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Post What Does Tulsa 1921 Tell Us About How We Deal with Race History? (from Gary Moore)
Created by John Eipper on 06/27/21 5:45 AM

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What Does Tulsa 1921 Tell Us About How We Deal with Race History? (from Gary Moore) (John Eipper, USA, 06/27/21 5:45 am)

Gary Moore writes:

My thanks to our moderator for the skillful way he handled a special situation: my graphics-filled post of yesterday (June 26).

John E accepted this formatting challenge so handily that his result made some improvements on the way I had originally interspersed graphics and text. I think an "attaboy" can be forgiven in this unusual circumstance, perhaps marking a WAIS milestone, a post backing up a difficult textual argument with explanatory pictures to make the case.

The post's subject matter--"historical evidence v. historical fantasy"--multi-linearly dissected the aerial bombardment myth attached to the very real 1921 Tulsa race riot, concentrating on a falsely presented document at the Smithsonian Institution. I didn't tackle the entire Tulsa aerial bombing folklore cycle in this graphics post, but focused on what seems to me its most solemn echo today: an apparent abdication and breakdown of historical verification standards at the Smithsonian--a development that to many of us might have previously seemed as preposterous as saying Einstein couldn't count. I think the June 26 post, however, shows that it has happened, so the question becomes: On how wide a front, and on what themes, and anyway, why should anybody care about musty old historical facts, if even the most famous historiographical fortress in the land has, well, sort of relaxed?

The daunting array of different kinds of orthodoxy and sanctifications of authority that have hidden the truth about Smithsonian Object No. 2015.176.1 (the falsely publicized "eyewitness account") make the revelation of its true nature (or false nature) mean that merely citing the evidence is understandably insufficient for many people, who have trusted an authoritative beacon--and should go on trusting it--if its vein of fantasizing can be revealed, questioned, and marked out for the unwary. The graphics in my post sought to address visually this problem of words not being enough to confront a settled authority. The hope here is that piling up not just one proof but a redundant swarm of them will at least open minds to what has been (smilingly, perplexingly) hidden.

JE commented that my post shouldn't be taken as "revisionism," by which he seemed to mean that I was not saying the entire Tulsa riot, with its atrocity and suffering, was some kind of fantasy. Of course I wasn't. But the feeling that there's a necessity to say that points up the main hider of the truth here--apparently the factor that melted standards at the Smithsonian: the American zone of lunatic belief that surrounds the ever-resurging issue of race. My revelation that now, in 2021, there is seemingly daft credulousness in the halls of Smithson might well be paired with a parallel reminder: As recently as the early 1990s the whole Tulsa riot, in its enormity, with or without its underground myths, had been erased eerily from public view, so that even prestigious reference desks, if asked, might shrug they'd never heard of it. You could almost predict that if you met a Tulsan (if they were white and under 70) you were going to hear some variant of: "Riot? What riot? I lived there all my life and I never heard of any riot."

But then the technologizing 1990s saw a wave of unearthings and publicizings of bygone racial eruptions (a wave in which I had an ever-disorienting front-row seat) and the rusty old American pendulum of race began to swing the other way. Emotion-laden public information began to replace mainstream avoidance of the difficult Jim Crow-era violence with not the real history in many cases, but a flood of compensatory myths, only masquerading feverishly as history--as if lying about these things all over again (but now in the opposite direction) might be some sort of balanced way to apologize.  Or to get even. Or, more elusively, to plug some thrilling grandiosity into a psychic void left by marginalization, trivialization and pain--so that the new believer, black or white, could soar on a fake high of heroic narrative, never seeming to see the signs that it was supernaturally improbable, a weird fairy tale, obscuring and trivializing the real history of real people and their struggles.

To see this panorama in its vastness--so many new myths wedging in to replace so many old ones--is to wonder what kind of country we live in, and how insecure we are. But perhaps the answer is that it's simply the kind of country that's only human, and the insecurity on race is one side of a human universal: the quandary of how to deal with demographic discrepancies, whether pragmatically, cynically, moderately, radically, idealistically, romantically, demagogically, violently, or avoidantly (none of which ever seem to quite work).

