Title: Unspeakable, The Tulsa Race Massacre
Author: Carole Boston Weatherford
Illustrator: Floyd Cooper
Publisher: Carolrhoda Books, Feb 2nd, 2021
Genre: nonfiction, history
Themes: African Americans, racism, violence, white supremacy, black history month, systemic racism, suppression of history, Tulsa massacre
Once Upon a time near Tulsa, Oklahoma, prospectors struck it rich in the oil fields. The wealth created jobs, raised buildings, and attracted newcomers from far and wide, seeking fortune and a fresh start.
A powerful look at the Tulsa Race Massacre, one of the worst incidents of racial violence in US history. The book traces the history of African Americans in Tulsa’s Greenwood district and chronicles the devastation that occurred in 1921 when a white mob attacked the Black community. Black Wall Street. That was the name of the area of Tulsa, Oklahoma where wealthy, prominent, and talented black folks lived and thrived. That was until the massacre, all because one white teenager accused a black teenager of assault during an elevator ride.
News of what happened was largely suppressed, and no official investigation occurred for seventy-five years. This picture book sensitively introduces young readers to this tragedy and concludes with a call for a better future.
Why I like this book:
I think this is about as bearable and accessible of an account of the Tulsa Race Massacre as could possibly exist. It manages to convey the events in a very clear-eyed way, while still allowing space for the raw emotion of it.
Many pages at the beginning of the book are given to descriptions of the beauty of the community of Greenwood as it was before May 31, 1921, the achievement and perseverance of this group of people of color who were determined to pull together and form a nurturing, thriving society on their own terms, segregated by law from the whites.
When we get to the events leading to the massacre itself, we have a deep sense of what was lost– the people, the businesses, the homes, the ability to build and thrive, the hope that the contributions that Black citizens had made to that point would lead to more respect or better treatment, especially just after WWI and many of the black men returning from serving their country. Yet the storytelling is never heavy handed and handled in a way to make it very receptive to young readers without watering down the horror. Massacre is the only apt word, and UNSPEAKABLE, a very apt title. This history cannot be ignored, and must be explained. This story looks at that truth unflinchingly yet tells it with as soft a hand as possible.
I only learned of this horrific event in US racial history maybe two years ago. Here I learned much I didn’t not know, and I wept over the depth of the betrayal and injustice. It’s a hard story, but one that definitely needs to be remembered and discussed.
I think it’s a particularly important story for understanding the very concrete ways in which white supremacy and institutionalized racism have worked over and over throughout history to try and prevent Black people from succeeding. This important piece of history was whitewashed until this century!
In the end notes, we read that illustrator Floyd Cooper grew up hearing stories of his own grandfather’s childhood in Greenwood, and this closeness to the subject feels evident in every page. The subtleness and breadth of humanity he paints here is breathtaking. The illustrations are gorgeous. The beautiful soft glow of Greenwood quickly turns into muted spreads that capture the gravitas and pain of the massacre. The author and illustrator notes are a must read and complete this slice of history. I think it is one of many picture books that could be used in tween and teen classrooms too.
This is a perfect book for any historical unit or celebration of Black History Month, and with older children can be a great springboard to talk about systemic racism.
Floyd Cooper talks about his grandfather’s stories of this history on the Brown Bookshelf
Each week a group of bloggers reviews picture books we feel would make great educational reads. To help teachers, caregivers and parents, we have included resources and/or activities with each of our reviews. A complete list of the thousands of books we have reviewed can be found sorted alphabetically and by topics, here on Susanna Leonard Hill’s website.