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Let's welcome the controversy

By D. G. Martin
Posted Sunday, January 23, 2005

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"This one is not going to be controversial like the others."

My friend was talking about the new selection for UNC-Chapel Hill's next summer reading program, "Blood Done Sign My Name," by Tim Tyson.

One of the reasons for the "voluntariness" was the uproar that the selection three years ago caused.

As a part of the program, the university asks all of its incoming students to read the same book during the summer before classes begin. Then during orientation, the students, led by faculty and staff, discuss the book and the issues it raises. It gives the students one of the few "common" intellectual experiences a big university can offer these days. Sadly, the program is now "voluntary," which means that a lot of new students, busy moving in and getting settled, opt out of participation.

One of the reasons for the "voluntariness" was the uproar that the selection three years ago caused. The selection of "Approaching the Qur'an: The Early Revelations" by Michael Sells, brought criticism from some politicians and religious leaders. They said it was improper for a public university to be teaching (or promoting) a particular religion-in this case Islam. One group even filed a lawsuit to try to stop the on-campus discussions of that book.

Year before last, Barbara Ehrenreich's "Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America" also drew some complaints. Most were based on the author's "far left" political views.

Last year, the selection was a "non-controversial" book about student life at West Point. "Absolutely American" by David Lipsky gave the campus a reprieve from unfriendly criticism and scrutiny.

Now, what about "Blood Done Sign My Name"? Will the campus again escape unwelcome controversy about its summer reading choice?

Maybe not.

At first brush Tim Tyson's book is simply a careful and sensitive retelling of Oxford, a small North Carolina town, and its encounters with some of the worst events of the struggle for civil rights in the 1960's and early 1970' s. The story tells how the town and its people dealt with a brutal racial killing and the downtown burnings that were a part of the accompanying racial unrest.

If this year were 1960 or 1970 on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus, this kind of book would bring down a torrent of controversy that would make the stirrings about "Approaching the Qur'an" seem like a Quaker meeting in comparison. Back then, some of us were still blaming all our racial unrest on outside agitators and the Communists.

But it is 2005. Now everybody is "pro-civil rights and equal rights." The children and grandchildren of people who fought for continued segregation and white dominance now fill the Smith Center to give adoring cheers to the black students who bring their team victories.

So today, it is as hard to find anyone who will admit fighting for segregation as it is to find some one who will admit voting for Nixon and Agnew.

Even when Tyson's book opens with the forbidden, inflammatory words, "Daddy and Roger and 'em shot 'em a nigger" we read on, identifying with the victim-and rejecting any connection with anyone who would use "that term."

Since almost all of us take the pro-civil rights side as far as the civil rights struggle is concerned, even telling the dark side of our region's history may not provoke controversy. People who might otherwise object to the book will probably keep quiet, knowing that they might be labeled "racists" if they speak up.

But wait a minute. I think the author, Tim Tyson, will be disappointed if the conversations this summer don't have sparks flying. He wants us to confront our past and deal with what it has made us.

He says, "We are runaway slaves from our own past, and only by turning to face the hounds can we find our freedom beyond them."

One part of that past has to do with the violence and burnings organized by young black men in Oxford. When we celebrate the achievements of the civil rights movement, we honor the marches, the sit-ins, and the non-violent resistance that brought about change.

Tyson challenges our thinking. The story he tells shows, whether we like it or not, that it was violent, as much or more as 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.

No controversy this year? I hope we will have plenty of it. It will honor an important book by a brave author who has no fear of controversy about who we were-and what our history has made us.


D.G. Martin is the author of "Interstate Eateries" a handbook of home cooking places near North Carolina's interstate highways-available through Our State Magazine (800-948-1409 or He is the host of UNC-TV's North Carolina Bookwatch, which airs on Sundays at 5:00 p.m. This week's (January 30) guest is Bart Ehrman, author of "Lost Christianities."

Programs coming up:

January 30: Bart Ehrman, Lost Christianities

February 6: North Carolina Bookwatch preempted for other important programing

February 13: Sheila Kay Adams, My Old True Love

February 20-March 20 North Carolina Bookwatch preempted by programming associated with Festival, the annual fundraising campaign.

Related info:
Our State Magazine
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Let's welcome the controversy

Related info:
Our State Magazine