BLOOD DONE SIGN MY NAME

A True Story

By Timothy B. Tyson. Crown. 355 pp. $24 This account of racial hostility and violence in eastern North Carolina three and a half decades ago takes its mouthful of a title from a slave spiritual that, Timothy B. Tyson writes, later "emerged as a paradoxical blues lament, sung by Huddie Ledbetter (Leadbelly) from a Mississippi prison cell and by his counterparts across the black South." The pertinent part goes like this: "Ain't you glad, ain't you glad, that the blood done sign my name?" The words helped inspire Tyson to "an honest confrontation with our own history" and to an acknowledgment of "the blood that has signed every one of our names."

Tyson does many things in this book, some more successfully than others, but his chief aim is to persuade us that Americans are blind to their own history -- or, even worse, determined to falsify it -- and that they cannot hope to resolve the deepest and most intractable of all the country's problems, race, until they are willing to look history directly in the eye. This is absolutely true, indeed particularly in matters involving race. By way of example, Tyson cites Martin Luther King Jr., who during his lifetime was a genuine radical, a fierce militant despite his espousal of nonviolence, yet whom we have sentimentalized into "a kind of innocuous black Santa Claus, genial and vacant, a benign vessel that can be filled with whatever generic good wishes the occasion dictates." Tyson writes:

"We cannot address the place we find ourselves because we will not acknowledge the road that brought us here. 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. The federal government intervened in domestic racial politics, in the end, because segregation had become a threat to American foreign policy and domestic stability. . . . The self-congratulatory popular account insists that Dr. King called on the nation to fully accept its own creed, and the walls came a-tumbling down. This conventional narrative is soothing, moving and politically acceptable, and has only the disadvantage of bearing no resemblance to what actually happened."

In an attempt to get a firmer grasp on historical truth, Tyson -- professor of Afro-American studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison -- has burrowed deeply into the most troubling incident in his own past. On May 12, 1970, Tyson was 10 years old and living in Oxford, a tobacco town 50 miles due north of Raleigh, when his friend Gerald Teel told him something he has never been able to forget: "Daddy and Roger and 'em shot 'em a nigger." Outraged by what they chose to interpret as "a flirtatious remark" to a white woman, Robert Teel and two other men brutally attacked a young black man named Henry D. Marrow Jr. They beat him mercilessly, shot him in the head, left him in the street to die. "They shot him like a hog," the man who prosecuted Teel for murder said. "They shot him like you or I would kill a snake."

It was a hard time in North Carolina, as it was everywhere else as racial conflict turned disruptive and violent. As it happens, I was in North Carolina then, 75 miles to the west in Greensboro, and can testify to the accuracy of Tyson's portrait of a state so divided by issues of race as to seem hopeless in the face of them. Refusing to face the most obvious and elemental facts about the daily lives of the state's black citizens, its white leadership retreated into denial, equivocation and political opportunism. White parents who could afford to do so -- and many who could not -- yanked their children out of the public schools and enrolled them in private segregationist schools, many of which masqueraded as "Christian." White business owners ignored federal law and refused to serve black customers or hire black workers as anything except menials. White cops, with the rarest exceptions, enforced one law for whites and another for blacks.

All this played out in miniature in Oxford. Late in the night after Henry Marrow's murder, blacks rioted in downtown; they "scared the hell out of most of the white people in Oxford, and some of the black ones, too," but no one took the day's and night's events as a wakeup call. Instead whites loaded up on guns and ammunition and prepared to shoot it out. The trial that followed, in which all three defendants were acquitted on all charges by an all-white jury, was a farce; the prosecutor called it "absolutely the worst miscarriage of justice I had ever seen," and some of the town's white residents must have silently agreed, for people who had applauded Teel as "the champion of white resistance . . . dropped Teel like a dirty tissue after the trial ended."

That was scarcely the end of it. Before the trial the Black Power movement had come to Oxford, and the town burned, in scenes right out of Faulkner. A cadre of about a dozen angry black men, mostly veterans, launched what they called "a military operation," perpetrating "arson and vandalism . . . against white-owned property." In one spectacular mission, they destroyed two immense tobacco warehouses in which were stored "eight hundred thousand pounds of golden cured tobacco, a known flammable substance, with a total value of more than a million dollars." Then, after the verdict was handed down, the black community organized an economic boycott of local businesses, after a few weeks of which "the white men of the chamber of commerce decided it was time to negotiate."

Similar scenes were played out, over and over again, in one Southern community after another. Nonviolent protest reaped publicity and sympathy, but not until whites got good and scared did real change begin to occur, and even then rights and opportunities were grudgingly granted, half-heartedly respected, widely honored in the breach. "White supremacy permeated daily life so deeply," Tyson writes, "that most people could no more ponder it than a fish might discuss the wetness of water," and it scarcely went away after whites decided that it would be okay to let blacks sit at the lunch counter in the five and dime: "The hierarchy of white supremacy, at its heart, was as rotten as [a] pile of old shoes, and the generations that followed will be many years cleaning it up."

Tyson's discussion of white supremacy is forthright and nuanced, and spares no one. Of his adored father, a Methodist minister who did many courageous things in the hope of reconciling whites and blacks, he writes: "As a white liberal, my father's unconscious white supremacy tempted him to feel that he knew what was best for the black freedom struggle." Whites whom Martin Luther King called "people of goodwill" were as susceptible to paternalism -- in many respects just another word for white supremacy -- as the Klansmen who burned crosses in Granville County. As a boy, Tyson was in thrall to "received assumptions that white people were somehow better than black people," assumptions that help explain why so many well-meaning whites (myself doubtless among them) felt that they could solve the racial dilemma more effectively than blacks could.

The personal recollections and confessions that are leitmotifs in Blood Done Sign My Name are more or less simultaneously admirable and annoying. Though this is a far better book than Edward Ball's much-overpraised Slaves in the Family, far less self-serving and self-congratulatory, it does give off some of the same sense of protesting too much. When whites put on hair shirts and flagellate themselves for their sins in matters of race, the exercise invariably seems as much self-display as penance. For all of us it is of course good to confront our deepest inner feelings and assumptions about this most intractable of issues, but there also are times when reticence is more seemly, and perhaps more useful, than public self-immolation.

Still, on balance Tyson has written an honest book, far more so than most explorations of race in America. He understands that the true past -- to the extent we can ever know the "truth" about the past -- was vastly more complicated and bloody than the gussied-up past in which we so desperately want to believe, and that until we understand this, we will be incapable of redeeming ourselves and our country. "Like the nameless slave poets who wrote the spirituals," he writes, "we must look our brutal history in the eye and still find a way to transcend that history together." Amen. *

Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is yardleyj@washpost.com.