Southern History in the Making

This week the Raleigh News & Observer profiled Institute for Southern Studies board member and North Carolina native Tim Tyson, a renowned lecturer, writer, and professor of African-American Studies.

At once a public intellectual and social change advocate, Tyson has contributed a rich area of research on Southern history, analyzing the complicated stories of race, violence, and power in the making of the American South. In 2004, he published Blood Done Sign My Name, a history/memoir about a 1970 racial murder in Oxford, N.C. The 1999 prizewinning biography Radio Free Dixie: Robert F. Williams and the Roots of Black Power chronicled the life of Robert Williams, a black activist from Monroe, N.C. and a proponent of armed self-defense. In 1998's Democracy Betrayed: The Wilmington Race Riot of 1898 and Its Legacy he and co-editor David Cecelski detailed the violent white supremacy campaign that seized power in Wilmington a century ago.

Tyson has never been one to shy away from telling stories that complicate how Southern history is usually framed, stories illuminating not only the rich history of social movements and resistance, but the legacies of terror that continue to shape Southern politics.

"The value of historical research is in how it helps us live our lives and shape the future together," Tyson told the News & Observer. "I'm trying to change the conversation by helping people recognize the complexity and truth of our past but also the very hopeful fact that we can change."

As the News & Observer further detailed:
Tyson holds that the "sugarcoated confections that pass for history" are at the center of our problems. "If we ignore or rewrite our history, we lose control of our greatest power -- the ability to shape the future," Tyson said. "Because we don't look at our history honestly, our conversations about race are often filled with false clichés. What we get is a lot of finger-pointing and hand-wringing, guilt, blame and shame. What we need to do is start thinking about what kind of community we want our children and grandchildren to grow up in."