Americans love their sanitized, After-School Special version of the civil rights movement, in which we've progressed inevitably from the bad old days of slavery to the modern day where racism is just the occasional gaffe that gets a news commentator fired or a few hicks wearing sheets way off in the boonies. Tim Tyson strips away this mythology in his story of a black man who was murdered in 1970 by a violent, mean-tempered white business owner, allegedly for flirting with his daughter-in-law. Six years after the Civil Rights Act, Oxford, North Carolina was still a segregated town where white supremacy ruled, unapologetically. But when the all-white jury acquitted Robert Teal even of any lesser charge like manslaughter, the town's African American population rose up in outrage, and Oxford's businesses burned.
Decades later, Tyson, who was eleven years old at the time, and whose father was a liberal white desegregationist minister who was subsequently driven out of town, came back to interview everyone involved, including the murderer, Robert Teal. Blood Done Sign My Name
is the result of that project, but it's also a look at how Americans have always lied to themselves about our country's race relations, and continue to do so to this day. Slave owners said, "Our slaves are like part of the family." In the 1990s, Tyson took a group of students to a Southern plantation that had been the site of a bloody slave uprising, and found it turned into an antebellum theme park with hardly any mention of slavery. The murder of Henry Marrow is really just a small part of this story.
This book was what became Tyson's Master's thesis, and it's powerful and engaging and contains many truths that still bear repeating, over and over. I gave it 4 stars instead of 5 because while Tyson is quite honest about his own white liberal guilt and how he and his family were complicit in the very system they opposed, the fact remains that in places the book still ends up being more about him and his own family's history. Fair enough, as it's his book to write and it's his own history, in part, that he wanted to confront, but as he shows us, the stories white people tell are not the stories black people tell about the same events. He does his best to get the whole story from all sides, but inevitably, one senses that there are pieces a white dude just isn't going to be able to dig up, no matter how earnest and well-intentioned.