Wednesday, August 24, 2005

UNC summer reading: controversy in all the wrong places

Not only is D.G. Martin "looking for racial progress in all the wrong places," as Eric Muller observes: he's looking for controversy in all the wrong places, and he's been looking a long time now. His latest column is a virtual repeat of one he published in January--except for the addition of the passage that Eric finds so objectionable, the part where he implies a comparison between the old "solid South" (and its rude come-uppance) and Israel. Compare the two for yourself. What accounts for the gratuitous addition? Was it just something that came to him because of recent events in Gaza?

I don't know. But I do know that the second column comes after Martin has interviewed Tim Tyson, author of Blood Done Sign My Name, on UNC-TV. That interview, in turn, was clearly framed by Martin's initial reaction to the book, as he expressed it in January:

Tyson challenges our thinking. The story he tells shows, whether we like it or not, that it was violent, as much or more as [sic] non-violent, activity that led to changes in Oxford.

This part of our history is going to be hard for some of us to confront, especially at a time when we are committed to a war on terrorism and terrorists, however good the terrorists' long-term objectives may seem to them.

There's a big leap being made here, as well as a couple of disturbing suggestions. The leap is that all political violence is somehow the same (whether it involves bloodshed or not). The truly troubling suggestions are that such violence is at times a necessary means to a desirable end; and that the world will ever be thus.

Martin's interview with Tyson is worth watching. Tyson recounts the riot that broke out after the murder of the young black man Henry Marrow: the torching of $10 million worth of warehoused tobacco in downtown Oxford, followed by a hard-hitting economic boycott. The African Americans were convinced (rightly as it turned out) that the murderers would walk, and they were registering their feelings in the only language that had a hope of being heard: economic coercion. Especially interesting is this exchange:

MARTIN: These people made history. What you've taught us in your book is that they made history by doing a lot of property damage, by being what we might call terrorists, in the sense that they were throwing fire bombs, things like that. You came to believe, it's not fair to say that you came to believe these people were heroes, but you certainly persuaded me that they were essential to accomplishing the objectives, that that's been a hard lesson to accept.

TYSON: Well, that's a hard lesson to accept, but the truth is that power responds to power, and gasoline's very cheap and so are matches. Martin Luther King said a riot is the language of the unheard, and if you let pools of social misery accumulate in the system and you oppress them, you can expect this. You call them terrorists: if you let pools of misery gather in Beirut, Lebanon, where people have no hope, where their children cannot go past where they are, where they have no hope of advancement, and they look up at TV and they see the glitter of American opulence, bad things are gonna happen, that's all I'm saying. I'm not saying it's right, and I want to be clear that I don't advocate violence or admire it; in fact, I think violence creates chasms between people that are often hard to bridge. The violence of slavery and segregation and lynching has created that too, and we had problems, but I will say that it happened.

"History," Tyson continued, "doesn't always happen in morally pristine ways that we can look back on and be comfortable. But I think it's essential that we look back in a clear-eyed way and say, This is what we've been through. Now: where do we want to go?"

For Martin, the violence was "essential." For Tyson, "it happened." Although I don't think he is naive enough to claim that it won't happen again and again given the right circumstances, he does not hold it out as a historical inevitability, surely not as a necessity. And for anyone who has read the book--which, as far as I can tell, is every book club in the region--there's a lot more going on than the fire-bombing. This brings us to the other non-controversy surrounding the book.

On how Blood Done Sign My Name has been received in Oxford, Tyson said to Martin,

It's broken what people felt was an unhealthy silence. There are really a lot of black and white people having interracial reading groups and prayer groups and working together and trying to make something redemptive, which is just the greatest thing that I could have dreamed about this. . . . The distinctive thing is not the trouble we had there. . . . The distinctive thing about Oxford is that they are turning to try to find a redemptive path out of that trouble together, and that's remarkable.

The committee charged with selecting the UNC summer reading almost caved in to fears that the book would be too highly charged, but they listened to Reg Hildebrand, who insisted that the conversation was "worth the risk."

Yesterday on The State of Things, Bill Ferris was asked about the role of African Americans today in shaping the story of the South. "It's central," he said. "One of the exciting new chapters of southern studies is the field of contested memory, which Fitz Brundage has pioneered. The idea is, whose memory are we going to honor, the white or the black? We increasingly have civil war trails that parallel civil rights trails." He spoke of "a kind of diversification of memory, not only black and white but ethnic memory, Jewish, Irish, Hispanics: these are many threads that shape in a quiltlike way what we think of as southern culture."

Contrary to Martin's suspicion that "People who might otherwise object to the book will probably keep quiet, knowing that they might be labeled 'racists' if they speak up," my sense is that people--and remember, we're talking mainly about Carolina freshmen--are hungry for the truth. The discussions that will take place in small groups on campus on Monday are as good an introduction as I can think of to a world in which, as Tyson believes, there is "special promise. We're having a larger migration than has ever happened before from north to south, black folks, brown folks, the demographics are changing, and if we find a way to move forward together, it's going to be wonderful."

UPDATE 8/29: Tim Tyson responds in the comments below, and he also responds to Eric's subsequent post. Says Ed Cone: "The most interesting debate of the week in North Carolina is happening on a Chapel Hill weblog."

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