Tulsa: Racism and Cultural Erasure

If you’re ever on social media, you’ll see that people are up in arms over #IMPOTUS’ stated plan to hold a campaign rally (unmasked, at close quarters) in Tulsa, OK, on June 19th. This is a holiday called Juneteenth, commemorating the long freedom struggle of African Americans. The timing is one flashpoint. The rally’s planned location is another. Next year, Tulsa will mark the centennial of the Greenwood Massacre in which marauding gangs of white men looted, burned, maimed, and killed black Tulsans, effectively destroying Greenwood, a neighborhood of black professionals inspired by Booker T. Washington’s Greenwood experiment in Alabama.

This information is not hidden in some obscure corner of history, though it was actively suppressed for many years. The official Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission has been active for some time, the Massacre was featured in the 2019 inaugural episode of the HBO series “Watchman,” and many local activists, artists, and historians have been making plans around the centennial. An independent film, Black Wall Street Burning, premiered in Tulsa in February, and LeBron James announced his production company is making a feature documentary.

A long time ago, my friend Judy Baca (founder of the wonderful Social and Public Art Resource Center in Venice, CA) coined a phrase to describe the murals and other public artworks she and other artists had been creating: sites of public memory. Especially when made via the type of community-based and collaborative process SPARC employs, each artwork embodies a concentrated essence of the collective experience of the people whose history or visions the work depicts. (To understand more about this practice, watch the excellent film Called to Walls.)

Every community has sites of public memory. The big question is whose memories are enshrined and to what ends. The extended debate over Confederate General statues and the like has been brought to a boil in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, as monuments are pulled down not only in the U.S., but abroad as well. The core argument is against forcing community members to live with statues that worship their oppressors. To me, everything else is besides the point.

As a Jew, I have a personal dog in this race — though sadly, I don’t expect it to win: the innumerable statues of the notorious and vicious antisemite Henry Ford, who used some of his considerable fortune to publish a four-volume set of anti-Jewish screeds, and still managed to come down in history as a kind of folksy grandpa of industrialists.

A long time ago I had a consulting project in a small town in South Carolina. The group engaging me had been formed by a circle of women who wanted to observe Black History Month, then expanded into year-round arts and cultural programming. As part of the project, I spoke with a cross-section of local residents in this town, which like other parts of South Carolina in the early nineties had emerged from legalized segregation into the kind that persists despite a change in laws. The leaders of the local museum told me that black residents did not attend their events and exhibits, and they didn’t know why. So I asked my black clients, who said that the museum was built on the site of the former auction of enslaved people, without so much as a plaque to call attention to the truth.

Cultural erasure is one of the chief strategies of structural racism. By promulgating false history that distorts or ignores the truth of lived experience, especially experience of oppressed and marginalized people, the dominant social order supports white supremacy. Its goal is the non-existence of those whose very lives challenge white supremacy, the complete erasure of the truth in favor of a malignant fantasy of superiority and entitlement.

This is #IMPOTUS’ aim. Though I doubt he knows the history, I’m certain his advisors do, and I’m equally certain they chose this extravagant way of signaling white supremacy when they scheduled the rally. In these days of demonstrations against police violence, I think the intention is outright insult and provocation. I think he is planning for violence. I suspect the event may be canceled on account of outrage, but if it is not, I am certain that the people of Tulsa will make him regret it.

And now for a moment of beauty and respite, Dr. John and Terence Blanchard, “Rain.”

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