Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Radicalism in nice clothing

In the first of a number of events planned to go along with UNC's summer reading program featuring Blood Done Sign My Name, Tim Tyson gave a moving speech last night to a large and receptive crowd. Paul took good notes. His central point, here as throughout his work, is that the difference between Martin Luther King Jr. and Stokley Carmichael was one of degree, not kind. "King's strategies," Tyson said, "were rooted in a realistic assessment of political power in the United States and around the world. He knew where the levers of power lay and had a plan that addressed itself to that situation." King's brand of coercive nonviolent direct action laid the groundwork for the Black Power movement (whether the movement would credit his influence or not). Another point Tyson stressed is that King's roots were distinctly southern, that the way he combined Gandhian strategic nonviolence with the central message of the major institution uniting blacks in the South--the church--was a master stroke.

Tyson is smart and clear; he is also engaging and endearing, in the best southern way. Readers of the book, and perhaps many others by now, know that the story of the murder of Henry Marrow is deeply personal: Tyson was in Oxford and he was very young, the ideologically confused son of a liberal white Methodist preacher. A chance, galvanizing event became the story that motivated his scholarship and his career.

Someone last night asked him why he decided to write the book as part "coming of age" memoir, part straight-up history. Now, other than the very good reason that it could not have been any other way (as he realized after he wrote it in the other way for his master's thesis), I think that Tyson's rhetorical strategy was his master stroke. A southerner speaking to and of his own, he is able to tell the complicated, painful story of race from the inside out. As we learn about his family, generations of liberal white preachers, curiously but interestingly out of step with their own time, we begin to listen to his voice as that of our very conscience:

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 work we face is to transcend our history and move toward higher ground. To find that higher ground, we must recognize, as Dr. King tried to teach us, that we are "caught up in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied to a single garment of destiny."

All of that is true and powerfully expressed, and if we can manage to live up to this challenge, it will be a grand achievement. But now I'm brought finally to my point: why isn't there controversy about this UNC book choice? Is it because we are charmed by the conspiratorial voice of a master southern storyteller, our brother confessor? Is it because we are much closer now to being that multicultural society that King longed to see? Is it because our college students, thank goodness, are too young to really imagine the reality of Jim Crow? (Tyson remarked that this generation is completely beyond the taboo of interracial relationships that marked his own generation so deeply.) Is the focus so much on skin color that we're ignoring the other issues that Tyson wants to raise?

Another question last night was, Now what do we do to achieve a more just society? Tyson's ready answer focused on the public schools. He said that every time he visits a school that is in bad repair, the ceiling and the walls falling apart, he can count on looking at "a sea of brown and black faces." And vice versa. He called for equal funding, not just the minimal funding that the state of North Carolina can't even figure out under Leandro. "These children did not choose where they were born, and they're all our children, and if we don't do right by them we'll all suffer." Make no mistake: that is a radical position.

Two years ago, the choice of Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed: On (not) Getting By in America as UNC's summer reading sparked angry charges of "liberal bias." In hardly a rousing defense, "University officials maintained that choosing the book does not mean they advocate the opinions voiced by the author but that they are trying to encourage students to examine the subject critically and draw their own conclusions." Ehrenreich was left pretty much on her own to defend charges of "anti-Christian bigotry."

W.E.B. DuBois famously said, in 1903, that "The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line." In the twenty-first century, it is class. Tim Tyson wants us to understand this, but he's such a good southern interlocutor, with such a good story to tell, that I fear he's not being heard.

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