Before I begin I would thank you Dr. Tyson for undertaking this personal journey back to Oxford, NC, along the road of the civil rights movement in this State and in America. Your long family history of preachers and the rich tradition of Carolinian story telling inspires your telling of this story with the gift of tongues and a spiritual insight into our collective history, no matter where we are from in this country. Blood Done Sign My Name contains, among other things, an astute Protestant analysis of an America where people were often forced to take stands and it reveals that internal turmoil of original sin, where people on both sides of the color line were torn between the voices of the angels of their better natures[i] and those demons born of fear and hatred.
Your book has made me reflect upon what might seem an obviously easy question to answer for an academician who, like your father, served as Pastor of a Methodist church in South Eastern Virginia in the mid seventies. Today I ask the question, “Is there power in the word?”[ii] As teachers and students it seems to me that we must be committed to the idea that words have power, as much as for ill as for good. But, Dr Tyson’s story has made me wonder, “Can reading about racism make a person less racist?” Do words have the power to change our actions, our ideas, or our hearts?[iii]
It is clear that you believe that the telling of this “true story” has power. You said as much many times in the book. You ask the question, “…. why dredge this stuff up? Why linger on the past, which we cannot change?” And you answered,
What the advocates of our dangerous and deepening social amnesia don’t understand is how deeply the past holds the future in its grip-even, and perhaps especially, when it remains unacknowledged. We are runaway slaves from our own past, and only by turning to face the hounds can we find our freedom beyond them.[iv]
There are various sayings in our culture that contain a similar sentiment: “Those who do not know the past are doomed to repeat it.” Or, “We know our ends by knowing our beginnings.” While true, there might even be more powerful motives for your autobiographical telling of this history so often denied or hidden behind a veil of selective memory.
In my own life there are many events the memory of which causes me deep pain and much regret. It is likely the case that I am not alone in wishing not to face these truths from the past. It is just as true about many experiences in America, even in Wilmington, that there are many things that one just does not discuss. Many of us would prefer not to have to read or listen to stories that bring to light the deep-rooted ambiguity of our motives and our duplicity in structures of oppression and injustice. Dr. Tyson’s witness concerning this history lays bare a particular strategy of evasion which can be seen in the processes by which persons create social and individual narratives that please them the most and challenge them the least. Being a student of different narratives, it is plain to me that honest story telling is not usually the goal of constructing narratives and is among the rarest of creations. This is especially true of America’s diverse cultural narratives that so often serve to justify the status quo and reflect the narrow experiences of the fragmented communities out of which those stories grew.
Dr Tyson, your story has changed me, at least for the moment. While being an outside to North Carolina and its racial history, I can no longer hide behind a veil of historical ignorance Your story has placed upon me that burden of having to see myself in a broader context of relationships that are driven by often unknown and unspoken historical moments. You could have chosen to tell this history in many ways but instead you told your story, painting a landscape of full-bodied people with their own contradictory, confused, courageous, and glorious stories also situated in this same broad context of race that you have invited me to share with you and with them. This story is filled with dense descriptions of people’s actions and motives located in tangled threads of national and local, family and personal histories that at various times supplied them with the courage to question the powers and at other times served to shelter peoples’ eyes from the glaring realities of injustice and oppression which characterized the story of white supremacy and the violence of the civil rights struggle.
The way that you tell this story has made it impossible for me to think of this history as belonging to someone else. Reading stories like yours’ makes it more difficult to be a racist or a bigot because they make sure that I know that all these people are like me and that there but by the grace of god go I.
Dr. Robert C. Sutton
Cape Fear Community College
February 10th, 2006
[i] Lincoln, Abraham. First Inaugural Address. Monday, March 4, 1861. “The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.” (http://www.bartleby.com/124/pres31.html)
[ii] To avoid the criticism of being logocentric I use the “word” in the broadest possible sense to include a variety of human gestures and not as a synonym for “rational.”
[iii]Part of the internal struggle of the civil rights movement rest on how one answered the question of whether moral persuasion could convince those with power to share that power with those that did not have it or if that power would have to be seized with violence.
[iv] Tyson, Timothy B. Blood Done Sign My Name: A True Story. New York, NY: Three Rivers Press, 2004, 307.