The Tulsa Massacre: The Ghosts of Collective Amnesia

It’s been 100 years since one of the worst racial tragedies America has ever known took place in a small town in Oklahoma. Ignored for decades, there are ramifications that resonate today.

In the United States, there are currently many questions about the racial massacre that occurred in Tulsa in 1921, 100 years ago, on May 31 and June 1. Nearly 300 African Americans were lynched by white rioters during violent clashes, which also resulted in the destruction of more than 1,250 buildings and the internment of thousands of Black citizens in camps. “Black Wall Street,” as the well-to-do district of Greenwood was called, was also destroyed, as if to nip in the bud any sign of success and emancipation of Black families, in a city then in the middle of an oil boom.

Alongside this national tragedy came another, quasi-collective amnesia. For decades, up until very recently, the Tulsa massacre has been ignored, taboo, wiped from memory, absent from teaching in school. All because of a cocktail of causes, with the mentality of white supremacy and shame on one side, and post-traumatic stress disorder on the other.

Bringing the Tragedy out of the Shadows

By going to Tulsa on Tuesday to commemorate the massacre, Joe Biden helped bring it out of the shadows. Last year, new mass graves were discovered and the town’s mayor seemed determined to locate and identify other victims. In addition, three survivors, 100, 106 and 107 years old, have recently spoken before Congress about the terror they experienced, and called for recognition and reparations. In an America that struggles to look its past in the face, this step has still not been taken. Incidentally, some descendants of the victims feel exploited by the commemoration of the massacre. But at least the tragedy in Tulsa is no longer ignored.

The Risk of Partial Amnesia

The legacy of the tragedy remains important. It is difficult not to draw a connection to the current situation for African Americans, who are still a target of discrimination, and are victims of police brutality too often. But there is a sizable difference between then and now. Today, collective amnesia is no longer possible. A few days ago, Biden received the family of George Floyd at the White House, one year after he was suffocated by the knee of white police officer Derek Chauvin. It was a tragedy that became public because of those who filmed the agony of the Black man and used the power of social media. The images taken were at the heart of Chauvin’s trial.

This visibility is, perhaps, an effective antidote to forgetfulness. But since Floyd’s death, other African Americans have died under unjust circumstances, often without anyone’s knowledge. Partial amnesia may still occur. Or worse, normalization of racist crimes. It’s another reason to listen to the survivors and the descendants of the victims of the Tulsa massacre. Because, as William Faulkner said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

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