When did you first learn about the Tulsa Race Massacre? Do you have any personal connections to the event?
Decades ago, my drive to educate myself led me to examine our nation’s history of lynching and tragedies such as the 1898 Wilmington Race Insurrection and the Red Summer of 1919. Although I have no ties to Tulsa, according to family lore, I had a cousin who was lynched–burned to death in his Bristol, Tennessee home–and another relative on the Eastern Shore of Maryland whose store was burned down because it competed with a nearby white-owned general store.
Was your process for researching and writing this book different from your previous books?
To research this book, I read the 2001 report of the Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921. I also relied on digital resources of the Greenwood Cultural Center, Tulsa library, Oklahoma and Tulsa historical societies, the Oklahoma Digital Prairie, the Tulsa World Newspaper, and the Smithsonian Magazine.
Editor Carol Hinz made note that you chose to start not with the tragedy, but with the community and Black excellence. Can you talk about that choice, and also the “once upon a time” opening that you mentioned in the panel discussion at SLJ Day of Dialog?
The greatest threat to white supremacy was, and still is, Black advancement. To tell the story, I took a forensic approach, reconstructing the crime scene to prove the motive and show the magnitude of the destruction, the loss. Black Wall Street was a remarkable achievement, yet for decades it was vanished history. I invoke and repeat the fairy-tale phrase, “once upon a time,” as a poetic device to set a familiar yet elegiac tone.
In your engaging chat with Nikki Grimes at SLJ Day of Dialog, you mentioned that you “mine the past.” Could you please share how you do that research?
As an author, I mine the past for family stories, fading traditions and forgotten struggles. My research process varies from book to book. Suffice it to say that I am often researching obscure subjects, so I have sometimes I have to dig deep. I rely on digital archives.
What did you think when you first saw Floyd Cooper’s illustrations? How did they compare to what you had envisioned while writing the manuscript?
Unspeakable is my second collaboration with Floyd. So, I knew what to expect: cinematic, sepia-tinged subtractive art. I knew Floyd is a Tulsa native, so after writing the first draft of Unspeakable, I asked him about collaborating. He immediately agreed. Because of his Tulsa roots, I knew he would bring passion to the project. He did not disappoint. These illustrations are among Floyd’s finest work. In terms of composition and execution, Unspeakable‘s cover is perfection.
What are your hopes attached to sending this book into the world? What do you want young readers to take away from this book?
So much African-American history has been twisted or omitted by white culture keepers. Because teachers can’t teach what they don’t know, the onus to set the record straight often falls on Black parents and the Black community. Books like Unspeakble serve as resources to heighten awareness and spark much-needed cross-cultural and cross-generational conversations.
Unspeakable holds a message for children and for the adults in their lives. Racism is not merely a way of thinking; it is a weapon that has no place in the hearts and minds of good people. Racism breeds hate, and hate breeds violence. The antidote is to raise anti-racist children. With conviction, we must vow: “Never again.”
Unspeakable will be published in February 2021, and is available for pre-order now.