Shlach Lecha – Lifting up Painful Stories: Reflections on Tulsa

If there is a lesson from Judaism that I wish were more prevalent in America, it is to shine light on our most difficult moments.  […]

If there is a lesson from Judaism that I wish were more prevalent in America, it is to shine light on our most difficult moments.  I thought about this lesson studying the Torah portion, Shlach Lecha, where we share a historic moment of utter failure and disappointment, the fiasco of the spies. It is a story which we study, reflect upon and learn from. Juxtapose that with the 100-year anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre that our country observed this week. It was a significant moment in American history that most of us did not know about because it was hidden, never taught in Oklahoma’s schools, cropped out of Tulsa’s microfilmed newspapers and nearly wiped from human memory.

Why tell of our worst moments?  That is how we learn.  When we avoid our painful stories, the pain grows, and lessons are not learned. We need to summon the courage to look at the realities of history in order to realize the promise of a different future.

When we study and shine light on our worst moments, we discover the parts of ourselves where the story lives.  We ask hard questions and give interpretations from many angles to understand what caused the moment and what lessons emerge from it. Studying failure may be one of the most important things we do.

Sadly, until recently, that has not the case when it comes to some of the most difficult moments of societal failure and much worse, racial violence in America. Key pieces of our difficult and painful history are not brought to light. It is as if facing it is too painful, reflects negatively or demands that we change, so we avoid it.

But silence is dangerous.  It prevents pain from being lifted up, thwarts dignity being given to those who suffered and blurs learning important lessons about who we are and can be and how to make amends for the harms caused. President Biden was right when he went to Tulsa this week and said: “We do ourselves no favors by pretending none of this ever happened. We should know the good, the bad, everything. That’s what great nations do. They come to terms with their dark sides.”

I took AP History in High School and many history courses in college.  I love reading about American history, yet had not heard about the Tulsa massacres until recently. History cannot be suppressed; it is dangerous and allows cycles of wrongdoing to perpetuate by tossing aside our moral compasses.

Using our story of the spies as a lens, let’s begin to explore what happened in Tulsa and reflect upon its lessons for today.  Both stories are about dreams which sat in front of us and were lost.  When the twelve spies originally went into the land, they were astounded by the incredible sights.  The iconic picture of people carrying the grapes and pomegranates on a frame, reflecting the bounty of the land, is from this moment in history!  In their words, it was a land flowing with milk and honey. Imagine what could have been!  Yet we destroyed the dream. The ten spies’ fears and doubts whipped up a mob; our dreams had to be deferred.

Tulsa is even more tragic because the dream of an African American community lifting themselves up was being realized when it was destroyed.  Against all odds, many freed slaves, Native Americans, and even Jewish immigrants, created a thriving economy and culture in the Oklahoma Territory, claiming land rights, some of which later were discovered to include oil.  Businesses and neighborhoods blossomed. The economic prosperity and social safety that is the American dream was being created in Tulsa.  And then a White supremacist mob destroyed it, looting Tulsa’s Greenwood neighborhood of fine homes built by African Americans and denying even the justice of compensation to the victims’ families.  Insurance policies went unpaid due to a “riot” exclusion, which explain why many local and nation newspapers called it a riot rather than a massacre.

Fear can undermine dreams in a moment.  The ten spies could not imagine military success against the people they saw in the land.  In their words: “We looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them.”  That fear, and the transferring of negative self-image to others, quickly escalated to a threatening mob as the Israelites turned on Moses and Aaron and threatened to stone them.  Fear and narrow-mindedness destroy.

Fear of others who are different and who demand a change to the status quo is a piece of what drives racism in America.  Narrow world views and entrenched attitudes that saw people as unequal create the groundwork for ongoing tragedy.

