Virginia Woolf & Tulsa Massacre

Response to Virginia Woolf & Tulsa Massacre, August 13, 2020
Readers of "Virginia Woolf & Tulsa Massacre" (below) joined me in admitting ignorance about the massacre—white Americans killing 300 African Americans. Samples:
After all my years of studying history (elementary, secondary, undergrad and grad levels) I have to admit that I was woefully ignorant of the treatment of blacks . . .
If we who have had what we thought was a “solid” education have such blank spaces in our knowledge, I am not surprised that many Americans are ignorant of the terrible things done to people of color.

Lois Thielen:
The fact is, so much history is buried or not accurate or biased.  Think back to our school history books.  They were basically propaganda.
I try to do better in my own writing of history.

Poet Larry Schug:
Thanks, Jeanette.  It amazes me to learn of the history we were not taught. . . . We writers have a special obligation and opportunity to spread truth through our art.

George Floyd

You breathed until you stopped breathing,
your breath cut off by a uniformed knee
pressing on your neck.
Know this, George Floyd.
Nothing goes away,
your last exhalation
became a part of the Great Breath.
Your breath is yet being breathed
in and out of all of us,
passed from breather to breather.
Always a part of the air.

Readers and sustained media attention to racial injustice motivate me to stay on the subject—right now the top priority in the moral universe. It fits with my abiding purpose in writing—battling injustice.
I want to help, and I can’t march or organize or fund. All I can do to promote justice is to wield words.

I sank into TV coverage honoring the life of John Lewis, letting myself weep. To prod America into waking up, John Lewis wrote a farewell to be published on the day of his funeral. He was determined to keep us marching, as Bill Clinton said at his funeral.

President Obama in his eulogy did not mince words.
There are those in power who are doing their darnedest to discourage people from voting by closing polling locations and targeting minorities and students with restrictive ID laws and attacking our voting rights with surgical precision, even undermining the postal service in the runup to an election that’s going to be dependent on mail-in ballots so people don’t get sick.
Continuing my current passion, I am reading—James Baldwin and Toni Morrison, among others—and consuming multiple media. Public radio and public TV consistently promote racial justice.

An MPR program promised to tell people like me how to help. I expected to hear ways of giving information, but that’s not what I heard. African Americans on the show told us to accept being uncomfortable.
Huh? Uncomfortable about what?
About being a privileged white.
Then I got it. We whites don’t like to see how much more comfortable we are than black persons. We just don’t want to look at it. This is the theme of Robin DiAngelo’s bestseller WhiteFragility.  

It serves us to not think about racism, says DiAngelo, because seeing our privilege awakens defensiveness, withdrawal. When our everyday white control is challenged, we resist the discomfort.

“I’m not racist,” says Trump after being called on obviously racist remarks. We all swim in racism, and along with Trump, few of us whites see what we’re swimming in.
Some of those wanting to stay unaware pretend to be colorblind. “This is a color-free zone,” they say, or “I’m not political,” or “I don’t see race.”
A black author replied, “That’s fine. You can choose not to see the sky, but it exists.”

With denial comes refusal to take responsibility. White voices have been missing in discussions of racial injustice. We’ve let black people carry the burden, the psychic energy, of exposing racism, but it is our job to own, to confess, to confront our unconscious biases.

Rev. Sonny Martin, pastor of Calvary Baptist, was trying to understand and help his congregation understand Black anger.   
See, I haven’t experienced the hatred that a black man feels walking down the street. . . .
I don’t know how it feels. Sometimes I guess it’s like depression—like, if you’ve not gone through depression, you don’t know how it feels. Maybe it’s like that.
(appearing in The Week, originally The Washington Post)
So, being white, how can I understand and reveal Black perceptions? I turn to black people to be educated. In National Catholic Reporter, Bryan Massingale declared,
              "No white person would ever wish to be black. [This is] where things may get uncomfortable for most of you.
              It's just something that you know . . . Because you realized, even without being explicitly told, that being white makes life easier. Even if you have to do some hard work along the way, at least you don't have to carry the burden of blackness as a hindrance. . . ."

