Powerful, wrenching story of a racial killing during the author’s North Carolina childhood.
Tyson (African-American Studies/University of Wisconsin–Madison) was only ten in 1970, when a young black husband and father was savagely beaten and then shot to death in Oxford, North Carolina, by some white men who claimed he had insulted one of their women. The killers were subsequently acquitted by an all-white jury. The author artfully weaves together a number of stories in this account. We hear about his own family, going back several generations but with major attention devoted to Tyson’s father, a liberal white preacher in Oxford who had an admirable record of working to improve race relations, though his son fondly chides him for the subconsciously racist notion that the goal of the civil-rights movement was to make black people more like whites. Tyson also sketches the histories of the victim, the killers, and the leaders of Oxford’s white and black communities. He scathingly depicts the dilatory police and the risible, ridiculous trial. He writes about the civil-rights movement’s high and low points (the 1970 shootings at Jackson State included among the latter). And he chronicles his tumultuous coming of age. Tyson ran away from home at 17, but a lovely passage describes his father finding him walking along a rural road, holding him tight, and praying for him. After several years of indulgence in drugs and general dissipation, the author decided to enroll in college: “And the first thing I did as a twenty-four-year-old freshman was to drive to Oxford, North Carolina, to ask Robert Teel why he’d killed Henry Marrow.” Tyson returned again as a graduate student and then as a historian to research the story that inhabits the heart of this remarkable work: a reminder that the struggle for racial equality prompted vileness and violence on all sides.
One of the most candid and lucent books on race in this or any other year.