Taking a hard look in history’s mirror

“This one is not going to be controversial like the others.”

My friend was talking about the next selection for UNC-Chapel Hill’s summer-reading program, Blood Done Sign My Name by Tim Tyson.

The summer before classes begin, the university asks all of its incoming students to read the same book. Then, during orientation, the students (led by faculty and staff) discuss the book and the issues it raises. This gives the students one of the few “common” intellectual experiences a big university can offer these days. Sadly, however, the program is now voluntary — which means that a lot of new students, busy moving in and getting settled, choose to opt out.

One of the reasons for making it voluntary was the uproar sparked by the selection, three years ago, of Approaching the Qur’an: The Early Revelations by Michael Sells. The decision was criticized by some politicians and religious leaders, who said it was improper for a public university to be teaching (or promoting) a particular religion — in this case, Islam. One group even filed a lawsuit to try to block the on-campus discussions of the book.

The next year, Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America also drew some complaints. Most were based on the author’s “far left” political views.

Last year, the selection was a “noncontroversial” book about student life at West Point. Absolutely American by David Lipsky gave the campus a reprieve from unfriendly criticism and scrutiny.

But what about Blood Done Sign My Name? Will the campus once again escape an unwelcome uproar over its summer-reading choice?

Maybe not.

At first brush, Tim Tyson’s book is simply a careful and sensitive retelling of the encounters of Oxford, a small North Carolina town, with some of the worst events of the struggle for civil rights in the 1960s and early ’70s. The story tells how the town and its people dealt with a brutal racial killing and the downtown burnings that were part of the accompanying racial unrest.

In 1960 or 1970, a book like that would have unleashed a torrent of controversy that would make the stirrings about Approaching the Qur’an seem like a Quaker meeting. Back then, some of us were still blaming all of our racial unrest on communists and outside agitators.

But this is 2005, and now everyone, it seems, is pro-civil rights and equal rights. The children and grandchildren of people who fought for continued segregation and white dominance now fill the Smith Center to cheer on the black students who bring their team victories. So today, it’s as hard to find anyone who will admit to having fought for segregation as it is to find someone who’ll own up to having voted for Nixon and Agnew.

Even though Tyson’s book opens with the forbidden, inflammatory words, “Daddy and Roger and ’em shot ’em a nigger,” we read on, identifying with the victim — and rejecting any connection with anyone who would use “the N-word.”

And since just about all of us now profess to support civil rights, even telling the dark side of our region’s history may not provoke controversy. People who might otherwise object to the book will probably keep quiet, knowing that they might be labeled “racists” if they speak up.

But wait a minute. I think the author, Tim Tyson, will be disappointed if the conversations this summer don’t have sparks flying. He obviously wants us to confront our history and how it has shaped us. “We are runaway slaves from our own past,” he says, “and only by turning to face the hounds can we find our freedom beyond them.”

One part of that past has to do with the violence and burnings organized by young black men in Oxford. When we celebrate the achievements of the civil-rights movement, we tend to honor the marches, the sit-ins and the nonviolent resistance. But Tyson challenges our thinking, showing us that whether we like it or not, violence had at least as much impact as nonviolent actions in producing racial change in Oxford.

This part of our history is going to be hard for some of us to confront, especially at a time when we’re committed to a war on terrorists whose long-term objectives doubtless seem good to them.

So for my part, I hope we have plenty of controversy this year. And if we do, it will honor an important book by an author who is not afraid to show us who we were — and what our history has made us.

[D.G. Martin is the author of Interstate Eateries (a handbook on home-cooking restaurants near North Carolina’s interstate highways) and the host of UNC-TV’s North Carolina Bookwatch.]

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