“There is no place you or I can go, to think about or not think about, to summon the presence of, or recollect the absences of slaves; nothing that reminds us of the ones who made the journey and of those who did not make it. There is no suitable memorial or plaque or wreath or wall or park or skyscraper lobby. There’s no three-hundred-foot tower. There’s no small bench by the road.” -Toni Morrison 1989.
In my short visit to Tulsa, Oklahoma, I was most moved by the bench that sits outside of the only home that still stands from the Greenwood District. The original Mabel Little Heritage House was destroyed during the Tulsa Massacre; however, it was rebuilt on the same site and later relocated and renamed Mabel Little to honor her community advocacy. The Mabel Little Heritage House is a symbol of resiliency of Black Tulsa residents.
Tulsa’s efforts to commemorate and memorialize the Greenwood district is moving – it has been beautifully done, is well-maintained, and well-representative of the Greenwood district. However, there is something to be said in regard to the overabundance of violence and trauma at the center of the Greenwood memorialization, something that left me carrying conflicting feelings regarding the commemoration of the Greenwood district. That is not to say that there should not be a continual reckoning with the violence that occurred in Tulsa, but rather I would have liked to see more of what resiliency looked like in the aftermath of the Tulsa Massacre. This is why I was most moved by The Bench by the Road quote from Toni Morrison and the connection that was made to place this bench outside of a home that symbolizes the resiliency of Black Tulsa residents and survivors of the Tulsa Massacre. The decision to quote Toni Morrison at the site of the Mabel Little Heritage House is one that does not go unnoticed. Toni Morrison dedicated so much of her literary work to the ways in which the resiliency and resistance of Black communities is necessary to restoring justice, peace, and tranquility both within communities and interdependently. Acts of resistance are essential to redemption and Black solidarity.
Listing through a catalog of images, archived under the title “Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 Archive: Documents and other Related Materials,1989-004-2,” I stopped. Image number 1989-004-5-27 (wrongly identified as 1989-004-5-26 on the page), shows two men, rifles on their shoulders, walking toward the photographer. Behind them, a group of women in dresses and a man move in the opposite direction, huddling alongside a row of cars and crowds of people amassing in street. The scene is set against the backdrop of a cloud of heavy smoke in the distance. The photo made me pause. Onlookers. People gather to watch as other people are being violated, mutilated and killed, and as houses, businesses, churches and schools are burned to the ground. We think about the victims, and we think about the perpetrators—here, the men with the rifles. Do we consider those who watch? Those who do not directly participate in the violence, yet stand to benefit? Who will eat the chewing gum stolen from the stores, who will play the piano dragged from the house before it is set on fire, who will build their homes on the site of residences destroyed by a mob? Who will benefit from a system of oppression that makes a spectacle of mutilated bodies considered to be of lesser value, who will pass their privilege on to their children and grandchildren? Who will provide a captive audience for atrocity?
The image made me pause because it brought to mind Czesław Miłosz’ observations at the wall around the ghetto of Warsaw in 1943. WhileJews imprisoned in the ghetto were fighting for their lives, using shovels, knives, or light bulbs filled with gasoline to fight off German SS-troops armed with flame throwers, machine guns and grenades, Gentile Warsowians enjoyed a lovely spring day, riding carousels and all.
Czesław Miłosz, “Campo dei Fiori”
I thought of the Campo dei Fiori
in Warsaw by the sky-carousel
one clear spring evening
to the strains of a carnival tune.
The bright melody drowned
the salvos from the ghetto wall,
and couples were flying
high in the cloudless sky.
At times wind from the burning
would drift dark kites along
and riders on the carousel
caught petals in midair.
That same hot wind
blew open the skirts of the girls
and the crowds were laughing
on that beautiful Warsaw Sunday.
The abandonment of Warsaw’s Jews, the abandonment of Black residents of Greenwood were essential to the violence. At least 300 people died in the ruins ofGreenwood. 13,000 Jews were killed in the ghetto during the uprising, most of the remaining 50,000 residents were captured and sent to the extermination camps of Majdanek and Treblinka. How many people watched? How many cheered? How many benefitted?
“Where are the accounts of the perpetrators? What do white Tulsans who watched, or their descendants, make of the massacre? What is their contribution to commemoration and education?” – Questions we repeated to ourselves many times as we visited the Greenwood district and explored various sites and initiatives addressing the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 and its legacies. Answers remained scarce. Memory work often begins when victims begin to speak, when survivors speak about the violence they experienced, how it affected them and their community, and what they lost. To repair, we need those who watch and those who benefit, however innocuously, to pause and to participate in the labor of memory.
M4F in Tulsa - StudioLab Album