Sunday, December 30, 2012

Book Notes: Blood Done Sign My Name by Timothy B. Tyson

Timothy Tyson has spent much of a lifetime seeking to understand the  key event of his childhood, and the fruit of that search is contained within this extraordinary book. Tyson was only ten in 1970 when one of his friends father and uncle were responsible for a grizzly racial murder, a latter-day lynching in which a young black man was beaten and shot for (allegedly) making a sexual remark to a white woman. The young Tyson watched his father a white Methodist pastor in the integrationist Martin Luther King Jr 'civil-rights' tradition, become alienated first by the advent of 'black power' on one hand and then being driven from his church and called a "N_____ lover" for his outspoken integrationism on the other. When an all-white jury acquitted the murderers in what has widely been cited as a gross miscarriage of justice, Tyson watched the flames of black revolt tear through the industrial heart of Oxford NC, as black power became an active resistance movement.

As Tyson reaches back into the history of his town, he rather beautifully interweaves the story of his family (a long line of civil-rights Methodists), his own story, the immediate story of the murder of Henry Marrow, the town's story and the wider narrative of the African-American struggle for equality in the Jim-Crow South, which was (shockingly) a thriving system in Oxford, six years after President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act.

Central to Tyson's explorations is dismantling what he sees a key civil rights myth; namely that The Civil Rights Movement presented a morally decent and upright assault on the conscience of white America, a challenge to which they rose and duly abolished segregation and all its associated inhumanities. Tyson sets out to demonstrate that in Oxford, North Carolina - the local authorities had completely resisted implementing any of the equality legislation by 1970, preferring to shut facilities than face the thought of the mixing of the 'races'. Tyson explores the peculiarly psycho-sexual nature of much of this separatism, which sought to 'protect' (ie control) white female sexual contact with Black Men, while the obvious history of slavery is of white exploitation of black women's sexuality. Such a theme is naturally brought to the forefront when Henry Marrow's alleged crime for which he was 'lynched' was to make a sexual remark about a white woman.

The dilemma Tyson explores through the eyes of his Father is that while the Civil Rights Movement did indeed present a non-violent and idealistic appeal to the conscience of America; the conscience of North Carolina at least was utterly impervious to both that appeal and to Federal legislation. Tyson sees that his father could completely endorse the aims and methodology of civil rights, but could also see that integration hadn't happened with any due speed whatsoever, and lynchings were still excused in courts in 1970. When the Black Power movement armed themselves and bombed and firebombed Oxford's white community and its businesses, he could neither embrace their aims or methods. However, he could not deny that they finally managed to make the authorities listen to them and make serious changes to the racial power structures which had subjugated African Americans since the Wilmington Race Riot of 1898 in which Reconstruction-democracy was violently overthrown. Tyson documents the Black community's efforts to re-take the initiative and seize back their rights, through traditional protests and arches coupled with violence and the threat of violence.

Blood Done Sign My Name, is a beautifully written book which brings together these divergent strands of autobiographical self-reflection, local history, social and political history and family history into a compelling and insightful window into the world of racial (not to say ecclesiastical) politics of North Carolina. Apparently the attempt to turn this book into a film was not very successful, and the book is a far better bet than the somewhat cliched and plodding drama that it spawned. Like so many books on this area of history, it constantly provokes the reader not to copy the mistakes of the oppressors, who were so driven by fear and hate of those unlike them that they diminished themselves by their inability to understand or value their common humanity. So too, is it inspiring to read of the heroic actions of people who fearlessly stood for what (as Christians) they defined as "righteousness". It is good to read of those both black and white for whom Jim Crow was not only an affront to the dignity of Black people, but that as all people are made in the image of God, it was likewise an affront to God Himself, and so they were empowered to proclaim righteousness even when they were run out of town.

This book has lingered on my shelves for a long time. If I had realised it was going to be this good - I would have read it a long time ago!

Book Notes: The Lighthouse Stevensons by Bella Bathurst

For centuries shipping in Scottish waters was endangered by the country's perilous seas, dangerous coasts, savage storms, severe currents and partially submerged reefs, within shipping lanes. It did not require much professional analysis to work out where the most dangerous areas were, for communities grew rich by harvesting the fruits of the seas annual plunder from the their beaches, in the same spots year upon year.

Bella Bathurst's charming little book "The Lighthouse Stevensons" is a biography of the Stevenson family and their Edinburgh engineering firm, whose names will forever be associated with the construction of lighthouses around the Scottish coast. This very Victorian story (which begins before Victoria and ends after her reign) is a compellingly told story of bravery, ingenuity, determination, enterprise and skill. The unfolding generations of Stevensons who placed warning lights on far-flung peninsula's like Ardnamurchan, and who built great lighthouses out at sea in such places as Bell Rock, Skerryvore and Muckle Flugga; were all wildly different characters - but each of whom played a key role in saving lives with their engineering exploits. The most famous of the family was, of course, Robert Louis, who to the horror of the older members of the dynasty deserted engineering for the unworthy pursuit of literature!

This book is neither heavyweight social history, nor exhaustive biography; neither is it bogged down with footnotes or references. Rather it is a fast-paced easy-read which quite delightfully opens up a slice of history which is both important and fascinating. I was intrigued by Bathurst's account of the fatalistic sailors and islanders who thought that lighthouses were built in defiance of God, whose prerogative it was alone who determine the fate of those at sea! Fascinating too was the opposition the lighthouse-builders received from those who's wealth was dependent on the macabre trade of wrecking or foraging for the treasures of wrecks.  Equally intriguing are the stories of the way in which the difficulties of constructing great towers at sea, in dreadful conditions were overcome, as well as the ways in which the lighting systems evolved. The politics and finances of lighthouse-building, were equally engrossing. Bathurst traces the ambitions, the families, the characters, faith and achievements of this remarkable dynasty through to the present day.

From various remote places I have watched Scotland's lighthouses keeping their nightly vigil over the dark seas and been vaguely intrigued by them. Bella Bathurst's little book is the highly entertaining story of how they came to be there. Sometimes reading history is hard work, but this book is not intended to be that sort of history, it is more of a celebration of a thoroughly unique and intriguing chapter in Scots history.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012


I'm amused by the way that girls seem to look at this photo and say, "your two footprints in the snow, aww how romantic!" While what guys find most noteworthy about this image is that "her feet are a lot smaller than yours".

Seasonal Shot