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Calling himself a “lay historian” who studied history in high school and community college in Oakland, California, Hanks notes that his education, in which he learned about the Emancipation Proclamation, the Ku Klux Klan and Rosa Parks’ heroism, did not include the Tulsa massacre.
“I never read a page of any school history book about how, in 1921, a mob of white people burned down a place called Black Wall Street, killed as many as 300 of its Black citizens and displaced thousands of Black Americans who lived in Tulsa,” Hanks writes.
The actor notes that this experience is common, due to history being “mostly written by white people about white people like me, while the history of Black people — including the horrors of Tulsa — was too often left out.”
Hanks emphasizes that the truth about Tulsa, and the violence against Black Americans by white Americans, has typically been “systematically ignored, perhaps because it was regarded as too honest, too painful a lesson” for young white students.
Hanks goes on to write, “It seems white educators and school administrators (if they even knew of the Tulsa massacre, for some surely did not) omitted the volatile subject for the sake of the status quo, placing white feelings over Black experience — literally Black lives in this case.” He asks readers to consider how different one’s perspective might be if the Tulsa massacre were taught to students as early as the fifth grade. “Today, I find the omission tragic, an opportunity missed, a teachable moment squandered.”
He adds that, in addition to predominantly white schools omitting the Tulsa race massacre in their education programs, the entertainment industry also did not take on the subject in films or television shows until recently, in projects such as Watchmen and Lovecraft Country. He notes that historically based fiction entertainment “must portray the burden of racism in our nation for the sake of the art form’s claims to verisimilitude and authenticity.”
Considering whether schools today should teach students about Tulsa, Hanks simply says yes. Though he goes further and calls for “the battle to whitewash curriculums” to end. Hanks acknowledges that America’s history is “messy,” but knowing the truth makes people “wiser and stronger.”
Toward the end of Hanks’ essay, he writes that 1921 is “the truth, a portal to our shared, paradoxical history.”
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