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Robin D.G. Kelley: The Tulsa Race Massacre Went Way Beyond “Black Wall Street”

Historians in the News
tags: Tulsa race massacre, Robin D.G. Kelley



In this moment of collective remembrance of the Tulsa Race Massacre, I asked the brilliant scholar Robin D. G. Kelley to provide his reflections. Kelley offers a deep analysis that provides a counternarrative (a powerful X-ray) of the massacre that allows us to see deep issues embedded within racial capitalism that impacted poor working-class Black people and sustained Indigenous suffering.

In our discussion, we move from the importance of critical race theory as a framework for critiquing liberalism and the founding myths of the U.S., to questions of differential Black suffering, to a liberated planet. Kelley, who is the Gary B. Nash Endowed Chair of U.S. History at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) and contributing editor for the Boston Review, provides us with complex realities that are braided and require our collective efforts without losing sight of our specific oppressions with their accompanying lived experiences. Kelley is the author of several books, including Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination; Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists During the Great Depression; and the forthcoming Black Bodies Swinging: An American Postmortem (Metropolitan Books).

George Yancy: According to accounts of the Tulsa race massacre, airplanes were used to drop firebombs on the Greenwood District in Tulsa, Oklahoma, which was known as Black Wall Street. When I think about this, the ironies abound. They say, “Black people are lazy.” Yet, Black people in the Greenwood District in Tulsa were known for their affluence, economic power and self-reliant diligence. And they say, “Black people are capricious, they loot, they destroy property.” Over 1,000 Black homes were burned to the ground through acts of white terrorism in Tulsa. The overlap of events at this moment is so crucial. How do you understand the current discussions of the massacre in various public spheres (including in left-wing media and mainstream media but also in conservative media) and what this says about the current political moment in relation to contestations over the existence of white supremacy, systemic racism and the struggle for racial justice?

Robin D.G. Kelley: George, it is always an honor to be in conversation with you. Your questions are always incisive; they cut to the core of the issue.

Certainly, the Tulsa race massacre can possibly be one avenue for the country to “acknowledge” historic and ongoing Black suffering through some kind of truth, reconciliation and reparations process. I’m skeptical for several reasons. For one thing, we keep repeating the mantra that this story is unknown. Although it was front page news in 1921, and although a resident/survivor Mary E. Jones Parrish self-published an eyewitness account in 1923, and although Black residents filed 193 unsuccessful lawsuits against the city and various insurance companies for just compensation, we still talk as if this is all new and shocking knowledge. The Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 (now called the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot Centennial Commission) was created 24 years ago. The indefatigable historian, Eddie Faye Gates, spent years collecting oral histories of survivors.

“60 Minutes” ran a devastating segment on the massacre in 1999, and I swear, every year since, journalists (print and broadcast) have announced the discovery of this terrible history and found some Black person to interview who has never heard of it. Meanwhile, literally dozens of books have appeared on the Tulsa race massacre, going back at least to the 1970s when Lee E. Williams and Lee E. Williams II published Anatomy of Four Race Riots (1972) and a white history professor, Rudia Halliburton Jr., published a short book aptly titled, The Tulsa Race War of 1921 (1975). Then in 1982, Scott Ellsworth released Death in a Promised Land: The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921, followed by a parade of very fine books by James Hirsch, Hannibal Johnson, Tim Madigan, Alfred Brophy, and so on…

The point, of course, is that for at least 40 years, there was no shortage of public information. Even before these texts appeared, it is not hard to find mention or detailed yet flawed accounts of the Tulsa massacre in the pages of leading Black scholarly journals — Journal of Negro HistoryPhylonJournal of Negro Education, etc. (Rudia Halliburton’s book began as an essay in The Journal of Black Studies published in 1972). Besides stacks of books — scholarly, popular, photographic, fiction and young adult — there have been plays written about it as well as several documentary films, some bearing titles, such as Tulsa’s Secret; Terror in Tulsa: History Uncovered; The Tulsa Lynching of 1921: A Hidden Story; all before Watchmen and Stanley Nelson and Marco Williams’s brand new and powerful film, Tulsa Burning.

The fact is, the Tulsa race massacre is the most thoroughly studied and discussed incident of all of the 20th century racial pogroms, with the possible exception of the East St. Louis massacre of 1917. I’ve been in the business of teaching Black history for over three decades, and every colleague I know includes Tulsa in their general survey courses. So why do we continually repeat the assertion that this history is completely unknown, a secret, or so shameful no one wants to talk about it? Because the issue has never been about not knowing; it is about a refusal to acknowledge genocidal, state-sanctioned racist violence in the United States, a refusal to recognize the existence of fascism in this country. This is not to say the violence is simply denied by the status quo. No, rather it is disavowed by the white propertied and political classes and displaced onto “ignorant” white racist workers. This narrative obscures how the violence, fomented and promoted by the press and business interests, became a pretext to take the land — an attempted land grab that continued for decades after 1921.

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