Saturday, May 29, 2021

Of safety and welcome

One hundred years ago on Memorial Day weekend, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in the city's Greenwood District, an area known as Black Wall Street, prosperous Black families who had made a thriving community for themselves, went about their daily affairs. They had built elegant houses, a Black hotel considered one of the best in the world, banks, law firms, and flourishing businesses and schools, until on May 31 and June 1, one hundred years ago, their district was bombed from the air and incinerated from the ground as whites in Tulsa set fire to the entire kit and kaboodle, whole neighborhoods of families burned in their homes, with many who tried to flee shot and killed, and those who did manage to escape left homeless and penniless, concentrated in camps, their generational wealth in real estate and careful financial investments stolen in broad daylight, with no one ever held to account.

I'm ashamed to say I was a grown woman before I discovered what happened in Tulsa, Oklahoma at the end of May 1921. I can still feel my naive and chilling disbelief that an entire community, thirty-five city blocks, had been razed to the ground in two days. Afterward, they put a highway through Greenwood so its residents could not rebuild. Many Americans still know nothing of the Tulsa race massacre. Some only learned of these events when they watched the opening sequence of the HBO series Watchmen, and were so astonished by the scenes of white mobs firebombing Greenwood, murdering its residents, mercilessly plundering their wealth, that they asked again and again, Did this horror really happen? Could this possibly be true? It did happen. The horror is true. 

What happened in Greenwood didn't appear in any history books from which our children were taught. And this week, the governor of Oklahoma signed a bill that bans the teaching of history that makes people feel uncomfortable, or that might make them feel any sense of responsibility, sorrow, or shame for past events. In other words, he banned the teaching of any and all the racial atrocities that are so woven with the history of this country. Look it up. The bill is so wrong as to be absurd. As someone said on a TV news program this morning, we have to start getting a little more comfortable with discomfort or nothing will ever change. Granted, nothing ever changing is the dearly held hope of many.

The fact is, the burning of Black Wall Street was not an isolated event. Across the South, and in the North, too, booming Black communities that sprang up in the aftermath of slavery were burned to the ground, their residents killed or run out of town, their hard-earned wealth destroyed to stolen, until at last Black folks clustered in concrete inner cities, seeking safety in numbers, starting again from scratch, their future generations mired in poverty and lack of opportunity, their freedom to travel where the wind might take them a wanderlust that could get them killed.

A month ago, a friend, the mother of a boy who went to school with my daughter in New York City, told us of her son driving cross country just for the lark of it, and how he stopped for a few weeks in a small town in Utah and loved it so much he decided to move there. This young man is white of course. A young man of color would not have dared to stop in white rural Utah, and perhaps would not have considered a drive cross country to be a lark, knowing the rural stretches of Trump America he might have to pass through, small towns where his humanity might be despised to the bone. No one talks much about this aspect of racism here, the way it clips the wings of our young, limits the geographic range of their dreams. I was happy for my friend's son, that he had found a place that spoke to his soul, but I couldn't speak for a few moments as the truth assailed me of how curtailed my own children's movements will always be in this country, if they hope to be safe, that is.

Not entirely incongruous to the musings of this post, the photograph here was taken by my niece Arrianne—morning light somewhere in Jamaica. Having migrated to this country forty six years ago, recently I find myself wondering what my life might have been like if I had just stayed in my first home. I realize that to some, no matter how long I live and work and pay taxes here, I will never belong. It is useless to ponder this, my husband says. We met in New York City. Our children were born here. They are American. Perhaps I might not have met and married this beautiful pragmatic man if I had not chosen to live here. Perhaps we are simply meant to be here, the evidence for that being the fact that we are here. 

Still, I yearn so hard of late for the spiritual safety and welcome of my first home, the green and blue island of my birth, it sometimes makes my vision blur.


  1. Of what use are any words I might have? The incredible sorrow that I feel, that all of us should feel, the horror, the anger- I think that they are part of my inability to ever fully enjoy my rich and privileged life. I want so desperately to believe that things have changed for the better and yet, I am all too aware (and yet still, not aware enough) that in the balance, things have not really changed for the better. That's just the truth of it.
    As Obama said in his podcast with Bruce Springsteen, there has been no true reconciliation and until that happens, there can be no true resolution. There has to be an accounting. There have to be reparations. There absolutely has to be forgiveness asked, the acknowledgement of that necessity. There has to be a sincere effort to make restitution.
    And somehow, I do not see that ever happening in this country where history means nothing to us unless it is the history of the often falsely held-beliefs of victories and triumphs.
    We have no idea the burden that we carry because we cannot admit reality and our country will never be "great" unless we do.
    I can understand your yearning for your birth island where you felt safe and apart from all of this but you do belong here. You belong here as much as anyone.
    Not that this knowledge helps. I doubt it helps at all.

