During Memorial Day weekend 1921, an armed white mob burned and pillaged the ten-block Tulsa neighborhood of Greenwood, known as America’s Black Wall Street. A conspiracy of silence followed. My conversation with award-winning writers Rilla Askew and Clemonce Heard took place over Zoom on November 17, 2021, almost six months after the massacre’s centennial. We focused on community responsibilities to this history, creative process, and the continuing work of racial reconciliation.
Rilla Askew is the author of five novels, a book of stories, and a collection of essays, Most American: Notes from a Wounded Place (University of Oklahoma Press, 2017). Her novel about the Tulsa Race Massacre, Fire in Beulah (Viking, 2001), received the 2002 American Book Award. She teaches at the University of Oklahoma.
Clemonce Heard is the author of the poetry collection Tragic City (Anhinga Press, 2021), which won the 2020 Anhinga–Robert Dana Poetry Prize, selected by Major Jackson, and investigates the events of the Tulsa Race Massacre. He received a 2018–2019 Tulsa Artist Fellowship and was the 2019–2020 Ronald Wallace Poetry Fellow at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.
Jennifer Kwon Dobbs: How did you come to learn about the Tulsa Race Massacre, and how did you incorporate research into your creative process?
Rilla Askew: I grew up in Bartlesville, fifty miles from Tulsa, and lived in Tulsa before I moved to New York in 1980. Then in 1989, while I was teaching at Brooklyn College, I began undergoing a radical change as a white woman who had grown up paying a lot of attention to civil rights, but still had no clue about what I call and now know as white supremacy. It was my students at Brooklyn College, many of them African-American and West Indian, who gave me that education. I had already been reading Black authors, but I began a deeper dive and read Margaret Walker’s biography Richard Wright: Daemonic Genius. It was there that I first heard of the Tulsa Race Massacre and confronted the absolute silence around that horrific event.
I couldn’t understand how I could have grown up there and never known about it. I felt as if someone had kept a tremendous secret from me all my life. I called my sister, Ruth, who lived in Tulsa, and asked if she knew that there had been a “race riot,” as we called it in those days, in Tulsa. She said, “Yes, I knew that.” I said, “Well, how did you know it? I didn’t know it.” And she said, “Vashti told me.” Vashti was her former husband’s grandmother, who had been thirteen years old at the time of the massacre. They were white and lived near the edge of Greenwood further north in Tulsa. We think of Tulsa as rigidly divided, but there were white people living along the edges of Greenwood. In fact, on Detroit Avenue one side of the street was white and one side of the street was Black.
Vashti’s father drove her in a wagon to look at the aftermath. I don’t know if he took her to look at it, or if he went to look and had her with him. She remembered seeing “bodies stacked like cordwood.” I’ve since heard that phrase used in connection to the massacre. She didn’t talk about bodies floating in the Arkansas River, which many others have spoken about. She talked about a bonfire, and Ruth later realized she was referring to Newblock Park. She didn’t specifically say they were throwing bodies on the bonfire, but she talked about there being a huge fire. She saw all this a day or two after, so this wasn’t part of the burning that initially happened.
I came back to Tulsa and started researching. The microfilm files for the local newspapers were gone from the Tulsa City County Library. All of the files for The Tulsa Tribune and The Tulsa World were expunged for the whole summer of 1921. And so I knew there was a conspiracy of silence. But a library staff person helped me find articles in other periodicals that no one thought to expunge—The New York Times, The Chicago Tribune, and Crisis magazine. The Tulsa Race Massacre was the most massive news story across the nation when it happened. The whole nation knew, and then the whole nation effectively “forgot.” So it’s hugely important for us to remember that the cover-up, this great collective forgetting, wasn’t just in Tulsa or in Oklahoma.
My research began in 1990, and it took from 1990 until 2000 to write my book. When I began—pre-internet, pre-Google, before Scott Ellsworth’s Death in a Promised Land: The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 was widely available—I had to travel to the newspaper archives. In those days, all of the state’s Black history collections were at the Ralph Ellison Library in Oklahoma City. It was at the Ellison Library that I read the Black Dispatch news archives and found out even more details of what happened.
I think it’s really important for all of us to ask ourselves, When did you first know about the Tulsa Race Massacre? Younger people may feel like they’ve known about it for a long time, and thirty years is a long time. And yet it’s not so very long considering that thirty years ago the massacre had been covered up for seventy years.
How about you, Clem? When did you first learn?
