A Small-town Murder

By Lise Funderburg

July 11, 2004

BLOOD DONE SIGN MY NAME, by Timothy B. Tyson. Crown, 355 pp., $24.

Socrates said an unexamined life is not worth living. What the philosopher failed to point out, however, is that the results of that examination typically fascinate only those immediately involved. For the rest of us, the examiner’s Sturm und Drang revelations can read like a protracted navel gaze.

Not so with Timothy B. Tyson’s wonderful personal history, “Blood Done Sign My Name.” Tyson, born in 1959 and now a professor of Afro-American history at the University of Wisconsin, realized that he and his family were deeply entwined with America’s struggles for social and racial justice; that his forbears, white Southerners who had been against slavery for generations, were noteworthy exceptions to the status quo; and that not only had he been a hearsay witness to a violent racial murder in 1970, but also had inherited the particularly Southern gift of storytelling, allowing him to weave all those threads together into a textured, compelling whole.

Tyson opens with a story of himself at age 10 playing basketball with another white boy, Gerald Teel, in Tyson’s driveway in Oxford, N.C. Gerald announces, “Daddy and Roger an ’em shot ’em a — ,” and Tyson’s fate as a lifelong investigator of inequity is sealed. The shooting almost pales in comparison with the other boy’s use of the racial slur, Tyson recalls, which was forbidden hi his house, headed by a loving and fiercely principled Methodist minister.

“It was not that I had never heard it or had never used it myself,” Tyson writes, immediately establishing a willingness to turn his critical eye on everything and everyone, including himself, “But somehow the children in my family knew that to utter that word in the presence of my father would be to say goodbye to this earthly life.”

The spine of the book’s narrative is the murder of Henry Marrow, a young black man who supposedly flirted with the wife of Gerald’s older brother and was subsequently shot by his father, store owner Robert Teel. Tyson relies on court transcripts, newspaper accounts and interviews with black and white Oxford residents conducted more than a decade after the fact.

His stronger ties to the white community are evident here, where numerous interviews with blacks read as unadorned oral history excerpts as opposed to the more nuanced portraits of the whites he and his family knew well.

Tyson employs details of the Marrow murder and resulting trial as launch pads for writing about the civil rights struggle of the 1960s and 70s – the increasing alienation of white liberals and some Southerners’ enduring reluctance to relinquish systemic white supremacy.

He makes a particularly compelling argument that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s nonviolence strategies relied on the implied threat of a violent alternative: “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, though 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.”

Tyson marries a historian’s analytical skills with a child’s emotionally framed observations particularly well with regard to his father. Vernon Tyson was a fourth-generation preacher and one of six preacher siblings. With tender forthrightness, the author examines his father’s liberalism, appreciating the career risks his father took by preaching “race sermons” to all-white congregations, but also noting his father’s limited and paternalistic views on the appropriate ways to fight for racial equality.

Tyson left home at 15, and in the wake of the King and Kennedy assassinations and Nixon’s resignation saw the world through deeply disillusioned eyes. “Taught to believe in leaders,” he writes of himself and the two friends with whom he creates a pseudo-commune, “we came to believe that anybody with a fighting chance to alter the reactionary trajectory of American political history ended up assassinated. Trained to revere democracy, we saw the American presidency disintegrate on television in an electronic haze of lies.”

Still, the book shines with a gentle, buoyant humor, particularly in the autobiographical passages on Tyson’s adolescence. As a result of his teenage overview of world history, commune life seems the only alternative. “The answer was simply to quit, let the world go by, and make our contribution through moral example (translate: growing tomatoes with manure instead of chemical fertilizer) and artistic statement (translate: scribbling in my journals for two or three hours a day, singing folk songs and composing love letters to a revolving array of angels of the female persuasion).”

But Tyson’s dropout days are limited, and when he finally drops back in and goes to college, the first paper he writes is about the Marrow murder, traveling back to Oxford to interview Robert Teel. Thus began the research that, years later, comprises this book.

To combine history with memoir, as Tyson has, presents two formidable challenges. First, the writer must strike a balance between historical reflections and personal anecdotes to avoid a book that seems as if it wanted to be one thing but just couldn’t shake loose a second identity. Second, the writer’s narrative stance, his tone and relationship to the subject, is likely to shift depending on his relationship to the material.

The trick is to maintain authority and proximity throughout, which Tyson does exceptionally well. He had the good sense to realize his family had landed (and piloted itself) into history’s embrace, the smarts to realize theirs was a story that would serve a wider audience, and then, perhaps most important, the talent to tell it.