UNSPEAKABLE: The Tulsa Race Massacre is another shining nominee for Cybils 2021. It was brought to us by Carole Boston Weatherford and the late Floyd Cooper, who need no introduction. The Tulsa Race Massacre, however… it seems the USA could use a reminder. This event isn’t discussed in any US History class I’m aware of.
At 37 pages, UNSPEAKABLE is structurally a picture book; likely due to the heavy subject matter and dense backmatter, it’s recommended for ages 8-12.
UNSPEAKABLE tells the story of the horrific race massacre in the Greenwood community in 1921 segregated Tulsa. There, the descendants of Black Indians and Exodusters (Black people fleeing violence/racism in the South) created “The Black Wall Street of America”.
Greenwood was the most affluent Black community in the United States until a minor verbal altercation two teenagers – one white and one Black – prompted white Tulsa to respond with middle-of-the-night violent attacks/arson/murder/looting that destroyed Greenwood.
The depiction is harsh, but historically accurate and age-appropriate.
Weatherford lays out what happened in straightforward terms, consumable for children:
Police and city officials had plotted with the white mob to destroy the nation’s wealthiest Black community. (p 32)
It’s a lesson that seems to be taking 100 years and counting to sink in.
Watercolor images of cute children on nearly every page, gently drives empathy into young readers who may not be learning inclusivity in their communities.
The book ends on a positive note about everyone’s responsibility to choose hope over hatred.
In the backmatter, illustrator and Tulsa native Floyd Cooper shares his grandfather’s story of surviving the Tulsa Race Massacre as a young man. Weatherford also shares her family’s painful history of racist attacks. Both are to be commended for their bravery in sharing their stories.
This book is about a racist massacre (followed by gaslighting, abuse and denial by the US government), started by a white teenage boy who gives clear Permit Patty/Cornerstore Caroline/etc vibes. While the US’s troubled racist history is an ongoing education you need to/should give your children, be prepared to have a discussion afterwards, particularly with a more sensitive child.
The backmatter includes links to discussion guides and other resources to help children navigate their feelings.
Format-wise, I strongly recommend the physical book as easier to consume visually (vs digital); as Cooper’s illustrations are the epitome of pictures telling a thousand words.
UNSPEAKABLE is joining my home library for sure.