Telling our stories, remembering our history

I was in elementary school when I learned about the Holocaust. Same with Rosa Parks. I was an adult when I learned about the “Black Wall Street” riot in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

It turns out that last one was sort of by design.

Scott Ellsworth, a native Tulsan, published the first comprehensive history of the riot in 1982, a full 61 years after the neighborhood of Greenwood was destroyed. People simply didn’t want to talk about it. There was a concerted effort by both black and white communities in the wake of what amounted to a full-on overnight race war — large-scale weapons and private airplanes and fires and mass incarceration and rumors of floating bodies downriver to hide the casualty count — from deflecting questions to outright lying about it, the history was either whispered, or, more often, silenced.

Ellsworth wrote a follow-up in 2021, called The Ground Breaking: An American City and Its Search for Justice. It’s very much a memoir of how the first history came about, and about his work with a commission to find bodies of some of the victims in unmarked graves.

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The message surrounding the Holocaust for Jews as we grow up is “never forget.” You tell the stories so that future generations know it happened. They watch for the warning signs, and hopefully avoid it, because they’ve heard the stories and have context for them.

That’s vastly different from what happened with Greenwood. As many as several hundred lives were lost. For sure over a thousand people lost homes and/or businesses. That would be a major event even today. To a free black community in Oklahoma in the 1920s, it was downright devastating. It’s not like there was much of a sense of social justice or equity, even if a lot of what we see today winds up being lip service. I’m sure insurance payments weren’t particularly forthcoming.

What’s happening now, though? Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, TikTok: these are very-short story platforms. We use them to tell tiny snippets of our stories. Maybe someone, probably at a legacy media company, takes some time to curate a variety of angles and show something of a more complete story, but we seem to have fewer and fewer people telling the whole story from beginning to end, if it’s not their story, specifically. That’s not to say there are none, but there are fewer than there used to be.

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We think of journalists and reporters as synonymous, but are they? What do you think about when you think about journaling? Of reporting? Of writing in a journal, of writing a report? Both can be important, but they seem to be different. Robert Woodward is a reporter. He wrote about the Pentagon Papers and the break-in at the Watergate Hotel and some of what was going on in the Trump White House. Hunter Thompson was a journalist. He wrote about riding on a campaign bus and going to see a motorcycle race and the Kentucky Derby and joining the Hells Angels on a trip.

Does the difference make sense? Both important, both interesting, but different.

Lots of people are journalists. We write blogs, or Morning Pages or we open a blank book and start with “Dear Diary.” Few people are reporters, recording history dispassionately and attempting to interpolate the data to make predictions. Scott Adams and Nate Silver are examples, even if they don’t count themselves that way.

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There’s also an insidious movement afoot to rid ourselves of offensive language without considering the value of the context. I’m not talking about profanity specifically, or a comedy bit like George Carlin’s 7 words you can’t say on TV. Mark Twain used distasteful words for black people and for indigenous people. That doesn’t mean we should take Twain out of the libraries. His work was, and still is, important. We should discuss the important parts of the work, including the negative. “Hey, we don’t say these words anymore. Here’s why.”

That’s an important discussion. Come to think of it, Carlin’s bit is an important discussion, too. He’s one of the Americans who went to jail to test our First Amendment right to freedom of speech.

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Reporter or journalist, storyteller, frequent Facebook poster, neighborhood gossip. These are the people who carry our stories in a variety of different ways, and a story told is a story remembered, whether by generational recall or via digital (re)discovery. When we don’t tell our stories, we forget not only events, but lessons. When lessons aren’t passed on, we can lose great things. We lost the technology for making concrete for over 1,000 years. We’ve lost languages, religions and architectural plans. They weren’t passed down.

Before you keep it all in, consider what future generations might wish to know. Don’t assume someone else will share that knowledge.

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