Kirsti's Reviews > Blood Done Sign My Name: A True Story

Blood Done Sign My Name by Timothy B. Tyson
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's review
Jan 02, 2010

it was amazing
bookshelves: anger, history, mayhem, memoir, nonfiction, philosophy, politics, theology, true-crime, wish-it-had-been-fiction
Read in December, 2009

Wow. Simultaneously personal (because it's a memoir of a horrible event in Oxford, North Carolina, in 1970) and universal (because it's about prejudice and fear and ignorance and hope). Also, I laughed aloud several times.

I read this book on various planes and buses and in various terminals and lounges last month, most of the time with tears running down my face. Which was embarrassing but maybe was good advertising for this author.

Not only is this a memoir and a history, it is also a persuasive argument that the events in the struggle for civil rights have been recast and prettified and sugar-coated beyond all recognition.

Some of my favorite passages:

"Smoking cigarettes, much like the racial slavery that had originally made tobacco profitable, was regarded as sinful by a substantial minority of folks, even though the economy rested on it. Sin or no sin, anybody tall enough to see over the counter at Monk's Grocery could buy a pack for thirty-five cents. Me and my brother, Vern, bought them regularly, though we lived in terror of getting caught. 'I need a pack of Tareyton's for my mama,' I would say to the man at the register, as if my mother would be caught dead sending a child out for cigarettes. The lie was superfluous. Monk probably would have sold me the smokes if I had said they were for the little baby Jesus."

"Then, thrusting the bootlegger away from him, the major exploded: 'But more to the point, what I call Mrs. Shaw is none of your goddamned business, you low-life taxidermist, you two-for-a-nickel jackal, you knee-crawling son of a bitch, net.' Those were the days when people really knew how to cuss."

"'I was doing that stuff back then, sit-ins and marches and all the rest and nowadays nobody even knows what it was like. People right now think that the white man opened up his drugstore and said, Y'all come in now, integration done come. But every time a door opened, somebody was kicked in the butt; somebody was knocked down and refused and spit on before you went in them places. It wasn't no nonviolence in Oxford. Somebody was bruised and kicked and knocked around--you better believe it. You didn't get it for free.'"

"'We knew if we cost 'em enough goddamn money they was gon' start doing something.'"

"'They had to give us some respect. . . . They might not like it but they damn sure had to do that. We was getting ready to tear this motherfucker all to hell, and all of a sudden [white people:] decided to listen.'"

"'When it was quiet, we all heard a baby crying outside the courtroom. The window was open, and you could hear it all through the room. . . . And I just started crying. . . . I was thinking about the little baby, the one whose father had been killed, and the little baby that had just been born in the Teel family, Roger's little girl. And how none of this was their fault, none of it. All of this was our fault, not theirs.'"

About economic boycotts: "This may seem appalling to those who grew up with the story of Rosa Parks and her tired feet, but the same story could be told from Montgomery to Memphis, from the earliest years of the movement; there were always black people too fearful, too attached to 'their' white folks, too pessimistic or too beaten down by white supremacy to stand up for themselves. And black activists dealt with their dissenters emphatically, because freedom was on the line. 'We'd bust a bag of sugar, break a couple of jars of jelly,' [Eddie:] McCoy recounted. 'Didn't nobody try to hurt nobody. They just needed to know we weren't playing that shit. Black people had to work together.'"

"In fact, though none of the white people in the room knew what had happened along the banks of the Cape Fear in 1898, the Wilmington Race Riot was probably the most important political event in the history of the state. Its omission from North Carolina history may have been the biggest of the lies that marked my boyhood."

"'If, in moving through your life, you find yourself lost,' said Bernice Johnson Reagon, the guiding spirit of the SNCC Freedom Singers and now Sweet Honey in the Rock, 'go back to the last place where you knew who you were, and what you were doing, and start from there.' Soon after I took her advice, I found myself with a straight razor at my neck. . . ."

"'For we acknowledge and confess to you that we, too, like the men who once owned Destrehan Plantation, have been tempted to love things and use people, when you have called us to love people and use things.'"

"Someone in Oxford went to the library and tore out the pages where I narrate the killing of Henry Marrow, presumably to prevent other people from reading them. I could have replaced them, of course, but I have chosen not to do so. Those missing pages make my central point more clearly, in some respects, than their contents ever could have. Our hidden history of race has yet to be fully told, and we persist in hiding from much of what we know."

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