Since the killings of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and countless other black women and men by police, racism has once again exploded in American media and psyches. As people of conscience, we bear painful witness to the unending violence of our racist culture. We seek understanding and maybe absolution, by reading the words of Black writers: Ta-Nehisi Coates, James Baldwin, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
But white readers also need the voice and experience of a writer who has wrestled with the white journey through racism and speaks from personal experience to the deep denial of whiteness. Rilla Askew is such a voice. In Most American: Notes from a Wounded Place, she courageously shares her story as a white woman growing up and living through and with the blood and fire of America's racial history over the last century.
Most Americans contextualize the horror and violence of Black American experience squarely within the deluded denial that is the essence of the parallel white experience. Askew, the granddaughter of an Oklahoma history teacher, writes of being an adult when she first learned about the Tulsa Race Riot. In 1921 three hundred people, mostly black, were murdered. Tulsa's relative prosperous black commerce community, known as Black Wall street, was destroyed. "You think you know who you are, but you don't know. In all the years I had lived both in and near Tulsa, I had never heard one word about a race riot there. I had never heard about any kind of race trouble in Oklahoma at all. . .and all the while that sickening, bewildering feeling kept reeling in me, that sense of having been left out of something hugely important—of having been lied to. What else weren't they telling me? What else didn't I know?"
Askew's story is a map, a key, an opening to liberation from the pervasive, sticky, and engulfing ignorance of whiteness. I read Most American as a treasure hunt for her pivotal turnings: sitting alone on the couch in the living room of a black home swirling with smells of curried goat, stewed peas, Jamaican spices, and pounding rhythms of reggae. In James Brown's cozy back stage dressing room at the Tulsa Civic Center in 1969. The hard bench and bright lights of the police station where her black godchild was wrongly booked for theft. On disordered streets of Oklahoma City in the aftermath of the 1995 bombing of the Murrah Federal Building and the tightly-packed pew of the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in Manhattan for James Baldwin's funeral.
The daughter and granddaughter of Southern Baptist deacons, Askew reminds us that ignorance is not the same as innocence; that the Old Hebrew understanding of repentance requires us to own our history; and that redemption must be earned. She reminds us that Beulah, sometime equated with heaven, or the Promised Land, means married. That we are all married: black, white, indigenous, Asian, Middle Eastern, African, and European; in this wounded place called America.
Rilla Askew, and much of her writing, are born from the settled valleys of the Choctaw Nation in southeastern Oklahoma. Her award-winning fiction includes Kind of Kin, Harpsong, Fire in Beulah and the Mercy Seat. She teaches creative writing at the University of Oklahoma. Visit her website.
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