I’ve used some of the space opened up during COVID-times to begin to address a gaping hole in my education. Truth is, I know painfully little about U.S. history, even less as regards its African American component. That I know more about the history of Chile or Mexico than the history of my own country is unsurprising since I’m trained as a Latin American historian, and have spent the better part of 50 years studying those countries. But how I could avoid taking responsibility for my own country’s history for so long is puzzling. In any case, I’ve begun to address my ignorance with generous amounts of Douglass and DuBois, Baldwin and Rankine, McGee, Glaude, Jr., Wilkerson, and Blight. I’ve also put my long walks outside to some educational purpose by listening to podcasts covering this history, including any number of episodes of NPR’s “Throughline” with hosts Ramtin Arablouei and Rund Abdelfatah, David Blight’s 27 lectures at Yale (History 119) on “The Civil War and Reconstruction,” Brooklyn Deep’s “School Colors,” as well as “Floodlines,” “A Strange and Bitter Crop,” and many others. Yesterday, I caught up with the final episode of “Blindspot: Tulsa Burning,” produced out of WNYC’s studios, and expertly narrated by WNYC’s KalaLea.
I don’t have to remind you that we recently marked the centennial of the race massacre that led to the destruction of the so-called “Black Wall Street,” the prosperous 35-block Greenwood neighborhood in Tulsa, Oklahoma. On May 31 and June 1, 1921, a white mob of thousands, aided and abetted by the police and the National Guard, rampaged through Greenwood, leaving behind a heap of rubble where once a thriving town had stood, up to 300 dead (we’ll never know the exact count as Black lives didn’t matter), a thousand injured, and some 6,000 Black townsfolk penned up in the fairgrounds and other large sites. Nearly 10,000 people were left homeless as 1,256 homes were looted and burned down.
What followed the atrocity was…silence. Not a single person was ever arrested or tried for the racist rampage; the only individual to be compensated for his losses was a white pawnshop owner. White Tulsa avoided taking responsibility for its own history by thoroughly erasing the massacre from the city’s official history for most of the 20th century even as the events remained as a traumatic memory for its victims, one so painful that survivors rarely spoke of it to their children or grandchildren.
Besides offering a well-researched history of why the area became so prosperous and a chilling retelling of events of those days, “Tulsa Burning” is peppered with details that in few words illuminate multitudinous histories. We learn of Black soldiers boarding trains in Oklahoma City bound for the battlefields of World War I who waved banners out the windows carrying the plea: “Do not lynch our relatives while we are gone.” Insurance companies that avoided compensating Black families for their losses when authorities labelled the attack a “riot.” Victims contemplating rebuilding their homes who were faced with an ordinance passed requiring that African Americans use only (costly) inflammable materials. And then there’s G. T. Bynum, Tulsa’s mayor since 2016, who argues that while he doesn’t want to see the “bad guys” win in his city, providing reparations to the Black victims would only “divide the community,” and “we really need to be united.”
In one of the most moving accounts, KalaLea interviews Anneliese M. Bruner, the great-granddaughter of Mary Elizabeth Jones Parrish. Jones Parrish authored a first-person account of the attack, The Events of the Tulsa Disaster, which was published immediately after the massacre. Bruner knew nothing of the events in Tulsa until she was an adult and her father gave her a copy of her great-grandmother’s book. (It has recently been republished by Trinity University Press as The Nation Must Awake: My Witness to the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921.) As she watched the Trump-inspired, largely white mob storm the Capitol on January 6, Bruner was reminded of her great-grandmother’s century-old words: “Just as this horde of evil men swept down on the Colored section of Tulsa, reducing the accumulation of years of toil and sacrifice to piles of brick, ashes, and twisted iron,” Mary Elizabeth Jones Parrish warned, “if something is not done to bring about justice and to punish them, thereby checking that spirit, just so will they, some future day, sweep down on the homes and business places of their own race. This spirit of destruction, like that of mob violence when it is once kindled, has no measure or bounds, neither has it any respect of place, person, or color… How long will you let mob violence reign supreme?”
In Tulsa, there would be no justice, no punishment, no “checking that spirit.” For the perpetrators, there was gloating, satisfaction, but no accountability, and no responsibility. For those victimized by the white mob, trauma was to be their legacy. Bruner recounts that her paternal grandmother, a young child who witnessed the events in Tulsa with her mother, had both the interior resources to become a teacher and yet “self-medicated with alcohol,” as did Bruner’s own father. History can be excised from textbooks, but not from the body.
The Tulsa massacre’s centennial came at a moment when, it seemed, those events would finally be taught in Oklahoma’s K-12 classrooms. In 1997, the state Legislature created what they called the “Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921.” The commission published its final report in 2001, finding that the city of Tulsa had conspired to destroy Greenwood. The state has required the topic to be studied in Oklahoma history classes since 2000 and in U.S. history classes since 2004. It has been inserted in Oklahoma history books since 2009. But many educators have argued that these requirements are often ignored. To address the loopholes in the law, the Oklahoma Senate passed Senate Bill 1381 in March 2021, requiring that “School districts shall ensure that information concerning the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 is presented in high school courses in U.S. history or Oklahoma history.” Yet, barely two months later, the Oklahoma legislature passed, and Governor Kevin Stitt signed, a law that, for all intents and purposes, would make K-12 educators think twice about going anywhere near that history. Consider the following parts of the law, which took effect on July 1:
No teacher, administrator or other employee of a school district, charter school or virtual charter school shall require or make part of a course the following concepts:
- an individual, by virtue of his or her race or sex, bears responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race or sex.
