Kid Lit Review of “Unspeakable: The Tulsa Race Massacre” by Carole Boston Weatherford

This outstanding book tells an important story, while demonstrating on a meta level how to present horrific and unpleasant but factual information to children in the most positive way possible.

On June 1, 1921, as many as 10,000 armed white Tulsans attacked the thriving and prosperous Black community of Greenwood in Tulsa, leaving between 150 and 300 people dead and more than 8,000 homeless. The provocation was an old and unfortunately common canard maintaining that Black men wanted to defile white women.

[This assertion was no doubt born out of projection by white men about their designs on Black women. See, for example, the book by Rachel A Feinstein, When Rape Was Legal: The Untold History of Sexual Violence During Slavery, Routledge, 2019, or the article “Rape as a Badge of Slavery: The Legal History of, and Remedies For, Prosecutorial Race-of-Vicim Charging Disparities,” by Law Professor Jeffrey J. Pokorak in the Nevada Law Journal, 2006, online here.]

As Civil Rights activist W.E.B Du Bois opined in a 1929 speech about “Nordics”:

They have been responsible for more intermixture of races than any other people, ancient and modern, and they have inflicted this miscegenation on helpless unwilling slaves by force, fraud and insult; and this is the folk that today has the impudence to turn on the darker races, when they demand a share of civilization, and cry: “You shall not marry our daughters!”

The blunt, crude reply is: Who in Hell asked to marry your daughters?”

Greenwood in Tulsa before the massacre: The Booker T. Washington High School parade processes along Greenwood Avenue. Greenwood Cultural Center

This time, in Tulsa, a white girl alleged that a black teenager assaulted her in some way. The facts were in dispute, and as the Smithsonian reports in its history of the ensuing massacre, “even white police detectives thought the accusation dubious.” But as Weatherford observes in her “Author’s Note” at the end of this book, in the post-World War I environment in the U.S., racial tensions were high, with returning Black soldiers somehow thinking they might receive greater respect after having fought and shed blood for their country. Whites thought otherwise. Weatherford writes:

“Regardless of the supposed cause, the white mobs’ motives were always to limit Black political and economic progress and to reassert white supremacy.”

[Sadly, the same could be said still today of the MAGA movement and related white supremicist organizations.]

After the alleged provocation in Tulsa, which the local newspaper immediately reported on as a factual assault, a white mob formed with the aim of lynching the Black teenager. Of course, they didn’t stop with him during their sixteen-hour rampage – in fact, they never got the boy, who left town. But the white mob was undeterred: rioters broke into homes as well as businesses, robbing cash, clothing, jewelry, keepsakes and other personal property before setting fire to buildings. Ultimately, 35 square blocks burned to the ground.

Greenwood aftermath, via Wikipedia

Weatherford tells the story by focusing mostly on describing Greenwood before the massacre. She clearly did her homework, having availed herself of research by the Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921, the Oklahoma and Tulsa historical societies, and the Greenwood Cultural Association.

Greenwood was called the “Negro Wall Street of America” and had dozens of restaurants, stores, several libraries, a hospital, a separate school system, a luxury hotel, two Black-owned newspapers, two movie theaters, and a Black surgeon known as “the most able Black surgeon in the nation.” (Dr.Jackson was one of those killed in the violence.). The area was marked by success and prosperity. As Weatherford recounts, “There were even six privately owned airplanes.”

Whites were resentful – just looking for an excuse to light the match, and they did.

When the National Guard arrived the day after the looting, killing, and burning, “all that was left to do was put out fires and move thousands of Black residents into camps outside of Tulsa.”

The author makes a critical observation in her Author’s Note:

“Seventy-five years passed before lawmakers launched an investigation to uncover the painful truth about the worse racial attack in United States history: police and city officials had plotted with the white mob to destroy the nation’s wealthiest Black community.”

She ends the story by mentioning Tulsa’s Reconciliation Park that memorializes the victims and is “a place to realize the responsibility we all have to reject hatred and violence and to instead choose hope.”