From the slave ship horrors up through the ambivalent schmaltz of Al Jolson in blackface to the merely conceptual hangover of the Smithsonian's wacky delusions today, the nation has never quite seemed to get this riddle figured out.

The Smithsonian, with a perfectly straight face, can say in podcasts, magazine outpourings, YouTube earnestness and even senatorial briefings that on June 1, 1921, the sidewalks in Tulsa, Oklahoma, were "literally covered with burning turpentine balls." The venerable institution seems not even to have stopped to wonder what in the world a "turpentine ball" is. Apparently it just needed to believe.

(But what is a "turpentine ball," anyway? Stay tuned.)

JE comments:  And how do you light and toss a turpentine ball while piloting a rickety biplane?  Gary Moore's reflections on American race history touches on the hot-button topic of today:  Critical Race Theory.  To its detractors, CRT is the second coming of Satan--a trendy (and paradoxically, uncritical) exercise in self-loathing.  CRT practitioners and their allies view the craft as an overdue move towards truth and eventual reconciliation.  Tulsa 1921 provides an excellent case study.  How is it that for two or three generations, nobody talked, or even knew, about the tragedy?

Much obliged for the attaboy, Gary!  WAIS posts with embedded images are time-consuming to edit, but hard work bears fruit.


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  • "Bolas de Trementina en Llamas": Tulsa 1921 (Eugenio Battaglia, Italy 06/28/21 4:01 AM)
    This article (in Spanish) from the Oklahoma weekly La Semana includes a reference to a topic we've been discussing on WAIS: the flaming turpentine balls dropped from airplanes during the Tulsa riots.

    With such a background, how can the US justify making wars to bring freedom and democracy to the world?


    Máscara racial de 1921:  100 años después


    https://www.pressreader.com/usa/la-semana/20210526/281530818933347


    JE comments:  In case you've been curious how to say flaming turpentine balls in Spanish, here it is:  bolas de trementina en llamas.  Eugenio Battaglia has discovered another piece in the FTB puzzle:  the persistent (if apparently apocryphal) claim has now extended beyond the English-speaking world.

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  • Tulsa Aerial Bombardment...and Questioning Historical Assumptions (Cameron Sawyer, Russia 06/29/21 3:24 AM)
    I would just like to note that I have not conceded that the aerial bombardment at Tulsa did not take place. One's own "common sense" understanding that you can't throw fire bombs out of a Jenny biplane is not a reasonable basis for forming beliefs on the matter (you can indeed do this, by the way).

    I need time and an Internet connection to do some reasonable research on this and I will be back. I am in the middle of a hard long-distance sailing race without possibilities to work on it at the moment.


    I'm not saying at all that it's not useful to challenge accepted narratives about historical events--it is. All history involves a certain amount of mythology--it's the only way to make sense of complex events. That mythology always includes some kind of distortion, some kind of bending of facts to suit the narrative. I think it's almost always good to challenge these. If the discussion is carried out in an intellectually honest way, the result is almost always drilling deeper and understanding better.


    God knows I've done enough of that kind of challenging myself on the question of what happened in the European theatre of WWII.


    But not all challenges to accepted narratives are more accurate than what is being challenged. To figure that out, you have to engage the facts with an open mind--all of them.


    I had a splendid history teacher in high school--John Colozzi. I'll never forget him. The very first lesson in our American History course was to read every single extant primary source on what happened at the Battle of Concord and then compare to various historical accounts. This showed vividly how much of history is, of necessity, just made up, in order to somehow make sense of contradictory and sketchy historical records. A lesson I never forgot.


    JE comments:  First of all, Godspeed on the High Seas, Captain Sawyer!  When time permits, please tell us more about the race.


    In defense of Gary Moore, I believe he has done exactly what Mr Colozzi recommends--exhaustively pouring over the primary sources.  And in the case of Tulsa's flaming turpentine balls, all the sources point back to one--the Franklin account written ten years after the fact.  The "it must be hard to light a turpentine bomb while piloting a Curtiss Jenny" addendum was mine.  And my common sense here was indeed lacking, especially because (I just checked) the trainer version of the Jenny had two cockpits and sets of controls.  One guy to fly, one to toss the bombs?

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