Riot and Remembrance: The Tulsa Race War and Its Legacy
By James S. Hirsch. Houghton Mifflin. 358 pages. $25
The date was May 30, 1921, the place a rickety office elevator in downtown Tulsa, Oklahoma. Inside were a black shoe-shine clerk named Dick Roland and the white elevator operator, Sarah Page. To this day, no one knows exactly what happened in the brief encounter between the two teenagers. The only thing certain is this: Page screamed in fright, and Roland was soon arrested for assault.
In another time and place, this story might have ended there. Page was unharmed and later refused to bring any charges against Roland. But since this was the Jim Crow South, events quickly took on a horrific life of their own.
Within hours, the city’s race-baiting yellow newspaper, the Tulsa Tribune, published a fiery editorial headlined “To Lynch a Negro Tonight,” prompting 75 armed blacks–including World War I veterans imbued with new passion for equal rights–to march on the county courthouse. As crowds of whites looked on, the sheriff vowed to protect Roland. But then a white man tried to disarm one of the black men. A gunshot went off, and all hell broke loose.
So began one of the ugliest race riots in American history. Urged on by calls to “get busy and try to get a nigger,” white Tulsans, aided by local cops, quickly drove the outnumbered blacks back to Greenwood, the 35-square-block black district of the segregated city. Thousands of white rioters stormed the neighborhood in an orgy of looting and terror, burning to the ground everything in their path-homes, shops, schools, churches, two newspapers, and Greenwood’s only hospital, hotel, and library-as National Guardsmen either stood by or assisted in the siege. Nearly 10,000 people were left homeless in a neighborhood once celebrated as a model of black industry and entrepreneurship. As many as 300 were killed.
But in many ways what occurred over the next 75 years in Tulsa was as shocking as the riot itself: the nearly wholesale erasure of the event from official histories, from public records and newspaper archives, even state schoolbooks. Tulsa suffered from a cancerous culture of silence in which the races continued to live not only separate and unequal lives, but also with separate visions of their history and its meaning, as James S. Hirsch makes painfully clear in Riot and Remembrance.
How should a community commemorate such horror? If it does confront the injustice, how does it begin to repay its debt to the victims? In Tulsa such questions were mired in racial mistrust and bitterness. Many white Tulsans saw the riot as the night that “new Negroes,” under the spell of “radical” rights activists like WEB Du Bois, tried to take over the city. Many black Tulsans saw it as nothing less than a white war on a black population already subjugated by the heavy hand of Jim Crow. Whites feared another uprising, blacks another attack.
A few black Tulsans, like historian John Hope Franklin, spent years trying to get city and state officials to recognize that the government not only had failed to protect its black citizens, but had actively facilitated and participated in their slaughter. Most white Tulsans, however, including nationally celebrated historian Daniel J. Boorstin-who lived through the riot as a child-refused to discuss the event publicly, much less examine it with a trained professional’s eye, as Hirsch pointedly relates.
It took the recent debate over black reparations to pull the riot out of the shadows. In the late 1990s, after the state of Florida made restitution to survivors of a race riot there, black legislators from Oklahoma fought for a state commission to study the Tulsa riot. The commission ultimately concluded that black rights had been grievously violated and that damages were owed to the survivors. However, the gesture proved no more than symbolic: The legislature failed to appropriate any money under the Tulsa Race Riot Reconciliation Act.
In the end, what echoes clearest in this moving, important book is how great a debt is owed-not just to the blacks of Tulsa, but to disadvantaged African Americans in all the Tulsas of this country who continue to reel from the wounds of state-fostered injustice and racial inequality. Tulsa writ large stands as an object lesson in America’s failure to uphold its promise for black people. “None of us are guilty for the sins of our fathers,” Hirsch quotes one black Tulsan on the subject of reparations, “but we are responsible for how we react to the evils that were done.”
Neil Henry is a professor at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism and the author of Pearl’s Secret: A Black Man’s Search for His White Family.
Muckraking! The Journalism That Changed America
By Judith and William Serrin. The New Press. $40.
“There is filth on the floor, and it must be scraped up with the muckrake,” Theodore Roosevelt told journalists investigating corruption in the Senate in 1906; but, he added, those who insist on publicly exposing that filth risk becoming “one of the most potent forces of evil.” Roosevelt wasn’t the first politician to take offense at what instantly became known as muckraking, and he wouldn’t be the last. As this exhaustive anthology shows, investigative journalism is as old as the republic (think Thomas Paine) and as young as the Northwestern University students whose research helped free a death row inmate in 1999. It’s a surprisingly readable collection-and full of surprises: Alongside familiar pieces like Seymour Hersh’s report on the My Lai massacre are an 1858 expose of dairy-industry practices that killed thousands of infants, William G. Shepherd’s bone-chilling account of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire, and much more. This kind of journalism may not have single-handedly changed America, as the subtitle claims-it takes more than a news story to do that-but it did shine an unforgiving light on what needed to be changed. — Monika Bauerlein
Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things
By William McDonough and Michael Braungart. North Point Press. $25.
To most environmentalists, our polluted oceans and skies, our overflowing landfills and toxic waste dumps all make compelling reasons to cut back, to be, as McDonough and Braungart put it, “less bad.” But to the authors, a green architect and an industrial chemist, our consumption isn’t the problem-it’s the cradle-to-grave design of the objects we use, and then discard.
