Over the past several weeks, many publications have printed work about remembering the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921. This interview with historian Robin DG Kelley has blown us away. In it, Dr. Kelley makes plain how the language around our collective remembering helps to maintain a hierarchy of relations in terms of race and class. To restore places like the Greenwood District of Tulsa, we will need a much fuller accounting – not only of who was there and what was lost, but also of how our remembering and our forgetting have obscured the path forward to a more just future.
The Tulsa Race Massacre Went Way Beyond “Black Wall Street”
by Robin D.G. Kelley
George Yancy George Yancy is the Samuel Candler Dobbs professor of philosophy at Emory University and a Montgomery fellow at Dartmouth College. He is also the University of Pennsylvania’s inaugural fellow in the Provost’s Distinguished Faculty Fellowship Program (2019-2020 academic year). He is the author, editor and co-editor of over 20 books, including Black Bodies, White Gazes; Look, A White; Backlash: What Happens When We Talk Honestly about Racism in America; and Across Black Spaces: Essays and Interviews from an American Philosopher published by Rowman & Littlefield in 2020. More by this author…
Published June 1, 2021
There is so much grieving that Black people have yet to do. The grammar of our suffering from anti-Black racism has yet to be fully created.
As we currently deal with the pervasiveness of Black suffering, mourning and grief related to anti-Black racism, there has been a great deal of media coverage acknowledging that this year marks 100 years since the Tulsa Race Massacre, where roughly 300 people — predominantly Black people — were killed; Black churches, schools and businesses were burned to the ground, and the homes of Black people were looted. Yet, it is still not clear to me that white America is ready to acknowledge how Black people have suffered and continue to suffer under systemic white racism.
In this moment of collective remembrance of the Tulsa Race Massacre, I asked the brilliant scholar Robin D. G. Kelley to provide his reflections. Kelley offers a deep analysis that provides a counternarrative (a powerful X-ray) of the massacre that allows us to see deep issues embedded within racial capitalism that impacted poor working-class Black people and sustained Indigenous suffering.
In our discussion, we move from the importance of critical race theory as a framework for critiquing liberalism and the founding myths of the U.S., to questions of differential Black suffering, to a liberated planet. Kelley, who is the Gary B. Nash Endowed Chair of U.S. History at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) and contributing editor for the Boston Review, provides us with complex realities that are braided and require our collective efforts without losing sight of our specific oppressions with their accompanying lived experiences. Kelley is the author of several books, including Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination; Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists During the Great Depression; and the forthcoming Black Bodies Swinging: An American Postmortem (Metropolitan Books).
George Yancy: According to accounts of the Tulsa race massacre, airplanes were used to drop firebombs on the Greenwood District in Tulsa, Oklahoma, which was known as Black Wall Street. When I think about this, the ironies abound. They say, “Black people are lazy.” Yet, Black people in the Greenwood District in Tulsa were known for their affluence, economic power and self-reliant diligence. And they say, “Black people are capricious, they loot, they destroy property.” Over 1,000 Black homes were burned to the ground through acts of white terrorism in Tulsa. The overlap of events at this moment is so crucial. How do you understand the current discussions of the massacre in various public spheres (including in left-wing media and mainstream media but also in conservative media) and what this says about the current political moment in relation to contestations over the existence of white supremacy, systemic racism and the struggle for racial justice?
Robin D.G. Kelley: George, it is always an honor to be in conversation with you. Your questions are always incisive; they cut to the core of the issue.
Certainly, the Tulsa race massacre can possibly be one avenue for the country to “acknowledge” historic and ongoing Black suffering through some kind of truth, reconciliation and reparations process. I’m skeptical for several reasons. For one thing, we keep repeating the mantra that this story is unknown. Although it was front page news in 1921, and although a resident/survivor Mary E. Jones Parrish self-published an eyewitness account in 1923, and although Black residents filed 193 unsuccessful lawsuits against the city and various insurance companies for just compensation, we still talk as if this is all new and shocking knowledge. The Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 (now called the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot Centennial Commission) was created 24 years ago. The indefatigable historian, Eddie Faye Gates, spent years collecting oral histories of survivors.
