Tulsa, Oklahoma is a city that arches over itself like a gymnast, constantly contorting to fit the idealism of the American heartland. Its persona bends and twists as the city rewrites and re-publicizes, grasping at floating sparks of relevance like children after dandelion seeds. It wants to be. I sympathize with it.
Its website is modern. A slick yellow header rests atop like a crown. Tabs in contrasting blue display the traditional links of “Residents,” “Development/Business,” “Government,” the ever-ambiguous “Connect,” and the neglected “Contact Us.” Its conventionally terminal placement has forever indicated its prioritization by the owner; last. No one wants to be “contacted.” With the relatively high quality of craftsmanship, the website’s only disconcerting element is its choice of Arial as a primary font. It only emphasizes the mindlessness of Tulsa’s concerted effort to be. This, however, is the new website. It just went live last week. I expect the city to recognize their mistake and change the font before the end of the month.
They deleted the old website.
The homepage is consumed by a colossal image of ethnic street art, out of focus, most likely-at the behest of the same person who picked the font. Things look better without the details. At its center is a search bar beneath the words “Welcome to the City of Tulsa.” The white Arial letters are liars. I am nowhere near Tulsa.
“Looking for something specific? Find it now.” The question is imposed, phantomlike, on the search bar itself. When clicked, it evaporates like a taunting ghost. Or a dandelion seed. While it exists, it glows dead grey like a query carved in stone. “Looking for something specific?” It vanishes at any attempt to respond.
“You’re gonna have to be quicker than that!” I imagine it taunts.
I am looking for something specific. My questions uncover a more telling absence. “Your search for ‘Tulsa Race Riot’ returned 0 results.”
“The ‘Tulsa Race Riot’ does not exist.” It taunts again.
The first time I was called a nigger was in 10th grade. I was a cashier at a hellish thrift store. I say hellish because of the hours I worked, the compensation I received, and, most particularly, the clientele I served. They were assholes. All customers are assholes. There is a natural law of communal, necessary detestation of superiors by subordinates, and as a slave despises the master, so to do I despise the customer. It never occurred to me that the customer despised me as well. Why else would the customer call me a “nigger?”
It staggered me. The word was still dripping from her mouth as she stormed out of the store. It covered the register and the counter and the small, poorly stocked display shelf at my back. It stained the ground and the walls and the windows and me, all while I stood there like an abused puppy. I remember apologizing because it felt like the right thing to do. “I’m sorry, ma’am. Have a nice day.” I called out. My words landed on her ear before the door slammed. I know she heard because I felt the words collect their strength in my chest and I felt them vibrate in my throat and they chipped my teeth as they shot from my mouth like bullets. I saw them impact. If she felt it she gave no indication.
Tulsa’s website features a small, live Twitter feed which twitches occasionally, coming alive in sporadic bursts with copious traffic alerts, road resurfacing notifications, and a reminder that “Slight risk or high risk, there’s no time like the present to make sure your emergency kit is stocked…”
“Your search for ‘Tulsa Race Riot’ returned 0 results.”
There is a small window above “Recent News and Announcements” which belongs to the Mayor. “A Welcome from Mayor G.T. Bynum.” He says “Tulsa is a great place to live, work, and play.”
In 1921, 300 people were killed in the largest race riot in American history.
“The ‘Tulsa Race Riot” does not exist.’
My brother wrote a poem. He said “I do not remember the first time I knew who I was, but I still remember the first time who I was mattered to someone else.” This customer made it clear she knew who I was when she called me by my slave name. A slave name. That is what it is. Nigger is the name of slaves. The hard “R” leaves no room for misunderstanding. Everyone knows a nigger is subordinate. A nigger serves, and in that moment, behind the register, I became a nigger who served.
I often wonder what was going through her mind. She was young, maybe three years older than me. She wore the shirt of a band I forget, but I know I listened to. She wore glasses as thick as mine. She stood as tall as I do. She smoked the same cigarettes I do. She knew people I knew. In another world, we might have been friends, but not this one. In this one, she despised me. She had to.
For years after, I often imagined a second encounter. Depending on my mood, these imaginings took on different natures. When I was happy, we would have a chance meeting at the corner Starbucks. She would be ordering a latte and I would be ordering a black Sumatra dark roast in the line next to her. We would lock eyes and I would say “Oh my god, I remember you! You called me a nigger last week/last month/last year! How’ve you been?” She would laugh and smile and say “I’m doing great! I can’t believe you remember that.” I would say “Oh, it’s nothing. I actually did want to talk with you about it though, if you got a minute. I’ll pay for the latte.” She would laugh, and say “Sure!” We would sit down on a bench outside. She would tell me about her family, her trouble with her boss, the boyfriend she plans to marry, how she should quit smoking. I would tell her about the essays I write, the girlfriend I don’t have, how I should quit smoking too. We would construct a monument of empathy; a common language. She would apologize. And I would say “Oh, it’s nothing.” If I’m in a good mood.
