Tyson, Timothy B. The Blood of Emmett Till. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2017. viii +291 pages. Paperback, $17.00.
Many times, academic works fulfill the expectations of the reader as they provide relevant, current information. They are comprehensive within the field and topic they cover. They are also staid. The dry writing that is the bane of students (and many professors) seemingly is also one of the requirements for a serious work of academic significance. The monographs are informative, but they are rarely exciting to read.
There are a few authors, however, who have been able to write academic works that are also suitable for those outside of academia. Among historians, J. A. S. Evans, the Byzantinist, is a remarkable example. John Ferling, the Americanist, is another. Some would argue that Ron Chernow, with his works on Alexander Hamilton and Ulysses S. Grant, is certainly among those who can write history that is both informative and fun to read. We need to add Dr. Timothy B. Tyson to the list.
The Blood of Emmett Till does not read like an academic tome--instead, the lively language and the imagery remind one of Dan Brown rather than Robert Brown, the stuffy Byzantine historian. Tyson makes the historical characters, in all their imperfection, come alive in a way that most academics seemingly cannot. For those unfamiliar with the case of Emmett Till, he was a fourteen-year-old boy who was lynched for supposedly whistling and making sexual advances to a white woman in a Mississippi store. His death was the catalyst for the Civil Rights Movement--even Rosa Parks supposedly reminded herself of Till's cause as she sat at the front of the bus.
Tyson's description of Carolyn Bryant, both in her youth and as she sat across from him during an interview, reminds the reader that she is not just a single dimensional character in one of the most notorious lynchings in American history, but that she is a real person; she is complex, beautiful, and, in her own mind, innocent. Tyson even writes of his own experiences while researching in the first person, adding to the reader's connection to the story at hand: ". . . and then murmured, seeming to speak to herself more than to me, 'They're all dead now anyway.'" (p.1) By the sixth page, a new disclosure that was not known during the trial in 1955, nor by any other historian until his work, comes to light: the allegation that Emmett Till made sexual advances towards Carolyn Bryant, by her own...