Clemonce Heard: You know, I lived on Detroit and Archer when I was staying in Tulsa, and that was when I found out about the Tulsa Race Massacre. I lived on the east side of Detroit, the last block of residential Greenwood. And so I stayed on the other side when I was in the arts fellowship. When you mentioned Detroit Avenue, that rang true.
Scott Ellsworth’s book Death in a Promised Land was the first I read, and it was an original, first edition. A friend and elder let me borrow it. He was the first person from Tulsa I met, and I met him through another writer, a writer who also received a Tulsa Artist Fellowship. The elder immediately started to bombard me with as much as he could tell me about the massacre, really to my detriment, because that was my last semester in graduate school. I was working on my creative component, and I was trying to get that finished up. At the same time, I had just moved to Tulsa, and I couldn’t turn away even though I had so much going on.
That’s how my obsession began to build, by wondering How had I never heard of this?, and then asking people like you, Rilla, about the first time you heard of the massacre. I moved to Tulsa right before the city agreed to change their designation from “riot” to “massacre.” I was already working on a manuscript. I’d written maybe three or four poems about Oklahoma, and I had no desire to write about the massacre because I already had a project and because this was not my history. I hadn’t read Paisley Rekdal’s Appropriate yet, but I knew enough to know that just because I’m Black doesn’t mean that this Black history belongs to me.
But it was thrust on to me, and I couldn’t turn away, partly because I was living on the battlegrounds. Out of my window, I could see the Frisco railroad tracks, which, as we know, is where one of the bloodiest battles took place. I couldn’t stop writing or thinking about it. So then the question was how do I do something? How do I create?
Jennifer, you asked about process. I wrote most of the poems after I left Tulsa. I wrote them in 2020 and it wasn’t until the end of 2020 that I created a form that made sense for what I was trying to write, which was mostly my experience in the Tulsa Artist Fellowship. I can’t say I wanted to research. I was preoccupied. But once I began, I had to do more. I didn’t want to be the person who was on the land, but who didn’t know what happened on the land. I hadn’t lived in many places. Living in Stillwater was my first time living outside of Louisiana, and then I moved to Tulsa two and a half years later.
Kwon Dobbs: I’m struck by how important listening is to your work—whether listening to oral histories or being summoned to hear secondhand accounts from community members, some who are descendants. I’m wondering if you can each talk about that? Rilla, I can’t imagine conducting research before the internet, and all the miles you had to cover. It’s likely much different from what my Gen X brain can wrap around.
Askew: It was different. I went to Langston University and looked at their archives, which were mostly focused on Black settlement in Oklahoma. From the Black Dispatch I knew about A. J. Smitherman and the Tulsa Star, and I was able to get archives of the Tulsa Star editorials published prior to the massacre, since the Tulsa Star’s office in Greenwood was destroyed during it.
While doing that research, I realized that the newspapers of the day—Tulsa World, the Tulsa Tribune, the Chicago Tribune—were very specifically white newspapers. It wasn’t until I read Black newspapers that I understood how white they were and how white their perspective was.
By the end of my research, I did know that there were descendants of survivors, but I did not try to speak with them. By then, Eddie Faye Gates’s wonderful book of oral history, They Came Searching: How Blacks Sought the Promised Land in Tulsa, had been published. She was a historian living in Tulsa, and she had gathered many stories from Greenwood’s early pioneers. Speaking about appropriation, especially for fiction and maybe as well for poetry, transforming somebody’s witness into a character is very different from writing a history by including oral histories. I did not go seek out the descendants of survivors because I knew I was writing a novel, and I knew it would not be fair.
The voices, for me, come from reading oral histories and listening to the voices of friends. Fire in Beulah begins in the oil district near Bristow, and some of those stories come from my friend Joe Dale Tate Nevaquaya. His grandmother was one of the last fullblood Yuchis and one of the last primary speakers of their language, and Joe grew up in that district; he told me stories. So the rhythms of the voices come from hours of friendship conversation. All of these things go into the stew when what you’re doing is not writing a history, when what you’re doing is translating the story into hopefully fully fleshed-out characters.
And then I’m going to hush and listen to how Clem brings voices into his poetry because we maybe deal with the same concerns.
Heard: Rilla, I’m thinking of Fire in Beulah and the extent that you went to gather these voices. I can’t talk about myself yet because I’m interested in how you were able to situate yourself and sustain those voices. World building and plot aside, the characters in Fire in Beulah feel fully fleshed out. You include the triumphs of a character, but also the challenges a character faces. How did you manage that? What were the hard parts in writing, and when did you know that you’d gotten it right?
