Timothy Tyson, Divinity '94 and senior research scholar at the Center for Documentary Studies, has led a life of political activism fueled by his own upbringing in North Carolina. He shares some of these experiences in his novel "Blood Done Sign My Name", which was chosen as the required reading for the Divinity School’s pre-orientation program, Project BRI(DDD)GE. The Chronicle's Patricia Spears sat with Tyson to discuss the film adaptation of his book and his future projects.
The Chronicle: What are your current projects as Senior Research Scholar for the Center of Documentary Studies? Are there any more books in the works?
Timothy Tyson: I’m in the middle of writing a book on the Emmett Till murder trial of 1955.
TC: Your novel, "Blood Done Sign my Name" was chosen as the book for the pre-orientation program for the Divinity School.
TT: And [The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill], a whole bunch of places actually.
TC: So what is the significance of your novel for students now?
TT: Well, first of all, it's not really a novel. It’s sort of a half-history memoir. It uses the family story as kind of a literary device to talk about race in America and how it’s operating. So in that sense, it’s as relevant as ever.
TC: Did you have any involvement with the students who read your book?
TT: Yes. Always do. I do that at high schools, in churches...
TC: Is that, as a writer, difficult for you?
TT: As a writer, all you can ask is to be taken seriously and engaged with—not necessarily agreed with, honored or glorified in any way. But to be engaged with in a serious way, that’s as good as it gets. So I’m always pleased to do things like that... I’ve done sort of straight academic history, written with a strong narrative element. Trying to be more readable and this first-person memoir [as well as] history storytelling is in my family’s tradition—I come from a long line of ministers, the storytellers, teachers. I’ve done documentary film, I’ve done feature film. I’m just the writer. The writer’s just something they use for film.
TC: Can you describe the experience of having your book be made into film?
TT: Profoundly interesting. And fun. You learn a lot about storytelling, because a documentary film conveys factual history, but it’s much more vivid than the historian can write it. At the same time, it does a really poor job of conveying meaning, or discussing the historical dynamics. The only way you can do that with a documentary film is you get somebody like me to put on their tweed coat and sit in front of the bookcase and put their little glasses on, and they go ‘Well of course, you know, the Cold War, and race, and sexuality and gender, and blah blah blah,’ and that’s how you get theme. And that’s boring, it’s bad film, so you don’t wanna do too much of it... Often the writer is really kept at a distance from the filmmaking, because I think we tend to be a pain in the neck to the filmmaker—at least—if not others. I was fortunate in that the filmmaker, Jeb Stuart, read the work very closely. We talked about it’s meaning, I got a chance to read the screenplay in advance and discuss it. We talked for a time about how to tell the story on film. I didn’t know film the way he did but I did know storytelling. That was a fruitful thing. I like the film very much.
TC: Is that when you became interested in film, with your first adaptation?
TT: The documentary film was simpler, partly because my role in it was simpler. I was a consultant, and I provided all the research. I talked with them about story telling. But the way you tell a story in a documentary film is largely dependent on what kind of footage you have, whereas in a feature film, you’re creating the footage, not collecting it. It’s a very creative exercise, and you have a good deal more flexibility. In a feature film, you’re not bound by the literal truth, you can mush episodes together, create composite characters. But if you’re trying to do a historical film like this one, you have to figure out how to with some economy and validity tell the story, and so there were some things that got shortened, lots of things that got left out, but nonetheless, it’s a really creative film, and medium.
TC: There is now a website baring your name, seemingly operated by Robert Teel, a prominent figure in your book. On his website, he denounces you as a “race hustler” and attempts to invalidate your memoirs. How do you respond to that?
TT: I’m glad that the Teels are—in the words of my daughter’s kindergarten teacher—learning to use their words. They used to use baseball bats and guns. They committed a murder and they’re mad at me for talking about it in public, because they had sort of gotten away with it. And now, lots and lots of people know that they did this, and they’ve no doubt had to confront the fact that they did this, committed this monstrous crime. They’re mad at me. I don’t blame [them]. I don’t pay it any attention whatsoever.
