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Leonard Pitts: Where Black history is concerned, America specializes in not knowing

Leonard Pitts: Where Black history is concerned, America specializes in not knowing

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It’s not just Tulsa.

From the 2019 premiere of HBO’s “Watchmen,” which introduced many Americans to a racial atrocity they’d never heard of, to all the recent media attention — CNN, The New York Times, NPR — marking this week’s centennial, the Tulsa Race Massacre of May 31 to June 1, 1921 has lately been inescapable.

As well it should be.

It stands out for multiple reasons. There is the sheer size of it: at least 35 square blocks leveled by white mobs. There is the death toll of it: an estimated 300 African Americans — the exact number will never be known — killed. And there is the cussed gall of it. Barred from white community and society, Black people created a thriving community and society of their own, a “Black Wall Street” — only to have white people burn it to the ground.

It’s important that all this be known. Yet it’s also important to recognize that what happened in that Oklahoma town was not some isolated event. No, Tulsa in 1921 is echoed by New York in 1863, Memphis and New Orleans in 1866, Wilmington, North Carolina in 1898, Atlanta in 1906, Springfield in 1908, East St. Louis in 1917, Chicago and Elaine, Arkansas, in 1919, Rosewood, Florida in 1923 — among others.

To be clear, those are just the mass-casualty events, white mobs killing Black people in large numbers, often torching their communities. Factor in the spectacle lynchings where “only” one or two African Americans might be tortured to death with grisly creativity, and the incidents number in the thousands.

Take it as evidence of God’s puckish humor that even as we commemorate Tulsa, Republican-led states are rushing to pass laws restricting the teaching of this history. That includes Oklahoma, whose governor, Kevin Stitt, describes his state’s new ban on critical race theory as “a common-sense law preventing students from being taught that one race or sex is superior to another.”

What transparent hogwash. Critical race theory would equip Oklahoma students to ask necessary questions. Like, how did good, Christian white people get it in their heads one day to commit mass murder?

Unfortunately, Stitt, like many conservatives, believes schools ought not teach Black history if it might hurt white feelings. Or simply cause white people to grapple with the moral distress of knowing they live on stolen land, enriched by stolen labor, and that the advantages they enjoy were made possible by disadvantages imposed on others.

Granted, these might be hard truths to live with. But then, Viola Fletcher has lived a century with the stench of death. “I still see Black men being shot,” the 107-year-old Tulsa survivor told Congress last month. “Black bodies lying in the street. I still smell smoke and see fire. I still see Black businesses being burned. I still hear airplanes flying overhead. I hear the screams. I have lived through the massacre every day.”

What makes white people’s pain more important than hers? Than ours?

For years, the atrocity in Tulsa was barely mentioned in textbooks. Local papers from that day were destroyed, stories even ripped out of the microfilmed copies. That’s why so many people — even those born and raised there — never knew.

Where Black history is concerned, America specializes in not knowing. Now it gives that conspiracy of ignorance the force of law, requiring that we prioritize white people’s emotional comfort above truth. For all people of conscience, that should be an easy call. A hundred years later, let’s finally speak some truth.

And let comfort fend for itself.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Readers may contact him via e-mail at lpitts@miamiherald.com.

Some conservatives believe schools ought not teach Black history if it might hurt white feelings. Or simply cause white people to grapple with the moral distress of knowing they live on stolen land, enriched by stolen labor, and that the advantages they enjoy were made possible by disadvantages imposed on others.

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