The Fire This Time

Rilla Askew penetrates the decades of silence surrounding the Tulsa race riot of 1921 in her novel Fire in Beulah

"But I grew up there and never heard a whisper all my life. When I first began researching it, I went to the public library, and those days are gone from the newspaper archives in the Tulsa Public Library. You go through the microfiche and scroll through, and those days surrounding the riot are gone. Somebody wanted to keep it hidden."

Askew does not see the silence surrounding racial violence as particular to the Tulsa race riot, however. "It's completely symbolic of what we've done in our nation," she says. "It's the reason we cannot get beyond race -- because we have not dealt with race. We haven't dealt with our past, and we haven't dealt with the racial violence in our past.

"We haven't dealt with lynchings. I didn't know that much about lynchings. I knew there was an era when they used to happen. I had a film understanding of lynching. I had no idea how horrifyingly sadistic and cruel they became, especially in the '20s and '30s, after World War I. So many burned alive and flayed and dismembered -- horrifying things. I didn't know about that. We don't know unless we go back and look at it."

"It just settled in me like complete, absolute knowledge that this was going to be the subject of a novel," says native Oklahoman Rilla Askew.
Marion Ettlinger
"It just settled in me like complete, absolute knowledge that this was going to be the subject of a novel," says native Oklahoman Rilla Askew.

And in looking back, what is seen is an America of greater complexity than the traditional historical whitewash: a nation that denies its shame, its betrayals and its longing. Askew agrees with James Baldwin's equation: Blacks go to whites in search of power; whites go to blacks in search of love. "He knew us. Gosh, he knew us!" Askew exclaims.

"Slavery was as degrading for the slave owners as it was for the slaves," she says. "We know that, but this unexamined history, and the unexamined nature of race, continues to hurt white America as much as it hurts black America. We're not ready to acknowledge that, either. We don't know how. We don't even know how it's hurting."

Askew, who left Oklahoma at 18 for New York City, dead certain she wouldn't look back, is now in her 50s and dividing her time between the Catskills and the San Bois range near the home she escaped. She laughs at her adolescent annoyance toward the home to which she now feels so bound. For one so drawn to telling an unflinching, yet redemptive, story of America, there may be no better setting than Oklahoma. "It's been said that anything that could possibly happen in America happened in Oklahoma in about 15 minutes," she says. "It's a fascinating history. It's black, white and red. The black-white-red story is the American story and has been until this point. There's going to be a new story in the future, but we ain't finished with that old one yet."

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