Essays

99 Years After the Tulsa Race Massacre, an Artist Reflects

Dear Tulsa, today marks a grim anniversary. Will justice take another hundred years?

Crystal Z Campbell, “Notes from Black Wall Street #77” (2016), mixed media, 11 x 8.5 inches (all images courtesy the artist/author)

Dear Tulsa,

Recently, a youthful physician’s assistant used a medical-grade version of a hole punch to extract layers of tissue from my right arm. My skin, the largest organ on my body, now features a gaping hole, clumsily held together by two meager stitches. Despite this invasive procedure, my body is expected to make the repairs on its own.

A biopsy reminded me of you, Tulsa. I thought about how we can grow new skin, but the scar remains. Scars are histories written upon our skin.

Steps from my front door is the site of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. This land was once called Black Wall Street. Imagine over thirty-five bustling blocks of mostly Black homes and businesses being firebombed, in one of the wealthiest Black communities in the United States. Imagine being one of hundreds detained, shot, or worse — killed blocks from your home or place of business. Imagine a city ordinance forbidding you to rebuild on your own land. Imagine a century of silence, with little to no trace of your relative, neighbor, friend, or partner. Imagine the bounty of fear and rumor.

Crystal Z Campbell, “Notes From Black Wall Street: I’ve Stayed In The Front Yard All My Life, I Want A Peek At The Back” (2020), mixed media, 30 x 24 inches

Despite coming of age in this state and taking mandatory classes on Oklahoma history, I had never heard of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre until I turned 30. By chance, an artist I met in New York City mentioned the massacre in passing. Just shy of a century after-the-fact, the massacre is now a mandatory part of the curriculum in Oklahoma schools, though the massacre was referred to by many Oklahoma state officials as “The Tulsa Race Riot” as recently as 2018. In archives, some newspaper articles about the “riot” are literally punched out, missing from record.

Crystal Z Campbell, “Notes From Black Wall Street: A Bird in the Hand” (2020),  mixed media, 30 x 24 inches

Who imagined someone in the future would search for this? Who omitted bits of evidence surrounding the massacre from the archive? What stake did they have in doing so? I search archives for shelved witnesses while fast-forwarding past land grabs, urban renewal, and gentrification. I wonder about Black residents who resisted during the Tulsa Race Massacre — a resistance omitted by popular media.

Tulsa, I have a complicated relationship with you, and to you, but there is also love. It is the kind of love — like familial love — which you didn’t quite ask for, nor choose, but that you know will always be the haint of your existence.

In my creative research, I have made several attempts to think through these historical gaps shrouded in silence. In 2013, I was an artist-in-residence in Lake Como, Italy. A week upon arrival, I made the first of many works I still make around the Tulsa Race Massacre. “Paradise” is an installation that poses questions about the idea of a Black utopia. Who is accountable for such racially motivated destruction, and who might be accountable for reparations, for healing, for the absence of this narrative in public memory? A minimal gesture, the installation featured a large, empty room bathed in blue light. Within closed doors, viewers were immediately immersed in the smell of burning wood. The smell was more of a phantom — no visible objects were burned, nor was there any source of fire.

Crystal Z Campbell, “Paradise” (2013), site-specific installation with mixed media,  12 x 14 x 18 feet

In “Notes From Black Wall Street,” I have been compiling one-hundred archival images from Greenwood before, during, and after the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. As we reflect on the recent centennial of other instances of racially motivated domestic terrorism, such as the Red Summer, and approach that of the Tulsa Race Massacre, I meditate on these images through the application of tactile layers of paint, like scars, atop archival photographs. I offer these works as prompts to meditate on the future of our complicit fictions, suppressed memories, and united histories.

Walk with me.
I am in search of an elevator. A black man. A white woman. Escaped goats.
Walk with me.
I am in search of traces of a former community thriving in exile because of segregation.
Walk with me.
I am in search of pennies, melting together by fire.

