What happened in Washington, D.C., on January 6 was newsworthy, but it certainly wasn’t new. Violent attacks by mobs of white Americans carrying weapons are not as infrequent as so many of us like to pretend. This was history repeating itself. I in no way wish to diminish the significance of these events. Instead, I think the fact that they continue to happen makes it even more important that we talk about them. Remaining silent and covering up the dark parts of American history has not been effective in creating “a more perfect Union,” it is just making that dark history more likely to repeat itself.
Books like Unspeakable: The Tulsa Race Massacre, written by Carole Boston Weatherford and illustrated by Floyd Cooper, are one way to start a conversation about injustice. I was so grateful to Netgalley and Lerner Publishing Group for giving me the opportunity to review this book prior to its publication on February 2. The cover of this book is haunting. It shows two parents fleeing from destruction, grasping their children as they run. The mother, whose eyes are closed as she presses her youngest child’s face against her chest, looks to be praying. The father is holding on to everyone as he looks for safety. And the little girls look out at the reader; the oldest looks frightened, but the youngest is looking at us as if to say, “Open your eyes and do something.”
I do not recall learning about the Tulsa Race Massacre in any of my classes throughout school. I don’t think I heard or saw Black Wall Street mentioned until I started this blog a few years ago. I wish that had been different, especially so I could have taught about them in my own classroom as an educator. The success of Black entrepreneurs and the Black community of Tulsa, Oklahoma, in the early twentieth century, is something that all Americans need to learn about. We so often talk about the struggles African Americans face, but we must talk about their triumphs as well, especially when we consider how hard they worked to make these achievements possible.
Unspeakable does an excellent job of introducing readers to the Greenwood community. I find it incredible how much history Weatherford includes in the short amount of text in this picture book. She introduces us to historical figures, Black newspapers, and Jim Crow laws, while Cooper’s illustrations tell a story of pride and joy that comes from family, community, and hard-earned success.
On a page with white writing on a black background, things start to change. The white community of Tulsa was not happy with the success of the people of Greenwood. When Dick Rowland, an African American teenager shining shoes, stepped on the foot of a white female elevator operator, he was arrested for assault. Fearing that he would be lynched, members of the Greenwood community rushed to guard him. They faced a mob of thousands. The mob was unable to reach Mr. Rowland and spread rumors that the Black community would soon attack.
The reaction was swift and deadly. Unspeakable tells the story of the Tulsa Race Massacre, yes, but it also tells the story of so much of American history. When lies are told about what “other” people might be doing or trying to do, bad things happen. In Tulsa, hundreds of people were killed and thousands left homeless over a sixteen hour period of time, because of a lie and because of a culture of white supremacist beliefs. This event was not discussed or taught in schools in Oklahoma for close to 80 years.
Weatherford and Cooper have created something extraordinary with Unspeakable. I hope that it encourages children, families, and teachers to have open and honest conversations about so many of the historical truths that have gone unspoken.
Justice 13: I know that words, behaviors, rules and laws that treat people unfairly based on their group identities cause real harm.
Justice 14: I know that life is easier for some people and harder for others based on who they are and where they were born.