Sunday, February 21, 2021

Unspeakable: The Tulsa Race Massacre by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Floyd Cooper

Unspeakable: The Tulsa Race Massacre
written by Carole Boston Weatherford,
illustrated by Floyd Cooper
Carolrhoda Books, 2021, 32 pages

This year will mark the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre on May 31st and June 1, 1921, when a armed white mob swarmed the town of Greenwood, Oklahoma, killing up to 300 Black Americans over two days and burning the prosperous town to the ground. The what massacre, you may ask? Exactly. When did any of us ever learn about this heart wrenching event in American history? If you're like me, the answer is never. I hadn't heard about the Tulsa Race Massacre until just a few years ago when I read Dreamland Burning, a YA novel by Jennifer Latham.

Now, however, Carole Boston Weatherford has made the events of the Tulsa Race Massacre accessible to younger readers. Written in measured, lyrical free verse, she begins her narrative as though it were a fairytale - "Once upon a time near Tulsa, Oklahoma..." painting an idyllic picture of life in the all Black prosperous town of Greenwood. She continues the use of "Once upon a time..." as she introduces the achievement of the citizens of Greenwood in building their own community. 
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Segregation laws made it impossible for Blacks to vote, and demanded that they have separate neighborhoods, their own schools, streetcars and railroad coaches. The residents of Greenwood may have been separate, but they were very prosperous. Not surprisingly, there were almost two hundred business in Greenwood, earning it the name the "Negro Wall Street of America." Greenwood had everything a town could want - a school system, a post office, a hospital, several libraries and churches, a theater named Dreamland
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But not everyone was happy about Greenwood and its flourishing citizens. Midway through Unspeakable, Weatherford drops the fairytale phase "Once upon a time... " and introduces a stark reality on a black page with white writing - "But in 1921, not everyone in Tulsa was pleased/ with these signs of Black Wealth..." A 17-year-old white elevator operator accusing a 19-year-old shoeshine man of assault was all it took to inflame an angry white mob to descend on Greenwood, killing, destroying, burning it down until nothing remained but ashes. 

Carole Boston Weatherford does an outstanding job in making difficult and/or little known subjects or events available and understandable for young readers and this picture book for older readers is no exception. Her language is clear and musical, and she never talks down to her readers, writing in such a way that respects their intelligence, no matter how tragic the circumstances. Dividing Unspeakable between what went into making Greenwood so successful for the African Americans living there and the destructive mob that destroyed their years of achievement really drives home her message - " realize the responsibility we all have/ to reject hatred and violence and instead choose hope."

Weatherford's words are beautifully born out in Floyd Cooper's sepia-toned paint and erasure illustrations. I once saw him do this method in person once and I was amazed by it. Perhaps because he has a personal connection to Greenwood, Cooper has really captured both the community in all its bustling activity and the hatred and anger of mob violence. And as we have witnessed recently, it's so easy to destroy the trust and faith we have in our communities when people are motived by hate and jealousy.

Back matter includes an important Author's Note and an informative Illustrator's Note. Be sure to check out the front and back endpapers to see was Greenwood really looked like before and after the mob destroyed it. 

This is a book that should be in every school library, classroom or home school library. If you are thinking about using Unspeakable with your classes, you can download an extensive Teacher's Guide courtesy of Lerner Books HERE

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was an eARC gratefully received from NetGalley

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