Over the years that I’ve lived in the North Country, I’ve come to be good friends with Dr. JW Wiley, an expert on race and diversity issues in Plattsburgh who also blogs for the Plattsburgh Press-Republican.
A couple of years ago, while having dinner in Westport, we discovered that we share a weird bit of intertwined history.
JW’s great-grandmother lived in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in the early 1920s, when that city erupted in a bloodbath of racial violence.
“My great-grandmother was also a survivor of the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot,” he wrote in a 2007 blog post, “a consequence of Tulsa’s Black Wall Street (which you history buffs should “google” if you want to see one of America’s blackest eyes).”
It turns out my grandfather, who lived in the Midwest, was traveling in Tulsa when the violence broke out. He wrote about it in his journal — about the fear, the martial law, the curfews.
At the time, JW and I felt a bit like orphans of history: From our very different vantage points (my white grandfather, his black great-grandmother) we knew about this seminal event in America’s racial evolution…and almost no one else did.
Due in part to the new spate of apparently racial violence in Tulsa, and perhaps also because of the Trayvon Martin case in Florida, that’s changing.
More white Americans are grappling with the long history of white-on-black violence that has been largely ignored in our broader national dialogue.
It’s not just Tulsa. In 1917, hordes of whites conducted an anti-black pogrom in East St. Louis. Jim Crow era lynchings and officially sanctioned violence were common across the US through the 1950s.
In this era when America has its first African American president, the legacy of that often officially-sanctioned violence and terror can seem obscure, even eclipsed by the march of racial progress.
We prefer to remember the hopeful image of Martin Luther King Jr., rallying us to work toward an end to racial distinctions — as if we have already reached that yearned-for point in our cultural transformation.
But the sad truth is that we still live in the shadows of those southern trees that Billie Holiday sung about, the ones that that bear a “strange fruit.”
“Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,” Holiday lamented. “Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze. Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.”
I fear that Americans have chosen to linger lazily, even dangerously, in the romantic and flattering episodes of our history.
We re-enact the derring-do of the Civil War, dwell upon the unified glory of the Second World War, and savor the sexy coolness of the Mad Men era. We think nostalgically about our small towns, our picket fences.
But to see ourselves clearly — to understand the racial divides that still mar our society, and the unique challenges that black America faces — we all have to travel through Tulsa.
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