Unraveling the Conspiracy of Silence

The great Black historian Dr. John Hope Franklin spoke the truth when he addressed the issue of the Tulsa Massacre of 1921. He had a long history with Tulsa, Oklahoma having graduated from Booker T. Washington High School in the Greenwood segregated section of the city in 1931. That was ten years after the devastating unmerciful attack perpetrated on Black Americans by angry, racist white Tulsans. In the year 2000, on the seventy-ninth commemoration of the destruction Dr. Franklin said, “Posterity has not been charitable, for it has sealed the lips of those who should have spoken and blinded the eyes of those who witnessed the tragic events. Indeed, a veritable conspiracy of silence enveloped a considerable portion of the city for some seventy-five years.”

Exactly what was this “tragic event” that caused the state of Oklahoma to conduct a conspiracy of silence so that the rest of the world would not know what happened the morning of June 1, 1921. At 5:45 of that fateful morning a loud shrill whistle from a grain factory near the Frisco Railroad tracks sounded and was followed by low flying airplanes that preceded over seventy-five hundred mad, hateful white men and children who then invaded the Greenwood section of the city better known as Black Wall Street.

The men in the airplanes began to toss turpentine-soaked projectiles onto the many business buildings located on what was know as greater Greenwood. The Williams Confectionary, the Dreamland Theater, the Gurley Hotel, Stradford Hotel and over one hundred other black businesses that represented Black Wall Street went up in flames. The mob followed the planes and continued the burning of homes and the slaughter of over 300 Black men, women and children. It was the greatest massacre of American citizens in the history of the country and the first time American soil was bombed from airplanes.

When in 2009 I visited Tulsa to write the life story of a lady from that city, I was shocked to discover 1) that such an event had occurred on the streets of this country and 2) it had been kept out of the history books for so many years. The massacre was finally forced out of a dungeon of darkness and into the light of day by Don Ross, a determined Black state legislator from Tulsa. He insisted that the state conduct a thorough investigation into exactly what happened. After considerable research by the Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Riot of 1921, an accurate report of what happened was released on April 6, 2000. Once that report was made public, writers began their own interpretation of the events. The silence was shattered and the Commission in their introduction to the study wrote: “The 1921 Tulsa Race Riot Commission is pleased to report that this past tragedy has been extensively aired, that it is now remembered, and that it will never again be unknown.”

Much of what the Commission expressed is true and many media outlets have written about the massacre. I have studied most of the written documents, to include the commission report, and I have also written extensively about it. But now it is time to take the story to a higher level and that is to put it on the big screen, not only here in the United States but internationally also. After struggling for five years to do just that, I believe I now have an excellent team that will release a movie sometime in 2020 about 1) the successes of black men and women in building an economically independent community, where the money stayed there for at least five to six exchanges and 2) the extreme hate that finally destroyed their good work. Furthermore, our story will not portray Black Americans as victims but as victors. The veterans that took on the horde of murderers put up an excellent fight, allowing many of their brothers and sisters to get out of town before being murdered. They were only defeated because of the superior air power and the overwhelming number of invaders.

Presently, with the expert assistance of Ms. Judith James of Dreyfuss and James Production Company out of Hollywood, California, Mr. Adger Cowans a world renowned photographer as well as a Hollywood still photographer, Professor Antoinette Winstead, Associate Dean of the Fine Arts Department at the University of Our Lady of Lake in San Antonio, Texas and independent film maker Ada Babino, I have constructed the history of the tragedy as a screen script and we are now in the pre-production stages of our project. Besides my extensive research, I had the privilege of interviewing Ms. Laurel Stradford, the great granddaughter of the richest Black man on Black Wall Street, John Baptiste Stradford, and she has joined our team.

With the extremely talented and knowledgeable experts that have recognized the importance of telling this story to the rest of the world, I know we will be serving a larger purpose than our own individual gain. Borrowing from the famous English Parliamentarian and scholar Edmund Burke who wrote: “Those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it,” my team’s bringing this hidden massacre and unraveling the conspiracy of silence to the screen, will hopefully stimulate conversations around the country as to how we can make sure this never happens again. Given the turbulent racial times we are encountering in our country today, communication is the key to make sure there is never another Tulsa Massacre as occurred on June 1, 1921.

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Black Men-White Women-And the Noose

Bill Cosby has been sentenced from three to five years in a maximum-security prison. He was found guilty for drugging and sexually assaulting a white woman. He is the first celebrity of the #MeToo era to be jailed. He is eighty-one years old and considered a sexually violent predator and, therefore, placed in maximum security. A predator is defined as “someone who follows people in order to harm them or commit a crime against them.”

Cosby is not a healthy man as was very apparent every time he was seen making his way into court. I doubt seriously that even if he was on the outside, Cosby is in any kind of physical shape to be a predator. It was a convenient excuse to place him in maximum security prison. For that reason alone, one can assume that the system’s determination to punish him was not about justice, but revenge, something that Black men have confronted all their lives and for decades. I doubt seriously if his punishment would have locked him up in maximum security if the victim of his crime had been a Black woman.

Black men in this country rather guilty or not have always been the target of white men whose greatest fear has been his perceived notion that he must protect his women from the savage nature of the Black man. That was the theme in the movie, Birth of a Nation, back in 1915. And that fear was best articulated by a South Carolina Senator, Ben “Pitchfork” Tillman when he took to the United States Senate floor and delivered the following peroration:

“I have three daughters but so help me God, I had rather find either one of them killed by a tiger or a bear and gather up her bones and bury them, conscious that she had died in the purity of her maidenhood, than to have her crawl to me and tell me the horrid story that she had been robbed of the jewel of her womanhood by a black fiend.”

