Saturday, April 16, 2005

blood done sign my name

I have been making my way through a remarkable book, Blood Done Sign My Name, written by Tim Tyson. It is part memoir, part coming of age tale, part confession, part Eastern North Carolina narrative history, part expose of institutional racism. Being a United Methodist pastor, it is a bit unnerving in that it focuses on a family in the midst of racism and social change, and I realize, in reading this work that I am somehow, for good or ill, shaping my own children and their perspective on life. Or perhaps that has already happened. That they seem free from prejudice, for the most part, I can only credit to the grace of God.

That I know some of the characters--Vern, Tim's brother, was in my congregation in Winston-Salem, and Tim's wife's sister, Hope, is a friend who is now the United Methodist Bishop of Mississippi---makes it all the more interesting. A couple of other families along the way are known to me. That the terrain is familiar adds to the interest as well: you can envision the Duke University Chapel, smell the barbecue and taste the banana pudding, see the backroads between Durham and Greensboro, and feel as if you are walking down Franklin Street in Chapel Hill at the end of a long night.

But at heart, this is the story, relentlessly told, of a murder in Oxford, North Carolina in 1970. A young black man, a Vietnam veteran, is murdered, and his killers are found "not guilty" in the local courts. The community erupts in flames, the despair of the black community having reached the point where it can no longer be contained. I recall this time in Columbus, Georgia, in my own childhood, when Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered.

The title, Blood Done Sign My Name, comes from an African-American spiritual:

Ain't you glad
Ain't you glad
That the blood done sign your name?

This is a call to remember. Tyson insists:

"We must not forget, and we cannot forget. "The struggle of humanity against power", Milan Kundera once wrote, "is the struggle of memory against forgetting". 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 who wrote the spirituals, we must look our brutal history in the eye and still find a way to transcend that history together. I am standing here until the Lord takes me somewhere else, because the blood done sign my name."

*In our congregation, Providence UMC in Charlotte, Donnell FitzJefferies and I are discussing the book on Sunday afternoon, April 17, at 4:00 p.m. and I will be leading an adult class on Sunday morning, April 24 at 9:45 a.m. A group of local clergy will also be discussing the book in May, over lunch. If you want to take part in one of these gatherings, please join us.


Blogger Chris said...

I was moved, shaken, inspired, and challenged by the book Blood Done Sign My Name. Raised in the deep South, I grew up with the tensions inherent in southern life immediately following integration. The only overt vestige of segregation that I recognized as a youngster was a door downtown upon which the word "Whites" faintly bled through a coat of paint applied in the post-segregation era. What Tyson helped me discover was an underlying segregationist mindset, and he challenged me to ask how deeply I had drunk from that well. It is a powerful, disconcerting work.

12:44 PM  
Blogger St.Phransus said...

Ken, thanks for the post. Blood Done Sign My Name sounds like a good read. I might have to pick that up soon. Speaking of a good read, I read your book "A Way of Life In the World". I really enjoyed it.


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