In 1937, as a correspondent for the Baltimore Afro-American covering the Spanish Civil War and the rise of fascism in Europe, the poet Langston Hughes made an astute observation. Fascism, Hughes concluded, was essentially Jim Crow with a foreign accent.
“We Negroes in America do not have to be told what Fascism is in action,” Hughes said before a gathering of the Second International Writers Conference. “We know. Its theories of Nordic supremacy and economic suppression have long been realities to us.”
This bit of symmetry too often goes ignored in examinations of this period of American history and its harrowing modern parallels. But two recently released films, Till and The U.S. and the Holocaust, help us see how Emmett Till and Anne Frank, children whose lives were famously cut short at age 14, were both victims of the same pernicious and violent ideology of white supremacy.
Till, directed by Chinonye Chukwu, is a narrative film starring Danielle Deadwyler as Mamie Till Bradley and Jalyn Hall as her beloved only son Emmett, whom Mamie refers to by his nickname, Bo. Mamie, a successful woman who sends her son South to visit his Mississippi relatives, is the audience surrogate, and so we experience the events of the summer of 1954 through her perspective.
The U.S. and the Holocaust, directed by Ken Burns, Lynn Novick, and Sarah Botstein, is a six-hour documentary, available on PBS, that illustrates how America’s initial inaction, spurred by widespread antisemitism, condemned millions of European Jews to death, an ugly fact often ignored in the telling of the Allied victory over the Axis powers. The filmmakers use the story of Anne Frank and her family, hiding from the Nazis in the Netherlands after they were turned away from refuge in the United States, as a high-profile example of why many European Jews died, unable to escape Nazi occupation when safer nations refused to take them in. Anne and her sister Margot died of typhus in the German concentration camp of Bergen-Belsen in 1945, just weeks before it was liberated. Her father, Otto, was the only member of his family to survive the war.
Both Till and the U.S. and the Holocaust are structured around stories of victims who ascended to the status of historical avatars. Viewed together it becomes clear: Jim Crow killed Emmett Till. And Jim Crow with a foreign accent killed Anne Frank.