Sunday, January 16, 2005

Down to two

It's time to select a book for the UNC summer reading program for incoming students. The top contenders are both great books: Tim Tyson's Blood Done Sign My Name and Tracy Kidder's Mountains Beyond Mountains. Both are passionate witnesses to dramatic injustices. One strikes closer to home.

Tyson begins his tale of of the 1970 murder of a black man in Oxford, N.C., by calling it

the story of a nation torn apart by racial, political, social, and cultural clashes so deep that they echo in our lives to this day. The cheerful and cherished lies we tell ourselves about those years—that the black freedom movement was largely a nonviolent call on America’s conscience, which America answered, to cite the most glaring fiction—do little to repair the breach. There are many things we never learned about the civil rights struggle, and many other things we have tried hard to forget. . . .

Blood Done Sign My Name takes its place alongside other recent works addressing historical memory in the American South: the collection edited by UNC's Fitz Brundage Where These Memories Grow comes to mind, as well as David Blight's Race and Reunion, among others. We await Brundage's full-length study of the subject due out soon from Harvard. The myth of the "Lost Cause" has at last fallen, and we're left to pick up and reassemble the pieces.

Kidder's book is about a brilliant and heroic doctor, Paul Farmer, "a man who would cure the world." A physician and an anthropologist, a MacAarthur Fellow, Farmer has devoted his life to bringing modern medicine to those most in need. Though his foundation's work has a global reach, it began in Haiti, and Haiti continues to fuel his commitment. His politics are aligned with Noam Chomsky's. Writes Chomsky on Haiti,

Functioning democracy has preconditions. One is that the population should have some way to learn what is happening in the world. The real world, not the self-serving portrait offered by the "establishment press," which is disfigured by its "subservience to state power" and "the usual hostility to popular movements"--the accurate words of Paul Farmer, whose work on Haiti is, in its own way, perhaps even as remarkable as what he has accomplished within the country. Farmer was writing in 1993, reviewing mainstream commentary and reporting on Haiti, a disgraceful record that goes back to the days of Wilson's vicious and destructive invasion in 1915 and on to the present. The facts are extensively documented, appalling, and shameful. They are deemed irrelevant for the usual reasons: they do not conform to the required self-image, and so are efficiently dispatched deep into the memory hole, though they can be unearthed by those who have some interest in the real world.

The two have even written a book together highly critical of American policy in Haiti.

This radical Dr. Farmer is not disguised in Kidder's book, but neither is he sharply drawn. Though the Paul Farmer who spoke last fall in Chapel Hill is definitely the same person the book describes, there's something about the book, as I wrote at the time, that puts him at a distance, on a pedestal, on a mountaintop somewhere far away, on a mountaintop mission.

I think it would be challenging for a discusison leader to teach Mountains Beyond Mountains in a way that gets to the heart of Farmer's message--that is, through the filter of Kidder's message, which is somewhat different. It strikes me that it would be a bit easier, and more directly relevant to Carolina students, to take Tyson's work, which is both a history and an engaging, highly readable first-person memoir. In fact, when I first heard that Tyson's book was being considered, it seemed to me the perfect choice.

But I was wrong. Within the selection committee, according to the Daily Tar Heel, there is resistance:

[S]ome were hesitant about how discussion groups would react to the potentially heavy subject matter when they meet in August.

Some predicted the issues raised in the book would stir up controversy, while others feared they would cause student to clam up altogether.

The representative from student goverment "pointed out that dialogue about race can be intimidating in the classroom." A distinguished professor of political science has doubts about--of all things--whether all faculty discussion leaders would be up to it.

Either of these books would fit the objectives of the summer reading program, which include "stimulating discussion and critical thinking around a current topic." But for some, Tyson's book is too close to home.

Committee member Reg Hildebrand is making the case for Blood Done Sign My Name and the frank discussion of race that it would invite. He thinks "[t]his is the kind of thing we ought to be talking about," that it is "certainly worth the risk." I hope the committee comes around to his conclusion.

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