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Reclaiming a heinous narrative

Oklahoma’s new race ‘riot’ curriculum represents false progress

Tulsa Race Massacre

Library of Congress

The 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, formally known as the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot, has always been at the periphery of my upbringing as a black North Tulsan. It was common knowledge in my family that my great-grandfather, who lived well into my early 20s, was a survivor of one of our nation’s most tragic and racially-motivated massacres. However, it wasn’t really a topic open for discussion. Yes, it took place. But the shame and pain seemed to be his to carry alone throughout the remainder of his days.

“Black bodies floating in the Arkansas River for as far as the eye could see.” I overheard this memory as a child when it was recounted to my mother by a survivor. There was no explanation for why the outburst of racial hatred was allowed to go to that extent. During the handful of times in my childhood that the massacre was explicitly discussed, there was only despair, head-shaking, and mutters of pensive powerlessness in response to our reflection on it.

As the years went by, there were more concerted efforts in the North Tulsa community to begin the painful reclaiming of our narrative. I experienced my own personal reawakening alongside this dynamic. The culmination of this came during my first year of college. On campus, I attended a discussion about the massacre and was excited about the presence of this opportunity in the historically white space. However, I was saddened (but not shocked) that there was only one other black person at the event, and she was a Nigerian professor at the university.

The validation of the massacre in the historically white academic space prompted me to actively embrace my history in a way I hadn’t before. The act of not independently embracing this history is indicative of a deep psychological binding that occurs in black communities: we subconsciously question and deny our own power and agency. In an impulsive, passion-filled gesture, I had my left wrist tattooed with the date of the massacre—a tangible connection and constant reminder of this buried history. Little did I know that I had accidently made myself a walking advertisement for the massacre. In multiple instances acquaintances, friends, and colleagues have seen this tattoo and, shocked, asked me to tell them more about it. The majority of them were white natives of Oklahoma.

I have always been painfully aware of Oklahomans’ ignorance of the massacre’s true story and devastation.

There have been attempts in recent years to remedy this—the most immediate example is the new Tulsa Race Riot curriculum, recently released through the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot Centennial Commission. Initially, it was refreshing to think of all the students statewide that would finally receive this knowledge. But once I saw Senator James Lankford at the forefront of the curriculum’s unveiling, I became suspicious. Lankford, who has supported many policy initiatives detrimental to communities of color, is a peculiar choice for the head of this effort. While a number of dedicated advocates and professionals are part of the commission, it simply gets tiresome to see black community leaders used as pure political capital by those with selfish interests at heart.    

Then there are the problems with the curriculum itself. While there are definite positives to the curriculum, like the inclusion of a survivor’s first-hand account of the massacre and the investigation of primary and secondary historical documents, it doesn’t go far enough. On the commission, there was a definite lack of educators and experts in primary/secondary education crafting this curriculum. There is a serious lack of academic rigor to the discussion questions and no mention of including the curriculum in high school Oklahoma history classes (which are required for all ninth-graders). Terminology related to racism and bigotry is excluded and the curriculum’s treatment of whether the event should be called a riot or a massacre is superficial, dismissive, and condescending. The inclusion of Sen. Lankford’s speech about the massacre on the Senate floor
was the tepid icing on the conciliatory cake.

The architects of the massacre did much more than they themselves ever envisioned. They gained added power by taking away the agency of black North Tulsans in speaking their truth about the massacre, which, in turn, perpetuated the claiming of the massacre narrative by those who stand to gain the most from falsifying it.

Compromised progress is not at all real or sustainable progress.