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!

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