Why do we continually repeat the assertion that this history is completely unknown, a secret, or so shameful no one wants to talk about it? Because the issue has never been about not knowing; it is about a refusal to acknowledge genocidal, state-sanctioned racist violence in the United States.
“60 Minutes” ran a devastating segment on the massacre in 1999, and I swear, every year since, journalists (print and broadcast) have announced the discovery of this terrible history and found some Black person to interview who has never heard of it. Meanwhile, literally dozens of books have appeared on the Tulsa race massacre, going back at least to the 1970s when Lee E. Williams and Lee E. Williams II published Anatomy of Four Race Riots (1972) and a white history professor, Rudia Halliburton Jr., published a short book aptly titled, The Tulsa Race War of 1921 (1975). Then in 1982, Scott Ellsworth released Death in a Promised Land: The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921, followed by a parade of very fine books by James Hirsch, Hannibal Johnson, Tim Madigan, Alfred Brophy, and so on…
The point, of course, is that for at least 40 years, there was no shortage of public information. Even before these texts appeared, it is not hard to find mention or detailed yet flawed accounts of the Tulsa massacre in the pages of leading Black scholarly journals — Journal of Negro History, Phylon, Journal of Negro Education, etc. (Rudia Halliburton’s book began as an essay in The Journal of Black Studies published in 1972). Besides stacks of books — scholarly, popular, photographic, fiction and young adult — there have been plays written about it as well as several documentary films, some bearing titles, such as Tulsa’s Secret; Terror in Tulsa: History Uncovered; The Tulsa Lynching of 1921: A Hidden Story; all before Watchmen and Stanley Nelson and Marco Williams’s brand new and powerful film, Tulsa Burning.
The fact is, the Tulsa race massacre is the most thoroughly studied and discussed incident of all of the 20th century racial pogroms, with the possible exception of the East St. Louis massacre of 1917. I’ve been in the business of teaching Black history for over three decades, and every colleague I know includes Tulsa in their general survey courses. So why do we continually repeat the assertion that this history is completely unknown, a secret, or so shameful no one wants to talk about it? Because the issue has never been about not knowing; it is about a refusal to acknowledge genocidal, state-sanctioned racist violence in the United States, a refusal to recognize the existence of fascism in this country. This is not to say the violence is simply denied by the status quo. No, rather it is disavowed by the white propertied and political classes and displaced onto “ignorant” white racist workers. This narrative obscures how the violence, fomented and promoted by the press and business interests, became a pretext to take the land — an attempted land grab that continued for decades after 1921.
But there is more. I find the whole class politics around the way we continue to frame the story of Tulsa is not only disturbing, but it actually serves to distort and erase the exploitation and oppression of the majority of Black people. And by “we,” I also mean Black folks. Let me explain.
This is what we know: two days of racist violence left an estimated 300 people dead, hundreds more injured, and more than 1,200 Black-owned dwellings destroyed, along with businesses, a school, a hospital, a public library and a dozen Black churches. Before buildings were torched and planes were used to drop turpentine bombs which functioned as incendiary devices, white men and women looted Black homes and businesses, taking money, pianos, victrolas, jewelry and clothing, lamps, furniture, etc.
It was the Black working class, the Black poor who suffered the most. They didn’t have insurance and very, very few had the means to file suit or make claims.
But in telling the story, we focus solely on “Black Wall Street,” which made up just a few blocks of the 35-40 square blocks of Greenwood the mobs destroyed. All we really hear about are doctors and lawyers and entrepreneurs, Black-owned theaters and the luxurious Stradford Hotel, when, in fact, the vast majority of Black Tulsans beaten, killed and displaced were working people. Contrary to the myth of universal prosperity, most Black Tulsans were not getting rich. Most Black men were laborers — more than one-third employed as porters, janitors, gardeners, chauffeurs, etc. — and 93 percent of employed Black women cleaned, cooked and cared for children in white households. Not everyone rendered homeless owned their homes — many were, in fact, renters or boarders living in private homes. And many Black working-class families did manage to purchase property and construct ramshackle houses out of leftover wood from old barns or packing crates. No matter what you might have seen on Watchmen, in 1921, only six blocks of all of Greenwood were paved, and most Black working-class houses had outhouses, no underground sewage lines.