They call for reconfiguring industrial processes after nature’s model, in which waste is never thrown “away,” but rather becomes raw material-food-for the next cycle. In their cradle-to-cradle world, the duo imagine factory roofs lined with plants that clean the air and textile mills that release wastewater cleaner than the water they take in. Their ideas are bold, imaginative, and deserving of serious attention. But their futurism is based on a faith in technology, and in the goodwill of industry that at this late stage is difficult to share. — Ben Ehrenreich
The Republic of East LA
By Luis Rodriguez. HarperCollins/Roya. $23.95.
In the stories collected in The Republic of East LA, Luis Rodriguez describes a side of Los Angeles-the Eastside-that has been largely absent from the rest of the country’s glittery fantasies of Southern California. He concentrates less on the flash and violence of gangsta life (the subject of his memoir, Always Running) than on humbler, less-glamorous characters: a frustrated Chicano nationalist limo driver, a factory worker whose jealousy ruins his marriage, an ex-con on a binge. Rodriguez’s stories describe people on the margins trying to get by with dignity intact, in a world that offers precious little assistance. There are the beginnings of investigations here into the strains immigration wreaks on families and the pains of assimilation, but they are largely beginnings without resolution, and ultimately leave the reader hungering for more. — B.E.
Media Unlimited: How the Torrent of Images and Sounds Overwhelms Our Lives
By Todd Gitlin. Metropolitan Books. $25.
Todd Gitlin asks us to consider a fact of 21st-century life so transparent that we are most often oblivious to it: From Muzak to Madonna, Harry Potter to Regis Philbin, instant messages to the endless slow-motion replays of Sept. 11, we daily consume, and are consumed by, media. “The obvious but hard-to-grasp truth,” Gitlin writes, “is that living with the media is today one of the main things that human beings do.”
Agreeable but disposable entertainment-which begets convenient, disposable emotions-is ever at our fingertips, eyeballs, and eardrums, Gitlin writes, whether we’re at home, at play, in the car, or at work, often whether we choose it or not. To Gitlin, a veteran of ’60s activism and a contributing writer for this magazine, the most troubling aspect of our supersaturated lives is that our swollen media diet has stunted our civic engagement. Yet he refuses to blame the corporate media for feeding America-and increasingly the world-this torrent of words, sounds, images, and, above all, speed. We live in a world of unlimited media, Gitlin observes, because, for good or ill, we crave it.
The Complete Vanguard Recordings
Mimi and Richard Fariña. Vanguard
Remembered for two 1965 albums, Mimi and Richard Fariña tended to collide rather than harmonize when they sang, yet their slender legacy still rewards investigation. Laboring in the long shadows of Bob Dylan and Joan Baez (Mimi’s sister), the spouses were vital and eclectic, adding country, rock, and even Indian ragas to folk-music conventions. Mimi, who passed away last year, had a voice that exuded heavenly sweetness, while Richard charged the music with his ringing dulcimer. Among the highlights of this fine three-disc collection, which also contains outtakes released after Richard’s death in a 1966 motorcycle accident, are their poignant signature tune “Pack Up Your Sorrows” and the witty “House Un-American Blues Activity Dream.” Above all, there’s a haunting sense of unfulfilled promise.
Fishin’ in the Muddy
Gurf Morlix. Catamount.
Morlix made his name playing guitar for Lucinda Williams, but he’s no disciple. In place of her thoughtful lyricism, this charismatic rascal offers frayed rock ‘n’ roll that fuses tragic soul and rueful farce. His scruffy voice spins yarns of desperate folk who refuse to throw in the towel, rejecting Satan’s handshake on “I Ain’t Goin’ That Way,” only to plunge into comic self-loathing on “My Lesson,” which lurches drunkenly while Morlix mutters, “What did I prove last evening?” So woeful are the lyrics that Morlix’s brilliant guitar work comes as a surprise: From the searing slide of “Torn in Two” to the jabbing, angry solo on “Your Picture,” he brings brash twists to old riffs.
De La Soul. Tommy Boy.
It’s been more than a decade since De La Soul’s “3 Feet High and Rising” made them, if briefly, one of hip-hop’s most popular acts. Since then, the trio have shunned rap’s mainstream for less-obvious paths, most recently on part two of their Art Official Intelligence trilogy, which embodies the inspired chaos of the New York trio at its best. Avoiding the flashy aggression of many M.C.s, their conversational performances and rhymes suggest a lively bull session, sweetened by ’70s funk grooves. Apart from the stray dud, like the cheesy “Pawn Star,” De La Soul’s inventive jams uplift without insulting your intelligence. — Jon Young
Judith Helfand, Daniel B. Gold. 98 minutes. Toxic Comedy Pictures LLC.
What initially appears as a poke at suburban domestic kitsch (“Get a load of the vinyl siding on those Long Island ramblers!”) is peeled away in this Sundance-feted documentary to reveal something far more textured, and humane. Co-director Helfand’s own parents are among those who’ve helped produce a new vinyl-sided home every three seconds; yet her own bout with cervical cancer (profiled in her earlier film, A Healthy Baby Girl)informs her work as an activist documentarian exposing chemical pollution.
The filmmakers travel to Lake Charles, Louisiana (“The Vinyl Capital of America”), to discover evidence of environmental hazards and corporate nondisclosure, and to a landmark trial in Venice, Italy, where 31 industry executives are charged with manslaughter for the deaths of workers exposed to toxic levels of polyvinyl chloride. Helfand then brings it all back home, ultimately convincing her obstinate parents to remove the siding from their home. While the merits of making an often comic film about a looming environmental crisis are debatable, the optimism isn’t entirely misplaced in this case. Blue Vinyl suggests that if you can radicalize your parents, perhaps anything is possible. –Rob Nelson