Words to Live By: Tim Tyson

This segment features exclusive interviews with authors, artists, and community members.


September 30, 2021

Timothy B. Tyson

Tim Tyson is a local writer, historian, and activist. He is also a professor at both Duke University and University of North Carolina, and has received numerous teaching accolades. He teaches primarily about race, religion, civil rights, and history. His books include ‘Blood Done Sign My Name’ (2004) and ‘The Blood of Emmett Till’ (2017). He is also a staunch supporter of Book Harvest, and a member of Book Harvest’s Authors’ Circle.


What kind of reader were you as a child?

Except when I could play football or run the woods, I read.  From the second grade on, I carried several books in my knapsack and read them surreptitiously, or so I thought, underneath the top of my desk.  When teachers confiscated the my book, I would often wait a few minutes, then slip another from my knapsack and continue reading.  Turns out this was a dandy way to end up in the principal’s office.  It amused me, since school authorities found it hard to frame reading quietly as a heinous crime.  This persisted.  When I was charged with unlawful reading in high school, second or third offense, teachers often dispatched me to the dean’s office, where I would be assigned to two or three hours in detention hall.  I savored the irony because detention hall was where they made you sit quietly in a room and read, which was exactly what I was trying to do in the first place. Like Geronimo or Crazy House, I never gave in. Not then, not now, not ever.  In books, I found my freedom.           

Is there a book or genre that stands out in your memory from your youth?

Peter Rabbit with mom & sisters. (Image from New York Puzzle Co)

The first book I remember was about firefighters and their trucks, and had virtually no words. Soon afterward, my mother read Peter Rabbit to me, over and over. Peter’s mix of both personal independence and family belonging, oddly enough, turned out to be a role model, for good and ill. He defied parental warnings to stay out of Mr. McGregor’s garden, relished its illicit vegetables, barely outwitted the stingy and carnivorous McGregor. His narrow escape made him late getting home, but his mother nursed him with chamomile tea and tucked him into bed in the burrow that he shared with his beloved sisters, Flopsy, Mopsy and Cottontail.

The first book that I could read on my own was Fun with Dick and Jane, an elementary primer about a brother and sister, both punks who sucked up to grownups. Its stories all featured an unreliable narrator, unintended by the manipulative grownup authors, who clearly intended for the reader to become a suck-up, too. I told my mother that if Dick and Jane were real kids, no way would I play with them.

By second grade, I inhaled any and all biographies. Arrow Books, or maybe it was Scholastic, published a pile of them. We ordered the cheap paperbacks at school; it never occurred to me that some families still could not afford them, nor that, unlike me, many children did not grow up in a house full of books. This is one reason that I now appreciate Book Harvest for making sure that all young people have a chance to fall in love with books as I did. I gobbled up celebratory biographies of patriotic leaders like George Washington, Samuel Adams, Paul Revere, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and Abraham Lincoln.

We also read about Confederate generals like Robert E. Lee as American patriots, even though they had tried to overthrow the U.S. government by killing hundreds of thousands of loyal Americans. Our elementary school celebrated Confederate Memorial Day by marching all the children to lay wreaths at the Confederate statue downtown. Teachers required all of us to enter an essay contest, in which we could choose whether to write about the Confederate general of our choice—either Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson or the daring cavalry commander, Jeb Stuart. I had absorbed admiring biographies of all three, which made it easy to win.

All wars were supposed to inspire us. America had never lost because our cause was always just. By about the tenth grade, I realized that our history lessons never went far into the twentieth century; in the 1960s and 1970s, practically anything after World War II divided our parents deeply. Even President John F. Kennedy angered many white Southerners. No biographies of civil rights activists like Rosa Parks or Ella Baker. Jews never appeared in these American stories; no Rabbi Abraham Heschel, who urged people of faith to “pray with their feet” for equal rights for all. No controversial Christian radicals like Dorothy Day or Martin Luther King, Jr. I remember liking Clara Barton: Girl Nurse and Molly Pitcher: Young Patriot, but they astonished me—back then, virtually nothing and no one told us that women could be brilliant and brave.

The life stories of independent-minded American adventurers and athletes inspired me; Daniel Boone, Davie Crockett, Jim Bridger: Mountain Man, Kit Carson, Wilbur and Orville Wright, and Amelia Earhart; Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Jim Thorpe, Johnny Unitas, Bill Russell.
Best of all, I loved to read anything about Native Americans who defied white efforts to conquer, subdue, and even exterminate them. I loved the Sioux war chiefs like Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, and Red Cloud, defending the sacred Black Hills and their nomadic way of life; fierce Comanches, who ruled a large section of the Great Plains and struck fear into all who might try to encroach upon them; and especially the unbending Apaches, led by Mangus Coloradas, Cochise, and Geronimo.

