Preserved in Art: THE MASSACRE OF BLACK WALL STREET and Historic Responsibility

I have vacillated on how to handle my inner desire to comment on the death of George Floyd. In many ways, I acknowledge this is a kind of privilege because my voice, in relation to the pain running through Black America, is not one I feel needs to be heard. What people need, and even must, hear are the words of Philonise Floyd, Killer Mike, and the many Black Americans who spoke during the House’s livestreamed hearings on police/justice reform.

Having now said that there are other voices in this conversation which should precede my own, I need to acknowledge my own limitations. I am constantly grieved over how little I know about my own history as an American who has lived here my whole life. I often encounter situations where my knowledge is lacking and, upon learning something knew and then asking “why didn’t I know this before?” In some ways, history feels like an ocean it can be easy to drown in once you assess just how much one does not know.

Still, the issue of civil rights in the United States is an issue where I was often more diligent in my readings, at least up until around 2012 when Trayvon Martin was murdered. After that, the pace and severity of injustices has piled up into an ever hardening layer of despair that ultimately became so tough to mentally crack that it left me numb. More pain, seemingly endless mountains of it, just adding on. More and more. Every year, for almost eight years.

For many, the death of George Floyd has become a catalyst, an element which has mentally and physically galvanized people from around the world out of their inactive states towards activism. I have wondered how, in my own way, to push myself out of an inactive stance on these recent events and to engage with the world on these past eieght years of injustices — all while also valuing what is important about comics. Before I wrote this piece, I examined how I would look at the amazing 2015 book March by John Lewis, or Incognegro by Matt Johnson & Warren Pleece, or the work done through different writers on Black Panther.

This is the title header of Atlantic/HBO’s webcomic, “The Massacre of Black Wall Street”

In the end, having tried and failed to get those article drafts into a state that was anything appropriate, I was able to find a web comic whose focus was to document the events of Tulsa, OK known as the Massacre of Black Wallstreet. [This webcomic was written by Natalie Chang, with illustration by Clayton Henry and colors by Marcelo Maiolo] As the current President of the United States plans on holding a rally in Tulsa on June 19th during what is one year short of the Massacre’s centennial, a deep look is particularly apt. The comic itself, it needs to be said, is a joint creation between HBO and The Atlantic which has commercial ties to the recent Watchmen TV series. While HBO’s creation of this comic has ties, thematically, to their series, I want to point readers to this comic and to talk about it for a few reasons.

First and foremost, this graphic work seemingly has no tie-in to the Watchmen TV series. It is an attempt, through comics, to begin conversation about something America keeps doing, again and again, time after time: destroying progress between white America and Black communities via force. Second, this web-platform comic makes use of referenced historical sources. I’ll dig into why this is such a positive thing, but at least know that this is neither a cash grad tie-in nor is it without historical value as an educational tool or as a source of knowledge growth.

I’ll never forget how much it terrified me, as a child, to hear about Pompeii. The idea of people having been wiped away by something as terrifying as a volcano, only to in turn be preserved (seemingly, forever) was incomprehensible to me for a time. The idea of people becoming history was abstract and not literal, i.e.: people becoming, physically, history, something to see in textbooks, was haunting. I have to acknowledge that my fleeting fear over this, which I was able to grow past in some ways, could be the same kind of unhealing wound for some Black communities in certain parts of the USA. As a southerner, a Texan, I am aware of how lynching and violence against Black bodies remains a pertinent fear to this day, not one easily outgrown by many who live alongside the threat of violence daily.

The destruction of Black Wallstreet is an event preserved, in a sense, through the art and prose of the comic itself since texts from the period are used as a foundation for the text in the balloons on the screen as the reader scrolls through the narrative.

The “value,” if I may be allowed to apply such a term in this manner, with Pompei is that the terror and horror experienced by those victims afforded modern civilization a glimpse into a world long vanished, a world of preserved in ashen amber*. The benefits of a glimpse into ancient Roman life is that we have no ancient Romans to commune with any more, thus something like Pompeii was as close as we could get. Black Wallstreet was located in Greenwood, Tulsa and is today a shadow of what it was in the past. The businesses that thrived in Tulsa before the Massacre are gone and what was re-established in the wake of the destruction was not the same. This is what, I believe, the comic starts readers with as the narrative begins.

Reading from the “start” of the comic presents viewers with a side-by-side prose and graphic combo, a sort of “split screen.” On one side of the screen readers experience depictions of Greenwood from above, high up, as if looking down into the past. Prose scrolls along the images of Greenwood from air and establishes one important fact:

When the narrative then adjusts itself to present a more traditional comic panel, readers are shown a glimpse into life in the 20s. Men and women walk along the sidewalks to work, trucks and their occupants speed by, and we’re hit by a sense of disorientation. This is the past, and what we’re seeing, in a way, are preserved memories. Is this exactly what Greenwood looked like? Are these faces and depictions of people exactly as they were then? No, but the style is such that verisimilitude, as much as can be expected, is pursued.

