providing multiple examples of Mitleid as a “spirit abroad in life” that “finds its way into the quiet solitude of a Supreme Court justice when he ponders the constitutionality of an act of Congress which guarantees civil rights to all its citizens” (112). Furthermore, Thurman points out that this same spirit “kindles the fires of unity in the heart of Jewish Rabbi, Catholic Priest, and Protestant Minister”, and it also “knows no country”, because it can be found within every person who has a heart that “is kind and the collective will and the private endeavor to make justice where injustice abounds” (113). To accept our past as a part of us is to recognize the guilt that comes with it; white hands have been stained red and there is no way to remove the history of white guilt. However, there is a way to move forward. It is through this sense of Mitleid that Thurman so beautifully expresses. It is through having hope that unity can be found in honest discussion and mutual grief over the losses of a long history of inequality and brutality.

Through the young schoolteacher, Alice Conroy, Wolf Whistle portrays the five stages of grief, as well as a sense of Mitleid, creating a hope that, perhaps, white Americans and African Americans can work together so that all truly will be equal in not just the legal eyes of the land, but the social and cultural eyes, as well. Whether Nordan intended it or not, the grieving process is throughout Wolf Whistle, like the Blues, woven into the very fabric of the narrative. All white Americans, like Nordan, must reach a state of acceptance in our nation’s grieving process and set aside savior complexes and personal feelings. The conversations must keep going and the voices of those who have suffered grievously must be heard, respected, honored, and remembered. It is through community and relationship with one another that racial unity, equality, and Mitleid can be achieved.






Works Cited:
Baldwin, James. “White Man’s Guilt.” Black on White: Black Writers on What It Means to Be White. Ed. David Roediger. New York: Schocker, 1998. 320-25. Print.
Carney, Mary. “Gothic Undercurrents in the Novels of Lewis Nordan”. Southern Quarterly: A Journal of the Arts in the South. 41.3 (2003): 78-91. Electronic.
Ferrence, Matthew. “Breaking the Filibuster of Race: the Literary Resonance of the Emmett Till Murder”. Arkansas Review: A Journal of Delta Studies. 41.1 (2010): 45-61. Electronic.
Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Bloomsbury, 2000. Print.
Kübler-Ross, Elisabeth. On Death and Dying. New York: Macmillan, 1970. Print.
“Mitleid”. Langensheid’s® Standard German Dictionary: German-English, English-German. New York: Langenscheidt, 1993. Print.
“Leid”. Ibid.
“Mit”. Ibid.
“Mitleid”. English-German Dictionary. Dict.cc. Web. 4 Dec. 2015.
“Leid”. Ibid.
“Mit”. Ibid.
See previous annotation.
Nordan, Lewis. “Growing Up White in the South”. Wolf Whistle. Chapel Hill, N.C.: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2003. Print.
– – -. Wolf Whistle. Chapel Hill, N.C.: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2003. Print.
Olisinde, T.A., Dr.. “Stages of Grief, Loss, and Bereavement”. Online Journal of Medicine and Medical Science Research. 1.6 (2012): 104-107. Electronic.
Pollack, Harriet. “Grotesque Laughter, Unburied Bodies, and History: Shape-shifting in Lewis Nordan’s Wolf Whistle”. The Mississippi Quarterly. 61.1 (2008): 173-197. Electronic.
Thurman, Howard. The Luminous Darkness: A Personal Interpretation of the Anatomy of    Segregation and the Ground of Hope. New York: Harper & Row, 1965. Print.






Katie Ann Lee was born and raised in Portland, Oregon, and she is currently a Ph.D. Candidate in Literature and Criticism at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. Her interests include, but are not limited to, speculative fiction, creative writing, film, and theories of writing the Unspeakable and the Unknown. Katie’s passion for people motivates much of what she does in life, as she continually seeks to understand, support, and encourage others in their own endeavors. When not studying, she enjoys having Wine and Bradbury nights, where she pairs a semi-decent Riesling with a Ray Bradbury Story.