To be truthful, for most of my youth, I planned to escape this arid, open plain. This was not because I did not find your red dirt beautiful. This was not because I was not enamored by your rose rocks, your sweeping wind, or your thunder. My father, who chose to retire here from the military, later claimed the most racist experiences he’s had in his sixty plus years of living have been in Oklahoma. When he returned from war, my parents moved us from a mostly Black township to a sundown town: Norman, Oklahoma. Traces of racial segregation littered my childhood bus rides through the countryside, tainted my impressions of cowboys, and instilled a perpetual anxiety about open land. I grew up here, but this has never been a place of comfort.

Crystal Z Campbell, “Notes from Black Wall Street #28” (2016), mixed media, 11 x 8.5 inches

Recently, my work rooted in the massacre was pulled from a high-profile exhibition in Oklahoma. Another potential collaboration regarding the massacre was cancelled, with an explanation that Tulsa’s sensibilities were “peculiar.” I wondered if support for the organization would be revoked; if my work would create discomfort, if it didn’t align with the politics of the institution, if it was a history they didn’t want to be affiliated with, if it would prompt a conversation they did not want to have.

I am not particularly concerned about my work being shown. I am concerned about critical narratives of this city, this state, this nation, being omitted from history. I am concerned about the culture of silence and censorship that has forced many to try to heal themselves, even if such wounds are beyond repair.

Narratives are skins.

Narratives are tools.

Narratives are weapons.

Narratives are scars.

Crystal Z Campbell, “Notes from Black Wall Street (Installation View at Spring Break Art Show)” (2018), two adjoined rooms: 10 x 5 feet and 10 x 30 feet

Rooted by your central Council Oak Tree, Tulsa, you are a place that was founded by Creek Indians following forced removal; they named this “old town” Talasi in 1836. This area of Indian Territory became home to both forced Indigenous migrants and actual “outsiders” (yes, the namesake film was shot here), attracting outlaws and freed slaves who migrated here in search of land of their own.

Amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, I have been investigating my own rootedness. Ancestry.com searches suggest that my father’s family was rooted in Indian Territory (prior to Oklahoma statehood in 1907), and were Creek Freedmen descendants. I am left to imagine if they had any connection to Black Wall Street, or where they would have landed, were it not for waves of racial intimidation. I am here now, by choice, because I want to unearth these narratives.

Crystal Z Campbell, “Notes From Black Wall Street: Receptive, Soft, And Absolute” (2020), mixed media, 24 x 30 inches

Oklahoma’s history is riddled with pioneers on Indigenous land, land grabs, oil extraction, boomtowns, unchecked privilege, and waves of settler colonialism. I never imagined as a child that some parcels of Oklahoma would be someone’s version of utopia. However, I find comfort in picturing the over fifty Black townships that Oklahoma boasted after the Civil War.

I have always found this state beautiful — and ugly too. I ask, in 2020: How can we be truthful? How can we revisit history in a reparative way? How can we move closer to the impossibility of this utopian vision?

Crystal Z Campbell, “Whistle Theory” (2016), mixed media installation, 15 x 18 x 13 feet

Dear Tulsa, you are famous now, as much as you’ve ever been. Will oil be slick enough to preserve our futures? Ask Larry Clark if his pictures of hard-lived Tulsa still hold true. Ask viewers of HBO’s Watchmen how a graphic novel adaptation can instantly amplify otherwise hushed, historical transmissions? Ask the Supreme Court if the reclamation of Indigenous land should proceed. Ask if art can reframe one of our state’s greatest public secrets. And while all of this is happening: Where do you want us to look?

Let’s begin by scanning holes, historical omissions, and instances of deliberate extraction. Following the current mayor’s suggestion, let’s reckon with history and acknowledge that the Tulsa Race Massacre was a crime. If the past is a lesson, a crime cannot be placated by gifting survivors with medallions in lieu of reparations. Justice extends beyond a pending excavation of mass graves. Justice requires that the identification of victims be paralleled by the identification of perpetrators. Justice is a prerequisite to healing.

Crystal Z Campbell, “Searcher (Public Light Meditation Commemorating Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 and Juneteenth)” (2016-17), John Hope Franklin Center for Reconciliation (Tulsa, OK), Dimensions Variable

Dear Tulsa, today marks the ninety-ninth anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre. Will justice take another hundred years?

The Tulsa Race Massacre, formerly known as the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot, took place from May 31 to June 1, 1921 in the Greenwood District of Tulsa, Oklahoma.

comments (0)