The book concludes with notes by both the author and the illustrator.

Award-winning illustrator Floyd Cooper has personal ties to this story; his grandfather had grown up in Greenwood. Cooper wrote in his Illustrator’s Note, “Everything I knew about this tragedy came from Grandpa; not a single teacher at school ever spoke of it.”

Cooper’s personal connection to the story is reflected in the stunning and moving pictures he created to help tell this story. He explains:

“My grandpa passed away many years ago, but I hope that my art and Carole Boston Weatherford’s words can speak for Grandpa.”

Cooper fills all the space on the double-page spreads with pictures dominated by sepia and brown tones occasionally highlighted with spots of color. The expression on the faces of the people he paints convey more than words ever could.

He uses a technique he calls “a subtractive process” by painting an illustration board with oil paint, and then applying an eraser to the paintings. The result lends softness, warmth, and texture to his mesmerizing pictures, as well as a suggestion (enhanced by his research) that readers are seeing historical representations.

Discussion: A recurring question posed by readers and writers of books for children is how to present difficult history to young children. The author herself, in an interview about this book, opined:

“I decided a few years ago to tackle the subject. If children of the past were — and still are — victimized by racial hatred, then today’s children can learn about it. I do not think that young readers are too tender for tough topics.”

Floyd Cooper, in the same interview, added:

“. . . I personally link the pervasive assault on truth that we see in our politics and media directly to historical truths that exist and have existed and are now being brought to light. A good thing for America. And of course there will be many who are and were just fine with leaving truth under the rug where it is had been swept for far too long.

Eventually, truth will always out. That is different from what it once was. With such a change comes resistance to that change, an unwillingness to accept the change, to accept the truth. That can lead to uncomfortable times. But there is a better day on the other side of change. After the wounds have healed, a much better day awaits! Our young will live in better times together in acceptance of the way things really are if we give them the truth. But we must teach them truth in ways they can comprehend. There is no greater gift than truth. [emphasis added]”

The truth not out here: Tulsa’s white newspaper coverage after the riot

Readers wanting to know more will find a great resource in the April 2021 Smithsonian Magazine retrospective coverage of the event. There are interviews, photos, a wonderful annotated map of Black Tulsa, and testimony about the way in which the history of the massacre has been hidden for years. The article also cites the 2001 report produced over 70 years afterwards by the Tulsa Race Riot Commission, which “discovered reams of government and legal documents that had been hidden away for decades.” The commission concluded:

“There was no doubt while Tulsa officials were to blame for the massacre; they not only failed to prevent the bloodshed but had also deputized white civilians who took part in the burning and killing. And yet not one white person was brought to justice for the atrocities.”

Evaluation: Suggested readership is ages 8-12, but there is not one single American who should not read this book, learn the history it imparts, and contemplate its message. Highly recommended.

Rating: 5/5

Published by Carolrhoda Books, an imprint of Lerner Publishing Group, 2021

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6 Responses to Kid Lit Review of “Unspeakable: The Tulsa Race Massacre” by Carole Boston Weatherford

  1. jama says:

    Thanks so much for your compelling review. Definitely did not learn about this in school and I agree, it’s a book every American should read. Interesting about Cooper’s grandfather, and kudos to Weatherford for tackling such a tough subject.

  2. Lexlingua says:

    That’s a brilliant review, thank you for sharing this. The “excuse” reminded me so much of the premise (in the first part at least) of To Kill a Mocking Bird. Kudos to the author for representing this in the form of a graphic novel. Here’s another piece at Harvard Gazette which recently looked at this:

  3. This sounds like a great book. I hadn’t even heard of the Tulsa Race Massacre until a few years ago.

  4. sagustocox says:

    My daughter and I had a discussion about this when she saw a story on the news. We talked at length about those times and why truth, even hard truths need to be known. As her grampie tells her, “if you do not learn history, you are doomed to repeat it.”

  5. TheIndianBookLounge says:

    Wonderful review!

  6. stacybuckeye says:

    This looks amazing! Requesting now.

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