Back in 2009 when I was first introduced to the Greenwood Community, also known as Black Wall Street, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and the hate that destroyed it in 1921, I did like most people and concentrated on the destruction or as everyone refers to it now, the massacre. While writing my novel, Fires of Greenwood: The Tulsa Riot of 1921, in 2013 I also concentrated on the killing and burning down of all the buildings in the Black community. Again, I did as all others were doing, concentrating on the negative and the ugly. But then I began to question was there any good that came out of that dastardly act? And how much more negative portrayal of us, as a race, could we tolerate without changing the narrative of our history in this country? My thoughts concentrated on our young and what they learned about their people in schools, movies, and television. It frightened me!
They are taught that their ancestors were stolen from the homeland, stuffed in slave ships, and forced to survive crammed up for three months, with so many of them dying that sharks followed the ships across the seas. They are taught that their ancestors were forced into slavery where children were separated from their parents and where human beings were sold as if they were cattle. They were taught about the Jim Crow period when their ancestors were lynched, raped, and brutalized. They were taught all of this was done by white people. They were taught that throughout their history in this country, they have always been the victims and never the victors. No wonder they have such negative attitudes about their lives.
Finally, in 2017 when I began to write the screenplay about the 1921 invasion of Greenwood (with professional help, I had never written a screenplay) my emphasis changed. I felt that this was an opportunity, through all the ugliness of the event in 1921, I could portray the great heroes who stood up and fought valiantly the hordes of white haters that invaded the community. I examined the manner in which white writers have dealt with the battle at the Alamo. When writing about 1921, no one has referred to it as the Battle at Black Wall Street, which suggests that Blacks put up a battle, and did not just lay down and allow themselves to be massacred. I thought of the manner in which white writers and producers portrayed Davey Crockett and Jim Bowie as heroes. No one has portrayed J. B. Stradford, O.B. Mann, and the veterans as heroes when writing about Black Wall Street. I thought about how no one knows the number of men and, I assume some women, killed at the Alamo. Everyone knows the number of Blacks killed in Greenwood. I thought about how young white children and adults, after watching the movies about the Alamo, could come out of the theater feeling proud of their heroes. They never think of them as victims, but as heroes standing up for their rights and liberties.
I decided I could do the same in writing a screenplay about the invasion of Greenwood, by portraying the brave Black men, the heroes, who stood up and fought back. In fact, it was only after the whites used airplanes to dislodge them from their positions, did the battle turn against those Black fighters protecting their homes and families. In an essay for Crisis Magazine in 1941, the great literary icon, Langston Hughes, wrote, “Where are the Black heroes in our literature? Where in all our books is that compelling flame of spirit and passion that makes a man say, ‘I too am a hero because my race has produced heroes.’” At the time Langston wrote, he was referring to literature, and especially Richard Wright’s character, Bigger Thomas, in Native Son. But we can also ask that question about films and television. It all made sense to me as a writer. We do need to create positive characters in our literary works. How many times have we heard the saying, “Our youth are our future?” If then our children are our future, don’t we have an obligation to give them the opportunity to succeed? But how can they succeed if they are constantly bombarded with negativity? That is why, in my screenplay, I have taken a different approach from the novel I wrote. I have evolved to a new level of thinking about my writing.
Obviously, I had to deal with the final outcome and the destruction (also the lawyer Damario Solomon-Simmons has to deal with the killings of over 300 men, women, and children as he seeks reparations for the relatives in a lawsuit). But it is not the driving theme in the screenplay. It is about the heroes who fought back and gave it their all. The final lines of Hughes’ essay reads, ‘We have a need for books and plays that will encourage and inspire our youth, set for them examples and patterns of conduct, move and stir them to be forthright, strong, clear thinking and unafraid. With the help of others, as our team moves forward to produce a film on Black Wall Street, it is my strongest desire that we can give to our young and old a story, which is true, that will have them leaving theaters feeling the way that Hughes has written for better outcomes in our stories. We have nothing to lose and much to gain.