Lessons of Blood Done Sign My Name
Author, historian, and professor of Christianity and southern culture at Duke University, Timothy B. Tyson cannot escape from a definitive life changing moment he experienced as a ten-year-old growing up in Granville County, North Carolina. There he was witness to a turning point in the racially charged southern small town of Oxford. Like many such southern communities in the period immediately following the civil rights movement of the mid-to-late 1960s, Oxford residents were grappling with what the future of race would look like in their hometown.
The racially motivated murder of Henry Marrow, a black serviceman returning from Vietnam, and subsequent acquittal of the white businessman and his sons accused of the crime in 1972 led Tyson to write a paper in 1982 as a freshman history major in college. This paper became the basis for scholarly research and his Master’s thesis while in graduate school at Duke University. His manuscript went on to become a National Book Critics Circle Award Finalist and national best seller, Blood Done Sign My Name (Three Rivers Press).
As a certified Yankee from Minneapolis, my southern history is not all that it should be. I’m embarrassingly ignorant of much knowledge of the civil rights era and how it was experienced south of the Mason-Dixon Line. I sat spellbound earlier this month, listening to a spirited discussion following a local showing of Steve Crump’s fine documentary Lessons From The Lunch Counter at Charlotte’s Main Library as part of their recognition of Black History Month.
The documentary chronicled the legendary Greensboro, NC sit ins and the accompanying civil disobedience and economic boycotts by Black Americans of White establishments. The film was engaging though it was the discussion that followed that I found truly fascinating. Several members in the audience had attended North Carolina A & T State University and sat in protest, spelling the original four at the infamous Woolworth Lunch counter that now sits at the Smithsonian.
Youthful members of the audience had the opportunity to engage directly with the elder Black leaders of “the movement” and react in wonder at just how far things had come in only one generation. One elder states-person admonished those in the audience to “never forget” and use lessons and documentation from the period to continually bring the message home for subsequent generations.
Enter the new film based upon Tyson’s book, Blood Done Sign My Name. Independent filmmaker Jeb Stuart has made Tyson’s book into a thoughtful, revealing portrayal that may leave southerners from that generation questioning similar events from their own not-so-distant past and younger people, personally unfamiliar with these pages of American history, wondering if things were really “that bad.”
The film opened in a limited national release and is not likely to generate Oscar buzz or duel with Avatar for box office supremacy. It features a workman-like cast with few big Hollywood names save Rick Schroder, best known perhaps as the child star from Kramer vs. Kramer.
Faithful to the book, the film depicts Tyson, the son of a Methodist minister, as a child and his up close and personal perspective on the courageous acts of his pro-integration father. The events witnessed, divided their Oxford, NC church and forced neighbors and townspeople to choose sides and confront head-on the consequences of discrimination, bigotry and hate.
Those familiar with Tyson’s book will undoubtedly be disappointed as a two-hour film can in no way explore these issues with the depth and historical narrative and context that Tyson’s book provides. Setting that issue aside, the film is remarkably true to Tyson’s telling and follows two parallel and eventually intersecting stories of Tyson’s Methodist minister father, Vernon, and Ben Chavis, a black teacher who would go on to become the executive director of the N.A.A.C.P.
There are no gloss-overs, no shying away from the ugliness of the behavior of the period or any overt allegorical preaching to the film. The facts are presented with historical accuracy, which was the hallmark of Tyson’s book. The story is compelling enough without any embellishment and the film takes extra pains to be true to Tyson’s research and published records of the trial and events surrounding the case.
This film is not destined for a long run and you may have to seek it out as it is also not likely to gain a wide distribution. See it for the teaching moments, this is a film you should see with your children. Better yet read the book with them. You won’t be disappointed.