Massingale used a confrontation in Central Park, New York, to jolt whites into awareness.
Amy Cooper, a white woman called the police on a black birdwatcher because he asked her to do what rules require in that part of the park—to leash her dog.
[Amy Cooper] knew deep in her soul that she lived in a country where things should work in the favor of white people.
She assumed that [the black birdwatcher] knew that any confrontation with the police would not go well for him.
She assumed that the frame of "black rapist" versus "white damsel in distress" would be clearly understood by everyone: the police, the press and the public.
She assumed that if he protested his innocence against her, he would be seen as "playing the race card."
Massingale listed 15 assumptions that are reasons white people would never wish to be black.
"That’s the reason for the grief, outrage, lament, anger, pain and fury that have been pouring into our nation's streets.
Because folks are tired. Not only of the individual outrages. But of the fundamental assumption that ties them all together: that black lives don't matter and should not matter — at least not as much as white ones."

Richard Wright in his memoir Black Boy (American Hunger (1945) wrings feelings out of readers as if they possessed the skin of an African American.
“I heard that a nigger can stick his prick in the ground and spin around on it like a top,” Reynolds said, chuckling. . . .
I ignored him.
Mr. Pease was watching me closely; . . .
“Come here, boy,” Pease said.
I walked to his bench.
“You didn’t like what Reynolds just said, did you?” he asked.
“Oh, it’s all right,” I said, smiling.
“You didn’t like it. I can see it on your face.”
I stared at him and backed away.
“Did you ever get into any trouble?” he asked.
“No, sir.”
“What would you do if you got into trouble?”
“I don’t know sir.”
“Well, watch yourself and don’t get into trouble.,” he warned. 
What gets me is the smile. I despise it. Not the African-American smiling but the racism that forces his participation in his own degradation.
Such a smile also figures in Toni Morrison’s novel Sula. I’m ashamed for us all.

Wright reveals why black youth kill each other in gang warfare.
. . . being an organic part of the culture that hated him, the black man grew in turn to hate himself . . . each part of his day would be consumed in a war with himself . . .
Held at bay by the hate of others, preoccupied with his own feelings, he was continuously at war with reality.
I had seen many Negroes solve the problem of being black by transferring their hatred of themselves to others with a black skin and fighting them.
Wright was not optimistic. He feared America was too suffused with color hate to ever comprehend. I’d like to think the time is now when we prove him wrong.
George Floyd’s six-year-old daughter said, “Daddy changed the world.” May it be so.

We live in a system of white supremacy and don’t know it. I am learning to know it. Writing about it is my own individual, feeble, reparation.

Virginia Woolf & Tulsa Massacre, July 9, 2020
I had never read A Room of One’s Own. For decades it was on my “someday” list of works to read. Now that I get books from the library only by ordering them, I finally read Virginia Woolf’s famous book, doubting I would find it as groundbreaking as everyone said.
Its emotional effect on me surpassed my expectation, shaped as I am now by the murder of George Floyd and the ensuing fallout. Written in 1928, A Room of One’s Own still applies today, in 2020. 

Woolf wondered why women are so interesting to men. “Have you any notion of how many [books about women] have been written by men?” 

She studied a few learned tomes by men about women: 
       Alexander Pope wrote, “Most women have no character at all.” 
       Dr. Samuel Johnson regarded a woman composer “like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well, but you are surprised to find it done at all.” 
       Oscar Browning, professor at Cambridge, declared after looking over examination papers that “the best woman was intellectually the inferior of the worst man.”

Woolf reacted, 
“All that I had retrieved from that morning’s work had been the one fact of anger.” 
She wondered, Why were they angry? They had all “the power and the money and the influence.” 

It seemed absurd to her, 
"that a man with all this power should be angry. . . . 
Possibly when the professor insisted a little too emphatically upon the inferiority of women, he was concerned not with their inferiority, but with his own superiority. That was what he was protecting rather hot-headedly and with too much emphasis, because it was a jewel to him of the rarest price."

Parallels between sexism and racism leap to mind. Commonly implied in racist talk: 
“The best black man is intellectually the inferior of the worst white man.”

During this national outcry for racial justice, I have been focusing on Black experiences even more than I had before. I have the radio on and tuned to MPR whenever I’m not reading or writing, so without trying, I learn things I didn’t know were missing in my education. I didn’t think I could be surprised by the level of white cruelty in our nation’s history. I was wrong. How ignorant we educated whites are because of white-centric history taught in schools!

I didn’t know that a Black Wall Street flourished in Tulsa, Oklahoma. It was burned down in 1921 by white mobs furious that African Americans lived prosperous lives.
I didn’t know about the Massacre of 1921. Why was I ignorant of it? I don’t blame myself or any single individual.

The racist structure of our entire American system kept us white Americans—and black Americans too—ignorant of how our nation treated—and treats—our black citizens. 