But in the discourse surrounding the massacre, it seems like the fate of those few blocks in and around “Black Wall Street” is all that matters. Again, Mary E. Jones Parrish set the stage by only including testimonies from Black elites and by including an illuminating appendix of a partial list of property losses that lays bare the class divide in Greenwood. First, the list only includes about 270 Black-owned homes out of a population of about 10,000. Second, only 19 people sustained losses of $15,000 or more, four of whom lost over $50,000 (J.B. Stradford, $125,000; Lula T. Williams, $85,000; O. W. Gurley, $65,000; Jim Cherry, $50,000). To be clear, $15,000 in 1921 is worth over $223,000 in 2021 dollars — though this estimate doesn’t account for all the factors that determine property values, like the racial make-up of a neighborhood. Nor am I considering real wealth since equity varied and many homes were heavily mortgaged. Black-owned businesses were concentrated on North Greenwood Street as well as adjoining streets — Frankfort Ave., Cameron, East Archer, North Elgin, Cincinnati — with more expensive homes situated along Detroit, which valued between $3,000 and $7,000. But most of the homes encircling this core area, with exceptions, are valued between $1,500 and $500 — in today’s dollars, between $20,000 and $6,000. And some of the wealthier Black folks owned between 10 and 20 houses each, which they rented out for additional income.
We live in such a materialist, celebrity culture that we measure our “success” by class mobility, by wealth accumulation, and then we fall victim to a tired narrative that white folks destroyed “our” communities out of jealousy over of our success. While there is truth to this, and white looting is clear evidence, the “jealousy” is cultivated, nurtured in the ideology of white supremacy, usually in the guise of patriotism and nationalism, or in the capitalist replacement theory — “N*****s are coming for your jobs!” The mob was largely made up of shock troops engaged in an attempted land grab from which they themselves would not directly benefit. The first spark for the mob wasn’t real estate, but another form of property rooted in patriarchy — property in women. A Black man accused of assaulting a white woman is a more effective dog whistle than Negroes with grand pianos and bank accounts. The second spark, of course, were Negroes with guns. Here we see Black solidarity and fearlessness on full display — Black World War I veterans representing all classes within Greenwood, armed and prepared to defend one of their own, their people and their property. That act of insubordination, more than anything else, convinced white folks to fuel up their planes and build an arsenal.
If we are to be honest, it was the Black working class, the Black poor who suffered the most. They didn’t have insurance and very, very few had the means to file suit or make claims (though there is a lesson here about the relative poverty of Black lawyers whose clients tended to be Black working people having to deal with a racist criminal justice system!) We celebrate the resilience of the Black elite because they were able to hold Greenwood a few decades longer, but we completely ignore the Black working class, many of whom were displaced and were never able to return. This is not an oversight, it is ideological. Again, Parrish acknowledges that the Black elite are often inclined to “feel their superiority over those less fortunate, but when a supreme test, like the Tulsa disaster comes, it serves to remind us that we are all of one race…. Every Negro was accorded the same treatment, regardless of his education or other advantages. A Negro was a Negro on that day and was forced to march with his hands up for blocks.” And yet, she chose to underscore this point with scripture from 1 Thessalonians 5:14 “Comfort the feeble minded; support the weak.”
Sadly, when the blockbuster movie comes out about the 1921 massacre, Greenwood is going to look like Wakanda: wealthy elite Negroes walking around with shopping bags.
I don’t think the issue of the Tulsa race massacre of 1921 can ever be fully resolved or “repaired” without addressing Indigenous dispossession and African slavery.
Finally, any discussion of repair and reparations, of grieving and mourning the events of 1921 and its aftermath, must grapple with the colonial violence that made Tulsa or Oklahoma and its settler regime possible. Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court made a significant though limited ruling that half of Oklahoma is still under Indigenous jurisdiction — which includes most of Tulsa. Of course, all of the land is stolen from Indigenous people, including the coveted land upon which Greenwood sat. Some Black people got to Oklahoma by way of the forced march of the Creeks, Choctaws, Chickasaws, Cherokees and Seminoles from the Southeastern territories in the 1830s. Some came as slaves of wealthy tribal members, others as spouses and children — part African, part Indigenous. And many died along the way. Later, Black folks joined the exodus out of the South after the Civil War by taking advantage of the Homestead Act to acquire land and create all-Black towns — Oklahoma being a prime destination. But again, on whose land? There is much rolled up in this process — Native elites owning African slaves; Africans, slave and free, being incorporated as members of the five tribes (especially the Creeks and the Seminoles). I don’t think the issue of the Tulsa race massacre of 1921 can ever be fully resolved or “repaired” without addressing the question of both holocausts — Indigenous dispossession and African slavery. Whatever resolution will be temporary.
