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Terror, Trauma and Triumph in Tulsa

About 90 miles north of Oklahoma City is Tulsa. My husband, Mark, and I have travelled interstate 44 to that city along the banks of the Arkansas River many times over the years to visit friends and to take in all that the city has to offer. It’s a favorite weekend destination for us.

Mark was raised in Oklahoma. He doesn’t remember learning about the Tulsa Race Massacre until he was in his thirties. Our children were raised in Oklahoma. But they don’t remember learning much about what until recently was called the Tulsa Race Riot. For most of the 100 years since the massacre, the killing of at least 300 African-Americans by white mobs on foot and by air and the destruction of 1000 Black homes and businesses in the Greenwood District of Tulsa, also known as “the Black Wall Street”, was little more than a footnote in history books. May 31 marked the centenary of those horrific events and the full story is just now being heard, thanks to the last three known living survivors. While the old adage “history is written by the victors” certainly applies here, it may be even more accurate and hopeful to observe that truth is told by the survivors. Sister and brother, 107 year old “Mother” Viola Fletcher and 100 year old Hughes Van Ellis, and 106 year old Lessie Benningfield Randle have been courageously telling their story. In their quest for justice, they appeared before Congress, witnessing about the terrors of that time, their families’ and community’s losses, and the successful attempts by those in power to cover up what really happened.

In his book A Language Older Than Words, Derrick Jensen asks Dr. Judith Herman, a leading expert on the effects of psychological trauma, about what she once wrote: “In order to escape accountability the perpetrator does everything in his power to promote forgetting.” She responded: “This is something with which we are all familiar. It seems that the more extreme the crimes, the more determined the efforts to deny the crimes happened…Whether it’s genocide, military aggression, rape, wife beating, or child abuse, the same dynamic plays itself out, beginning with an indignant, almost rageful denial, and the suggestion that the person bringing forward the information…is lying, crazy, malicious, or has been put up to it by someone else.”

As I read these lines, my mind turned not only to the cover up of the Tulsa Race Massacre but all the times through history that those with power attempted to cover up that which might cause them to lose that power, or at the very least, shame them.

It is human nature, I suppose, to try to protect our egos from diminishment when they are threatened. On a smaller scale, we’ve probably all covered up a lie about ourselves that would bare to others who we really are.

But the lies we tell about ourselves are antithetical to who we really are, who we’re created to be. Eventually, the falsehoods, the coverups, the soul debris we attempt to sweep under the proverbial rug eat at us. While the whole truth may never actually be spoken, we get caught in our fictions. Our dishonesty catches up with us and, ultimately, clues others about the tangled web we’ve woven.

On a grand scale, there are too many examples of lies we have accepted as truth, too many times we’ve denied reality and told an alternative narrative in order to retain power or privilege or prestige or position, too many stories edited out of our history. The “relocation” of the Native Americans; the kidnapping and torture of slaves.; the exploitation of immigrant workers; the marginalization of the poor; the abuse of women and children; the racial profiling of African-Americans and anyone else whose skin color and racial-ethnic background is different from our own; the Holocaust; wars; genocides; medical experiments - the list of atrocities and degradations committed against one group of people by another throughout human history boggles the mind. But what really blows the mind are all the ways we have attempted to deflect the truth and justice for the survivors, the myriad ways we have attempted to subvert accountability and blame those who’ve suffered at the hands of those who have gained from covering up their suffering.

In order to re-member who we really are or, maybe, to discover it for the first time, what are the questions we must ask to restore the image of God in us? What are the lessons about truth-telling and truth-hearing that we learn from people like Mother Fletcher and Mr. Ellis and Ms. Randle, centenarians who lived their lives as best they could despite the violence they experienced so long ago?

Dr. Herman writes that recovery from trauma and the lies told about the trauma “doesn’t end with the telling and hearing of the story…[what] renews people is the hope and belief that their own capacity to love has not been destroyed.” (p. 359) Robert Jay Lifton calls this capacity a “survivor mission”. “People turn their experience around and make it a gift to others. That really is the only way you can transcend an atrocity. You can’t bury it. You can’t make it go away. You can dissociate it. It comes back. But you can transcend it, first by telling the truth about it, and then by using it in the service of humanity, saying ‘This isn’t the way we want to live. We want to live differently.” (p.360)

In her testimony before Congress, Viola Fletcher said:

I will never forget the violence of the white mob when we left our house. I still see Black men being shot, and Black bodies lying in the street. I still smell smoke and see fire. I still see Black businesses being burned. I still hear airplanes flying overhead. I hear the screams. I live through the Massacre every day. Our country may forget this history. I cannot. I will not. The other survivors do not. And our descendants do not…I am 107 years old and have never seen justice. I pray that one day I will. I have been blessed with a long life – and have seen the best and worst of this country. I think about the horrors inflicted upon Black people in this country every day. This Subcommittee has the power to lead us down a better path. I am asking that my country acknowledge what has happened to me. The trauma. The pain. The loss. And I ask that survivors and descendants be given a chance to seek justice. Open the courtroom doors to us…We lost everything that day. Our homes. Our churches. Our newspapers. Our theaters. Our lives. Greenwood represented the best of what was possible for Black people in America – and for all people. No one cared about us for almost 100 years. We, and our history, have been forgotten, washed away. This Congress must recognize us, and our history. For Black Americans. For white Americans. For all Americans. That's some justice.”

May we take her story to heart and be changed by it. May her survivor mission not be in vain. And may we give thanks to God that her capacity to love continues even a century later.

The truth is told and triumphs.

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