Prior to HBO and Damon Lindelof’s Watchmen (2019), not many people knew about the Tulsa Race Massacre. That reality extended not only to Americans but Tulsans as well, many of whom were vaguely aware that something abominable had happened in Tulsa’s Greenwood district, but details stayed scarce, at least publicly. Public schools didn’t dive into specifics during Oklahoma history classes, and that sentiment was shared with us by Watchmen star Tim Blake Nelson, who spent his formative years in Tulsa. Well, Tom Hanks — who has obviously starred in numerous cinematic depictions of U.S. history — didn’t know about the massacre until 2020. He’s now written a New York Times op-ed, in which he implores Americans to “learn the truth” about the event.
Hanks’ words arrive on the heels of the May 31-June 1 centennial marking of the massacre, which began in 1921 with a false accusation against a Black man and continued with a white mob burning the Greenwood district to the ground, killing up to 300 Black Tulsa residents and leaving thousands without homes. This week, President Biden visited Tulsa and declared that the event (which was, until recently, referred to as “a riot” in very loaded, reparation-preventative manner) was “a massacre.” Now, Hanks hopes that people will commit to learning about one of the most horrific instances of racially-motivated violence in U.S. history, and he wonders whether current times might not be so fraught with systemic racism, had the truth not been excised from the books:
How different would perspectives be had we all been taught about Tulsa in 1921, even as early as the fifth grade? Today, I find the omission tragic, an opportunity missed, a teachable moment squandered. When people hear about systemic racism in America, just the use of those words draws the ire of those white people who insist that since July 4, 1776, we have all been free, we were all created equally, that any American can become president and catch a cab in Midtown Manhattan no matter the color of our skin, that, yes, American progress toward justice for all can be slow but remains relentless. Tell that to the century-old survivors of Tulsa and their offspring. And teach the truth to the white descendants of those in the mob that destroyed Black Wall Street.
Hanks’ full op-ed is well-worth reading, and he also expresses gratitude towards both Watchmen and Lovecraft Country for bringing awareness of this event into people’s living rooms. “Like other historical documents that map our cultural DNA,” Hanks writes, “[T]hey will reflect who we really are and help determine what is our full history, what we must remember.” That is to say, “An American Black Wall Street was not allowed to exist, was burned to ashes,” and Hanks believes that 1921 exposes the truth about America, and one that should never again be overlooked.
Previously, Lindelof revealed that he didn’t know about the total decimation of Black Wall Street until reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “The Case for Reparations” (2014) in The Atlantic. That invaluable article is a good place to start gaining knowledge about the massacre, along with a new PBS documentary, Tulsa: The Fire and the Forgotten, for which we also interviewed Greg Robinson, a descendant of massacre survivors and a local Black Lives Matter activist, on the lasting damage from the massacre and how much work still remains to be done.
Read the full Tom Hanks op-ed here.
(Via New York Times)