Scott Brown
May 21, 2004 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Blood Done Sign My Name

Current Status
In Season
Timothy B. Tyson

We gave it an A-

When he was a third-grader in tiny Oxford, N.C., in the 1960s, Tim Tyson was faced with a choice. His newly integrated elementary school had a single water fountain on the playground, and it had just been used by one of the school’s two black students. Tyson had to decide whether to turn away in disgust, like many of his white classmates, or drink, in the spirit of his minister father’s taboo-busting Christian progressivism. Frankly, he didn’t want to do either. ”I knew that my revulsion was a lie, someone else’s lie,” he recalls. ”I could not turn away.” But before drinking, he paused ”to let the water rinse the spout…I guess that made me a ‘moderate.”’

That deadpan, merciless self-examination by itself would make for a fine, lacerating memoir of one white boy’s life in the late civil rights era. But Blood Done Sign My Name is so much more. An exhaustively researched history of a ”late-model lynching” and the subsequent riots that rocked Oxford in 1970, ”Blood” pulses with vital paradox. It’s a detached dissertation, a damning dark-night-of-the-white-soul, and a ripping yarn, all united by Tyson’s powerful voice, a brainy, booming Bubba profundo.

After the brazen beating and shooting of Henry ”Dickie” Marrow, it hardly seems surprising that the acquittal of three Klan-connected white men touched off a small race war. But the details of this drama, which involved the KKK, the Black Panthers, budding black activist Ben Chavis, fire-eating segregationist Jesse Helms, and the FBI’s infamous COINTELPRO unit, reveal something far more rich and nuanced than the didactic movie-of-the-week treatment we’ve come to expect.

Provocatively, Tyson credits the militant radicals of the ’70s, not the sanitized saints of the ’60s, for the practical social gains of black Americans. ”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.” But he refuses to settle on this point, instead describing radicalism’s ineluctable slide into chaos. ”In politics,” he observes, ”EVERYONE regards themselves as a moderate, because they know some other sumbitch who’s twice as crazy as they are.”

”Blood” is undeniably political, but no screed. Tyson, a professor of Afro-American studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, takes the story personally — to our immense benefit. He proudly recounts his family’s history of liberal dissent, extending back to his great-great-grandfather’s conscientious objection to the Confederacy — but then reveals that his grandfather was a Klansman-turned-pro-integration New Dealer. He restlessly vets his self-satisfaction, aerating and alloying his arguments as he goes. As a result, he earns the right to authoritatively prescribe this same treatment for our nation’s own ”dangerous and deepening social amnesia.”

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