This week features commemorations of one of the worst atrocities on American soil during the twentieth century, the so-called Greenwood Massacre, also known as the Tulsa Race Riot. In 1921, a white mob invaded the Greenwood District, a thriving district known as “Black Wall Street,” by foot and air in a targeted attack on Tulsa’s Black community, destroying its buildings and property, and killing as many as 300 people, with hundreds more injured. The losses, in today’s dollars, are estimated to be in the tens of millions, if not greater.
There has been a spate of recent media coverage and documentaries to mark the 100-year anniversary of the massacre. But this panorama of coverage is in striking contrast to how this event was originally covered by the media, let alone addressed by public authorities. Mere months after the massacre, long after the national media had departed from the scene, local authorities and community leaders engaged in what some reporters call a “conspiracy of silence,” but what at a minimum appears to be a willful forgetting among Tulsa’s elite.
A young white Tulsan named Scott Ellsworth heard whispers about the massacre as a young boy, but began investigating the event more seriously as a history student. He interviewed survivors and their family members, tracked down contemporaneous reports on microfilm, and reviewed scrapbooks and family histories. The result of his effort was the first comprehensive history of the event, Death in the Promised Land: The Tulsa Riot of 1921, published in 1982.
National media followed with segments after the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 and for the 75th anniversary of the massacre in 1996. This awareness helped lead a year later to Tulsa Race Riot Commission, a special 11-member commission appointed by the Oklahoma state legislature. The commission’s report was issued in 2001. Another commission was convened for the centennial, with a slightly broader mandate. One of the contributors to the 2001 report wrote that “The silence is shattered, utterly and permanently shattered. Whatever else this commission has achieved or will achieve, it has already made that possible.”
There remain important and unanswered questions about the massacre, including but not limited to where bodies may have been buried and whether or how to structure reparations to survivors and their descendants. But the underlying truth of what happened is no longer denied or deliberately forgotten.
Denial, denialism, and denialist narratives can come in several forms. In its most blatant form, denialism is an outright rejection or contestation of known and verifiable facts. This happens, for example, among the “Lost Cause” proponents, who deny the centrality of slavery as the cause of the Civil War, despite clear and overwhelming evidence to the contrary by the speeches and published statements of the leaders of the Confederacy and the proponents of secession.
Another example is the so-called “Rape of Nanking” or the Nanking Massacre. Tens or perhaps hundreds of thousands of people were killed by Japanese soldiers in 1937-8 when Japanese soldiers attacked Nanking, the capital of the Republic of China. In addition to the murders, tens of thousands of women were raped and many were pushed into prostitution. To this day, Japan refuses to acknowledge its war crimes.
A softer variant of denial, however, is when the denialist claim accepts the general truth of an event, but contests the particulars, denying the extent of the harm, claiming, for example, that the Holocaust occurred on a much smaller scale than is reported on official accounts. Another example is when “Lost Cause” adherents claim that American slavery was not the brutal and inhumane institution that we know it to be, framing the South as a benevolent and genteel society degraded by Reconstruction, the period in which the rights of freed men and women were most seriously pursued by federal enforcement.
This form of denial tries to muddy the facts to undermine culpability regarding an event. It may claim that some presumed crime against humanity was not the one-way slaughter it seemed, or otherwise downplay the official role or complicity. Turkey’s denials regarding the Armenian Genocide, for example, claim that the deaths of between 500,000 and 1.5 million ethnic Armenians during and before the First World War were the result of mutual hostilities rather than a systemic, centrally organized, largely one-way slaughter. Similarly, Myanmar’s government – under the leadership of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi – engaged in this form of denialism by characterizing the campaign of state-organized slaughter against the ethnic minority Rohingya in 2017 as “intercommunal violence,” and part of a cycle going back to the 1940s, and as a response to “terrorism” and “rebellion” in Rakhine state. Similar, denialist narratives regarding the Srebrenica massacre in Bosnia in 1995 have gathered strength in recent years. It is not that local officials deny the underlying facts so much as they as contest the degree of official complicity or systematic effort behind them.
But perhaps the most pernicious form of denial is erasure, when the facts of an event are not denied as much as suppressed or the subject is rendered taboo. This is what happened in Tulsa for more than a half century. The business community wanted to get Tulsa “back to normal.” Scott Ellsworth reported that some witnesses were threatened to keep quiet. White participants and community leaders tried to put the event behind them rather than hold itself accountable.
This form of denial is sometimes described as “memory holed,” a reference to a device from George Orwell’s 1984, where the government re-writes embarrassing historical facts. Consider, for example, the Texas legislature’s recent efforts to pass laws that downplay the state’s history with slavery and anti-Mexican prejudice. One bill, for example, prohibits exhibits at San Antonio’s Alamo complex from explaining that major figures in the Texas Revolution were slave owners.
