From Beale Street to Tulsa

I made myself a Black History Month reading list* but only read two books so far (and one was a children’s book). Read on for my reviews of a 1974 James Baldwin classic and a new, award winning book on the Tulsa Race Massacre.

If Beale Street Could Talk has a straight up ’70s vibe and I can see why it was an instant classic.

The first thing I noticed was that Baldwin was comma crazy. This is a book with a lot of dialog and descriptions, and he wrote long paragraphs with 10+ commas linking everything. You have to read it slowly, hearing every word, inflection and beat, his writing demands it.

Tish and Fonny have been friends forever and now they’re more than friends.. They are perfect for each other – only-have-eyes-for-you perfect – and even though they’re poor and The Man is a constant threat in their lives, they are happy.

But Fonny is arrested and falsely accused of rape. And Tish, just a teenager, is pregnant.

Even with the heavy subject matter this is a joyful novel, all courtesy of Tish’s family on Beale Street. Mom and dad, Sharon and Joseph, love unconditionally and work without complaint. A fierce, smart big sister watches over Tish. And then there’s Fonny, who was part of the family even before he and Tish fell in love.

The women, Sharon, Tish and her sister Ernestine, are all working to free Fonny. Their lawyer only has a few pages, but there is a memorable and touching scene between them. Fonny’s family: mom, dad and two sisters, are prominent characters as well but not all of them are on Fonny’s side.

I loved the scenes between Joe and Frank, Tish and Fonny’s fathers. The two of them are friends, comfortable with each other and their dialog and camaraderie made me smile.

If you never got around to reading this classic you’re missing out. It’s at once dated and timeless and one way or another it will grab your heart.

Unspeakable: The Tulsa Race Massacre written by Carole Boston Weatherford and illustrated by Floyd Cooper.

This book will tear your heart out more than grab it. It’s intended for children ages 8-12 but I can’t imagine letting a kid read Unspeakable on their own. I feel like they would need an adult with them for context and questions. For the shock, sadness, outrage, and all the other emotions that could pop up.

If you haven’t heard about what happened in the Greenwood section of Tulsa in 1921 let this book be your introduction. The text isn’t watered down or dummied, and the illustrations bring the story to life. The pictures are gorgeous: chocolate browns, mauves and deep oranges, all with a slightly hazy quality. Some are harrowing to look at, but when a community is burned down and people are fleeing for their lives, it has to be real.

To make a long, sad story short, once upon a time Black Americans living in Tulsa were thriving. They had it all on their side of town: a booming economy, luxury hotel, schools – everything you could want. And then came an accusation and a jump to judgement, and violence. The End (of Greenwood).

This is an important book because the people who experienced this horror, and their families, deserve to have their story told and remembered.

*This is the rest of my Black History Month reading list (at this point to be read throughout 2022):

  • The Color of Water
  • The Bluest Eye
  • The Vanishing Half
  • On the Come Up
  • Harlem Shuffle

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s