Truth, reconciliation and digging up the ugliness of our past

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Smoke rises from the Greenwood District during the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot.

In order for our society to secure a more just, harmonious and peaceful future, there is perhaps no endeavor more important than a compassionate and honest accounting of our past.

Tulsa mayor G.T. Bynum reopened an important effort on that front this week, with attempts to locate and excavate the unmarked graves of victims from the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot.

A proper accounting for the dead never was accomplished after the one-day riot, in which white mobs burned 35 city blocks, including more than 1,200 homes, and killed as many as 300 African-Americans in Tulsa’s Greenwood District.

In announcing plans to search three locations for possible mass graves, Bynum outlined why the search for truth is needed — and why it’s needed in our society as a whole.

“Tulsans are compassionate and supportive toward victims of violent crime — and that standard should apply whether they are victims in 2018 or 1921,” Bynum wrote on Facebook on Tuesday. “All Tulsans deserve to know what happened in 1921 — especially the descendants of victims. This is a matter of basic human decency.”

The core of Bynum’s message can be translated to much broader issues of racial injustice and violence — issues that live on in America, unhealed, in festering fear, anger and mistrust.

We can’t change the past. And in many cases, including the Tulsa Race Riot, we’ll likely never know all the facts — due in large part to efforts of those in power at the time to obscure those facts. But, if we’re to ever heal the wounds of racial discord in this nation, we all must face and honestly acknowledge the roots of today’s evils — roots that draw on centuries of violence and oppression, instigated, justified and covered up by a predominantly white power structure that remains largely intact to this day.

But, that honest, compassionate and contrite search for the past’s wrongs has not been our approach, by and large. We would rather let the horrors of our shared past remain hidden. So, when people like Mayor Bynum have the courage to peel back those layers, and stare into the unvarnished ugliness of race relations in American history (and present), they usually face resistance.

That’s all behind us, they’re told. You’re just stirring up division and hatred. All the perpetrators are dead and gone. Just let that be in the past. Let’s just move on.

Some may actually believe those statements — that the best way to heal history is to pretend it didn’t happen. Predominantly, though, I think these are disingenuous attempts to avoid owning our own past.

Such was the tone of The Oklahoman editorial board on Jan. 26, 2000, when attempts were made to locate the mass graves under the auspices of the Tulsa Race Riot Commission.

The Oklahoman flippantly dismissed the work as an endeavor of historians who “can’t wait to begin digging up bones.”

The editorial expressed fake outrage over disrupting the “sacred” nature of the graves, and reduced the horrors of the massacre to an instance of “racial disharmony.”

“Racial disharmony,” to my ear, sounds more like a congenial disagreement than mass murder, arson and the dumping of innocents in mass graves. But, that’s the point of popular dissent to these efforts to unearth our ugly past — diminish its importance, cast doubt on its veracity and, please, oh please, let’s forget it happened and move on.

When pesky seekers of truth persisted into 2001, The Oklahoman editors took back up the “let’s move on” mantra.

“The Legislature and the state government have spent enough time debating how the state should recognize the causes and effects of the riot,” they wrote in May 2001. “It’s time to move on and allow the good citizens of Tulsa to control the destiny of further plans to commemorate or atone for the riot.”

Seventeen years later, and 97 years after the race riot, we still haven’t figured out how to atone, because we still want to hide from the truth of the past. That’s true for Tulsa, and it’s true for the broader issues of segregation, slavery, lynchings, Jim Crow, disenfranchisement and the systemic inequality of opportunity — rooted in all those earlier evils — that persists today.

That history, like it or not, is still ours. And, because we refuse to honestly own our past, it continues to define our present. Today, we still live in a society that tries to separate out winners and losers at birth — driven by the same forces that marched into the Greenwood District in 1921.

This isn’t about assigning blame, or some mass mea culpa for the sins of our forefathers. It is about openly and honestly encountering our past, in all the ugliness and evil that is intertwined with our shared beauty and benevolence. Mayor Bynum’s efforts are a step in the right direction. For the sake of our society and our children, we need to be willing to step with him, to find the kind of reconciliation that can only be found in truth.

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