The worst episode of racial violence in United States history broke out in Tulsa, Oklahoma a century ago when a white mob flooded the black Greenwood district, attacking residents and burning homes and businesses.
The 18 hours of destruction left thousands of blacks homeless and hundreds of others hospitalized. It is estimated that up to 300 people, mostly blacks, were killed. A prosperous neighborhood known as Black Wall Street was gutted – and decades later, the news was largely covered up.
As Tulsa residents and officials present a series of events to mark the centenary of the so-called Tulsa Race Massacre from May 31 to June 1, 1921, the issue continues to smolder.
At the end of March, an aria that the New York composer and violinist Daniel Bernard Roumain wrote for a memorial concert in Tulsa by black opera artists was rejected for inclusion because it contained the line “God damn America” – a line that Roumain did not find in his piece wanted to remove.
But now a film of that aria is being shown online on May 25th by arts organizations across the country, including the Fine Arts Center at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. The short film “They Still Want to Kill Us” was commissioned by the arts center and about a dozen other organizations, including the Apollo Theater and Joe’s Pub in New York City.
Following the film, an online discussion with Roumain and the singer of the aria, the mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges, will be moderated by Jamilla Deria, the director of the arts center. The entire program runs a little less than half an hour.
On a recent phone call, Deria said she had been in regular contact with other arts organizations like the Fine Arts Center during the pandemic that have had to switch to online programming.
“Because we’re all so decentralized, we can check in with each other and talk about how we can support each other and the arts during this difficult time,” she said.
When news came that Roumain’s aria had been removed from the Tulsa program, Deria said the arts center and other groups felt they needed to support him. She knows him personally: Before joining UMass, she produced numerous art events in New York City and other venues, including an opera by Roumain.
“I said there that we shouldn’t silence stories in a time of race reckoning,” said Deria. “I am very encouraged by how these different organizations came together. … We hope this project can shed some light on these horrific events from a century ago. “
“They Still Want to Kill Us”, directed by Yoram Savion and produced by the arts organization Sozo Creative, shows Bridges singing Roumain’s aria in New York City, including in an area in Central Park that was considered in the 19th century Seneca Village was known. a community that is predominantly populated by African Americans. They had to leave when the city took over the land to create the park.
In an uncomplicated, concise libretto, Roumain’s aria tells the story of the Tulsa massacre: how an uncertain encounter between a young black man and a young white woman in an elevator led to the attack on the Greenwood district hours later. The piece ends with the lines “God Bless America / God Damn America”.
In a statement accompanying his composition, Roumain said that the “toxic mix of misinformation, bigotry, ignorance and white anger” that sparked racist violence in Tulsa a century ago continues to this day, causing problems such as police shootings of colored people.
“The audacity and hypocrisy of asking God to bless America is not lost to me or to many of my friends,” says Roumain. “Damn it, America has its place.”
According to a number of news reports, including The Oklahoman, Oklahoma’s largest newspaper, Roumain was one of four black composers commissioned by the Tulsa Opera Company to write pieces for “Greenwood Overcomes,” a concert of black artists that is part of the City efforts to celebrate the centenary of the 1921 massacre.
According to the concert’s co-curators, mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves, who was supposed to sing Roumain’s aria, felt uncomfortable with the phrase “God damn America”. When they asked Roumain to revise the line, he refused.
A March 28 report in The Oklahoman said concert co-curators had identified the dispute as an artistic problem and were “extremely disappointed” that Roumain had “turned an artistic disagreement into a racist debate.”
But Roumain said on Twitter: “As a black person, I ask: Who does the BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) narrative belong to our bodies, blood, stories and stories? I say we do. “
For her part, Deria said the efforts in Tulsa to recognize the horror of 100 years ago, including the Greenwood Overcomes concert, appear to be in good faith. But she added that she is concerned that Roumain’s aria will be canceled by the Tulsa Opera as she sees a parallel to what happened after the massacre.
“The story of this terrible event has been silenced for years,” she said. “I’m glad we can help make (Roumain’s) work heard.”
The May 25 presentation, Deria said, will also serve as a teaser for a short opera the composer is now writing about the 1921 massacre that the Fine Arts Center plans to bring down the valley over the next two years.
In addition, the program will include a statement from Damario Solomon-Simmons, an attorney with the Justice for Greenwood Foundation, seeking redress for three survivors of the 1921 massacre as well as descendants of those killed. The program will continue to broadcast on the platforms of each presenting organization through July 31st.
To register for the free program, go to fac.umass.edu and click the link for “They still want to kill us”. The program can be viewed on May 25th at 8 p.m. on the arts centre’s Facebook and YouTube pages.
Steve Pfarrer can be reached at [email protected]