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  • Blackbirds in the Sky The Story and Legacy of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre

Blackbirds in the Sky The Story and Legacy of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre

blackbirds in the sky

"Zinn’s approach to history essentially inverted the traditional approach that placed the rich and powerful, along with the institutions they governed, as the central motors in the development of society. It was history told from above. Alternatively, Zinn championed an approach to history from the bottom up or from the perspective of ‘the people.’

The implications were radical. History was no longer seen as reducible to the expressed will of the elite but as a process elucidated through the actions of ordinary people in their confrontations against the powerful. To tell history from the perspective of the oppressed and marginalized was to recognize that to the degree there has been any progress in the United States, it has come from the struggles of regular people demanding rights, justice, democracy.”

-- Professor Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, from her introduction to the 2018 edition of Howard Zinn’s autobiographical YOU CAN’T BE NEUTRAL ON A MOVING TRAIN.

I learned the basic facts of the Tulsa race massacre from the late professor Howard Zinn. That a vast majority of Americans complete twelve years of public education without hearing one peep about this infamous domestic terrorist attack is an indictment of the nation’s education system. The rich and powerful continue to control the agenda, maintaining a blockade against many uncomfortable truths that are central to a real understanding of US history. This makes BLACK BIRDS IN THE SKY an essential read.

In BLACK BIRDS IN THE SKY: THE STORY AND LEGACY OF THE 1921 TULSA RACE MASSACRE, author and journalist Brandy Colbert presents a gripping, detailed account of the racist, terrorist attack in Tulsa one hundred years ago.

“The landmark 1896 US Supreme Court case Plessy v. Ferguson, which established the legality of Jim Crow legislation, stated spaces and accommodations segregated by race were legal as long as they were comparable; this is where the standard of ‘separate but equal’ was born. The ‘equal’ part rarely came to fruition with Black spaces and accommodations; Greenwood, however, was something of an anomaly in this respect. By 1914, the neighborhood boasted all kinds of Black professionals, from doctors and lawyers to business owners, educators, and newspaper publishers--and they kept their wealth within the community, continually supporting the businesses of what became known nationwide as Black Wall Street.”

At the height of the Jim Crow era, the rich and powerful simply could not accept any Black Americans achieving the American Dream. This would undermine the rationale for American apartheid. Thus, the thriving, Black, across-the-tracks section of Tulsa, Oklahoma known as Greenwood was utterly destroyed:

“Armed white civilians, the Tulsa police force, and the local National Guard were all working in tandem to disempower the Black Americans fighting for their lives. They ignored the armed white people who were injuring and killing innocent Black children and adults. They ignored the blind, disabled Black man being dragged behind a car down Main Street with a rope around his amputated leg. They ignored the arsonists setting fire to Black businesses and homes, and instead worked to round up the Black community, taking them to internment camps where they were imprisoned solely because they were Black (though officials later claimed this was for their own safety). Firefighters were threatened by armed white people when they attempted to put out the fires in Greenwood, despite the fact that the plumes of black smoke rising in the sky over the African-American neighborhood could be seen from miles away.”

On that day, June 1, 1921, the cops, the National Guard, and those in power countenanced the murder of over 300 Black Americans and the incineration of 35 square blocks of homes and thriving businesses.

An event like this does not happen in a vacuum. Brandy Colbert guides us through the history of being Black in America, as well as the history of Oklahoma. In doing so, and in chronicling what Black America has endured, she provides context and comprehension as to what happened in Tulsa and how such behavior was so thoroughly normalized and condoned. It sucks that, in our 21st century information age, it took news coverage of the centennial’s commemoration for the typical American to (possibly) hear that it occurred.

BLACK BIRDS IN THE SKY, appropriate for middle school and high school audiences, was not a particularly ‘fun’ read. But for this privileged white male, whose childhood nightmares included the experience of a nearby house under construction having been firebombed--twice--because of who was moving into it, it’s a revealing, moving, and satisfying read.

224 pages                            978-0-06-305666-4             Ages 13 and up

Keywords:  American history, racism, prejudice, social issues, social conditions, terrorists,  Black and African American stories, diversity, diverse books, Black Lives Matter, 13 year old, 14 year old, 15 year old

Recommended by:  Richie Partington, MLIS, California USA

See more of Richie's Picks <http://richiespicks.com/http://richiespicks.pbworks.com

Read alike:  Dreamland Burning


A searing new work of nonfiction from award-winning author Brandy Colbert about the history and legacy of one of the most deadly and destructive acts of racial violence in American history: the Tulsa Race Massacre.

In the early morning of June 1, 1921, a white mob marched across the train tracks in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and into its predominantly Black Greenwood District—a thriving, affluent neighborhood known as America's Black Wall Street. They brought with them firearms, gasoline, and explosives. In a few short hours, they'd razed thirty-five square blocks to the ground, leaving hundreds dead. The Tulsa Race Massacre is one of the most devastating acts of racial violence in US history. But how did it come to pass? What exactly happened? And why are the events unknown to so many of us today?

These are the questions that award-winning author Brandy Colbert seeks to answer in this unflinching nonfiction account of the Tulsa Race Massacre. In examining the tension that was brought to a boil by many factors—white resentment of Black economic and political advancement, the resurgence of white supremacist groups, the tone and perspective of the media, and more—a portrait is drawn of an event singular in its devastation, but not in its kind. It is part of a legacy of white violence that can be traced from our country's earliest days through Reconstruction, the Civil Rights movement in the mid–twentieth century, and the fight for justice and accountability Black Americans still face today.

The Tulsa Race Massacre has long failed to fit into the story Americans like to tell themselves about the history of their country. This book, ambitious and intimate in turn, explores the ways in which the story of the Tulsa Race Massacre is the story of America—and by showing us who we are, points to a way forward. ---from the publisher

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