It’s long past time, but finally, yesterday President Joe Biden signed a bill, passed by both houses of Congress, establishing June 19th, or Juneteenth — which commemorates the end of slavery in the United States — as a US federal holiday. This is an important step, if only a small gesture, in the very necessary reckoning with its terrible past that America must embark upon, but there are still enormous obstacles in the way. The willful ignorance of too many white Americans continues to rear its ugly head, as in the current pearl-clutching over “critical race theory,” an academic framework for understanding where the US came from and how it operates today.
Still: baby steps.
Some of those baby steps involving learning about the history of Black America that has been deliberately erased. The horror of so-called Black Wall Street is starting to bubble up into the American consciousness again, perhaps in large part thanks to its centering in the recent HBO series Watchmen. It is that incident that documentarian Dawn Porter (John Lewis: Good Trouble) delves into with her straightforward yet shrewdly incisive Rise Again: Tulsa and the Red Summer, debuting in the US on NatGeo tonight, and simultaneously on Hulu.
In the spring of 1921, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, over the course of several days, mobs of white people, with official sanction, murdered perhaps as many as hundreds of their fellow citizens, simply because they were Black, and destroyed a prosperous Black neighborhood, burnt this “Wall Street” to the ground. No one knows for sure how many people were killed, because there was no official count, but rumors of mass graves have endured, as have eyewitness accounts by survivors. Last summer, Tulsa began to go in search of those mass graves…
Badass Washington Post reporter and Oklahoma native DeNeen Brown, who has made it her thing to resurface Black history that has been suppressed, leads us through a cutting history of America to explain what led to Tulsa. This massacre did not happen in a vacuum. With a journalistic dispassion that belies the nightmare narrative she recounts, Brown — along with other historians — sets the terrible stage. In the post–Civil War era, a white backlash was brewing against the enormous strides Black Americans made during Reconstruction and beyond, as they used their freedom to, almost immediately, begin to amass wealth and take seats at the political and cultural tables. Black affluence and success was intolerable to many white Americans: it came with “economic envy,” says Brown, and held up “the fallacy of white supremacy.” The summer of 1919 saw massacres of Black people in 26 American cities — even if you’ve heard of Tulsa and Black Wall Street, you probably haven’t heard of this “Red Summer” — and here we meet some of the people working to bring those stories to wider acknowledgement, particularly that of Elaine, Arkansas, where another slaughter of innocent Black Americans occurred in September 1919.
Look: None of this is past. The fact that racist America cannot abide seeing Black people succeeding is how we ended up with Donald Trump as the next President after Barack Obama. Because we’ve buried our history — literally buried, with those mass graves in Tulsa (spoiler: they turn out to be more than just rumor) — we are stuck in a hamster wheel of constantly repeating it. It is nothing but a childish act of denial to say that we don’t need to face the past, even if it’s awful and ugly. Especially if it’s awful and ugly. We need to see where we’ve been in order to chart a better path where we’re going.
a moment of inconsequence, and huge consequences
Rise Again utilizes a big-sweep look at American history to examine one significant event in understanding race and racism in America. A Crime on the Bayou goes the other way: it takes one moment that should have been inconsequential and uses it to illustrate just how abominably Black Americans have been and continue to be treated in their own country.
It stared in 1966, when 19-year-old Gary Duncan — a fisherman and new father — touched a white high-school boy on his elbow, which set off a chain of harassing prosecutions by Plaquemines Parish, the rural New Orleans county where Duncan lived, that went all the way up to the United States Supreme Court.
Documentarian Nancy Buirski (The Rape of Recy Taylor) deploys a delicate cinematic elegance to tell Duncan’s tale… much of it in his own words, and the words of Richard Sobol, the white Jewish lawyer, barely older than Duncan himself, who left a cushy position at a big firm in Washington DC to take on Duncan’s case. The two men became lifelong friends, and speak in recent footage of each other with deep affection, and of their racism-bashing work with pride.
As well they might, because the backdrop against which their story of necessary allyship is set? Buirski has found a stunning array of vintage footage to paint a portrait of Plaquemines Parish in the early to mid 20th century as a place of “totalitarian” segregation ruled harshly by Leander Perez, a “dictator” of a political boss, and a loudly, proudly racist one, too boot. There is joy, too, in the life for Black people as Buirski draws it here, as there always is, even in the worst of situations… but there is also the reality, made plain in this quietly devastating film, that Plaquemines Parish was but a microcosm of America.
The crime that Duncan was accused of? At first it was something about endangering a minor, and when that didn’t stick, the authorities tried calling it assault. It’s the same bullshit that was happening everywhere then — any pretext to harass Black people, remind them of their diminished standing in the world — and continues all but unchecked today. Was the harassment ramping up in the 1960s? Yes, because a whole lot of white people did not like seeing their schools getting racially integrated, as was the case in Plaquemines Parish. (Duncan’s real “crime” was intervening to stop a fight that was brewing between some white boys, including the one he touched, and his own younger cousins, who were Black, outside their newly integrated school.) Rise Again shows us how Black progress in America inevitably engenders white animosity, and how that led to the Red Summer and 1921, and we continue to see that still happening now, today.
Dramatic readings of court transcripts by actors as well as actual recordings of proceedings at the Supreme Court back then show us, in Duncan, a man unwilling to cede his rights as an American, even if too many other Americans didn’t want to grant them. I’ll leave you to discover how and why Duncan’s case eventually got to the highest court in the land, but it’s no spoiler to reveal that it’s something that ending up securing the rights of all Americans, of every color.
A Crime on the Bayou is such an important slice of Black American history, not only for its startling reminder of just how brutal the nation’s treatment of its own citizens has been, but also for how we see, once again, that Black American history is American history, full stop. The sooner our culture acknowledges that, the sooner we can begin to embrace an appreciation of it in ways we have shamefully failed to do as yet.