Sharon Olds’ “Race Riot, Tulsa, 1921”

Sharon Olds’ poem “Race Riot, Tulsa, 1921” focuses on the racially-motivated violence that occurred in Tulsa, Oklahoma on May 31 and June 1, 1921, in which whites burned 35 city blocks in Tulsa’s Greenwood district to the ground. Though records were not kept, it is estimated that as many as 300 black citizens and a dozen white citizens were killed in the riots, and over 10,000 black citizens were left homeless. At the time, the Greenwood area of Tulsa was the wealthiest black community in the United States, also known as the “Black Wall Street”. An estimated 1256 homes, 191 businesses, several churches, a junior high school, and the area’s only hospital were destroyed.

You can look at the
gleaming horse-chestnuts of their faces the whole day…

Rarely mentioned in history books to this day, Sharon Olds’ poem describes the event through a photograph taken during the event. Her poem is included in the public poems section (“Poems for the Dead”) in her second collection of poetry, The Dead and the Living (1983). In 1996, the state of Oklahoma legislature authorized the Tulsa Race Riot Commission to establish the details of the event in the historical record. Shortly after the report’s release in 2001, the Tulsa Race Reconciliation Act passed the state legislature, and some reparations to victims and descendants were made, including 300 college scholarships and an “economic development zone” in the historic district of Greenwood. In 2010, John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park was officially opened to the public to bring attention to and commemorate those who lost their lives during the riot, one of our country’s most tragic race-related events.

Race Riot, Tulsa, 1921

The blazing white shirts of the white men
are blanks on the page, looking at them is like
looking at the sun, you could go blind.
Under the snouts of the machine guns,
the dark glowing skin of the women and
men going to jail. You can look at the
gleaming horse-chestnuts of their faces the whole day.
All but one descend from the wood
back of the flat-bed truck. He lies,
shoes pointed North and South,
knuckled curled under on the splintered slats,
head thrown back as if he is in a
field, his face tilted up
toward the sky, to get the sun on it, to
darken it more and more toward the color of the human.

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