Askew: These are such strong questions, and I don’t know that I have the answers. I will say that this is what the fiction writer does: we embody. It’s why reading fiction is associated with empathy. When we read we live inside the characters. And so, Sethe in Beloved becomes us, we are her. This is how I’ve always read fiction. It’s why I love fiction so much.
I started out as an actor, and actors do the same thing, they embody character. But I always embodied more with my head than I did with my whole physical being, the way an actor does. And I was not as self-conscious in those days as I am now. The concerns we have about appropriation—about writing outside your own lived experience—were not a part of the national conversation in the 1990s in the same way they are today. So I didn’t feel self-consciousness while writing my novel. Althea—the main, white character—contains elements of my mother. Graceful contains elements of the mother of my godchildren. Fiction writers always do that. Use what we know about people we love to create characters from the inside.
It’s not a left-brain process, it’s more a right-brain process. It’s a surrender. These days, surrendering during the actual act of creation has gotten harder and harder for me, because what I want to write about, what I care about, what I’m passionate about is peeling back the lies about race in America, racism in America, and white supremacy in America. But navigating those things is hard in fiction. In memoir, I write about all the terrible things that I thought and did, and that’s my story.
To turn it back to you, Clem, you were also saying that you didn’t want to write about the massacre just because you happened to be in Tulsa and just because you happen to be Black, so you had to ask yourself if it is your story to tell. How you wrestled with that. But one of the things about the Tulsa Race Massacre, in particular, is that it’s America’s story. Jennifer, now you’re writing about it, and it’s your story because you grew up near Tulsa, but that’s not the only reason it’s your story. As long as we’re moving toward the greatest authenticity and honesty that we can find, this really is our story because it is such an American story.
Kwon Dobbs: I’m thinking about how we’re working in artistic forms. Yes, they’re grounded in history, and that’s very important, yet they’re moving toward truths that can only be had in fiction or held in a poem. Clem, I was really struck by your introduction to Tragic City and how you inhabited that form by constructing a persona. I don’t think of your book as a collection of persona poems, but as a poet myself I’m aware of how, when I’m writing as me in a poem, that self is a character in the lyrical sense, not in a fictional or nonfictional one. Maybe, Clem, you’re turning a multifaceted presence in your book, and each of its many facets spins out a form?
Heard: Yeah, thank you for the questions, Jennifer and Rilla. This talk of persona made me think of the poet Ai. I have her collection Vice , and some of the poems are subtitled “a fiction.” That just shows how much the two genres are related. Many people have said—but the last person I heard say it was Kiese Laymon—everything is fiction. And I thought, Yeah, how many facts can we remember?
I think you said it so well, Jennifer, in terms of turning and thinking about facets. But in the beginning, there was only one, as Rilla said—the terror and being overwhelmed by that terror because I’m living where the massacre occurred, and I can’t stop thinking about it. If I’m thinking about speaker-building in poetry, I’m going to show how many facets this speaker has and how that complexity has consistency and integrity. If we look at hip-hop, somebody like MF Doom might be considered a consistent rapper; you knew what you were getting. Someone like a Nas or Jay-Z, you might think they’re all over the place, but their voices are multi-faceted.
The turning—I was trying to show the different ways I felt while living in Tulsa. I didn’t just feel terror. I didn’t just feel joy. There was levity because I had friends through the fellowship. But there was also an inevitable return to feeling downtrodden, and back to feeling like something had been kept from me, like I had just found out my parents are not my parents. I have a friend who found out a few years ago that the man who raised him and his five siblings is not his father. I don’t know. I’m just glad you’re talking about kinships in your work, Jennifer, because it’s something that I haven’t been able to talk about, hence the reason why I’m processing a lot.
Kwon Dobbs: Thank you, Clem. For me, as a Korean adoptee, confronting those kinship secrets is tied in with tackling white supremacy, and if I can go back to that, Rilla, you said earlier that tackling race and white supremacy is your life’s work—a calling. It ought to be America’s calling—one that we’re all summoned to do. The work is going to look different for each of us.
Can you both talk about your aspirations for your readers? How are you engaging with your audiences?
Heard: I’m going to mention two instances. My first audience for this work was the elder who gave me all the information on the Tulsa Race Massacre. He’s a person who is highly critical, and who is highly critical of Tulsa. Maybe he’s now in his late sixties. He moved away, then came back in his mid-thirties, and hanging out with him felt familiar because he reminded me of my father. My father’s also a very critical and judgmental person. This elder is very outspoken and engages in city politics. I shared some of my poems with him, and even though some of my work echoed what he was saying, he didn’t agree with it. He said, “You’re making us seem hopeless, you know,” and his response made me think about family. Like—only I can talk about my sister, only I can talk about my daddy, and you can’t because they’re not your families. I felt like he was saying, “You can’t just air this out. This is not yours.”