One part of the history we should have been taught came to my attention by president Donald Trump’s ill-fated choice of Tulsa, Oklahoma, as the place to stage his return to campaign rallies—on Juneteenth, the holiday commemorating the end of slavery.

In the early part of the twentieth century, African Americans turned Tulsa, Oklahoma, into one of the most prosperous black communities in the country. Along Greenwood Avenue flourished 150 businesses, called Black Wall Street. 
. . . there were luxury shops, restaurants, grocery stores, hotels, jewelry and clothing stories, movie theaters, barbershops and salons, a library, pool halls, nightclubs and offices for doctors, lawyers and dentists. Greenwood also had its own school system, post office, a savings and loan bank, a hospital, and bus and taxi service. 

The Greenwood District in Tulsa included residential black neighborhoods of about 10,000 souls spread out over 35 city blocks. Affluent African Americans with upscale lifestyles triggered resentment among whites who, to soothe their own emotional needs, wanted black people to keep their inferior status (echoing sexism). In a little more than 12 hours, white mobs invaded Greenwood, burned it down, and murdered 300 people. 

This happened in 1921. Almost a hundred years later, Donald Trump boasted that a million people requested tickets to his campaign rally. He had no idea how fraught was his choice of Tulsa on the nineteenth of June, or his boast. He moved his event to June 20, but many registered for it with no intention of going, making his boast an embarrassment. 

The Greenwood District evolved on Indian Territory in Oklahoma, an area bearing its own painful history. When Andrew Jackson initiated the federal government’s relocation of Native Americans onto their Trail of Tears, this was their forced destination. It later attracted American Blacks, who later still built the Greenwood District.

The Tulsa Race Massacre started as white crimes against Blacks usually do, with an incident distorted to foment hatred of African Americans. 
In an elevator a black man, Dick Rowland, inadvertently touched a white woman in a way that scared her. Someone called the police. Rowland was found, accused of attempted rape, and arrested; stories were spun whipping up white fear, envy, and hatred; mob riots exploded as white people set fires, looted, and murdered black citizens. 

White power overwhelmed the few Blacks who fought back. The facts are cloudy but include deputized and weaponized white men, machine guns, the National Guard, and airplanes dropping mayhem from the skies. According to black victims, city officials and military officials participated in the destruction of Greenwood.

A CBS report leading up to a 60 Minutes story said, 
The first time Americans were terrorized by an aerial assault was not Pearl Harbor.
Scott Pelley reports on a race massacre in which an estimated 300 people, mostly African American men, women and children, were killed, and aircraft were used to drop incendiary devices on a black neighborhood in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The Greenwood Massacre of 1921 has been largely ignored by history, but Pelley finds a Tulsa community seeking to shed more light on what's been called the worst race massacre in history.

Another historical document relates,
So intent were the white rioters on destroying Greenwood that they stopped firefighters from getting to the blazes.
Firefighters testifying in an insurance case several years later said they were threatened and even shot at when they arrived on the scene of the earliest fires. Later, they received orders from Fire Chief R.C. Alder not to respond to alarms from the black district because of the danger.
That order remained in effect until the fires were out of control. 

Thousands of black Tulsans were herded into Convention Hall and detained, purportedly in protective custody. In the aftermath of the massacre, no one was prosecuted for the killings. Insurance companies rejected claims by black property owners. Criminal investigations of whites fizzled out. Black men were indicted for inciting a riot, charges that all had been dropped by a decade later. 

A welfare fund to assist recovery was started but raised only a tiny fraction of the damage. On their own, Black Tulsans had to repair and rebuild themselves and their property. They persevered. Readers who can stand more outrage can learn more by following the links above. 

I am glad that white people today finally seem ready for indignation on behalf of black people. But conversion of hearts does not depend on knowledge alone. We humans are driven by emotional factors hard to fathom. Still, knowledge helps, and I’ll keep educating myself and trying to educate others, as I do in my battle against sexism. 

I see a real step forward in national compassion for the abuse black citizens endured while most of us were oblivious. The Trump presidency brought on this moment of national reckoning. Historian Jon Meacham says the Trump presidency is the last gasp of white America that wants to keep America white. They are a besieged minority who fight what they know—that they’re on the way out. 

Dawson Church, genetic researcher and ordained minister, writes in Unity Magazine that we are 
at a turning point in global human consciousness . . . [we are] becoming more compassionate as a species. . . .
Never before in human history have so many people been prepared to sacrifice for so few. This is a pandemic of compassion that has broken out in the human race in 2020. 

I cling to this. 


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