  2. We must face the truth in this country in order to make good progress for all. We just must. I am so sorry for the cruelties inflicted by my white race.

  3. In 1921, Memorial Day was on May 30. Given that Memorial Day Weekend is supposed to be three days to pause, remember, reflect and honor the lives of all those who have died in war, from now on I will remember those who were killed in the Tulsa race massacre. What was that if not a war crime in these wars that have not ended?

    Spiritual safety and welcome. Your foundation. Your roots. Something you and your pragmatic man have carried forward to your son and daughter. Something they are carrying forward against all odds.

  4. Lily has a new name for her blog.

  5. I swear , If I had the where with all to leave this country I certainly would. Built on the backs of slaves , land stolen from natives, white folks , a cancer to the land. And so it continues. I urge the young folks to leave, though racism is everywhere, it is less in some wheres.

  6. This is an amazing post. Amazing. And I think you should eventually find a place for yourself in your birth home. A place where your children and grandchildren will come.

  7. I had never heard of the Tulsa massacre until about a year ago. There are so many awful things that have happened in the past that are not talked about, not taught, not acknowledged. Here it was residential schools and how the indigenous people were treated, children torn from their families, forced into residential schools, abused and denied their heritage.

    I have no answers but it does break my heart. Sending hugs.

  8. why do white people, some white people, fear black people so much? and hate. where does that come from. so desperate to feel superior that they destroy any success they achieve and strive to keep them penniless and without hope.if it were possible to magically move all black people from this country, and brown people while we're at it, and place them somewhere where they can live and thrive, this country would be ruined. then maybe the haters would see how much they depend on those they hate.

    we weren't taught about the Tulsa massacre in school either though we were taught about the horrors of slavery but the state was run by Democrats back then. and now all these laws preventing teachers from teaching the truth about our history. so evil.

  9. I also hadn't heard of the Tulsa massacre growing up -- in fact I don't think I was aware of it until maybe 20 years ago. I know of a similar event in Wilmington, N.C., in the early 1900s that's received more press attention in recent years. As you said, these stories were repeated all across the country at the time. Horrifying.

    I don't understand why some white people can't look their history squarely in the face and consider their role in these atrocities -- and the ways they've benefited, if only in terms of long-standing cultural dominance. These Republican laws against teaching reality just blow my mind. Republicans are always hollering about the left and Antifa but these laws are positively Soviet -- rewriting history for propaganda purposes.

    Do you think you might ever move back to Jamaica? Retirement, maybe? Or second home?

  10. Thank you for writing about this. It's heartbreaking. It does need taught in school, and if that is stymied by political forces then it needs taught by every other means. The same is true in Canada. We have history to be reckoned with as well. Love to you, my friend. Do not give up.

  11. Vox had a piece on this that I read today. The National Guard participated in this - with machine guns. I did not know about the planes dropping turpentine balls. It's just so horrific. It's unlikely to be taught in schools, since the Governor of OK has signed a bill saying that subjects that might make people uncomfortable don't need to be taught. Aaaaargh.

  12. We do a terrible job of teaching history and it depends upon whose history it is, I know that yearning of which you speak...Regarding Tulsa, I learned of this because I once knew someone who grew up there and knew its history. I hope you can return if that is truly what you desire.

  13. I loved Jamaica, the two times I have been privileged to visit it, but as a British Isles mongrel Canadian, would I fit in there, ever? I hope I hear you clearly enough to understand a small amount of the pain you describe, but I know that is not enough. I had a small taste of being a visible minority while I was in Africa. As a tourist I was treated quite differently than as a teacher living in Harare. But in both cases I knew I was there on sufferance. It was very sad to see the resentment and hopelessness of a child who threw a rock at a car I was riding in. But I was safely in the car. It amazes me that so many people who are never safe can be so generous. On another occasion when I was lost, a boy of similar age sorted me out and oriented me, showing clearly that he thought I was pretty helpless. I loved that.

  14. I never learned of the Tulsa massacre either until a few years ago. About the same time, I found about a similar incident here in Florida. The entire town of Roseville burned and destroyed. Residents murdered. Never a mention in any history books. The governor here, is almost as bad as Oklahoma’s. It feels like we are being propelled backwards at breakneck speed.