His response made me think I have more work to do. I’m just condemning Tulsa in my writing and there are so many more dimensions to this story. If this person who’s so close to Tulsa sees it differently, then there’s more that I need to do. I need to figure out some of the other sides to this because it’s evident that I’m not doing the work. Later, he confessed that he felt like he was being overly sensitive. Whether my poems were so-called “good” or not, he just didn’t want to hear a critique come from an outsider, even if the outsider is a friend.
And then the second instance was at a reading in Oklahoma City. I gave the reading, and I tried to be as courageous as possible. After the reading, I had the pleasure of just sitting down in the bookstore with this woman from Tulsa. We had an exchange, and it was a sweet exchange. She asked me, “When are you going to forgive Tulsa?” You know, I didn’t feel like I had a grudge against Tulsa. But at the same time the book says differently. She said, “I’ve struggled. I’ve lived there my entire life, and I still haven’t forgiven Tulsa.” Then she said, “Let’s make a pact. Let’s agree that we’re going to try our best to seek out healing from this.” And I said, “Okay, let’s do it.” It was just a sweet exchange, you know? It was tenderness I wanted in my poems, and this exchange showed that I’ve done some work, but there’s still work I have to do because there’s an imbalance between critique and empathy. I’m heading in the direction of greater understanding and affection, but I still have more work to do.
Askew: My goodness, that’s wonderful! I really admire you, Clem. I keep my work close until it’s ready. I do have a couple of readers, but once it’s out in the world, I take in critique and incorporate it for later.
In terms of audience, it became very clear to me early on that my audience is white. Now, while I was writing, I wasn’t thinking about audience. I never do. We’ve been talking about how fiction relates to memoir and poems, so maybe it’s easier if I specify that I’m talking about the novel. Middle-aged white women, for the most part, are reading novels and holding novel book clubs at libraries. But I wasn’t thinking about that. If anything, my audience was fellow writers. It was writers who had come before me. It was people who are already deeply embedded in the writing of novels and how novels work.
What did not occur to me at all? I thought that Fire in Beulah would be groundbreaking. When I first began to write it, I had no idea about Jewell Parker Rhodes’s Magic City. It came out in 1997, and Fire in Beulah came out in 2001. She wrote about how her book was just sort of squelched and went into a dark hole because Tulsa was not ready and America was not ready. She did a very different thing in her novel from what I’ve done in mine. But I thought then, because the Tulsa Race Massacre was such an untold story, that my novel would make a very big difference. I was really naïve.
Fire in Beulah was met with silence, with the same kind of silence that I had encountered in all my years of trying to uncover the story. I didn’t really understand why. Now I know it’s because I did not put one white savior in my novel. There’s no white hero for white readers to identify with. There’s no Atticus Finch, no Skeeter like in The Help, nobody for a white reader to say, “Oh, that’s who I would have been if I had lived in that time. I would have been the savior.” That was intentional on my part; I just didn’t know that white readers were not ready to deal with that. When the novel first came out and I would give readings at bookstores, I would read different passages and it seemed like every passage I read was the wrong one. I would be met with this sort of stiff, cold, silent smiling.
Then six years later, in 2007, Oklahoma’s centennial year, the book was chosen for the One Book, One State “Oklahoma Reads Oklahoma” program. I went around to libraries all over the state, and that was a very different experience, because the people who come to those events, held in small town and city libraries, are a different type of reader from those at bookstore events and in book clubs. White women began telling me stories that I had not heard before, stories that had been passed down through their families. While I was researching in the nineties, the only family story I heard was that my great-grandfather had hid his chauffeur in the garage and his maid and her family in the basement. It was all about being the savior. But these stories were different and that felt like forward movement.
In this centennial year of the massacre, which is twenty years after the novel was released, I’ve heard from a number of readers who read it when it first came out. Today, they read it with entirely different eyes. They understand that the white female character, who is the main point-of-view character, is in no way a heroine or someone readers want to identify with. She’s that woman in Central Park who called the police on the birdwatcher because he asked her to leash her dog. In the novel when Althea goes into Greenwood and starts talking about being chased, and she’s hysterical, readers now know what she’s doing and what power she has. White readers now know what they didn’t know twenty years ago or even fourteen years ago, and that is a change in America’s culture that affects a book’s audience.