Chief Joseph – Edward S. Curtis Collection/Library of Congress

Most of all, though, I venerated Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce, who traveled to Washington D.C. in a remarkable effort to make peace with the U.S. government, but could not stop local white men from trying to wipe out his people. Joseph led a fierce and deceptive running war to get his increasing frail to safety in Canada, and nearly succeeded. Between about age seven and eleven, I conceived of myself an Indian, complete with sacred lands in the woods behind our house, and imagined all adults as “The White Man.” My first written story was called “The Battle of Apache Pass,” which I based upon accounts in the books that I had read. Many arrows went “zip!” and many bullets went “zing!” I soaked up any and every book that I could find about those most determined to resist the white onslaught. In my mid-thirties, when I was a professor of Afro-American Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, my mother gave me a box of my childhood keepsakes, one of which was my story of the Apaches’ defense of their mountain stronghold. Amused, I showed it to a friend and fellow historian, who immediately pointed out that I was still writing about violent conflict between oppressed minorities and “the white man.”

What book should everybody read before they turn 18?

So many necessary books, all absorbing, crucial books that will stay with you for a long, long time. In only rough order of importance to me at the moment, which is not the same as importance to you, or even to me at some other point in time:

  • The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain
  • The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin
  • Letter from Birmingham Jail, essay by Martin Luther King, Jr.
  • Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman
  • Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston
  • Slaughterhouse Five, Kurt Vonnegut
  • Lord of the Flies, William Golding
  • The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupery
  • Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, Dee Brown
  • Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, Matthew Desmond
  • This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Environment, by Naomi Klein
  • The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Alex Haley
  • Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned, Walter Mosley
  • The Vagina Monologues, Eve Ensler
  • Brave New World, Aldous Huxley
  • The Color Purple, Alice Walker
  • The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison
  • The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood
  • Kindred, by Octavia Butler
  • King Leopold’s Ghost, Adam Hochschild
  • The House of the Spirits, Isabel Allende
  • The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck
  • Ragtime, E.L. Doctorow
  • Jesus and the Disinherited, Howard Thurman
  • The Brothers Karmozov, Fyodor Dostoevsky
  • Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America, Nancy Maclean
  • Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates
  • To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee
  • Bud Not Buddy, Christopher Paul Curtis
  • The Monkeywrench Gang, Edward Abbey
  • At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance – A New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power, Danielle McGuire
  • Fire of Freedom: Abraham Galloway and the Slaves’ Civil War, David S. Cecelski
  • The Ledger and the Chain: How Domestic Slave Traders Shaped America, Joshua Rothman
  • More Than Freedom: Fighting for Black Citizenship in a White Republic, Stephen Kantrowitz
  • A Change is Gonna Come: Race, Music and the Soul of America, Craig Werner
  • And, of course, Blood Done Sign My Name, Tim Tyson

What kind of books are on your bookshelf?

Novels, history, poetry, essays.  A lot of African American and Southern US history, and many books on American politics. More novels than anything else, probably.          

What are you reading currently?

White Fright: The Sexual Panic at the Heart of America’s Racist History, Jane Dailey. The Ledger and the Chain: How Domestic Slave Traders Shaped America, Joshua Rothman. The Afghanistan Papers, Craig Whitlock.

What is your favorite place to read? Pre- and/or during the pandemic?

In a comfy chair in my living room.

James Baldwin (Wikipedia)

Who is your favorite all-time character from a book?

Peter Rabbit. Socrates Fortlow, from Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned. James Baldwin, in any of his nonfiction.         

If you could have dinner with three authors from any period in time, who would you pick?

James Baldwin, Zora Neale Hurston, and Walt Whitman.

What are the children in your life currently reading?

The Napping House, by Audrey Wood. Go, Dog, Go and also Yertle the Turtle, by Dr. Seuss. The Runaway Bunny, by Margaret Wise Brown.  

Do you have a favorite quote from literature? If so, what is it?

“When I dare to be powerful, to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.” Audre Lorde


Thank you to Tim for taking the time to thoughtfully answer our questions! You can read more about Tim Tyson here.