Goodreads: Average 4.08. Mode: 5 stars.
Amazon: Average 4.6. Mode: 5 stars.
When he was but 10 years old, Tim Tyson heard one of his boyhood friends in Oxford, N.C. excitedly blurt the words that were to forever change his life: "Daddy and Roger and 'em shot 'em a nigger!" The cold-blooded street murder of young Henry Marrow by an ambitious, hot-tempered local businessman and his kin in the Spring of 1970 would quickly fan the long-flickering flames of racial discord in the proud, insular tobacco town into explosions of rage and street violence. It would also turn the white Tyson down a long, troubled reconciliation with his Southern roots that eventually led to a professorship in African-American studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison--and this profoundly moving, if deeply troubling personal meditation on the true costs of America's historical racial divide. Taking its title from a traditional African-American spiritual, Tyson skillfully interweaves insightful autobiography (his father was the town's anti-segregationist Methodist minister, and a man whose conscience and human decency greatly informs the son) with a painstakingly nuanced historical analysis that underscores how little really changed in the years and decades after the Civil Rights Act of 1965 supposedly ended racial segregation. The details are often chilling: Oxford simply closed its public recreation facilities rather than integrate them; Marrow's accused murderers were publicly condemned, yet acquitted; the very town's newspaper records of the events--and indeed the author's later account for his graduate thesis--mysteriously removed from local public records. But Tyson's own impassioned personal history lessons here won't be denied; they're painful, yet necessary reminders of a poisonous American racial legacy that's so often been casually rewritten--and too easily carried forward into yet another century by politicians eagerly employing the cynical, so-called "Southern Strategy."
Blood Done Sign My Name is about the murder of a black man, Henry Marrow, who walked into Robert Teal's general store in Oxford, North Carolina in 1970. Minutes later, he came out, running for his life. Teal and his sons shot Marrow dead. An all-white jury acquitted the Teals on all charges. Outraged, Oxford's black population set the city's downtown businesses and warehouses on fire.
Years later, Tim Tyson, who was eleven at the time of Marrow's murder, returned to interview everyone involved -- including Robert Teal.
Tyson does a good job of reconstructing what happened that fatal night, gathering all the eyewitness reports and putting together everything that was heard (and not heard) at trial. But the details of Henry Marrow's murder aren't remarkable in America's racial history. A black man killed for allegedly flirting with a white woman? An all-white jury acquitting the murderer? Nothing new.
Two things in Tyson's account stand out. The first is the fact that this happened in 1970 -- relatively late in what most people think of as the "civil rights era." This was six years after the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and two years after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Segregation was supposed to be "over" by then.
Not in Oxford, North Carolina, where they were still partying like it was 1949.
The other thing that stands out is the way Tyson brutally picks apart America's racial myths. Jim Crow was not some unfortunate but inevitable intermediate stage between slavery and full civil rights. Martin Luther King, Jr. had one hell of a lot more to say besides "I Have a Dream." Rosa Parks, with her poor, tired feet, was a radical activist and anything but a pacifist. This isn't a preachy uplifting book about the power of non-violence and how white liberals built bridges with black activists. It's about how blacks had to fight for every bloody inch of ground gained. Notable in this narrative is that Tyson's father, the town's liberal Methodist minister and leading proponent of desegregation, accomplished very little and was driven out of town after the Teal trial. It was the African American Vietnam vets who planned military-style firebombings of the town's businesses and warehouses who forced change. This is not the comforting message they teach you in high school assemblies during Black History Month.
The weak parts of Blood Done Sign My Name are when Tyson indulges himself too much in his own liberal guilt and dwells on his family's history. For the most part, he manages to avoid making this book about him and his father, but he's the author so I guess he's entitled to veer off for a few pages about how he became a counter-culture dropout in the seventies. Also, his personal anecdotes do bring the story around full-circle, like when he first returned to Oxford to investigate this story, and literally had cops following him around and trying to intimidate him because they didn't want things being "stirred up" again.
And then, there is his meeting with Robert Teal.
If you think this history is behind us, consider one of the one-star reviews given this book on Amazon:
How many years are we going to beat this dead horse. Everyone acknowledges that black's were discriminated against, changes were made, and now we have a Black Village Idiot for president. What more can be done to appease black people. I for one don't plan to cut any slack for any race. This is America, you don't like it, leave it. If you can't write about uplifting, good, kind and generous black people who made a difference in someone's life, then don't write. Read the book "The Blind Side". Learn how black and white people have made a difference in each others lives in a good way.
A neater summation of the desire by white people to buy the tidy packaging of racism and the fight for civil rights as a historical struggle that's over now and let's move on kthx could not be made, except that you'll note pretty much all the other negative reviews are from people claiming to be from the Oxford area who are pissed at Tyson for making their town look bad.
Verdict: This isn't a history of the entire civil rights struggle, but like many non-fiction books focusing on a single event, its depth in covering that little piece of history includes a fair amount of breadth about its wider context, and I recommend this book primarily because Tyson doesn't try to BS you with pretty American fables or encourage you to be relieved that those bad old days are in the past. Also worth checking out is the movie based on the book. Blood Done Sign My Name (the movie) is a dramatization of the book's version of the historical event. As a drama, it's okay, but it's quite true to the book.