Erasure occurs when governments direct public institutions to downplay or reframe historical facts. But erasure can also occur in a more literal sense, such as when culturally significant landmarks, memorials, or histories are quietly demolished, removed or deliberately omitted and forgotten. It happens when, to take a few example, mosques, shrines and religious sites are removed or demolished as has been happening in western China in recent years. Similarly, in India, Hindu extremists destroyed a mosque in 1992, and more recently, a planned museum meant to showcase the arms, art and fashion of the Mughals, the Muslim rulers who reigned over the Indian subcontinent from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries, was scrapped and replaced with a museum that would “celebrate India’s Hindu majority, leaders and history.”
In this context, we should take care to distinguish between erasure as the practice of demolishing culturally important artifacts and the removal of monuments to historical figures whose reputations have been reappraised according to contemporary standards. The destruction of the Buddha statues of Bamiyan in Afghanistan or Islamic shrines in China’s Xianjiang province is not the same thing as the removal of Confederate monuments or statues of Confederate generals.
Structures erected to signify honor or acclaim for an individual or institution may merit reassessment as new information about that person or institution comes to light or as standards evolve. Christopher Columbus’s brutality has contributed to such a reappraisal, no matter how significant his historical role. A monument erected for the purpose of glorifying or honoring can be removed without erasing that historical role, and perhaps be put into a better context, such as a museum, where the expressive symbolic component can be better calibrated.
Similarly, when colonial names for places are changed, such as Bombay to Mumbai or Malacca to Malaysia, that is not an erasure-as-denialism, but rather an attempt to reclaim indigenous heritage that had been erased by the colonial legacy. Indeed, removing statues erected to tyrants, as when Saddam Hussein’s was knocked down, or colonial masters, as when Union Jack flags and statues of Queen Victoria were torn down in the wake of India’s liberation from the United Kingdom, are hardly efforts to erase history, but rather to redirect public honor.
One particularly fraught case is the proposed memorial for the victims of the 2011 massacres in Norway perpetrated by Andres Breivik. Residents near the site of the youth camp where most of the killings happened filed a lawsuit to stop the erection of a memorial on the grounds that it might become a destination “for tragedy tourism” and traumatize the community again, where many people are still suffering from the attack. Proponents of a memorial assert the importance of recognizing the right-wing ideology behind the attacks, especially in this world historical moment. And, in a statement that could apply equally to many of the above-mentioned tragedies, the lawyer for the project observed that “A national memorial is the strongest symbol a state can use to tell future generations that society will not forget what happened.”
Besides the hurt it allows to fester and the shame it conceals, denial and denialism is itself a source of considerable harm. Fundamentally, denialism is the tendency to avoid grappling with events, and thereby with moral guilt and evil. It is a process by which mythologies are propounded or propagated. Invariably, these myths are used to justify dehumanization and oppression.
In a real sense, denialism creates an alternative historical reality, one that fails to acknowledge not only the reality or extent of some horrible event or series of events, but culpability and accountability. Consequently, denialism impedes the process of reparation, by which the society is repaired, and the breach of othering is healed. As James Baldwin wrote, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
Without acknowledgement and accountability, not only will the wound remain, but it may fester. As a special advisor to the war crimes tribunal in Sierra Leonne noted, countries that suffer national trauma and try to move forward without consequences or contrition are unable to heal:
“Countries that skip the accountability phase end up repeating 100 percent of the time — but the next time the crisis is worse. […] People who think that the way forward is to brush this under the rug seem to have missed the fact that there is a ticking time bomb under the rug.”
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission established at the end of Apartheid were a far-sighted initiative based in the recognition that the Apartheid government, and the Afrikaner society it represented, would whitewash and deny its most serious crimes from that period without such an approach. Although it allowed many perpetrators to escape criminal punishment, it did allow the truth to emerge, and prevent white South Africans from denying the scope of the atrocities or the true brutal nature of Apartheid.
More pointedly, it is useful to contrast that with Germany’s more forthright acknowledgement of its crimes against humanity. In the immediate post-war period, Germany had difficulty acknowledging the extent of the state’s role in the Holocaust. The Holocaust itself was a state secret, and the Nazi leadership made great efforts, like the Ottomans before them, to restrict knowledge of it and avoid documentation. In the wake of the death and devastation, Germans had little interest in grappling with the full extent of the crimes of their leadership nor their complicity. As in the aftermath of the American Civil War, rebuilding was prioritized, not justice.
But as the generation of post-war children reached maturity, they pressed their parents and grandparents into a reckoning and Germany took greater responsibility. In the post-war period, Germany has paid more than $90 billion in reparations, mostly to Jewish survivors and Israel. As late as 1988, Germany agreed to another $125 million payment to enable remaining Holocaust survivors to receive monthly payments of $290 for the rest of their lives. In addition, Germany erected monuments and memorials to the Jewish dead, including turning former concentration camps into memorial sites where visitors can learn much more about the horrors of the Holocaust. For example, in 2005, Germany opened the “Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe,” also known as the Holocaust Memorial, in Berlin. Germany has even criminalized Holocaust denial.
Just last week, Germany acknowledged that its conduct more than a hundred years ago in what is now Namibia constituted genocide, and already allocated more than 1 billion euros for reparation. Acknowledgement precedes healing and reparation.
