Quote of the Month

When love and skill work together, expect a miracle. John Ruskin

Thursday, February 18, 2021

Horror In Human History

As early as December 2020, the reviews were being published.  To date, there are six starred reviews.  Starred reviews from professional publications are an indicator of a book's value to the reading community and society as a whole.  While a few, or sometimes many, may not agree with those professional assessments, at the very least these reviews ask us to form our own opinions by personally reading the title.

What you can never know, until you hold this book in your hands and read it, is how stunning it is and how justified those starred reviews are.  When turning the pages of Unspeakable: The Tulsa Race Massacre (Carolrhoda Books, an imprint of Lerner Publishing Group, Inc., February 2, 2021) written by Carole Boston Weatherford with artwork by Floyd Cooper, you truly have to remind yourself to breathe.  As the events are presented in eloquent words and illuminating images, you find yourself horrified at the suffering inflicted on an entire group of people

Once upon a time near Tulsa, Oklahoma,
prospectors struck it rich in the oil fields.

This richness invited people from many places to converge and begin their lives anew.  In Tulsa, a community named Greenwood became the home for 

Black Indians, . . . formerly enslaved people, and Exodusters.

In Greenwood, there was a total population of close to ten thousand individuals.  Unjust segregation laws were firmly established.  In spite of these laws, the Black citizens flourished.

Along Greenwood Avenue, a series of businesses grew.  It was known as Black Wall Street.  These business provided a vast array of services and essential needs like grocery stores and a shop for automobile repair.  Here they had their own modes of transportation, libraries, a hospital, and an outstanding school system.  Dr. A. C. Jackson, a nationally known Black surgeon resided in Greenwood. (He perished in the massacre.)  For guests to the Black community in Greenwood there was the grand Stradford Hotel.  One of two movie theaters seated eight hundred viewers.

This deserved prosperity was about to disappear.  On May 30, 1921, a Black teenager and a white elevator operator still in her teens were in an elevator together.  The girl accused the boy of assault.  Hundreds of whites gathered where he was being held intent on removing him from custody.  A much fewer number of Blacks, thirty, gathered in his defense.  They fought and twelve died initially.

Among the whites, a rumor of an impending Black attack incited the growing mob to move their focus from the courthouse to Greenwood.  Unprepared, the Greenwood population in their homes and businesses fled for their lives.  What followed was then, and is still today, the worst kind of nightmare.  Three hundred Black people lost their lives.  Three hundred.  More than eight thousand were homeless.  Eight thousand.  Heartbreak forced people to leave and resolve prompted others to stay and rebuild.  Today when visiting Tulsa, there is a place for remembrance, reflection, and commitment for truth and the hope it brings.

Using a recurring phrase,

Once upon a time

author Carole Boston Weatherford takes us deeper and deeper into the lives of the residents of Greenwood.  She moves from Tulsa as a whole, to Greenwood, to Black Wall Street, and then to Greenwood, giving us a picture of what this community represented for the people who lived and worked there.  Very specific facts bring Greenwood in its thriving glory alive for us. 

After the elevator incident, the focus of the narrative shifts to a depiction of mounting tension as the information compounds.  The four connecting words are used only once more to present the resulting devastation.  As with the best kind of writing, this ends with a single powerful and unifying word.  Here is a passage.

Once upon a time in Greenwood
there were barbershops and beauty salons.

Miss Mabel's Little Rose
Beauty Salon boomed

on Thursdays when maids
who worked for white families

got coiffed on their day off
and strutted in style

up and down 
Greenwood Avenue. . . .

Disbelief, fear, and agony are shown on the features of the collected faces of the victims of the massacre on the open and matching dust jacket and book case.  The image shown on the front, right, extends over the spine to the left, on the back.  In the background are destroyed buildings ravaged by fires.  The spreading darkness is smoke from those fires, but to this reader also embodies the darkness of racism.  The family we see on the front displays a mixture of various emotions along with the need for flight.  

On the back the seven people, from various walks of life, portray all ages, and are symbols of moments in the narrative.  For example, the man in military attire could serve as a reminder of the World War One veterans who offered assistance in defending the accused young man, homes and businesses until they were overwhelmed.  On the opening endpapers is a bird's eye view of Greenwood Avenue at its best.  The closing endpapers offer a photographic portrait of Greenwood after the massacre.  For the title page portions of the jacket and case fill in the letters.  This is a striking effect.

These illustrations rendered by Floyd Cooper 

using oil and erasure

elevate and intensify the words.  The landscapes in the scenes are realistic and historically informative.  Sometimes, Floyd Cooper brings us close to the individuals.  These people, these individuals, appear as alive as we are. 

For the pages describing the elevator ride there is complete darkness except for the light coming from the inside of the elevator.  We see the teenage boy with his hand on the up and down buttons and the teenage girl standing in the elevator.  This exemplifies a huge change, and it asks us to pause.  Another momentous picture is a close-up of three faces, one Black man and two white men, during the first clash at the courthouse.

One of my many, many favorite of these two-page paintings is for the words above noted.  It is on Greenwood Avenue with the buildings on the left and right and a car on the right fading to the back.  On the left a family of four, wearing beautiful period clothing, walks down the street.  The older of the daughters is carrying several books.  The mother is wearing a fur-collared coat.  A brooch on her coat and a necklace indicate their economic status.  The father wearing a tie and longer coat holds the youngest daughter's hand.  She wears a yellow coat and matching hat.  There is something about this family which is movingly normal.  On the right is a women with hair recently styled.  She carries a gift box tied in a bow.

This book, Unspeakable: The Tulsa Race Massacre written by Carole Boston Weatherford with art by Floyd Cooper, no matter how many times you read it, is excellent in supplying readers with an accurate explanation of what happened. In the words of Carole Boston Weatherford, it is exemplary in  

rescuing events and figures from obscurity by documenting American history.

The author's and illustrator's notes on the closing two pages further enlighten readers.  It is of the utmost importance to have this title in your personal and professional collections.

To discover more about Carole Boston Weatherford and Floyd Cooper and their other remarkable work, please follow the link attached to their names to access their websites.  Carole Boston Weatherford has accounts on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.  Floyd Cooper has accounts on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.  At the publisher's website you can view interior images.  At The Lerner Blog are articles titled Unspeakable: A Visit to Tulsa's Black Wall Street and Q & A with Carole Boston Weatherford.  This book is featured at School Library Journal, A Fuse #8 Production and Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast with extensive discussions and observations.  For further research you might want to read 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre at the Tulsa Historical Society and Museum website and this article dated June 19, 2020 at PBS News Hour titled What happened 99 years ago in The Tulsa Race Massacre.

UPDATE:  At School Library Journal The Classroom Bookshelf, there is a series of teaching ideas and resources for this title.

UPDATE:  At Lerner there are more resources, including a teaching guide for grades 3-8.

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