Monday, February 23, 2009

Blood Done Sign My Name

Saturday night I went to see a one-man play based on the nonfiction book Blood Done Sign My Name, the story of a racial conflict and killing of a young black man in Oxford, NC, back when author Tim Tyson was living there as a young son of a liberal minister.

His book, a bestseller that deserves to be, began when he, now an American studies historian at Duke, went back to Oxford to do some research and dig into what happened.

First example of boldness: to go to the small town where the white accused was acquitted and interview people about what they saw. (The anger at Tyson is still hot.)

Second example of boldness: to be the liberal minister (Vernon Tyson) holding a bi-racial service in a town divided by segregation and violence.

Third example of boldness: to live day to day as the mother of young black men, as does psalmist Mary D. Williams who sang gospel for the play. To be one of any minority group that isn't surprised by injustice.

Seeing the play made me think again about my rage when Blue Cross treated me unfairly recently. That kind of treatment I think of as simply unacceptable; as my mother used to say to her misbehaving children, "We're not going to have that." (That edict extended even to having diseases and once to having a hurricane.) My daily expectation is that injustice is behavior that "will not do."

For myself, I unthinkingly expect straight-up dealings because I have always been so privileged. Any exception to that is a shocking event.

And yet I grew up seeing and not-seeing and being a silent part of that kind of injustice during legally segregated years in Wilmington (where the racial violence occurred that makes up the last section of Blood Done Sign My Name.)

I read the book years ago, after my brother Harry read it and said: you have to read this. If you haven't already, do. And if Mike Wiley's one-man performance of 17 different roles in this story happens to play near you, be sure to see it. If you're like me, your eyes need constant re-awaking.




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5 comments:

Greta said...

Peggy, I'll read the book and keep my eyes peeled for the play. If you can, please post when you know of an appearance in our area. It made me think of the summer I worked as a camp counselor (age 18) outside of D.C. and one of my friends was a Freedom Rider. Her experiences were horrific. It was my first time of being turned away from a restaurant b/c our group included blacks. Oh, I forgot, the rejection was softened by the manager saying that it was okay for us whites to come in. Sometimes I think "we" have come a long way, and other times I fear we really haven't changed all that much. Definitely my eyes, too, need reawakening.

Debra W said...

Peggy, as much as things change, they also stay the same. This thought occurred to me as I read an article about the rise of anti-semitism throughout the world. My husband was telling me a story, just a couple of days ago, about a world class Jewish tennis player who was not being allowed into Dubai to compete along with her peers. The frightening thing is that the incident didn't really startle me. It just caused me to shake my head in that knowing sort of way. That feeling of absolute disgust that comes with knowing that nothing you can say or do will change the incident. Dubai is supposed to be such a forward, modern place, yet it isn't.

But thank God, our nation is. And we have done some extremely bold things in order to change the awful injustices that have occurred in this country. Yes, prejudice still exists. Yes, there are still places in this country that as a Jewish woman(or a Black woman, or any other minority), I would not feel comfortable going. And it breaks my heart to even think that could still be possible. But it is, and we must continue to be bold enough to stand up to those who still think that this is acceptable as long as it doesn't affect them. When people in this country are still doing things like naming their children, Adolph Hitler, etc. and then wondering why the person working at the Shop-Rite will not inscribe the name on a birthday cake(the local Walmart did), then how can we think that enough has been done. Yet, we continue to try.(Bless the person who worked at the Shop-Rite.)

I will read this book and hope that I can catch a performance of the play. There needs to be more education about the things that "we're not going to have" in this country, especially when the insidiousness of bigotry continues to surface and resurface all too often.

Peggy Payne said...

Debbie and Greta, I think we agree that we've come a long way and have a lot farther to go.

It'll seem a long way still to me, until the day I find I'm in regular daily contact with black and Hispanic people in social and professional, rather than service positions.

Debbie, the story about the Jewish tennis player is infuriating, and I hadn't heard it. I hope that the other players refused to play. And at the same time I know how hard that would be. If it came down to saying: okay, then you can't publish my novel either--I know I would find it hard. I hope I'd do the right thing. But I know how long it took me to notice and oppose segregation. Having had that experience, I think I may always have some self-doubt about my own ability to look away from my own stuff and "see" what's going on and do something. That very doubt is a good spur to vigilance.

clare said...

Peggy,
My book club meets tomorrow night to discuss this book. It was one of many suggested for us and left to me by my mother, Bonnie Stone, whom I know you knew. I loved the book!
My father read the book also and saw the play recently. My parents were friends of Tim Tyson's parents, and can see where he gets his natural story-telling abilities.
Thanks for sharing this post - we look forward to the discussion.
Clare

Peggy Payne said...

Hi Clare, Thanks for getting in touch here. I remember that T. Tyson's mother spoke at the memorial gathering for your mother at Quail Ridge Books. Your mom reached so many people in such a good way.

I hope the book club discussion goes well.

Drop in and let us know here any thoughts from the discussion, if you feel like it.