What does journalism owe the past? What truths must be uncovered from yesterday to tell the stories of today accurately and fairly?
This past week a new show named Watchmen created discussion around the lack of knowledge of White Americans about their histories and the history of racial violence. The show a superhero premise where they travel in time featured the notorious Tulsa Massacre in which three-hundred Black residents of Greenwich OK were murdered by a mob of White townsfolk. The area is known as “Black Wall Street” was never able to recover from the loss of life and property in 1921. After the show aired many White viewers took to the internet to research the event featured, shocked that this was never taught to them that an entire community was massacred and the murders went free, the bodies missing, and a people left the impossible task of both healing and fighting against the position of historical erasure.
As I opened Twitter this weekend to see this tragedy trending I was annoyed at the responses of disbelief, the coverage presenting this atrocity as new information–instead of the real history. After the massacre, local newspapers from the time called the event a race riot, a way to equate both sides as at fault for the violence–a tactic we see repeating itself today. And because news serves as the primary source for history, the story became one of equal aggression. It became lost. Oral history for Black Oklahomans.
Journalism is the pen history is written with– by the victors, the oppressors who then get to write the narrative. If we want to understand how we got here, at a time where the fascism of the last century is rising again and our climate is in crisis we must look back.
Read how reports on runaway slaves were written in the paper. Read the stories on the central park five. Because if we do not examine and critique the language of the past we are doomed to speak it again–to record this moment again under the rose-colored glasses of white supremacy.
If you are reading an editorial that begins with this is not who we are as a country, then you are reading a journalist in denial.
As storytellers we should report, we should be bold, and we should be a microphone for silenced people–so that in ninety years those who die today can be remembered tomorrow.
Write each story as if you are writing the final chapter of the American experiment, with as much urgency, as much attention to detail, write as if it is the only recording of an event we will have because it could be.