Since I grew up roughly 70 miles west of the setting of Blood Done Sign My Name, I understand many of the customs and attitudes Timothy B. Tyson refers to. He is only a couple of years older than I am and our socio-economic backgrounds are fairly similar. I thought I had a good grasp of our area’s history. So I was surprised that Tyson helped me make more sense of the racial static that provided unpleasant background noise throughout my childhood.
For example, he explains the insidiousness of paternalism and how it dehumanizes people. Simply being nice and wishing people well is no substitute for providing equal opportunities.
Tyson does a great job of interweaving the events of this shocking, largely overlooked story with that of his own family. The events around which the book revolves begin when a 23-year-old Black Vietnam veteran walked into a store in Oxford, North Carolina, on a May evening in 1970. He was quickly chased outside by the store’s owner and two of his sons. They then beat and shot him to death in plain view of witnesses on the street. Tyson was friends with the youngest son of the store’s owner.
The first line of the book is chilling enough. But the events that followed the murder, and how they affected the town and Tyson’s family make for riveting reading. After speaking up for Black Americans, his father, the minister of the town’s all-White Methodist church, was forced by his congregation to move away, taking his family with him. Many members, wanting to maintain the status quo, were unwilling to listen to a minister who believed in equal rights.
While Tyson’s father preached, his mother taught school. In the end, he realizes that by becoming a historian covering the struggle for civil rights, he has followed in both sets of footsteps. Tyson, too, is on a mission to help us all understand the complicated and tragic events in America’s racial history. He underscores that there is still a lot to be reckoned with.