Sitting down with Timothy Tyson

Oscar Abello

So, two fish were swimming side-by-side and the one asked the other, “Hey buddy, how’s the water today?” To which the second fish responded, “What the hell is water?”

Author Timothy Tyson’s visit to Villanova University can be captured in this brief anecdote, which he recalled to me during a few moments on the morning of Jan. 25 when we sat down to discuss his book, “Blood Done Sign My Name.”

The book is this year’s selection for One Book Villanova, the annual University program uniting students, faculty, staff members and local residents by distributing copies of the book to residence halls, offices and libraries.

Tyson first learned of the selection a few months ago.

“I was delighted, pleased, honored,” Tyson said. “I think it’s especially useful for people who are in a community that [is] wrestling with its own issues to see how another community wrestles with its issues. It’s just a great way to read a book, and I’ve been glad to have been part of about a dozen such programs, and it’s always a great thing.”

The key to the anecdote is that, for two days last week, Tyson was that first fish, and the Villanova community stood in as the second. The question, “What the hell is water?” represents not a relative ignorance. Rather, it represents a keen curiosity regarding the society we live in today and a desire to engage in what Tyson’s book challenges us to do as individuals and as an entire community.

Oscar Abello: In your own words, being a historian, what was the history of “Blood Done Sign My Name”?

Timothy Tyson: I actually started what became this book as a paper for school, my freshmen year of college. I moved recently, and I just found this spiral bound notebook with a few pages of an effort to tell the story in a handwriting that was mine but of another day – 10th grade or something. So depending on how you look at it, I’ve been writing this book for about 28 years now, since that freshman year. The first thing I did had been to go back to Oxford to Robert Teel’s barbershop and [ask] him why he killed Henry Marrow. It was scary.

I never really did write that freshman paper, and I actually got an incomplete after having done about half a book’s worth of research. I’ve sent him a copy of the book, and he swears he’s changed my grade …

Even though it’s a rigorous experiment, trying to be a scholar, it was nonetheless a kind of lie too. For all the factual truth of it, there is that deceit at the heart of it, trying to pretend to be the historian in all this. That manuscript sat in a desk for 12 years.

OA: In your own mind, did you have a particular audience for the book, someone in particular you wanted to hear this story?

TT: I’m not really interested in writing for a small number of scholars who meet in a convention hotel once a year. Scholarly standards and integrity is important to me, but writing for a small group of scholars just doesn’t make sense. It’s all public money, tax money or philanthropy that supports our universities, and I don’t understand how the public interest is served by writing cloistered things for cloistered places. This is useful vision, and we ought to be sharing that with as many people that are interested in it.

My father would be the other answer. My father is a thoughtful and intelligent man, and he lives history, but if he doesn’t enjoy the book, he puts it down. I want to write a book that he’s not going to put down. And there is a sense in which in this work I am not only presenting the history of a community that I think speaks for a larger American story. These are not just local issues; they play out everywhere …

I think in the end, I’m asking Americans to have an honest confrontation with their own past.

OA: At what point does someone judge himself or herself to be ready to confront his or her own past? Is it always a pivotal moment or is it more of a long, slow process?

TT: Before there were historians, before universities, the wise among us – the grandmothers – knew that you had to know who you were, where you came from and who your people are, in order to go forward. That was part of our storytelling tradition; around altars, campfires and kitchen tables, we told stories. It’s not about a museum of the mind; it’s about equipping you to go forward.

We know that strength comes from the roots, but you also carry burdens, and if you tell yourself you’re something other than what you are, tell yourself a dishonest fable, that’s the road to error and madness.

People get the idea that history is just a bunch of names and dates and that it is synonymous with boredom or irrelevance for young people. You get a little older and you start to realize the power of history in your own life. You realize how much your history has defined your imagination, confined your life and sometimes propped it up or sometimes closed it off.

You realize how much of your options are really inherited or your assumptions are inherited, how much of the central ideas that you have are simply things that you drank in. I use the metaphor, in talking about white supremacy, how it’s like the water and you’re like the fish.

I heard a joke the other day about two fish swimming in the water and one says to the other, ‘Hey buddy, how’s the water today?’ and the other one goes, ‘What the hell’s water?’ It’s like that. If we’re going to go forward and take control of our common life as citizens, we have to understand how we got here.

OA: So would you have a strong reaction to the sentiment, among the current generation that has grown up over the past two decades, that its members are somehow “colorblind” and are not vindictive of race to any large degree?

TT: I don’t believe that. Frankly, I think this generation is poised to do something terribly important, which is to decide if we’re going to become a republic of citizens or an empire of subjects, and I am detecting a strong preference for a republic of citizens among this generation. What they seem to lack is a vision of hope that we can actually pull that off. It’s not what I call apathy; I would call it despair, but even as we speak, I see that despair lifting, and I think this generation is going to be vitally important and I don’t think apathy or cynicism are appropriate words for your generation.

OA: Would you say that the civil rights movement is really over?

TT: That’s a complicated question, because we’re not in the days of Martin Luther King and Birmingham and Selma or Montgomery and Greensboro. Those are earlier battles, but the war continues, but it wasn’t ever just about legal citizenship for everybody, and it wasn’t ever just about race; it’s really about democracy.

The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, hammered out right here in Philadelphia – those are meaningless, worthless scraps of paper without the African-American freedom struggle. Democracy was an empty word, and this is the struggle that has redeemed this country.

All over the world, as we speak, wherever people are struggling for the dignity of the human person, wherever people are struggling for citizenship rights and a decent standard of living for their children, you will hear the words of the African-American freedom struggle – its language, inflections, songs and intellectual framework. It echoes all over the globe. That’s why the movement goes so much beyond a small southern town.