If I’m in a bad mood, I still meet her. She still says “I can’t believe you remember that!” I still pay for the latte.
Then I kill her in the Starbucks.
“Yeah Becky, damn right I remember.”
If I’m in a bad mood.
I am not often in a good mood.
“The ‘Tulsa Race Riot’ does not exist.”
The riot is secret history; a whisper eaten alive by white noise. Other sounds distract from a creeping plea for remembrance, but forgetfulness is all-consuming. Nothing is remembered forever. Old wounds, acquired in actions lost to memory, will tear open and bleed and cripple and make us plead for a death. Just because injury is forgotten, does not mean it is healed. We all still bleed. And blood dries brown. Blood dries black.
Let me tell you of my blood.
I am biracial. Or multiethnic. The semantics of my pigmentation are painfully popular talking points and my apathy surges daily. I don’t care. I am an amalgamation, and my life is a mediation between my better halves, one side pleading for comprehension, and the other clawing for retribution. I often do not know which I have a right to claim. I exist in a limbo of experience that has neither true name nor true face other than what I give it.
On May 30th, 1921, a black man named Dick Rowland walked into the Drexel building to use the restroom. He was a shoe black. He polished vamps and toe caps and quarters for dimes on the city streets. I imagine him as I imagine myself; young, entrepreneurial, with life behind oak eyes. He was nineteen years old; barely out of childhood. The barely-adult walked into the Drexel building to use the restroom on the top floor, the only one he was expressly allowed to use. The elevator was operated by a white woman named Sarah Page, seventeen. The elevator was the only one in the building.
What happened next is unknown.
Maybe Rowland tripped, and tried to stabilize his flailing body on Sarah’s shoulder. Maybe his hand brushed against hers and stayed there for a moment too long. Or maybe he assaulted her, as the white population of Tulsa believed. No one knows. Whatever the impetus was, Sarah screamed, and Rowland ran. Because whatever he did, the penalty was death, and he did not want to die.
A clerk from the store next door heard Sarah’s scream and called the police. Sarah Page’s statement was unrecorded, but witnesses say she wanted no charges pressed. She and Rowland likely knew each other. Tulsa was small, and Rowland used the elevator often. They may have been friends. She did not want to press charges, but the state did. A warrant was issued for the arrest of a Richard “Dick” Rowland, 19, Negro.
Have you ever heard of Emmett Till? He was a fourteen-year-old black boy who was lynched in 1955 because a white woman claimed he touched her. In February, 2016, it was revealed that the white woman lied. She’s quoted saying “Nothing that boy did could ever justify what happened to him.”
The first nail in a black coffin is the presumption of guilt.
Dick Rowland was arrested by one of the only two black officers on a police force of forty-five. They found him in Greenwood. Greenwood was the home of “Black Wall Street.” It was the wealthiest black neighborhood in the country. Its infrastructure was built by black hands, and those black hands exchanged the money which kept it alive. They founded a community with scraps from the master’s table. They put their blood into it, and that blood stretched back decades. Their ancestors marched with the Cherokee on the Trail of Tears. They settled in Greenwood and gave it life.
“Your search for ‘Black Wall Street’ returned 0 results.”
“The ‘Black Wall Street’ does not exist.”
The police brought Rowland to the courthouse. I imagined he came without a fight. I do not think he imagined starting one. But a man was lynched last week, and a man was lynched last month, and these people kill quickly. So I imagine he was scared. I imagine he was terrified. I imagine a brow that glints in the light and restless hands, damp and warm like fresh meat in dark waters. The sharks came at sunset.
When I was ten, my father was almost shot in his driveway.
He would tell us all, years later, that a car was reported stolen by a black man. The police saw my father, and assumed he was guilty as he pulled into his driveway. My father’s first mistake was leaving the car. In front of his home, with his wife, my mother, in the passenger seat, he stepped out of the car.
The police officer, a white woman, who I have no doubt was terrified, drew her firearm and called for backup.
Backup came and Dad was handcuffed, with a shotgun at his neck and my mother crying in the passenger seat, screaming that “this was our home.” There were two squad cars and four officers for one man parked in his driveway.
My father does not know I watched.
“The ‘Black Man Almost Shot In His Driveway’ does not exist.”
On the night of May 30th, 1921, a mob of several hundred gathered outside of the courthouse of Tulsa, Oklahoma and demanded death. They demanded Rowland. The police refused, and the courthouse was barricaded. Rowland sat in a jail cell.
The mob was filled with angry white butchers and doctors and lawyers and veterans of the most devastating conflict in our history. They brought their guns and their knives.
The blacks of Tulsa wanted to defend their own. Their fear was justified. A man was lynched last week, and a man was lynched last month, and Rowland was going to be lynched tonight. They had veterans too, and they met the mob in front of the courthouse with their own guns, and their own knives.
