Well, I've tried thinking of things to write about in this brandy-new blog of mine. But every time I do, my mind heads to the same place. So I have no choice but to share a bit about a non-fiction book I read recently. It's not a clever or fun topic, so I understand if you pass this one by. But I really do hope you read on.
Blood Done Sign My Name by Tim Tyson, was the book selected for this year's "One Read" program, at my son's college. I can't say the last time I was so affected by a book - it gave me the chills. Tyson, who grew up in Oxford, NC, relates the story of how his friend's father - a white shop owner - chased, beat and murdered a young black Army veteran in cold blood. I was thinking how horrible the racial strife was in the South and how I'm glad those days are long over. Until I read that this murder occurred in 1970. I couldn't get over the fact that this happened in MY lifetime. My goodness, I remember 1970!
Tyson fleshes out the book with his personal experiences, growing up as the son of a minister during the fight for civil rights. Now an adult who is a Professor of African-American History, he has placed his experience within a historical context. He talks about how English law originally stated that the status of a child, free or slave, was the same as the status of its father, However the American slave owners changed the the law so that the status of a child derived from the mother. When a white slave owner fathered children with his slaves, not only were there no repercussions, but the slave owner was increasing his slave population, or his property holdings. Tyson talks about the history of slavery in this country - and how the crime of slavery was so great that the monstrous lie of white supremacy was devised to ease the white conscience. Well, I knew the crime of slavery was huge, of course - but I never recognized it as the reason for the birth of white supremacy. It all makes sense, doesn't it? I was a math/science person, never liked history and I guess I never put it all together until I read this book. What an admission of my stupidity! In my own defense though, I don't think the history books of 40 years ago delved into the matter in quite the same way as BLOOD.
Tyson, a white man, relates how he saw black people being treated as less than human, not so very long ago. He talks about what his father did to aid the civil rights movement through the pulpit. He discusses segregation, which resulted from the big taboo, of needing to keep black men away from white women - because of the old idea of a child's status being derived from the mother, how could one then justify keeping down a child born of a white mother and a black father? He also discusses the continuing intellectual and emotional toll on black people, caused by the idea of white supremacy.
The book is full of Tyson's observations and includes many interviews with those involved in the civil rights movement. He is able to discuss the civil rights movement extensively as an eyewitness; the peaceful marches, as well as the violence used to gain equality. Civil rights were never just "generously" bestowed on black people by the whites - they were a hard fought and hard earned "right."
When we went to Parents Weekend at my son's school, they had a Parents Book Club discussion about BLOOD. The large lounge was SRO and the refrain I kept hearing was "I can't believe I was so ignorant of what was really happening." That is exactly what I thought. I'm now 50, just three years older than Dr. Tyson. I grew up in NYC and had friends of all colors. I never considered myself a racist. But when I finished this book, I really had to take a good, hard look at myself. The following from the book really hit home for me - "Many people who care are mired in guilt, as if the agonies of history could be undone by angst." I care and I feel guilt, but I don't even know why and I'm sure it doesn't serve any purpose. I am first generation in this country; my parents are from France. Perhaps I feel guilt because I know my parents to harbor various degrees of racism? Perhaps I feel guilt for just being white and having a white person's privileges? Or is the guilt there because I see the injustice still existing today and have not stepped up to do anything constructive about it?
I am still reeling from this book - it has altered a perspective that I did not think needed altering. I have asked my family to read it - my husband was just as affected by it. It should be required reading in every high school. But what are the chances of that happening? Every high school in NC now has a classroom set of BLOOD with a study guide. It's a start. I have called my local school district to ask them to consider putting this book in the humanities curriculum. It is a gripping book, but very readable because of the personal context. If you get the chance to read it I guarantee you will not come through the experience unchanged.
I guess we still haven't come as far as we pat ourselves on the back for, when it comes to equality for all Americans.
Addendum - Just reread this post this morning - I don't want to give the impression that this was a dry book of just legalities and interviews. This is Dr. Tyson's engrossing memoir of growing up in Oxford, from the age of 10 to young adulthood. It is a life story, placed within the greater context of the civil rights movement. I don't care what color you are, it is a book not to be missed - and no, I am not getting any kickback royalties on it. Shucks.