What Tulsa Says About White Life

Photo by Raychel Sanner on Unsplash

In 1921 one of the largest singular race massacres happened in the United States in the Greenwood community of Tulsa, OK. Tuesday was the centennial.

Like many things that revolve around Black life — my life — I don’t remember when I learned about the destruction of this Black community. It’s as if I have always known. Like everything that was of me was written on my heart at birth like the commandments, Black commandments.

It would help me make sense of both what my country means to me and what I mean to it. The more things I would become aware on this list of culture commandments, I began to realize that the exchange is wholly unfair. But the lack of fairness would be a cornerstone of the relationship of my life and its involvement in this country. The exchange — I would begin to see — is what my country means to me is a reflection of the actions it has taken against my lineage and what I mean to my country is one of assignment.

Tulsa wasn’t some minor infraction in a remote location. The scope of this was massive; but 100 years later, a lot of white people are unaware that this happened; so unaware as if it didn’t.

Being someone who reads a lot about blackness there are events that I know that the average person won’t. It would be unfair to expect someone who doesn’t study what I do to know what I know. But to not know some of the key events tragic or not or even figures is strange.

I remember my father telling me something in high school that I didn’t understand then but later I saw reiterated by my readings. The sentiment is that Black people know White people very well, but White people don’t know Black people at all. As a young high schooler how could this be true? How could you live in a country with people that you have to interact with and not know just a glimmer of maybe not their lives but their culture? Is proximity not at work?

But the detail in that idea is the necessity. White people do not need to know Black people because knowing us gives them no benefit. But Black people knowing White people — especially in 1921 — was often the difference between still owning your life and it escaping you.

The centennial of the massacre, it’s doing a remarkable job of putting time into perspective.

On the whole, a century is a great deal of time, most people don’t live to one hundred. But in the case of Tulsa, there are two people who where there that are still alive. And further, families that participated in the massacre are still there; and yet the current generation of those families have no idea what happened let alone their lineage being the cause of it.

This is extremely dangerous, but it is nothing we haven’t seen before.

We call it now white guilt, which is current white people feeling remorse for what their ancestors have done to the ancestors of the oppressed.

Guilt is a good thing. It allows a person to change course, make up for wrong and vow to do better. But guilt and shame should not be confused as the same. Guilt relates to an action that was wrong which is much easier to fix and talk about. But shame is the feeling that the person as a whole is wrong, and that is a much harder idea to talk about and may not be talked about.

Shame is the reason why people whose family was involved in the Tulsa massacre have never spoken about it to their children. But not speaking about it breeds something more dangerous, denial and denial leads to erasure.

We see that white life is made up of depthless efforts.

The first part of fixing a problem is the admittance that one exists. But after that the work must be done. But the system of whiteness will then say to those white people “isn’t their shame enough?” “doesn’t them wishing that it didn’t happen good enough?”

Of course it isn’t.

Because a wish doesn’t absolve the horrors that happened in a country that was built for you, but it does continue to maim the people that you persecuted.

Shame will not bring back the dead, it will not make slavery seem further away and it will not rebuild Greenwood.

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