The standoff lasted hours.
No one knows what happened next.
Some say a white man tried to take the gun from a black man. Some say it was the other way around. There was, by all accounts, a struggle. Fist met jaw and bone, and blood spat on dirt, then a shot. A shot hidden from the world. A shot not heard, but felt. A shot which condensed ages of hatred into a single round that flew into the air and struck nothing. And the weight of the silence after. And the release. A breaking point and a justification. Fire opened and black bodies fell.
The Tulsa Race Riot is defined as a “riot.” This is not a colloquialism. This is not an accident.
There is no statute of limitations on murder. You can bring a murderer to justice at any point in time, provided the perpetrator is still alive. If not, his estate can pay a fine. There are workarounds. A riot, by contrast, has a two-year statute. No charges can be filed after that point. No compensation can be given.
Riot also implies a certain equity in responsibility. Or perhaps, that those responsible were rabble-rousers of poor character, that they were complaining. The word alone obfuscates the victims and the perpetrators simultaneously. Or, perhaps, it makes the state a victim. Or, perhaps it makes society the victim. There is always as victim.
Calling it what it was, a massacre, is chilling. Or perhaps, more extreme, ethnic cleansing, because it almost was. Or perhaps war. Because those that could fought back.
Anything but “riot.” Riot is sanitizing, clean, and blameless. Or rather, it blames those who participated. It blames the victims. It blames the unheard. And it hides the perpetrators.
Greenwood was burned to the ground not by a nameless, voiceless, faceless few. It was burned down not by aliens or the Chinese or the Russians or God himself. It was burned down by white, voting, American citizens, fathers and grandfathers, uncles and brothers and cousins and nephews and shop owners and bankers and policemen and pilots and lawyers and churchgoers and atheists and veterans and boys as young as 13. It was burned down by people. People did this to other people.
“The ‘Tulsa Race Riot’ does not exist.”
Over the next three days the city devolved into a burning war zone. White rioters forced their way into Greenwood. Snipers sat on rooftops, behind cover of brick too thin. They held their ground for hours, until they were overrun by a force of whites in the thousands. The fighting broke into pockets. Gangs of roaming whites encountered blacks on the streets. They killed until there was no one left to kill. Unarmed whites came in after their vanguard and looted the empty homes.
Teams of men with long rifles exchanged fire across train tracks. Bullets ripped through passing carriages.
Stray black men were rounded up into crowds of raped black women and stolen children and passing whites fired into the throng until they were out of bullets or out of bodies.
Eyewitness accounts report buildings burning from the roof down. Planes circled overhead, launching bullets and makeshift bombs of turpentine and burning rags. It was the first instance of planes used in a terrorist attack on American soil.
The mayor of Tulsa, G.T Bynum, has his own page on the website. It features an embedded video of him on a Pennsylvania Ave. TedX discussing why “Partisan Rhetoric is for Losers.” The page features a letter from the Mayor. It holds no relevance to the video. He says
“Welcome! In 1900, Tulsa’s population was approximately 1,400 people. In 2000, it was just shy of 400,000. What happened in one century that allowed such tremendous growth? … We were fortunate to have pioneers with a spirit of high expectations for their new hometown… they made Tulsa “The Oil Capital of the World”. They built a place known as “America’s Most Beautiful City.” When they saw an airplane for the first time, they decided to build one of the first airports in the world which led to the growth of the aviation industry right here in Tulsa.”
“The ‘Black Wall Street’ does not exist.”
I think consignment to oblivion is the worst damage a society can inflict. Nothing is more painful than to be forgotten. To be forgotten is to be made insignificant. To be forgotten is to be told “your life does not matter.” To be forgotten is to stop being. To be forgotten is to be prevented from being.
As Tulsa’s website chases wisps of meaning, I hear it scream “I matter! I was the oil capital of the world! I had one of the first airports! I matter! I be!” Tulsa does not want to be forgotten. It wants to be remembered as the second most populous city in Oklahoma, as a home of The Wild Bunch, as a leader in aviation. It does not want to be remembered for the massacre of 300 of its citizens. It does not want to be remembered for its blood. It wants to forget.
America has a complicated relationship with race. We simultaneously acknowledge it as a defining element of the patchwork culture of our country, and reject the all-consuming nature of its damage. The implicit assumption is if it remains unspoken, it will go away. But race stays, and as our country evolves, our birth defects become more apparent. Time erodes the scabs off half-healed wounds and blood bubbles up like black gold, until all that is left is the overwhelming image of how little the damage has dissipated.
There are no reparations for Tulsa, and a white woman my age called me a nigger, and my father was almost killed in front of his home and I am in a bad mood.
I do not want to be in a bad mood, but my blood compels me to anger because I do not have the luxury of forgetting and I cannot afford to be forgotten.
The Tulsa Race Riot exists.