As in the spy story, things unraveled quickly and tragically in Tulsa. One version says the story began when a black man who was offering shoeshines slipped on an uneven surface between the fourth floor of the Drexel Building and the elevator cab being operated by a white girl. He grabbed her arm to steady himself.  She screamed and he ran, thinking he would be accused of trying to accost her.  He was arrested and a white mob gathered to lynch him, and the black community came to protect him.  A random pistol firing started the chain of event that led to the May 31 – June 1 devastation.  The thirty-five blocks of the North Tulsa neighborhood of Greenwood was destroyed.  The white mob’s violence, the local law enforcement’s collusion in the mob’s indiscriminate murders, the mayhem and looting, never resulted in convicting anyone of crimes against the black community.  The black community’s fear that a mob would lynch the man were well founded, as the foundation of racist hate, organized instigation, passivity and collusion of local authorities all existed. These are the parts of the story that need to be brought out.  The details are chilling: 300 men, women and children were murdered in cold blood; others were injured or maimed.  People were not afforded the dignity of proper burial. The stories of brutality are unbearable: 1,500 homes and businesses were burned down and a community that took decades to build was destroyed in a day.  As often happens, the surviving victims rather than the perpetrators were arrested and blamed.  The survivors had no choice but to leave or try to rebuild on the site of their destruction. Those who stayed continued to suffer from racist policies.

We tell our stories so we can learn from them.  We have to tell the stories of the pioneers who imagined and built a prairie into a vibrant metropolis and saw it set ablaze.  It is what we as a Jewish community take as a sacred task in terms of our painful past.  It gives the victims dignity.  It allows daring dreams to be remembered.  It allows us to reflect on the lessons of what went wrong.  Telling the story allows their children further resolve to reclaim their Promised Lands.  We know the power of Never Forget.  It is a lesson we share with others who suffer. Let us tell the story and feel the pain.   Listen to this description of the aftermath of the massacre from Hannibal Johnson’s book Black Wall Street: From Riot to Renaissance in Tulsa’s Historic Greenwood District:

          It was a sorry sight indeed: Black Tulsans, young and old, rich and poor, educated and uneducated, streaming out of the ruins of their community—a community known nationwide as a model of and center for African-American industry, commerce, and collaboration. They marched involuntarily, heads bowed low, not in humility but in humiliation. They marched involuntarily, hands held high, not in salutation but in surrender. Among the ‘Negro’ masses, class no longer existed. Black was black—doctor, lawyer, laborer, or thief—it simply no longer mattered … Almost one half of Tulsa’s African-American citizens found themselves held captive, and under armed guard. They were the defeated prisoners of a civil war, the enemy by virtue of skin color.

          This is a story we must tell and from which we must learn.

There are so many pieces to every story.  Both the story of the spies and of Tulsa have powerful moments of those who would not stand idly by. The book I mentioned by Hannibal Johnson tells stories of Tulsans during the riot who exhibited empathy and compassion for their African-American brothers and sisters. Tulsans Sam and Rose Zarrow, Jewish immigrants from Latvia, sheltered fleeing blacks. It is through recalling the stories of the rescuers and people of great decency and ethics who acted with care that we realize that we, too, can stand up to evil.

As we retell the story, we reflect on the danger of a mob violence where hate spreads quickly and preys on those without power.  

We reflect on the legacy in our country which has yet to fully address the pain that African Americans experience.  Sadly, a century removed from the Tulsa Race Massacre, racism and hatred continues to play out in so many ways with which we must still grapple.

           We continue the hard and long work of creating a different reality. There is important work to do to reduce racial disparity and bring justice.  It begins with facing history.  We start as our Bar Mitzvah Benjamin did, with the dignity of each individual.  We lift up a vision of our shared humanity and treat each person we encounter with dignity and respect.

Revisiting the story of the spies may have played a crucial role in getting it right later in history.  We did find our way to the Promised Land and created a land flowing with milk and honey.  Our unvarnished past informs and inspires.  Emet/our unvarnished truths give strength and a clear sense of moral purpose and identity.  Let us commit to learning and teaching history so that we can restore freedom and dignity, and enter the Promised Land together.   Let us create connection and let love, truth and strength guide our way.