Working part time at a bookstore to pay for college, it was in 2001 when I first learned about the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921. I was shelving books when I came across a copy of Up from the Ashes by Hannibal B. Johnson.
I recall flipping through the pages, stunned that such massive atrocity that had taken place in my home state. And how was I just learning about this? The riot was certainly not included in Oklahoma History class.
Since that day, I’ve discovered I’m not the only Oklahoman who has been oblivious to the Tulsa Race Riot, the most horrifying act of racial violence in American history.
While this incident made national news, local history books and classes were devoid of information about this violent attack on the community of Greenwood. Even today, researching the event often leads to more questions.
There are discrepancies in the numbers of fatalities, and, as always, history has been written and controlled by those who have committed genocide. The mysteries of what really happened on May 31, 1921 are perhaps lost in the ashes.
For Oklahomans, how do we collectively reconcile this deep scar in our history and take steps to heal the wounds that still hurt and divide us? How do we ensure that we learn from the Tulsa Race Riot so that history does not repeat itself?
For me, I have found artists to be excellent teachers of this message. Here are some artists who have inspired me:
Playwright and artist Vanessa Adams-Harris recently performed at the North Carolina Black Repertory Theatre in Big Momma Speaks. This one-act vignette by Hannibal Johnson chronicles a survivor’s story as she seeks peace and healing.
Vanessa: “Art moves, heals, and tells. It connects us better to the experience of being human by exploring the complexities, good, bad or indifferent to our conditions as humans and it supports our questions of: do we fit in here, and if not, where or how do we fit in?”
Poet and writer Deborah Hunter grew up in the Greenwood area, but it wasn’t until 1971, the fiftieth anniversary of the riot, that she first heard of it.
Deborah: “Because it just wasn’t talked about.”
Yet, it was much later she unveiled her own ties to the event.
“My mother’s older sister was a race riot survivor. I had no idea until I saw her picture on the wall at the Greenwood Cultural Center.”
Her poem, Doomed to Repeat pays homage to the atrocity.
Arts organizations in the vicinity of Greenwood have also been instrumental in telling the story. The Greenwood Cultural Center presents performances and exhibits that focus on the historic Greenwood community. In 2011, Living Arts hosted “053121-90 Years Later,” an exhibit of artwork by high school students.
I feel strongly that artists who are creating works that raise awareness about injustice and atrocities are powerful agents of change.
In a world where people are still discriminated against and dehumanized based off of class, race, gender, sexual orientation, physical ability, national origin, or age, this work is needed now more than ever.
Readers: please share examples of artists who have created works that bridge communities and provide a forum for discussion about human rights and justice.