The Tulsa Massacre: Why History and Language Matter

“Tulsa Race Riot Inflames – 1921” Via Wikimedia Commons

Critical Race Theory (CRT) has been taking a front row seat in Republican circles recently. When Republicans run out of ideas, they base their survival on wedge issues. CRT is just the latest bogeyman.  In Georgia, Florida, Louisiana, and other states, there are attempts to forbid the teaching in schools of blackness and the shared experience of that blackness.

Georgia Governor Brian Kemp tweeted recently that, “Schools should be able to focus on providing the highest quality education to every child in Georgia without partisan bias or political influence.”

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has said, “Let me be clear: there’s no room in our classrooms for things like critical race theory. Teaching kids to hate their country and to hate each other is not worth one red cent of taxpayer money.”

President Joe Biden believes differently. On the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Massacre, the President said, “Just because history is silent, it does not mean that it did not take place.” He added that, “We can’t just choose what we want to know, and not what we should know…I come here to help fill the silence, because in silence wounds deepen.”

Howard Zinn referred to the traditional teaching of history in American schools as the “fundamental nationalist glorification of country.” His 1980 book, “A People’s History of the United States,” attempted to rectify the holes in American education.  But the opposite of nationalist glorification is not, as Florida Governor Ron DeSantis believes, “teaching kids to hate their country.”

Rather, true history can give us, in the words of Noam Chomsky, “a new understanding of who we are and what we should aspire to be.”

Now, it seems, there is a renewed interest in an examination of the true history of the nation. As the first American president to commemorate the Tulsa Massacre, President Biden pointed out, “My fellow Americans, this was not a riot. This was a massacre.”

Calling what happened in Tulsa a riot, as many have, is an attempt at obfuscation, an attempt to whitewash the deaths of hundreds of Black Americans at the hands of their neighbors on a pretense.  An entire 35 blocks of the prosperous Black Greenwood neighborhood was obliterated. Black people were hanged, shot in their homes, and businesses were firebombed.

The difference in terms is not lost on many people. We are not speaking of mere semantics. Words matter, and at the root of language is the ability to envision reality with the words we choose.

It is the difference between “She was raped,” and “He raped her.” It is the difference between calling the “Trail of Tears” a communal hike rather than forced resettlement. It is the difference between genocide and manifest destiny.

The teaching of history and the words used to teach that history are the difference between an honest reckoning and the glossing over of deep and painful divisions in our nation, from past to present.

In Louisiana, I attended Pineville High School. Our teams were called the Rebels, and the mascot was a Confederate General. This lasted until 2020, when the school board voted to keep the team name but get rid of the General. I never learned about the Tulsa Massacre at Pineville High. I didn’t learn a lot of things at Pineville High. I didn’t hear about Colfax in 1871. I didn’t learn about Rosewood in 1923.

But of course, like everyone else, I did hear my teachers talk about Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech, and a gentle, peaceful MLK. But what of the King who said this? “Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism.” Or this from his book, “Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?” wherein he says, ”Whites, it must frankly be said, are not putting in a similar mass effort to reeducate themselves out of their racial ignorance. It is an aspect of their sense of superiority that the white people of America believe they have so little to learn.”—  

On the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Massacre of 1921, I learned that people either heard of it through a graphic novel or through the TV show, Watchmen, that’s loosely based on it. One person admitted they found out about it through Facebook, when I posed the question about where they’d learned about it in the first place. Facebook. We are informed of history not from textbooks but through Facebook. American History educators in schools where blackness is ignored should be ashamed. I shouldn’t be polling +20 people to find that they learned of history through Watchmen.

We are in the 21st year of the 21st century. It is high time we acted like it. Schools, especially southern schools, that want to glorify whiteness at the expense of blackness, or the Lost Cause over genuine history, owe our children something better and more honest than what we’re getting. Words matter, and history does as well.

President Biden gets it. It is fair to say that Joe Biden understands empathy on a deeply personal level. He demonstrated that in Tulsa on June 1st. But there is a step beyond empathy and that step is action. The Biden Administration announced that they would move to alleviate the racial wealth gap, providing greater access to federal capital for small and disadvantaged companies, addressing affordable housing inequalities, and funding for revitalization in underserved communities.

Whether that happens remains to be seen. In the House, progressive legislation is coming out. Meanwhile, in the Senate, people like Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema are helping to keep the terrible tradition of pseudo-filibustering alive, where one doesn’t actually give a filibuster speech, they just threaten and say they’re going to. We need more of Biden’s bold leadership, and less of people like Manchin attempting to preserve institutions founded on the bedrock of racism.

It’s time to start telling the truth.

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