One last thing about audience: What right do any of us have to tell any story? I’m trying to write presumptions of whiteness which I know from the inside. To write from that space in fiction is to build a white character from the inside. I’m not looking at the character, I’m not judging her from the outside. I’m saying this is how she sees it, and that is a real challenge because sometimes readers conflate the author and character. It’s also a challenge in terms of audience because if there’s a person of color in the room when I give readings, I’m so acutely aware of how they are listening to what I’m saying. I’m still speaking to the white audience, not because I prefer it, but because I’m talking about what’s inside us, what’s been instilled in us by the forces of white supremacy and history. But judgment from the people who have lived with its violence and violations is a real fear for me.
That’s why, Clem, I don’t know if I could have come back from the conversations you had with your mentor. If someone says you have no right to write this, then how do you continue? That’s a question for all of us focused on making art.
Heard: I find it fascinating, Rilla, you saying you don’t think about audience. And if you had one in mind, it would be writers. I’m thinking about, Who do we write toward and how does that translate in our work? Who does that include, and who does that leave out? Especially in poetry—anything that has to do with form usually means we’re writing for other poets. Someone who isn’t a writer or a poetry lover isn’t going to care what a sestina is. Whenever we choose where to aim our attention and who our attention is going to be on, what comes from that? What kind of work are we creating because of those choices?
Askew: But for both of you as poets, when you’re in the process of making, are you thinking about audience in any conscious way?
Kwon Dobbs: I’m just trying to get the truth as it’s arriving to me, and I think about readers later when I’m revising. I really appreciate what you said earlier, Rilla, about newspapers and grappling with how you were constructing your own imagination through attention to the types of texts that you fed it. It’s in that initial moment of receiving a first draft when I try to disappear.
What’s next for you both? Clem, you wrapped up a residency. Rilla, I know you’ve got a novel that’s coming out soon.
Askew: I do have a novel coming out, but it has nothing to do with any of the things that we’ve spoken of. It’s a novel about a woman who was burned as a heretic in Henry the Eighth’s England. So 500 years ago, not Oklahoma, and not an American story. It’s a story about a woman who persists and resists, and it’s also about patriarchy and the joint forces of religion and politics, which we’re absolutely living with today. There will no doubt be British readers who ask, “Who is this American woman, thinking she knows how to tell our story about heresy in England?” no matter how much research I’ve done. The character’s last name is Askew, like mine, so I lay claim to it. My novel is Prize for the Fire, and it will be out in September 2022 from the University of Oklahoma Press.
How about you, Clem? What’s next?
Heard: Someone asked me this question the other day, and I told them, “Eating banana splits.” I was saying earlier that I have a manuscript from before Tragic City. I’ve been writing a lot of poems and not revising. I’ve been trying to take this different approach to listening. I think it was Ellen Bass who said something like “A good poem transforms the writer, and a great poem transforms the reader.” I’m thinking about how to transform before the writing takes place and then to transform even more within the work. I’m taking it really slowly because I’m writing about family, the history of longshoreman in New Orleans, and looking at my family’s lineage in that. I started writing essays when I was in Madison. They just started to come out of every pore I have, and so I need to get back to revising those. So that, and drawing, and cooking—whatever and wherever creation takes me.
Jennifer Kwon Dobbs is senior poetry editor of AGNI and has been part of the editorial team since 2019. Born in Wonju, Republic of Korea, she is the author of Interrogation Room (White Pine Press, 2018); Paper Pavilion (White Pine, 2007), winner of the White Pine Press Poetry Prize; and the chapbooks Notes from a Missing Person (Essay Press, 2015) and Necro Citizens (German/English edition, hochroth Verlag, 2019). Interrogation Room received mention in The New York Times, was praised by World Literature Today for “a vigorous restlessness,” and won the Association of Asian American Studies Award in Creative Writing: Poetry. She also co-translates Sami poetry with poet-scholar Johanna Domokos, and their translation of Niillas Holmberg’s Juolgevuođđu is forthcoming as Underfoot in spring 2022 from White Pine Press. Kwon Dobbs has received grants and awards for her writing, most recently a Jerome Hill Artists Fellowship and a Minnesota State Arts Board Artist Initiative Grant, and published work in Crazyhorse, jubilat, AGNI, The Massachusetts Review, Poetry International, and elsewhere. She is professor of creative writing at St. Olaf College, where she directs Race and Ethnic Studies, and is visiting faculty at Universität Bielefeld. (updated 5/2022)