I know this is a long answer, but I’m simply making a plea that we think more deeply about the events of 100 years ago and their legacy — that we bear in mind that Black working-class lives matter, that we reject capitalist solutions to address the violence of racial capitalism and settler colonialism, that we never forget how this country came to be in the first place, and that we never forget what “Wall Street” signifies.
As we know, there has been an attack on teaching critical race theory, which is not somehow anti-white, and has nothing to do with teaching reverse racism. Critical race theory engages theory, history and narrative as important ways of critiquing the so-called racial neutrality of law and excavates the subtle ways in which racism is embedded within social structures and the unconscious. It critically engages how these sites function to maintain racial injustice, white hegemony and power. In fact, critical race theorists would bring attention to the anti-Black dynamics of what took place during the massacre in Tulsa. Its aim is to provide for us a critical framework for understanding the racial and racist power dynamics at play during that tragic period. Yet, even as we focus our attention on the Tulsa race massacre, John Keven Stitt, the governor of Oklahoma, recently signed a bill that prohibits teaching critical race theory in schools. This is an attack on knowledge production. It is an attack on critical inquiry, and an attack on epistemological and social justice efforts to understand the systemic operations of white supremacy, and how we might critically dismantle the perpetuation of racialized injustice. In other words, Stitt’s effort is one of profound bad faith, pervasive ignorance and white nation-building. His refusal (intentionally or unintentionally) to face the systemic nature of white racism helps to whitewash the U.S.’s racist and brutal history. Unfortunately, this attempt to ban critical race theory is also occurring in other Republican-controlled states. Stitt’s refusal attempts to repress the necessary counter-narratives that contest the U.S.’s racist “innocence.” This raises two important issues: the attack on “The 1619 Project” published by The New York Times, and the current explosion of discussion over Nikole Hannah-Jones’s tenure fight at the University of North Carolina. We are attacked for our successes, attacked because of other’s stereotypes of us, and we are attacked for holding a disagreeable mirror up to white America’s face. How do you connect the dots here, Robin?
We have always been attacked for holding up a disagreeable mirror to white America. But mirrors are not that dangerous because they reflect back what is only on the surface — the obvious, if unspoken, truth that we live in a racist country. Conservatives don’t want to hear it, but liberals, especially in the era of “Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion” can get with the mirror and even embrace it. For example, you remember after Obama was elected and Republicans were holding public readings of the Constitution but skipping over the “arcane” parts sanctioning slavery as a property right and a basis for congressional representation and taxation, liberal Democrats were on their high horse, arguing that we must acknowledge the “offensive” and “politically uncomfortable” passages of the Constitution, if only to demonstrate the greatness of the document for rising above the anachronistic values of the so-called founding fathers.
The problem, of course, is that slavery was not an aberration but foundational — not only to the American economy but to the very shape of the Republic. American liberty was built on slavery and dispossession because liberty was fundamentally about property rights. A mirror will not show us this, but an ‘X-ray’ will. You see, liberals hold on to the idea that in the U.S. democracy is a creed passed down to us via these great documents — this myth, if we’re to be honest, has driven the liberal wing of the civil rights movement for decades and still drives it today. This is classic Gunnar Myrdal, who still lingers like an open sore in the political unconscious of the Black elite. Myrdal’s main contention is that the “Negro problem” was an unresolved moral issue for white America: The conflict is between democratic, egalitarian values of the American creed and the treatment of Black people. Racist practices, therefore, are not built into the structure (of settler colonialism, racial capitalism and patriarchy) but an aberration, a constant disruption to the structure of (or promise of) American democracy.
1776 was hardly a rupture from the past, but rather a struggle between fractions of the same class over who would benefit from the spoils of slavery, slave-produced commerce and Indigenous dispossession.
