Summer reading takes a hard look at race

Guest Post by Paul Jones, cross-posted at The Real Paul Jones

Former governor of Mississippi William F. Winter recently reminded the Seminar for Southern Legislators that 1970 was a watershed year. "[A] remarkable group of so-called New South governors had been elected across the South. Running on platforms promoting racial equity, educational quality and economic development, they brought a new tone to the political arena which had been dominated for so long by the one issue of race. Their names would soon be known across the nation - names like Jimmy Carter of Georgia, Reubin Askew of Florida, Dale Bumpers of Arkansas, John West of South Carolina, and Linwood Holton of Virginia."

But Tim Tyson, who was only 10 years old at the time and living not far from Chapel Hill in Oxford NC, saw a different world. The murder of black veteran Henry Marrow sparked riots and burnings and marches, showing that racial equality was far from a done deal.

Haunted by the murder story and having become in the meantime a historian (after a stint at Crook’s Corner), Tyson visited and revisited his former home town of Oxford, putting together a history of the events in the still divided town. A history that some had actively tried to erase and rewrite.

The murder is not mystery, but many mysteries surround the murder. Blood Done Sign My Name is compelling, personal, local, particular, broad and always interesting. The book also calls on us to continue to confront our shared racial problems.

The contenders for the UNC Summer Reading Program are good books as well. Tracy Kidder’s book on Paul Farmer, Mountains Beyond Mountains, will be the Carrboro community read. Yann Martel’s Life of Pi has won several important literary awards since it was first published. But neither of those books can compare with the power and the insistence of the history of Oxford and of Henry Marrow as told by Tyson.

I’m hoping that the Summer Reading Program will inspire future historians, some UNC students who are incoming this fall, to visit the rich resources of the Southern Oral History Collection. There they will find oral histories recorded by Eddie McCoy of Oxford who gives us more background of Oxford, the murder and the lives there before and after.

Paul Jones is the director of



It was announced today that Blood Done Sign My Name is a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in general nonfiction.

Here's the list:

Kevin Boyle, "Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights and Murder in the Jazz Age"

Edward Conlon, "Blue Blood"

Diarmaid MacCulloch, "The Reformation: A History"

David Shipler, "The Working Poor: Invisible in America"

Timothy B. Tyson, "Blood Done Sign My Name: A True Story"

I'm very happy to see this book get much deserved recognition. It is the best analysis of racial relations in the United States that I have ever read.
I'm reading it right now for the second time in nine months. Even at a second reading, every page has some revelation for me.
I wonder whether all readers of the book use it as a lens to examine their own racial experience? When I read Tyson's perspective on white paternalism, I am challenged with deep questions about my own relationships with blacks. Do others struggle in the same way? Or can they just read it as a piece of (pretty recent) history?

I read it like you describe Graig. It surprised me how much recent history I have forgotten--like the riots in Wilmington. As a result of this book and some other things happening around here, I spent a day in the North Carolina collection at Wilson trying to find reports of black-white relations here in Chapel Hill from the Civil War to the present. I was shocked by how little is available.

I also found myself generalizing from the black-white relationship to what we are seeing in Arab-American relationships. Doesn't seem like we learned much and what we learned we forgot pretty quickly.

I also recently read some excerpts from Democracy Betrayed, which Tyson edited with David Cecelski. It focuses on the Wilmington riots you mention.

One thing that struck me in that book was how it was white people who had forgotten the 1898 riots when turbulence rose again in 1970. The blacks saw such a direct link even though so much time had passeed.

To me this was similar to the view local blacks had about renaming Airport Road. The renaming request wasn't just about MLK, but about honoring so much local black history that white Chapel Hill has forgotten.

There may be little on local race relations in Wilson library's bookshelves, but local African-Americans remember plenty. Conversations may be more fruitful than your library search.

Some may be interested in a June 2004 review of the book by Cynthia Greenlee-Donnell, a freelance writer in Durham.

I'm thrilled to see the university making Tyson's book their summer reading choice. Issues of race need more public discourse.

David Broder reporting on a speech Mississippi governor William F. Winter made here in Chapel Hill back in November:

"I must tell you that the problem of race, despite all the progress that we have made, remains the thorniest, trickiest and most difficult barrier that we confront to achieve a truly successful and united region.

"One of the reasons that it is so hard," he continued, "is that most white folks and most black folks do not share the same perspective. Most white folks think that we have come a lot further in race relations than most black people do. There is still too much misunderstanding between the races, too much white flight, too little trust, too many subtle nuances that signal the continuing gap."

Winter said the rift "is not, of course, just a southern problem, [but] I would like to believe that we who live in the South have a special insight" into how the problem might be overcome.

It's "a matter of trying to be honest with ourselves and each other. It is a matter of developing a sense of trust based on everyone -- black and white -- trying to start from the same place. That is admittedly harder for blacks to do than for whites. For black people have more to forgive, even if they cannot and probably should not forget. But there must come a time when we have to recognize that we are all in this together -- when we must move past the old divisions of race and understand our common interests and our common humanity."

William Winter founded the Institute for Racial Reconciliation at Univ. of Miss:

Tim Tyson's historical sketch of the Racial Revolutions of Oxford and around the nation are incredible. He points out every facet of American society denied and desecrated by years of purposefull forgetfullness. RACE is the issue of America...for the founders of this country deemed it SO!

I am a black, performing artist in America. Dealing with Race is any everyday occurance, but discussing it is too painful for most. But we must; if we are to survive this 21st Century. Unfortunately, cowardice finds its way into all of our hearts. Courage comes to those who find it necessary to find truth.

I love America. I loath America. It is like a spouse we are naturally married too. But, through dialouge about TRUTH, we will become better. Not more Christian, nicer, faker, uglier or happier. We will be better.


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