TC: Have you made contact with any of the people mentioned in "Blood Done Sign my Name" since the book’s publication?
TT: Oh, yeah. I’m really good friends with Eddie McCoy, for example, who’s one of the main characters. And Ben Chavis, who’s in the book, we’re good friends and we’ve worked on political stuff together. Anybody who’s alive really, I still go see Mary Katherine Chavis, and my friend Joy…I think the book did succeed in capturing people in a way that they found credible, and valid. My father always says he didn’t know why I had to tell that he drank out of the milk jug, but I don’t believe he had a real big problem. And I consulted people all along too. It’s a book that’s very close to it’s sources. I didn’t always see things the same way, and obviously the Teels see things very differently.
TC: "Blood Done Sign My Name" is about a historical event very close to your heart. Are you writing the book about Emmett Tills for a similar reason?
TT: The Emmett Till book is written in the same time period as my first book...but it’s the first book that I’ve written that’s not set in North Carolina. Everything happens somewhere. I’m interested in North Carolina, but only as part of the universe. I’m interested in Mississippi the same way. They’re, in a lot of ways, the same. It’s about a racial murder. The murder in Oxford is a very obscure event. No one remembers that. The Emmett Till case is probably the most notorious racial incident in the history of the world. Little children know about it. It’s a fairly rare a person doesn’t recognize the name. That’s gonna be a different experience. I didn’t intend to do that, I got a phone call from the daughter-in-law of the white woman in the story, the woman who’s at the candy counter in whose name an eight-year-old from Chicago is lynched. She’s now 80, and her daughter-in-law called me and said she wanted to talk to me. She had never said anything. Since 1955, she’d never granted an interview, and never said anything public about the murder of Emmett Till. She didn’t want to die and not tell the story. That landed in my lap, you know, God gave me that story. As a historian, I felt like I had an obligation to interview her, and I was planning to just put that interview in the archive, somebody else could write about it someday who was interested in writing a book about Emmett Till. When I realized how different the truth of the matter is from the story that we think we know about Emmett Till and then how much it still speaks to our racial dilemmas, I was in. I sort of got kidnaped by the story... It’ll be published by Simon & Schuster, in about a year.
TC: What role has religion played in your academic life?
TT: "Blood Done Sign My Name" is heavily theological. I didn’t mean for it to be, it’s just that I grew up steeped in this stuff. My father and his five brothers were all Methodist ministers, and talked serious theology into the night, whether or not little boys were listening. That’s just part of me. I didn’t think I was writing a religious book, but it ended up being embraced by Christians, all over the country, especially in the south. That led to me joining the faculty of the Divinity school. There’ve been Tysons at the Divinity School since 1950—almost without interruption—as students. I’m just another one.
TC: Could you describe your arrest record, and involvement in the Moral Monday protests?
TT: I’ve been arrested doing civil disobedience, which has a deep tradition in American politics and public life, twice. Once in a struggle about the Wake County schools, which there was an effort to re-segregate, and once about the merciless attack on the poor that’s being conducted by our state legislature as we speak. In both cases, I felt like what was going on was so morally objectionable that there’s no way when I have breath in my body that I’m going to remain silent about that. I didn’t expect to be 55 years old and fighting for Brown vs. Board Of Education, but then they wiped their feet on it so here we are. I didn’t expect to be fighting for unemployment benefits and Medicaid and things that we’ve taken for granted as being part of a social safety net in North Carolina, for public schools, which there’s been... I wish things were different...
TC: What else is on the horizon?
TT: I’m collaborating with Mike Wiley on a play about James Baldwin. We’ve collaborated on a play about the Freedom Rides of 1961, and we’ve collaborated on a play based on "Blood Done Sign my Name", but I’m especially excited about this new one. James Baldwin is my favorite writer, and he’s profoundly important, and Mike Wiley was born to play him. It’s sort of perfect.