This is not to say that these efforts have been perfect, but they have been markedly better at grappling with the reality and responsibility in key respects than the actions of the United States, which has never offered reparations for slavery and allowed denialist narratives to thrive for more than a century. Indeed, this is one reason Ibram X. Kendi calls denial “The Heartbeat of Racism.”
If the opposite of denial is truth, then truth is the predicate for a society of inclusion and belonging. A society inflected with denial is warped and distorted, unable to see itself in the mirror as it truly is. And any society that cannot grapple with reality is one that will have many disturbing pathologies. Indeed, this should now be obvious. There is a price to be paid to live in denial.
In November, 2017, the mayor of Osaka, Japan severed “sister city” ties with San Francisco over the erection of a monument dedicated to tens of thousands of Chinese, Korean, and Filipina “comfort women” who were detained and raped by Japanese soldiers before and during World War II. Unsurprisingly, the mayor of Osaka then pleaded with the leadership of San Francisco to take down the memorial, promising they would renew their relationship as soon as that happened.
In October, 2018, the mayor of San Francisco, London Breed, reiterated that the city would not remove the memorial, calling it a “symbol of the struggle faced by all women who have been, and are currently, forced to endure the horrors of enslavement and sex trafficking.” She added that “These victims deserve our respect and this memorial reminds us all of events and lessons we must never forget.”
On April 24, 2021, President Joe Biden became the first sitting president to publicly acknowledge that the Ottoman Empire’s 1915 organized massacre of Armenians in its territory during World War I constituted a “genocide” as defined by international law, although that term was coined decades later. Despite decades of lobbying by the Armenian diaspora and human rights advocates, several previous presidents, including Barack Obama, had campaigned on a promise to publicly declare the massacre a genocide, but backed away from that pledge once in office due to the exigencies of the office and the prioritization of geo-strategic interests, especially fighting ISIS.
In response to the announcement, Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, called on Biden to reverse his declaration, and said that his statement hurt ties between the United States and Turkey, a NATO ally. Turkey has not only strenuously denied that a genocide ever occurred, but the issue has become a third rail in Turkey’s society.
When Pope Francis acknowledged the genocide in 2015, Turkey retaliated by withdrawing its ambassador from the Vatican. Nonetheless, many other countries have already acknowledged the genocide, from Russia to Brazil to France and Germany. The United States, which is home to the descendants of many Armenian refugees, had yet to do so. Biden’s declaration was met with euphoria among the American-Armenian community, whose identity is deeply intertwined with the fact and aftermath of the genocide.
The reason that this acknowledgement is so significant, far beyond its symbolic import, is that recognition and admission of past harms is the predicate to all other forms of healing, including reparations, justice, or reconciliation. Denial, on the other hand, is the rejection or contestation of a harm – a refusal to acknowledge, and therefore an open wound that prevents healing, justice, reconciliation, or reparations.
The Turkish scholar Taner Ackam has long argued that Turkey’s longstanding taboo on discussing – let alone acknowledging – the Armenian genocide has contributed to its anti-democratic tendencies. Avoiding a difficult reality makes it impossible for a society to heal from a violent episode, for a marginalized group to achieve greater inclusion, and for a society to remain free and open.
The same is true of the United States. There are more than 2,000 confederate monuments, place names or other symbols in public spaces around the country. In 2020, fewer than 200 have been removed or renamed. Not only have we struggled to bring down monuments to confederate leadership, but the Lost Cause and related mythologies of race distorted our nation’s soul and our politics. From the “Southern Strategy” to the January 6 insurrection, denialist narratives – a failure to agree on reality – undergird much of the deep polarization in this country.
The “conspiracy of silence” that enveloped Tulsa was layered on top of another denial. What happened in Tulsa, we can now see from a clearer light, was part of a pattern of pogroms targeting Black Americans around the same period that were once more equivocally described as “race riots.” Tulsa was not an isolated case, just an extreme one. Other major pogroms included attacks on the Black community in St. Louis in 1917, Chicago in 1919, one in Washington DC the same year, and the Rosewood massacre of 1923.
Amid of the onset of the Great Migration, white America was asserting its dominance over Black citizens, in the North as well as in the South. It justified this domination and violence with denialist narrative that rewrote the Civil War and allowed the Lost Cause to prevail, as films which embodied these narratives like Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind dominated box offices. This denial was the foundation upon which resistance to Black equality and citizenship were ultimately predicated. Not coincidentally, this was the same era that many confederate statues and monuments were erected and the Ku Klux Klan reassembled itself. These denialist narratives ultimately undergirded the entire edifice of Jim Crow, from voter suppression to segregated schools. One need not look far to see what sort of nefarious causes contemporary denialist narratives undergird today.
In a bitter and fitting twist of historical irony, the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission recently removed Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt from its membership after he signed bills into law that would make it more difficult to teach its own racial history. America is still in denial.
This essay is adapted from a segment from an unpublished manuscript on Othering and Belonging by the author.