This kind of obfuscation is visible in the mirror, but not when we use an X-ray to look at the hidden structure of our Herrenvolk Republic. Critical race theory (CRT) is one of those X-rays. It exposes the structure through an “intersectional” framework of race, class and gender with the intention of interrogating how power is maintained and inequality reproduced, despite a liberal legal foundation that promises inclusion and “equality.” In other words, CRT doesn’t just challenge right-wing myth-making, but offers a critique of liberalism and the founding myths of the United States. So why should we be surprised that the ruling class is trying to eliminate CRT? As you well know, this is not the first time CRT has been under attack (and here we must acknowledge the fissures among CRT scholars). In that respect, it shares much in common with “The 1619 Project.” While “The 1619 Project” does not share CRT’s more robust critique of capitalism, it succeeded in bringing to a mainstream audience the periodization that had been de rigueur in U.S. Black Studies for over half a century, if not longer. By arguing that “America” begins in 1619, Nikole Hannah-Jones and her fellow contributors show that our “country” was built on a colonial economy based on racial slavery, plantation production, trans-Atlantic commodity trade, and the buying, selling, mortgaging and insuring of human beings. They overturn the founding myth that America was born out of an anti-colonial war for liberty against British tyranny. Rather than portray the so-called founding fathers as the victims of colonial domination, “The 1619 Project” exposes them as part of a long line of colonizers. Consequently, the essays give the general public greater clarity as to what 1776 was about — which was hardly a rupture from the past, but rather a struggle between fractions of the same class over who would benefit from the spoils of slavery, slave-produced commerce and Indigenous dispossession.
In short, what we are facing is an ongoing discursive war that began even before the creation of a Black press. We see it unfold constantly, the last few years with the fight over Confederate monuments. Of course, these statues were products of the long discursive war, introduced mostly during the early 20th century to signal that the South actually won the Civil War. Indeed, the heyday for the erection of Confederate statues was around the First World War and after, the era of the bloody Red Summer of 1919 and the Tulsa race massacre. The discursive war ramped up with Trump, who announced the creation of a 1776 Commission (whose vice-chair is the notorious Black political scientist Carol Swain) to fill the curriculum with “patriotic education,” in an effort to shield the nation from Howard Zinn and critical race theorists. And yet, I see all of this as a desperate regime on the defensive. Their efforts to deny Nikole Hannah-Jones a tenure-track position is a sign of desperation. That’s an easy thing to reverse. So, I’m less concerned with paranoid right-wing white nationalists than I am with (neo)liberal multiculturalists who side-step the question of power, or what Gerald Horne wryly calls “left-wing white nationalists” who downplay white supremacy and mistake a settler-colonial revolt for a democratic revolution.
In a profoundly courageous and clear statement before a hearing held by a House Judiciary Subcommittee, 107-year-old Viola Fletcher, a beautifully dignified Black woman, who is a survivor of the 1921 Tulsa race massacre, recalls, “I will never forget the violence of the white mob when we left our home. I still see Black men being shot, 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.” She adds, “I have lived through the massacre every day. Our country may forget this history but I cannot.” Viola Fletcher is a living witness to white terrorism. In cultural theorist bell hooks’s engaging essay, “Representations of Whiteness in the Black Imagination,” hooks writes, “All black people in the United States, irrespective of their class status or politics, live with the possibility that they will be terrorized by whiteness.” It is this kind of terrorization of Black people that occurred 100 years ago in Tulsa. Imagine the weight of those images of Black men being shot by whites, Black bodies lying in the streets? Try to imagine numerous George Floyds lying dead in the streets. Imagine not being able to free oneself from the smell of smoke or unsee the fire. Imagine the screams that she cannot cease from hearing. What happens when she hears the sound of a plane? She speaks so powerfully to our contemporary moment when she says, “Our country may forget this history but I cannot.” The cowardice attack on critical race theory and “The 1619 Project” are ways in which some (many?) in this country are trying to forget this history. As Viola Fletcher says, though, “… but I cannot.” When she says “I cannot,” I am both encouraged and yet profoundly saddened. Encouraged, because “I cannot” suggests a refusal to forget. Saddened, because “I cannot” suggests the indelible pain of anti-Black trauma. What do we say to Black people who have to live with anti-Black racist trauma on a daily basis? I ask this question because it threatens white America’s tendency to forget, to downplay anti-Black racism and its systemic structure. I also ask it because, personally, I’m sick of this shit. There are times when the idea of leaving this country feels right. There are other times when living is just too hard when you know that anti-Black racism may not have an end. We carried the weight of maintaining the democratic spirit and momentum of this country, and yet we continue to be murdered by the state, and we still cannot breathe.