- any individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race or sex.
Oklahoma’s pushback against teaching the history of race and racism in the state – for let’s be clear, that is precisely what it is. Where was the legislative outrage when students of color in Oklahoma were made to feel “discomfort” (what a polite word!) because of their race? – is one of a series of Republican attacks on teaching a well-documented history that should make them (and most of us) feel discomfort, at the very least. And Oklahoma’s law is only one of dozens of similar restrictions. As of July 15, 26 states have introduced bills or taken other steps that would restrict teaching critical race theory or limit how teachers can discuss racism and sexism, according to an Education Week analysis. Eleven states have enacted these bans, either through legislation or other avenues.
The unrelenting battering of (liberal) students as “snowflakes,” ironically, was predicated on the proposition that they would flee from the first sign of discomfort into the shelter of “safe spaces” and the company of those who think like them. But who needs irony when you have the power of the state behind you? In Tennessee, educators who violate the state’s new law regulating discussions on race and gender in the classroom may have their teaching licenses suspended or revoked, and districts can face fines of up to $5 million. In Texas, teachers worry that a similar law prohibiting any lesson that will make a student feel “discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress” on account of their race of gender, will open the door to parents initiating litigation against them based on their children’s reports. Never did the question, “What did you learn in school today?” carry such an ominous threat.
Animating these red-state laws is an argument that we cannot, and should not be forced, to take responsibility for our history or be accountable to our past. One wonders what happened to conservatives who built their political brand in the United States by excoriating liberals (and people of Color in particular) for their supposed refusal to take “personal responsibility” for their actions? They have, in so many ways, morphed into star sprinters in the irresponsibility Olympics. Republican governors have placed themselves in a ruinous competition to see who can pass more measures designed to undermine the health of their citizens. Texas forbids businesses from requiring proof of vaccination. Montana prohibited employers, including medical facilities, from requiring vaccination as a condition of employment. In Florida, Disney World can mandate its workers be vaccinated, but not most hospitals. Texas, Arkansas, South Carolina and Arizona have banned mask mandates in schools, as has Florida. And then we have Tennessee, which, in a bid to claim the gold, has banned adolescent vaccine outreach for all diseases, not just coronavirus! But not so fast, Tennessee; Florida is determined not to be overtaken. Angry with whatever public health policy your kid’s school has just come up with? No worries. The state will give you public tax money to switch to another school, public or private. (Of course, don’t even think of raising “the right to choose” in its better-known context. Try that in Texas, and your neighbor could see to it that you land in jail. That is, if he hasn’t already accidentally shot you while fumbling for his cell phone.) Meanwhile, we wait in suspense to see which state will be the first to ban seat belts, tear down fire escapes, or prohibit restaurant employees from washing their hands after visiting the bathroom.
Republicans’ new-found contempt for responsibility is one part of their bid to literally outlaw teaching which could awaken in students some concern for a racist past – and here’s the heart of the matter – which is nowhere near past. Not only is this displayed by the legislative acts themselves, but in a myriad of other ways. Horrifically, according to recent article, there have been at least eight suspected lynchings of Black men and teenagers in Mississippi since 2000. Yet Republican governors, mayors and legislators claim that what happened in the past is not their fault and therefore not their responsibility. But, as Beverly Tatum wrote in 1997, “To say [it] is not our fault does not relieve us of responsibility… We may not have polluted the air, but we need to take responsibility, along with others, for cleaning it up. Each of us needs to look to our own behavior…It is not our fault, but it is our responsibility to interrupt this cycle” (Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? And Other Conversations About Race, rev. ed. 2017). [Those interested in the notion of intergenerational justice, what we take from the past and owe to the future, might want to look at the writings of philosopher Janna Thompson, particularly Taking Responsibility for the Past: Reparation and Historical Injustice (Wiley, 2002) and Intergenerational Justice: Rights and Responsibilities in an Intergenerational Polity (Routledge, 2009).]
The responsibility we carry for the past is, in the simplest sense, knowing it, for only by knowing it can we ever hope to repair it. This is why Republican attempts to erase or whitewash history are so shameful. “My soul cries for justice,” Mary Elizabeth Jones Parrish wrote in 1921, shortly after the Tulsa race massacre, a cry that was not heard for nearly a century. But there is no way “past the trauma, the hurt, the pain, the fear, the chaos,” her great-granddaughter, Anneliese Bruner observed, “without truth.” I stand in awe and admiration of those K-12 teachers who will continue to look for that truth, perhaps putting their jobs, their welfare, and even their very lives on the line in the process. In the end, they will see it as their responsibility.