The page format shifts between adjusting the narrative back and forth between prose and comic formats. The history behind what sparked the Massacre is shown through panels that present the account about how Dick Rowland and Sarah Page bumped into one another.

The comic presents the events as they unfolded, with the mass deputization of white men who eventually invade, burn, loot and annihilate Black Wallstreet. There is one panel which I find hard to look at because I feel it is closest to the spirit of the events that transpired. The panel presents two black citizens, one male and one female, glimpsing the carnage of the Massacre through a window while armed and crouched. The renderings show devastation and slaughter. It is, in my opinion, a difficult panel to look at for long because this is not entertainment art, this is an attempt at historical depictions of real events. While not a one-to-one representation, the panel stirs feelings within me and I hope it stirs feeling within you: empathy, pain, anger and frustration.

I am not a historian by profession, but one thing I tell those I have taught is: history is a lens that, like any lens used in glasses, can correct your vision if it is blurred. The further we get from events, especially events with little evidence or evidence whose discovery is made harder by changes in technology, the “blurrier” our vision can become if unadjusted. This is where I must comment the supplementation of art here in this comic through the use of both academic quotes and sourced texts for further reading.

As the narrative shifts away from the carnage of the Massacre and into a more historical assessment of the events themselves, I am struck by the depth of impact these words have on my heart:

“I’m not sure any amount of money or social services, offered 98 years later, can make up for [the massacre],” [Dr. Alicia] Odewale says.

“I’m in awe of how resilient the North Tulsa community continues to be, as efforts to rebuild and revitalize the Greenwood district have been ongoing since 1921. But at the very least, in my opinion, we need to have a serious plan for reparations, free housing and business support for descendant families, Greenwood business grants, college tuition scholarships for young students in North Tulsa…and a serious effort to close the median income gap between White and Black families in Tulsa.”

Odewale’s incisive perspective on the ways racial traumas of the past evolve and take form in the present is prescient for an entire country rife with incidents of White-on-Black violence, like the city-wide riots in Detroit in 1943, which mostly took its toll on Paradise Valley, a Black neighborhood. It helps illuminate truths about the relationships between segregation and law enforcement, land loss and land robbery, gentrification and history.

A comic about the destruction of Black lives almost a hundred years ago is not an easy read. As I said before, these are memories of a different time preserved through art and prose; however, it should and must be said, that not all aspects of this comic have faded from our nation’s history. Over the past few days, an attempt to make lynching a federal crime (yet another attempt out of hundreds over the years) is still relevant because lynching was one of many factors that causes Greenwood to exist and it was a desire for a lynching which played a role in Black Wallstreet’s destruction. Even now, attempts to decree lynching a federal crime, thus affording such a crime different standards and statutes of prosecution, failed. Even earlier this year there have been attempts at trying to determine if bodies from the Massacre are interred in mass graves.

The responsibility of history, of the lenses through which we try and see things more clearly and with greater wisdom, should be to prevent errors and to rectify sins.

What is the value in experiencing The Tulsa Massacre through art? I would hope, and pray, that it might mean we become more proactive in whatever means were find ourselves capable. I feel like saying “you just need to vote for the change you want” at times can ignore the fact that this is not always an action that is afforded to every community in every state, which recent election news concerning Georgia can attest to.

If you were able to make it through reading the comic I have so fervently been talking about, and you don’t know what you can do? Donate. Please, donate to one of the many causes that are trying to make a difference right now as people protest and risk their lives.

Consider the following links [provided through the Vox website here]:

If you find that you’re incapable of providing donations to any kind of group, please talk to people about what you read, if it’s a comic like the one discussed here. Talk about the news. Tweet. Get involved and don’t remain silent.

Black Lives Matter.

Every person is not beholden to the ghosts of Greenwood’s Black Wallstreet, but as Americans we are obligated to do better and to be better. We need to put our claimed values into action and do many things at once:

  1. Register to vote and do your best to help those who need it so they can do so as well.
  2. Donate where you can, if you can.
  3. Spread awareness about Black history and educate yourself on the names of the men and women and children who have been murdered at the hands of police brutality and systemic racism over the past eight years .

Comics are a way to preserve history, but this kind of art should always inspire and guide us to make better and better futures. It is hard. Progress fluctuates between being glacial and monumental, and we have no control over which in many cases. It can be disheartening, but my hope is that it is a storm that can be weathered.

Maybe the fact this comic exists provides a spark of some kind of action within you, dear reader. I know, for myself, it has been a cathartic element that has allowed me to say and, by extension, do, something. I know this column alone is not enough, but it is one step I can take among many.