Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Book Review: The Burning - Massacre, Destruction and the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921

I went back and forth about writing up a full review for this book because I felt like I said a lot of what I had to say in my stories on Instagram, but then I thought maybe I have more to say? Maybe not, but I wanted to give myself the space to explore that. 

I'm not a big non fiction/history reader but when I found out about Tulsa 1921, and very recently I might add, I figured this was something I wanted to read more about. I'm a little ashamed to admit that I had never heard of the Tulsa massacre of 1921 until very recently. I honestly don't even remember where I heard it first. It might've been on social media or it might've been in conjunction with the show Watchmen on HBO. I did a very small amount of research on the actual events and jumped right into the show. To say that a television show in 2020 is where I first heard about something like this is honestly insane but also speaks volumes about the time we're living in. Anyway, after watching the series twice through, I finally picked up an actual book on the subject. I chose The Burning because it had better reviews than some of the other books I had seen. Because of the subject matter and the fact that I'm a Black woman living in America I had to really almost check myself while reading to make sure I wasn't showing any bias towards either position. I basically just wanted to get the facts about what happened during the two days where Greenwood, also known as Black Wall Street, was burned to the ground.

But about half way through the book I started to ask myself, "what is this author trying to do?" When we read historical retellings I think it's important to understand what the author is trying to give to the reader. What is the story the author is trying to present while making sure personal opinions do not get too mingled with facts. I do think when writing anything personal feelings or opinions will show up in some way, shape or form. Whether it be with the language the author is using or even the way information is presented. And that was my biggest problem with this book.

Yes, it is a huge endeavor to research events and conduct interviews with victims and witnesses who were present during the Tulsa Race Riots and I do not take that away from our author at all. Having to take all that research and shape it into a digestible text for the masses to understand seems like it would be a daunting task. And that is what our author did. What I believe he was trying to do was give us an overarching picture of what was happening at the time and how those events "inevitably" would've let to this riot and massacre. I personally disagree with the inevitability that was presented, but I am not the author.

As the author, you get to choose the way you'd like to present the information and the language you want to use when depicting time, place, and people, and that was my biggest problem with this book.
1) This book was written in 2001. The fact that the author called Black people "Negroes" all throughout the book felt problematic to me. Yes, he's writing about an event that happened in 1921, but he could've brought the language into the present. 

2) The words in which our author described White people (including the KKK) v. Black people really stuck out to me. Words used to describe White people - brave, impressive, "who could blame them?" Words to describe Black people - belligerent, stubborn, beast. 

3) I know that this book was constructed based on interviews with both Black and White people and articles from that time, but there were a lot of times when I wasn't sure if the author was summarizing what someone had said or just writing to fill in history or conversations that he wasn't a part of. And that to me is problematic. If I can't distinguish between something racist someone is saying and what the author is saying, then we're going to have problems. 

For example, the author spends a lot of time at the beginning of the book talking about the racial tensions that were always brewing between White and Black people, especially when it came to the interaction of Black men and White women. The author states, "How many times had the trouble started with a Negro man smiling at a white woman, who would scram bloody rape, causing a mob of outraged white men to avenge the woman's honor, and another black corpse to dangle from the end of a rope." Which of course we know to be extremely true during that time. He then proceeds to tell us that it's funny though because slave masters raped their slaves all the time giving us "mulatto" babies, but of course no one talks about that. BUT THEN HE SAYS,   
"But then the Union triumphed and the slaves were freed. Mingled with the Southern white man's fury at the destruction of his way of life was this fear: what sort of retribution might the Black buck now exact on white women? Negro men were now free to do to white men's beloved wives and daughters what the white men had done to the Negro women. Great vigilance was required to prevent such abominations. After all, how many rapes began with just a smile?" (Madigan, 52)

Okay WTF. I need to know if this is what the author assumes the fear is or if this is gathered from actual research of talking to people who said these exact things. Also, there are no quotation marks to be found when the authors makes statements like this.

Another example: Our author tells us about a Tulsa grocer names Huge Gary and how he "loved" Black people. In fact he had plenty of them on his payroll. He then proceeds to tell us this, "So why did those uppity, belligerent coloreds across the tracks try to make trouble for the peaceful, happy Negroes like Gary's employees at the grocery store, make trouble for his beloved mammy at home?" (Madigan, 113) He goes on to say some pretty horrible stuff about how lessons needed to me taught. We know this is the author talking because he mentions Gary! If this were Gary talking he wouldn't mention himself like that. Which brings me to my next and final example.

And I quote, "For whatever private sorrows that might have remained, the burning of 1921 has affirmed the superiority of the white race. At the same time, it was a powerful lesson to any colored person with ideas of tampering with the right order of things." (Madigan, 233) The "right order of things"?!?! FUCK OFF. (Excuse my language)

These are just some of the problematic things I encountered throughout the book. No matter how this book presents the information, we must be clear that it may have started as a riot but 100% ended as a massacre. Black people were essentially blamed for what happened which in my opinion is 100% bullshit. They were dragged from their homes which were set on fire. Either shot or taken to a containment camp and basically became prisoners unless someone they worked for (usually a white person) could vouch for them. This was a horrendous event in American history and this is not the only one. I took AP and Honors classes in high school and can tell you none of this was taught in any of my classes. As a society we need to be more aware of the atrocities that have happened to Black people since 1619. It is our duty to do better!

Rating: ⭐️💫

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