These are great and difficult questions. For me, they can be distilled into three questions: How do we deal with the trauma of anti-Black racism? What do we remember and how does that shape how we move forward? Should we continue to carry the burden of “maintaining the democratic spirit of this country”?
American liberty was built on slavery and dispossession because liberty was fundamentally about property rights.
With regard to the first question: while in principle I can agree that all Black people live with the possibility of being terrorized by whiteness, the possibilities are differential based on class, gender, age, disability, etc. I am a university professor with a good income who lives in a neighborhood where the police constantly harass homeless and underhoused people, almost all of whom are Black men and women. Or they are constantly hitting up poor Latinx men who line up in the mornings looking for temporary work. Now, in the 1970s and ‘80s, as a young, poor Black person, my interactions with racist state and non-state actors (e.g., racist store owners and their employees), was a daily occurrence. But in my neighborhood now, the police generally ignore me. Besides, I can also afford to limit my interactions with police and with the public, and I have documentation to prove who I am. Does any of this make me completely safe? No. But to pretend that I don’t enjoy certain privileges that make me less vulnerable than other Black and Brown folks would be dishonest.
I know this is an uncomfortable topic and I’ve gotten attacked by folks who believe racism is undifferentiated, and every anti-Black gesture is equally traumatic. But I deal with quite a number of middle- and upper-class Black students who are traumatized by microaggressions of varying degrees. I also teach Black and Brown students who are transfers from community college, slightly older students often detoured by a year, 18 months, or two years in prison. To say that these students are traumatized differently is not to dismiss the traumas that my more privileged students endure. But as I’ve written elsewhere, perhaps the best way to deal with trauma besides therapy is to engage, think and struggle collectively. And this requires building a solidarity that is not based solely on seeing the world through personal experience and “affinity,” but to build political communities around/against the trauma inflicted on most of the world. Here I’m thinking of war, gender violence, imprisonment, the neoliberal terrorism of privatization, austerity and dispossession, often inflicted on the world by the U.S. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. put it, “The greatest purveyor of violence in the world: my own government.”
To the question, What do we remember and how does it shape how we move forward?, I want to return to Tulsa. If we only remember the loss of property and wealth and the evisceration of a Black elite, then we only imagine a potential future in which someone like J.B. Stradford could have been the Black “Hilton,” where the wealthy are wealthier, and projected “reparations” payments are calculated based on accumulated property at the time of the violence. Despite recognizing that the entire community suffered, “compensation” would be differential, mirroring the very system of racial capitalism that structured enclosure (segregation), violence, deep inequality and poverty for most, and premature death. We will also forget what might be the most impactful response by the community: mutual aid, a caring culture, and the impulse toward self-defense and protecting one another. And if our memories begin and end in 1921, we are stripped of a full accounting of the process of displacement and dispossession — which begins with the inaugural theft of Indigenous lands and still hasn’t ended. The story of the massacre continues for decades, with the disinvestment of Greenwood, the construction of Interstate 244, urban renewal policies, and more recently a multimillion-dollar museum commemorating Black Wall Street which many activists see as a Trojan horse to advance the ongoing movement to gentrify the Greenwood district.
In the end, we should not have to carry the weight of maintaining the democratic spirit of this country because it is not a democracy and never has been. We live in what the late Alexander Saxton and David Roediger and others described as a Herrenvolk Republic. We have to exit this country and its liberal humanist conceits, but that doesn’t necessarily mean to physically leave. (Besides, so long as the U.S. empire exists, there is nowhere to go!). In our Herrenvolk Republic, liberalism was founded on a definition of liberty that places property before human freedom (and human needs), and an exclusionary definition of the human that permits various forms of unfree labor, dispossession and subordination based on “race” and “gender.” And yet, we keep speaking of the Tulsa race massacre in terms of property, property rights, property destroyed. I think we need to talk about decolonization in order to advance beyond land as property toward a vision of freedom not based on ownership or possession or anthropocentrism. The land has been enslaved and needs liberation so the Earth could flourish, so people could flourish, so the historical and contemporary structures of violence might end, opening up a radically different future. It is worth remembering that Tulsa was an oil boom town, a fact we are quick to drop uncritically as further evidence of Black success! But when I speak of exiting this country, I’m thinking about our solidarity with Indigenous movements at the forefront of struggles against fracking, pipelines, fossil fuel extraction, environmental racism, pushing back the climate catastrophe.