This perception of the Black man spread throughout the country and men of color were not safe from the lynch mob. Leon Litwack explains this sickness in his outstanding history of the South in his work, Trouble In Mind. He writes,

“To endorse lynching was to dwell on the sexual depravity of Blacks to raise the specter of the Black beast seized by uncontrollable savage, sexual passion that were inherent in the race.”

Of the nearly three thousand Blacks lynched between the years 1889 and 1918, approximately 19% were based on rape. The combination of Black men and white women and revengeful white men added up to the noose and a lynching. According to Litwack, one of the most brutal attacks on a Black man occurred in Rocky Ford, Mississippi:

“An angry mob chained J. P. Ivy, a Black field hand and an alleged rapist, to a woodpile, poured gasoline over it, and roasted him to death before a crowd of six hundred white spectators.”

Probably the most vicious attack on a Black community occurred in Tulsa, Oklahoma on June 1, 1921 and the initial catalyst was the belief that a young Black man, Dick Rowland, had accosted Sarah Page, in the elevator in the Drexel Building, when nothing was further from the truth. In that instance, white men and even women and children attacked and slaughtered over three hundred Black men, women and children. With the help of airplanes flying over the Black community, thirty-three blocks of Black businesses and homes were burned to the ground. Following the slaughter in Tulsa, was the vicious attack in Rosewood, Florida when a Black man was wrongly accused of attacking a white woman, and years later there was the Scottsboro Case.

What is really ironical about the Cosby sentence is the judge claiming that no one was beyond the law. How about all the Black women who have been raped by white men during the brutal years of slavery and afterwards? Evidently, those men were beyond the law because, unless Black men took the law into their own hands, those rapes went unpunished. White men were “beyond the law” for the inordinate number of Black women who fell victim to their crimes.

If Mr. Cosby sexually abused as many women as has been reported then, of course, there must be some form of punishment. In all crimes, justice must prevail. But in this country, we know that justice has never been meted out in a fair and equal manner. To place a rather frail and sick Black man in maximum security prison is not justice, it is revenge. And it is a warning to all other Black men that the Trump’s “Make America Great Again,” is on the prowl and we, as always, are the center of their attention.

SCRIPT WRITING—FENCES—AND FRUSTRATION!

Over the past several months, I have taken on the difficult task of writing a screen play. It is difficult for me because all my training and writing has been novels and the two genres are much different. When I reach a point of frustration, as I often do, I walk away from the computer, go to the television and tune into my additional frustration, and that is watching August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize winning play, Fences as a movie. My frustration is with the main character, Troy, played by Denzel Washington (whom I feel did an excellent portrayal of the character). He is the reason I keep going back to this movie every time I want a break from my primary frustration. The problem is I really want to like Troy because he is a Black man as I am, and even though his struggles with this country occur years earlier than mine, they are similar. But that is where our commonality ends.

I am not sure exactly what Wilson was doing with this character, or if he even cared how we the viewer would feel about Troy. Before deciding to write about this very complicated character, I read a lot of reviews by critics and the most important people of all, those who also saw the movie. One fact that is undeniable, Troy causes an emotional response in people and maybe that was Wilson’s goal. If so, he succeeded. But then what type of emotion did the viewer get, and is that important? I feel that it is! And just as important is what kind of perception or image did he create in the minds of young Black boys and men who saw the movie?

Is it the image of a failed baseball player who never makes it to the major leagues because of racism? Is it the image of a man who brings his paycheck home to his wife every Friday, but then goes out and spends time with another woman because, as he suggests, he needs his space? Is it the image of a man who finds his joy in hanging out in the backyard, drinking gin with his friend and talking about his past escapades? How do you really measure the value of a man who brings a baby he is fathered by another woman, home to his wife of eighteen years and asks her to take on the role of mother? How insensitive is that, and are we supposed to find value in this man because life has thrown him too many curve balls that he just couldn’t hit? Is it the image of a man who berates his son and enters into a physical fight with him because he was responsible for him being in the world and he deserves more respect for that?

I am not sure which of the two frustrations I will manage to overcome, attempting to master the art of writing a screen script or finding some value and worth as a man in Troy. With any luck it will be the first one because, honestly, I don’t think I want to conquer the second one. Because if I do, I will find some value in a man who cheats on his wife, beats his son, and lacks the ability to know that he has made their lives miserable because of his own weaknesses and insecurities.

In my attempt to assess what August Wilson was trying to accomplish by creating this very dysfunctional family, I must ask the question should fiction imitate life or should fiction influence life to make it better? The great Peruvian Nobel Prize winning author, Mario Vargas Llosa, in his creative writing work book, Letters to the Young Novelist, has written that the novelist looks at the world the way it is and then dreams of how it can be better, and that is how he or she should write. He also advises the young novelist that fiction is the window to view the soul of a people. Plays and films also fit into this category. Is Troy’s world what we aspire for our young, and when future generations view that movie will that be the impression they have of us back in the Twentieth and early years of the Twenty-first Centuries. As writers and hopefully, dreamers, do we owe them something much better than the image of Troy? If we don’t, why are we writing?

No doubt August Wilson was a very good playwright, but I also believe the story he tells in Fences is one that most Black people have lived and don’t necessarily need to be reminded of in plays and movies. We deserve something much more enlightening and therefore empowering as a people.