Monday, May 31, 2021

Tulsa and Teaching History

The Tulsa Race Massacre happened 100 years ago today. It's a horrifying chapter in US history, its anniversary arriving ion the midst of a new national argument about how history should be taught. 

Nowadays you can find plenty of resources about the destruction of Greenwood and the murder of--well, the number 300 is used, but the fact is we don't really know exactly how many Black folks were murdered. That lack of information is par for the course; the massacre was effectively covered up, buried by civic leaders who wanted to build a reputation for Tulsa as a cosmopolitan oil center. Tulsa's chief of police sent his officers out to physically collect all the pictures taken of the carnage--they stayed hidden away for decades.

When the massacre was discussed, it was called a riot. The full, true nature has only worked its way into public view in this century, and even right now, the massacre is characterized as a white mob running out of control, which portrays the events as still one step less horrific than they actually were. Read this thread by writer Michael Harriot; the white population of Tulsa did not "erupt" in violence. They organized, drilled, prepared and attacked. 

It was a large scale lynching, as well as a real estate grab (most of the thirty-four blocks burned down by white Tulsans ended up being owned by White Tulsans). And lynching, as Harriot points out, was a regular US thing in those days. There had actually been an attempt to make lynching a federal crime in 1918. The NAACP did the research and showed, among other things, that only one sixth of the 2500 lynchings of Blacks between 1899 and 1918 had involved accusations of rape. The bill failed. It was tried again in 1922. It failed again, defeated by Southern Congressmen's use of the filibuster. The Southern legislator argument was that "blacks were responsible for more crime, more babies born out of wedlock, more welfare and other forms of social assistance, and that strong measures were needed to keep them under control." Between 1882 and 1968, around 200 anti-lynching bills were floated in Congress; three passed the House, and none were approved by the Senate. The Senate did pass a bill making lynching a federal hate crime in 2018, and it died because the House did not pick it up and vote on it. The House did pass a similar bill last year, and it's currently in bill limbo.

But I digress. The Tulsa massacre is just one example of a chunk of history that the country has trouble coming to grips with, even as so many states are floating laws to make the conversation even harder, or even forbidden, to have. 

Oklahoma's anti-critical race theory law is less expansive than some, but at the top of the usual list of "concepts" that it forbids, it says that no school "shall require or make part of a course," which means they can't even be discussed. Governor Stitt, in supporting the bill, offers that he believes "not one cent of taxpayer money should be used to define and divide young Oklahomans." He argues that Bad Things, like the massacre can still be taught. It's also worth noting that while the law applies to public, charter and cyber schools, it does not apply to any of the private schools served by the state's voucher program. An expansion to that program was just signed into law by Stitt.

Fallout has been immediate. Melissa Smith has been teaching classes in high school and community college about race and ethnicities for years, but she has just been told by her summer college race and ethnicities class, fully enrolled, has been canceled. Smith teaches about things like "disparities between the races in terms of education, housing and income," but apparently that's trouble enough.

Smith's story is a good example of how these laws work--not by arresting teachers who teach naughty things, but by scaring the hell out of less-steely administrators who immediately shut down anything that they think has a remote chance of stirring up bad trouble. The folks behind these laws know that--that's why we see folks from astro-turfy Parents Defending Education to Dan Crenshaw to the Lt. Governor of Idaho encouraging folks to anonymously turn in anyone that is teaching any of that scary race stuff or wokeness or  indoctrinatin' our children.

Will anyone be turning in Mikael Vaughn at the Urban Coders Guild? He and his students partnered with Tulsa Community College to set up, a website that attempts to capture the legacy of what was destroyed. Will the state take action against the Oklahoma City Public School Board for saying the law is just to protect white fragility?

Look. Teaching history is hard, and teenagers, many of whom are certain that the world sprang into being the day they were born, are a tough audience. For 39 years, my students were near-unanimous in saying that history was the most pointless class they took. Of course, part of that was probably a reaction to the attempt we make to reduce history to facts and dates. When Stitt says that schools can still teach things like the Tulsa Massacre, he means they can keep teaching that X happened on date Y. But that's not history. Not really.

We are hardwired to do history, I would tell my students. We do it every day. Pat and Sam have a fight and break up at a party Saturday night, and by Sunday everyone is talking about it, sharing the different versions of events (Pat's, Sam's, Pat's friends', Sam's friends', etc) and trying to parse out what led up to it, what caused it, what it means for the past, how it will affect the future, and all of that for the ultimate goals of A) building a consensus reality and B) figuring out how to feel about it. And on top of all that, none of these questions will ever reach a final answer. At the fiftieth class reunion, someone will bring it up and relitigate it. That's history. We just mostly do it with dead people who can no longer speak for themselves, which means that the conversation can always be disrupted by new information and that we never can be completely certain we know what we're talking about.

The challenge of teaching history is to convey all that while, at the same time, not telling students how to feel about any of it. Part of my usual fall spiel: "We can't talk about American literature and history without talking about issues of race and gender and class. It is not my job to tell you what to think, but it is my job to convey as clearly as I can what other people think and thought about the issues at hand." And then we buckled up for a year of discussion, and I periodically bit my tongue off, because you cannot change hearts and minds by demanding that they do so or forcing them to declare ideas they neither grasp nor believe (even if you're pretty sure those things are true). 

The White civic leaders of Tulsa tried to control the narrative of their crimes by controlling what people could see and know and say. It only worked for a while. Right now, GOP legislatures are trying to do the same thing by driving discussion of America's racist sins out of classrooms. The conversation has to continue, and it will only serve us well if it's based on reality. 

Okay, this is running long, but I realize now I have one more point to make. Here's a thing I learned during the meltdown of my first marriage--lying is exhausting. It seems easy at first, but the thing about lying is that it requires mental maintenance of at least two narratives. On the one hand, you have the things that are actually happening, and on the other, the things that would be happening if what you said last week was actually true. Little lies may not be a big deal--after a few days, the divergent narratives come back together and life goes on. But big lies-- the longer you go, the further they diverge and pretty soon you're like a person with each foot on a different car, and the cars are racing forward down roads that diverged at that Y back where you lied and it takes everything you have not to fall.

You can try to just forcefully shut up and shut out everything that provides evidence of the truth. Gaslighting, shouting down, sheer exercise of power--those are the popular tools. For a single person, this is tiring and toxic; for a nation, it is, well, tiring and toxic. White folks have spent a lot of energy trying to maintain a narrative about Black folks, and also spent a lot of energy trying to maintain a narrative about that narrative (we used to have a racism problem but that all stopped some fifty, sixty years ago). But here we are again, passing these laws to try to keep people from raising the topics in the hopes they'll all go away.

The story of Tulsa--and not just the story, but the story of the story--is a reminder that the conversation needs to continue, that, in fact, some parts of the conversation have barely begun. We can do better.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for a compelling description of what it means to teach, and especially your take on what history actually is. Racial history is history, no matter how hard it is to swallow.
    I'm not a school teacher, but they who do it well will keep some of these ideas in mind.