Blood Done Sign My Name

Review by transgressingengineer

First off, thanks to ABW for the invite to blog over in her neck of the woods. I am a big fan of her blog and have been looking forward to the opportunity to contribute to her blog with a (hopefully) meaningful post.

About two years ago, I read a book that I consider to be one of the best on race that I have read: Blood Done Sign My Name by Timothy Tyson (2004). The white author, for his masters project in graduate school, went back to his hometown in the South to investigate the circumstances around the public killing of a Black man, which occurred when he was ten years old. The man who was killed was a twenty-three year old veteran, Henry Marrow, and was “guilty” of talking to a white man’s daughter in the wrong way. This is not a pre-civil rights era story- it happened in Oxford, North Carolina on May 12, 1970. Tyson had heard about the murder from one of the white boys he used to chum around with- in fact it was that boy’s father who killed Henry Marrow. At the time, Tyson’s father was a Methodist minister in the town and was trying to work on racial relations. Tyson remembered this incident as a part of the racial crisis that was happening in the US and throughout his life and used these experiences to build his life’s work around one of understanding why things were as they were.

The book recaptures memories that Tyson had of this event in 1970 and other events that summer and blends it with the interviews and data gathering he did as a graduate student to gain deeper meaning of the racial tension in 1970 and the racial tension that still exists today. Tyson is able to capture the essence of white privilege and racial tension that existed pre-civil rights era and demonstrates how that white privilege and racial tension is still alive and flourishing today.

This book is memorable to me since it talks about lynching and racial fear not as a thing of the past, but as a very real horror that people of colored suffer from in our present day. It is a must read for whites that do not ‘get it’ in terms of white privilege and present day racial issues in the US. But mostly, it is an eloquent read that moved me to anger, joy, and at times, tears. You can bet that this will be a book that I give my boys to read when they get older.

For all those that think that race is something contained in our past, and for those who see how race affects our present… go read Blood Done Sign My Name.

transgressingengineer is an engineering graduate student at a Midwestern Research University where she will earn her PhD in May 2008. Her dissertation looks at what it means to be a white male faculty member in engineering, with the hope that by examining whiteness, she will have a better understanding of why white males are overrepresented in engineering faculty, and therefore why engineers of color are underrepresented. In addition to her work as a graduate student, transgressingengineer is married and the mother of beautiful twin four month old boys and an adorable dog.

6 Responses

  1. Though we planned to have this go up way back before Feb even started, the subject matter has sadly become even more relevant given Bill O’s comments last week. Thanks for the review!

  2. The problem is—white people who don’t get it (and they don’t WANT to get it) won’t read that book. Same with “Diversity” classes at jobs, their meanings are lost on those that feel hateful going in. I’ve been to MANY in my city job and never say any white jerky guy come out a changed man.

  3. Thanks, ABW. I wanted to add a part of the epilogue of the book to this post that I wasn’t able to do in the orginal post (my boys were doing a bit if crying when I first wrote and submitted this to ABW). These words echo what I was trying to say about much more eliquently than I could ever say. So, from Blood Done Sign My Name:

    “We cannot address the place we find ourselves because we will not acknowledge the road that brought us here. Our failure to confront the historical truth about how African Americans finally won their freedom presents a major obstacle to genuine racial reconciliation. In some instances, white people rose to the call of conscience, thoguh only a handful followed their convictions into the streets. More often, what grabbed white America’s attention was the chaos in those streets and the threat of race war. The federal government intervened in dommestic racial politics, in the end, because segregation had become a threat to American foreign policy and domestic stability. Most whites- and many middle-class blacks- recoiled in fea of these changes and huddled in the suburbs of their own indifference. The civil rights movement knocked down the formal and legal barriers to equal citizenship, but failed to give most African Americans real power in this society.

    In the intervening years, the nation has comforted itself with sanitizing the civil rights movement, commermoratig it as a civil celebration that no one ever opposed. The enimies of the struggle ascended to national pwer and sought to diminish its memory, often by grinding off its rough edges and blunting its enduring critique of a dehumanizing economic and political system. The self-congratulatory popular account insists taht Dr. King called on the nation to fully accept its own creed, and the walls came a-tumbling down. This conventional narrative is soothing, moving, and politically acceptable, and has only the disadvantage of bearing no resemblance to what actually happened.

    ….The struggle in the South, like the struggles in Milwaukee, Chicago, Newark, Philadelphia, New York, and your own hometwon, did not take place in some ethereal realm, removed from the sins of the past, but in the fallen world, among the imperfect people who had inherited a deeply flawed history. Everyone in this stuggle, adversaries and advocates alike, grew up steeped in a poisonous white supremacy that distorted their understandings of history and one another. That history is not distant.

