It's time to look back, really look back

Watching the images from Baltimore and remembering, and certainly not for the first time in these troubled last few years, a spring night in Tulsa more than a decade ago, when Oklahoma State Rep. Don Ross and I shared dinner at a quiet Chinese restaurant.

I was in Tulsa to research a newspaper story about the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 and earlier in the day had interviewed Ross at his office. He was the African American legislator most responsible for restoring that horrible event (three hundred blacks slaughtered by a white mob, an entire black community burned to the ground) to its place in history, in Oklahoma at least. Most everywhere else the atrocity remains unknown.

But at dinner I thought my work was done for the day. Don and I were making small talk when I asked what I thought was an innocent question.

“So what was it like for blacks after the Civil War?”

Tulsa 1921

Ross was stunned. He slammed the table so loudly that others in the restaurant turned to look.

“And you’re one of the educated whites,” he said that night. “If we can’t count on you to know our story, who can we count on?”

From then on he called me “ignorant white boy.”

I was ashamed. I had been raised in small town in the Upper Midwest, and for the first twenty years of my life the only black people I ever really saw were on television. I didn’t watch Roots. Race was pretty much irrelevant to me, even after I moved to Texas and started living and working among people of color. But then came the terrible secret of Tulsa and that night with Ross.

I managed to rectify my ignorance in the years to come, research that resulted in my book on the massacre, The Burning, that was published in 2001.

For the first time I learned of the true horrors of slavery and the century after emancipation that for blacks was nearly as awful. In the 1920s, the Klu Klux Klan was as popular in Chicago as it was in Tennessee. President Wilson and the Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court endorsed the movie Birth of a Nation, the blockbuster that celebrated the Klan and invoked the most odious stereotypes to portray blacks.

Duluth 1920

Back of the bus. Separate water fountains, schools, restaurants. Lynchings reported in U.S. newspapers like box scores. Tulsa was hardly an aberration, in fact. Around that same time, blacks were slaughtered not far from Ferguson in East St. Louis, Chicago, and Duluth, Minn.

After my education, I was never able to look at a black person the same way again, knowing that each bore the scars of the past to one degree or another. I started to come to terms with the racism within myself.

In 1996 I spent four days living in a nursing home to research a story. Part of my daily ritual was to go from room to room to say good morning to my fellow residents. On the third day I realized I had been bypassing the room of two elderly African American women. Why? I was afraid of them. They were different.

When I caught myself, and stopped by their room, their faces glowed from the attention, just like white folks in rooms to either side.

Baltimore 2015

I began to understand the profound chasm separating the races when O.J. Simpson was acquitted. I saw the color of most of the faces in the Superdome after Katrina. I understood the outrage when Trayvon Martin was killed. And I understand the emotions of Ferguson and now Baltimore.

The looters and those who perpetrate the violence in Baltimore are a fraction of their community. But don’t be deluded into thinking that they aren’t in some way reflective of the deep wounds and frustrations that endure in a land that has not come to terms with its past.

What has happened in America these last few years is a symptom of something much deeper. As such, problems with race in America can only be addressed with real soul-searching.

Years ago, I had a conversation about this with James Cash, who in the 1960 was the first black basketball player at Texas Christian University. He went on to become a revered professor at Harvard Business School. Yet Cash told me of the times at Fenway Park when white women clutched their handbags more tightly when he approached. He also told me of a visit to South Africa after Apartheid.

In that country there was the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, where blanket amnesty was granted, and people thus forced to come forward to tell the truth. History was unveiled, looked at, unflinchingly.

I keep waiting for something similar to happen here. How many of these episodes must we endure? How many generations of black men must be flushed away? Who will lead our version of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission? Fred Rogers said that it was impossible not to love someone if you knew their story. It’s time we learned the story of our neighbors, no matter how painful that might be.