This is one of those books that will leave you feeling raw and bruised, but also touched and inspired.
In May, 1970, Henry Marrow, a twenty-three-year-old black veteran living in Oxford, North Carolina, was beaten and killed by three white men after he allegedly said something provocative to a white woman. Timothy Tyson, now a white professor of Afro-American studies but then a ten-year-old boy in Oxford, was profoundly affected by this and other racist incidents of his youth. His memoir gets its name from an old Afro-American gospel song avowing that God’s Lamb had died for blacks too, to write their name in the Book of Life: “Ain’t you glad, ain’t you glad, that the blood done sign my name.”
Tyson drew his intellectual and emotional inspiration from his father Vernon, one of a long line of Methodist ministers, who had the audacity to claim that all people were God’s children, and that there was no formula for racism in the Bible. The Tysons were kicked out of quite a few parishes for their non-conformity to racist mores.
Tyson makes a number of interesting observations about Southern racism. He contends that the sexual obsessions of white supremacy originated with the practice of white men siring offspring from black female slaves. White men could increase their material worth by this practice. But if white women had offspring from black men, the whole system of bondage would have been threatened. Thus white men played up the sexual threat of black men in order to keep the property system intact. In addition, job scarcity during the Great Depression added another incentive for white males to bruit the threat of black males being around white females.
Tyson’s experiences in the South convinced him that whites would not give up their power and privilege unless forced to do so. He points out many examples of how the Supreme Court’s decision of 1954 and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 did not mean anything on the local level until the advent of widespread violence. White community leaders thought that endless biracial committee meetings and a few basketball nets would appease blacks who still, in the eighties, could still not patronize the same establishments as did whites. But Tyson avers, “the indisputable fact was that whites in Oxford did not even consider altering the racial caste system until rocks began to fly and buildings began to burn.” He challenges “the self-congratulatory popular account” that holds that “Dr. King called on the nation to fully accept its own creed, and the walls came a-tumbling down.” The only disadvantage to this story, he claims, is that it bears no resemblance to what actually happened.
Tyson charges that the legacy of white supremacy remains lethal, from the poverty and deficiencies of infrastructure, education, and health care received by blacks to the images of blacks in the media that negatively affect perceptions of both blacks and whites. With so much history of atrocity simply erased in the South (Tyson found that even his own story of Henry Marrow’s murder had pages torn out from it in the public library), the result is that blacks live with the memories, but whites don’t even know about them. And this history is not distant, he reminds us. The boyhood friend who told him “Daddy and Roger and ‘em shot ‘em a nigger” is barely middle-aged. Tyson feels it is impossible to transcend that history without confronting it. Blacks need to create a new sense of self, and whites need to recognize that, as Dr. King wrote, we are “caught up in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”
Tyson’s history of vicious white racism in the South, from the beheading of blacks who tried to escape slavery, to the killing of a terrified, pleading boy who had the temerity to look at a white woman, will make you weep. And yet, if we are ever to walk a mile in a black man’s shoes, as Tim’s father used to advocate as a mind exercise, we must read such histories, and share them, and struggle to overcome their perfidious repercussions. Or as Robert Kennedy asked, “suppose God is black? What if we go to Heaven and we, all our lives, have treated the Negro as an inferior, and God is there, and we look up and He is not white? What then is our response?”
Published in hardback by Crown Books, 2004; in paperback by Broadway Books, 2005