Wednesday, March 23, 2011

What the History Books Left Out

Thoughts of the South might tend toward associations with the Civil War, slavery, and the Civil Rights Movement.  I wasn't sure what to expect when I moved to the Land of Dixie.  The South is so much more than its stereotypes and yet we cannot deny these associations or that racism still exists in this country.

While I haven't witnessed any overt racism since living here, institutional racism is sadly alive and well.  But this isn't limited to the South.  Stereotypes continue and at times foster a sort of paternalism that makes me cringe.  Look no further than the machinery behind Cabrini Green and sadly even gatherings in my hometown where racist jokes are lobbed without care.

We are all impacted by the history of slavery in the United States.  To believe otherwise is foolish.

Almost proving this point, I recently realized that I was never taught our nation's true history.  
"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...The civil rights movement knocked down the formal and legal barriers to equal citizenship, but failed to give most African Americans real power in this society. In the intervening years, the nation has comforted itself by sanitizing the civil rights movement, commemorating it as a civic celebration that no one ever opposed. The enemies of the struggle ascended to national power and sought to diminish its memory, often by grinding off its rough edges and blunting its enduring critique of a dehumanizing economic and political system. 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 the only disadvantage of bearing no resemblance to what actually happened." -Timothy B. Tyson, p. 318-319, emphasis mine
I became interested in reading Blood Done Sign My Name when Mary Kathryn offhandedly mentioned a story in which she was standing in line at the theater to see her cousin's movie.  A movie that was based on his book about a black veteran killed in cold blood by three white men, in front of witnesses.  It was 1970 and though the murderers were eventually taken to trial, the all-white jury found them not guilty.

Tim Tyson grew up in the town where this occurred. His story is irrevocably bound with that of Henry Marrow, the black veteran, and the Teel men, the murderers.  His father was a Methodist minister who sought to reconcile his congregation with their bloody history and forge a new relationship between blacks and whites.  Tyson gives an overview of slavery and all that led up to the civil rights movement, as well as how little whites did to make it happen. Not only just how little some did but also how much others did to keep it from happening, even after the law was changed.  Worst of all, they twisted Christianity to fit their cause, as if God condoned their actions. Tyson's account is both mesmerizing and horrifying.

The murder happened a mere 10 years before I was born and the struggle for integrated schooling, work opportunities, and more continued throughout the 1970s and beyond. I had never heard anything of this before.  This, all of this, was missing from my history books.

There was no "come to Jesus" moment after Martin Luther King Jr. shared his dream.  Towns didn't set aside their segregation laws after the Civil Rights Act was passed.  That was the only civil rights history I'd been taught, history books handing out one more slap in the face to those who fought for rights they never should have needed to fight for.

Blood Done Sign My Name makes me wonder what else in our nation's history has been watered down or glossed over. It's forced me to look at myself and my own history. It's tempting to think that Yankees are exempt from racial discourse but we're not. Lord help us if we ever believe that we are.

Mary Kathryn, Kim, and I are discussing the book offline.  We're talking about our own experiences with race, racism, and prejudice.

It is easy to hesitate when talking about these things.  We don't want to offend our loved ones that have perhaps pointed us in the wrong direction.  We don't want to speak ill of people we know who blatantly worked to stop integration, especially if their character seems so incongruous with such actions.  We don't want ourselves to be seen as racist or prejudiced- what if we say the wrong thing?

We say nothing and we wind up perpetuating the same messages.

What messages did I receive over the years?  My immediate family has always counted those of other races and backgrounds as friends.  I don't remember at what age I realized we had different skin color and even so, it never mattered to me.  (Though I now wonder: did it matter to them?)

On the other hand, I remember insinuations from people I loved and respected that it would be best not to date any African American boys. I wrote about my high school crush Doug last summer; I didn't mention that he is African American. It had no bearing on why we never dated- that turned out to be more of a timing issue. But I know I'm not the only one who has been told that before, even though we live in an age where interracial relationships are more common.

I can't help but wonder if we are a product of our times and, if so, why we are content to remain there despite the disparity.  What do we say to the elderly who refer to African Americans as colored or dispense their prejudice and stereotypes as givens?  What do we say to our peers who speak racial jokes?  What do I say to myself about my friendships with those of other races?  Am I proud that I "don't see color"?  Can I admit that I'm just a white girl who might unintentionally hurt the people of another race because of that very lens? What can I do about institutional racism?

Blood Done Sign My Name is undoubtedly one of the most important and eye-opening books I've ever read.  I cannot view our nation's history in the same way.  There are no tidy answers but I pray there is no more going backward either.

*Disclosure: Amazon Affiliate links included in this post.  If you click through to Amazon from HopefulLeigh, any purchase you make supports this site.  Thank you!

If you grew up during the civil rights era, what was your impression of race relations?  If you're like me and grew up after the fact, what messages did you receive in your family about majority and minority races?  Have you been personally impacted by racism?  Does the United States have hope for reconciliation?


  1. sister. yes.

    thank you for so thoughtfully opening up the dialogue. i haven't written my post on this yet (except in my head) but i'm not sure i have more to say than this.

    SO important.


  2. So glad to be on this journey of discovery - historical and self - with you.

    Love this book. It contains so much information which I, a student and teacher of history, had never encountered.

    I recommend it highly.

  3. great review of the book. I tend to stay out of discussions like this due to the fear of saying something wrong. But, I sadly think that racism will never end. Look at the racism going on against the Hispanic people from Americans. We justify it by calling them illegals. It all boils down to hate. We are only sinners in a sinful world.

  4. @MK and Kim, thanks for being my reading buddies and spreading the word about this important book.

    @Brownie, thanks for speaking up this time around:) I think you make an excellent point about the current immigration issues. Minorities and different ethnicities have always been scapegoated in this country. Each time a new wave comes through, the "outside" group has all sorts of negative traits attributed to them and people start saying that we shouldn't let them in or have rights or be Americans. The Irish used to be absolutely vilified, especially in the early 1800s but now we hail St. Patrick's Day and think the Irish are great. The truth is that America is a melting pot and if you're not Native American, you or your ancestors were immigrants at one point. How then can we not extend grace to others? I have to hold on to hope that racism will decrease over the years but it won't happen until we are willing to discuss the issues and hold people accountable for their hate.

  5. some people focus on the stories of hate and they should be told, but I love to hear the stories of love that come from such hate. How people defy the law or oppression by doing what is right. I know there were so many people that helped during slavery times, I like hearing the stories of the underground railroad, and Rosa Parks. Some acts of love can never be destroyed.


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