We should not have to carry the weight of maintaining the democratic spirit of this country because it is not a democracy and never has been.
Going forward, I see no end in sight when Black people will have their humanity fully recognized, especially when it seems that anti-Blackness is fundamentally linked to white America’s social DNA, its understanding of itself, its identity. James Baldwin was right where he links “the Negro problem” with the failure of white people to truly love themselves. He was also right where he notes, “All of us know, whether or not we are able to admit it, that mirrors can only lie, that death by drowning is all that awaits one there.” How might we deploy history to shatter those mirrors that lie to white people and by extension free them from needing us as a “problem”?
Obviously, I agree with Baldwin when he writes “mirrors can only lie.” I think this whole conversation has been an effort to shatter those mirrors that lie, not only to white folks but to our people as well. That is the more uncomfortable but much needed discussion to have. In any case, as I said in the previous response, I don’t think it is a matter of convincing white folks to recognize our humanity. The veracity of our humanity was never the issue — then or now. The problem lies with Western civilization’s very construction of the human. As Sylvia Wynter, Cedric Robinson, Frantz Fanon, Aimé Césaire, and others have been saying for decades, the “Negro” was an invention, a fiction — like that of the “Indian,” the “Oriental,” the “Mexican,” etc. Indeed, the entire structure of global white supremacy depends on such inventions, like the fictions of the Arab as non- or anti-Western and the “Immigrant” as essentially Latinx, or that Indigenous people (in North America at least) are all dead. I take it, this is what you mean when you talked about white folks needing us as a “problem.”
These fabrications are enacted through violence. Once they crumble, so goes the West’s liberal humanism, the massive philosophical smokescreen that enables racial capitalism to masquerade as the engine of progress, a pure expression of freedom and liberty, the only path to human emancipation. The modern world that invented the Negro, the Oriental, the Indian and the Savage as a means of inventing a biocentric understanding of the Human (European Man) was built on the theft of humans, theft of land and water, indiscriminate murder, violation of customary rights, moral economy, enclosure of the commons, destruction of the planet — outright lawlessness. And yet, as Sylvia Wynter, Alexander Weheliye, Saidiya Hartman, and Ariella Azoulay, among others, remind us, the creators and perpetrators of this violence were also the inventors of “rights” and citizenship.
Of course, some kind of reparations is an important first step to begin to come to terms with consequences of settler violence, not just in Tulsa, but Greensboro and Wilmington, North Carolina; Brownsville; Rosewood; East St. Louis; Springfield, Illinois; every part of Mississippi; Watts; Detroit; Newark; Chicago; Sand Creek; Skeleton Cave; Fort Robinson; Wounded Knee; all along the Southwest border; Attica; Soledad; San Quentin; Manzanar; the West Bank and Gaza, and beyond…
Reparations carry their own contradictions, which we can save for another conversation. Certainly, how we proceed with repair depends on how we remember. But reparations are easier than decolonization, which is the answer to the question of where do we go, how to exit. In the United States, where the structure of colonial domination is completely shrouded in liberal multiculturalism, neoliberal homilies about freedom, colorblind discourse that undergirds criminalization and white supremacy, enabling 400 years of state-sanctioned serial murder to continue with impunity, power cannot be unseated merely through violence. (Of course, the very utterance of the word impunity reveals a contradiction, in that the point of law for the colonized is not protection but containment, discipline, and in some cases, genocide.) But we have no choice if we want to save the planet and free ourselves from liberal humanism. Decolonization, however, requires the abolition of all forms of oppression and violence. It means disbanding the military/police, opening borders, opening the prisons, freeing the body from the constraints of inherited and imposed normativities of gender and sexuality. It means ending war entirely, and that means the end of America as we know it.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and was originally published by Truthout.