    …White supremacy remains lethal, though most of its victims die more quietly than Henry Marrow. …Many people who care are mired in guilt, as if hte agonies of history could be undone by angst. The kinds of employment, education, and infrastructure initiatives that it would take to heal the enduring scars of slavery’s legacy are off today’s political chart. It remains easier for our leaders to apologize for the past than to address its lingering impact on society. We can wring our hands over the horrors of slavery but cannot imagine an employment program for our cities.

    And yet the freedom struggle persists, even though it has not prevailed, in its battle against what Dr. King called the “thingification” of human beings. The traditions that gave us the movement will always be there for us to call upon, but we cannot wait until the saints come marching in; they never have, and they never will, at least not on this side of the river Jordan. But we must not forget, and I cannot forget. …The tragic murder of Henry Marrow- and the assassination of Dr. King and the loss of all those whom the slave poets called “the many thousands gone”- cannot be erased. But that blood, too, has the power to redeem our history. We only have to name it, and heed the call of justice that still waits for an answer. Like the nameless slave poets wo wrote spirituals, we must look our brutal historyin the eye and sill find a way to transcend that history together.”

    This passage still moves me to tears- and speaks to me in a way that other words on the subject haven’t. I hope it moves you all too.

  4. Diane-
    Yeah, I hear you. There are some whites who just plain do NOT want to hear any of this and this that all of this racial stuff is only in others’ heads. So, the question is what do we do about that? How can we each, as individuals, make a difference when confronted with this reality?

    These kind of people re-ignite the fire in me. They push me to remember that EVERY DAY I must teach my sons about racism and how to fight it. Yes, that’s only two people. But if every white could make a positive impact on two people, imagine just what that would do. Granted, this is coming from a white woman– my response here, I imagine, would be completely different if I were a woman of color.

    As for those white guys (and white gals) who go into Diversity training sessions/workshops and leave unchanged…. I’d prefer to look at the entire context and relate it to the passage I typed in above. These people- all of us- we are buried in a system of white supremacy. Buried so deep that we can’t seem to find our way out. Could it be that these workshops and training sessions are set up in a way that promote the system of white supremacy (unintentionally, of course)? Or is there something else happening? Does our concept of how to “reach” these type of white folks need a total rehaul? What do you think…?

  5. I totally know where Diane is coming from about guys (and women) who go into diversity training with no intention of getting anything out of it. The root problem with work-mandated training is that you are “requiring” them to put a band-aid on something and call it good. And most people don’t get why the rest of us can’t just suck it up and walk it off, so to speak. So they’re pissed that they have to take time out of their schedule to go to another stupid meeting, and get all touchy feeling and emotional, and share, and listen to PoC whine about how hard we have it. That’s the way the white people see it.

    That’s not how it is supposed to be, that’s how they see it. And in some cases, the training is meant to barely scratch the surface, just to be able to say “see, we did our part”. The company isn’t even sincerely invested in real diversity or growth in that area.

    BUT, I did attend a Institute for Healing Racism where I DID see a white guy change. Now, he wasn’t a big rabid racist jackass to begin with. But he was angry that his company required the training, angry about the lack of support his company gave for the workers to attend the training (i.e., “you have to go, but when you come back to the office there’s gonna be a shitload of stuff you’re backed up on because you went to that”), angry about something he didn’t see as being “his problem” because he was a pretty nice guy. Let me just say, he was one of the few who took the time to in ANY WAY engage me as a Muslim, to ask thoughtful questions about my take on things. He CRIED watching some of the videos, he spoke about how little he really recognized, how much he realized now that any person’s problem is also his problem, how much he wanted to make sure his own kids weren’t given the same whitewashed lies he had always learned. He went home and talked to his kids about diversifying their friendships, his family changed churches to find a more diverse spiritual home. I don’t know what he’s doing now. Maybe it was all surface white guilt that he’s since got over and gone back to same-ol-same-ol. I don’t know. But it sure seemed like more than a lot of people bother to do.

    And if one white person grows, they spread that growth through their parenting, in their friendships and relationships. It seems small, but it can be the beginning of something big.

    It is true though, diversity training probably does need an overhaul to some degree.

  6. Just finished this book (the audio version, eloquently narrated) and I can only second your comments. I knew that thoughtless violence and calculated cruelty were as contemporary as popular music, but Tyson’s book does an outstanding job of enabling the reader to feel that terrible reality.

    It’s also a ringing defense of the importance of history. The thorough whitewashing and suppression of the successful multiracial alliances of the late 19th century laid the groundwork for another century of race hatred.

    I was unfamiliar with the hymn the lends its title to the book: this YouTube video

    also provides a peek into 30s-era rural African-American church life.

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