American History has long been a favorite school subject of mine, but it is heartbreaking sometimes to remember a history laced with such violent upheaval as ours. I do not remember learning about the Civil Rights Movement, for example, until I was in fourth or fifth grade, whether because we never got to it, or because the subject matter was too violent.
Either way, in all the years spent studying the ups and downs of American history, I do not remember learning about what is considered one of the worst hate crimes ever committed on American soil: the Greenwood race riot massacre in Tulsa, Oklahoma in spring 1921.
Such a fact is baffling to me. I mean, sure we got the token facts about the Civil Rights Movement and the institution of slavery, but nothing about Greenwood? A community that incarnated every racist white man’s greatest fear of the black man rising to prosperity and perhaps outmatching him? A community that bore the wrath of the entitled racist white man and left thousands without homes and hundreds without their lives?
Well, I suppose that is where Randi Pink’s Angel of Greenwood does justice to such a horrifying event.
Isaiah Wilson and Angel Hill are high school students living in the prosperous black community of Greenwood in Tulsa. Isiah is a fervent follower of W.E.B. DuBois, and preaches his passions whenever he gets a chance. Angel follows Booker T. Washington’s more gentle pushes towards peace, preferring to keep her passions quiet while she serves her community. It isn’t until Isiah and Angel take a job delivering books to the poorer Greenwood residents that they begin to understand each other’s philosophies. But when a violent race riot breaks, their courage and friendship are put to the test while their idyllic community begins to burn.
The history nerd in me really enjoyed this book. It brought back names that I have not read perhaps since college, such as W.E.D. DuBois and Booker T. Washington, and I liked remembering their philosophies and their names.
Maybe this is a belittling comparison, but this book reminds me a little of Titanic, where you watch a great historical tragedy come to life through a romance between two different people. Except, instead of a third-class man and a first-class woman, you have a revolutionary DuBois-following boy falling in love with a quiet Washington-following girl. Getting to know these characters helps pull you into the tragedy, making it seem more real and horrific.
I liked Isiah and Angel as individuals. While outspoken, passionately political Isiah is probably not someone I would be friends with in real life, I see where his pain and passion arises. He lost his father to World War I and he is afraid of being alone, latching onto the neighborhood bully to fit in better. He is quite stubborn, quick to speeches, and tries fervently to sway everyone over to DuBois. In all, a well-intended person, but a lot to take at once.
Angel, on the other hand, is much quieter and more reserved. She prefers to help out the neighborhood and looks after her dying father at home. But she has a quiet, gentle beauty that attracts both Isiah and the audience to her. Admittedly, though, Angel almost came across as too perfect for a time. It wasn’t until she started to frustratedly question why she felt the need to be perfect that she grew on me.
Their romance is not perfect, but it works well enough that you see why they are attracted to each other.
One small complaint I have is that there is surprisingly little to ground this story in 1921. You remember that fact well enough, what with DuBois and Washington being relevant names and World War I getting mentioned once or twice. But maybe if there were references to music and celebrities and other things to remind us this is the 20s it would feel more of the time.
As for the race riot itself, well, you can probably imagine some of the horrors for yourself: houses getting burned, bombs dropping from planes, people rushing outside screaming for help, loved ones getting left behind…
It’s this scene alone that makes me feel ashamed that I did not learn about this atrocity in school. Or, at least, did not learn about it in a capacity that I could openly discuss it with other people.
So I guess I will leave this review with the simple suggestion that you all look up Greenwood. Look at the pictures of the town before and after it burned, and find out the names of those who passed. Say a prayer for them if you’re into that kind of thing. I could also tell you all to remember to treat your fellow man with love and compassion, but that would be preachy and you all should already know that. Nonetheless, a gentle reminder now and then to just be kind never hurts.