Unspeakable: A Visit to Tulsa’s Black Wall Street

In April 2019, editorial director Carol Hinz and art director Danielle Carnito traveled to Oklahoma to gather information related to several books they were working on. One of them was Unspeakable: The Tulsa Race Massacre by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Floyd Cooper, which will release on February 2, 2021. We asked Carol and Danielle to share a little about how their trip shaped their work on this book.

A mural under a highway overpass in the Greenwood District.

Q: How far along were you with Unspeakable when you traveled to Tulsa?

CH: We acquired the book in January 2019, and I had planned to be finished editing by the time of our trip, but I wasn’t done! I had, however, read a number of books about the Tulsa Race Massacre (which was formerly known as the Tulsa Race Riot). Although Carole Boston Weatherford had already done extensive research of her own, I wanted to make sure I also had a solid understanding of the massacre, of the history of the Greenwood District, and of the history of Tulsa and the state of Oklahoma more generally.

After spending time in Tulsa, I was finally able to gather my thoughts and finish my edit.

DC: I knew the story, and Floyd Cooper was ready to illustrate, but hadn’t really started the illustration process yet since there were some details to work out in the manuscript first. Probably the best time in the process to visit & understand the importance of this book were about to make.

One of the plaques at John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park

Q: In what ways did visiting Tulsa shape your editing and art direction?

CH: For me, visiting John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park was key to thinking about how the narrative should end. I knew I wanted Carole Boston Weatherford to add to the book’s conclusion, but I wasn’t quite sure what to suggest in terms of a direction. How do you bring a book to a close in a way that offers hope while also recognizing lingering pain and trauma? The books I’d read had been published prior to completion of the park in October 2010, so I didn’t know it existed until we started planning our trip. Spending time in the park was so meaningful—the Tower of Reconciliation and the plaques around it present the history of African Americans in Oklahoma in a way that’s both clear and compelling.

It’s a lot to absorb, but it’s also well worth the time spent. I came to understand that much like Reconciliation Park is a memorial to the Tulsa Race Massacre, the book is also a memorial—to the victims as well as the survivors and to the stories that were hidden for so long.

DC: It’s not often we get to visit the sites of our books—but when the opportunity arises, I’m eager to go. Visiting the places keeps them top of mind when working on the book and gives insight into setting. While there I looked for any details that would give more of a correct sense of place to the visuals. Once example is knowing what kind of landscape or horizon the city has. I knew there wouldn’t be mountains on the horizon in Oklahoma, but would there be any hills? Would the ground be orange like other parts of the state? Lots of trees or no trees? Seeing the park in person also brought up the idea of including in the artwork somehow the postures in the bronze Hostility, Hope, and Humiliation statues. (See if you can find any of them when you look through the book.)

The Tower of Reconciliation with the bronze Hope statue in the background

Q: What was the most challenging part of working on Unspeakable?

CH: The reading I did before starting on the edit was tough, but I knew it was also essential for me to do so I could fully understand the history. As I read, I kept thinking it was impossible to make a book about the topic, despite the fact that I already had the manuscript in hand. That reading helped me come to Carole Boston Weatherford’s text with a tremendous appreciation for how she’d taken a topic that felt impossible and carefully shaped it into a poem that can be shared with readers of all ages.

DC: Learning the history and Tulsa’s attempt to erase it was hard. Figuring out how visuals could work in a book for young people about this topic was tricky. Finding the right words to say the artwork is beautiful without sounding cheerful about it was also tricky. Looking back, this went fairly well though. Really for me, the hardest part was entirely coincidental with current events: receiving the first piece of final art from Floyd—the cover piece with the Greenwood District in destruction and family fleeing—the same week that many businesses on a main commercial street in my city had been looted and burned during civil unrest after the death of George Floyd. Another entirely sobering reminder of how far we as a nation have NOT come in the 99 years since the Tulsa Race Massacre, and why we need to make books like this that tell hidden stories. The cover art is stunning and I was very glad to see it—the emotion that Floyd works so beautifully into his illustrations of people does justice to the story and made for an intense and memorable first viewing of the cover art.

I hope this book, Carole’s words, and Floyd’s art, will help readers everywhere along the path to better understanding and awareness of our country’s history.

One of three bronze sculptures at Reconciliation park. The other two sculptures represent hostility and humiliation, and all three are based on photos from the 1921 massacre.

For more about Unspeakable and illustrator Floyd Cooper’s family connection to the Tulsa Race Massacre, check out the cover reveal at The Brown Bookshelf here. And for a Q&A with Carole Boston Weatherford’s about the book, check out this blog post.

2 thoughts on “Unspeakable: A Visit to Tulsa’s Black Wall Street

  1. Charles Waters

    Thank you for sharing this process on the behind the scenes look at a book that will resonate for generations to come!

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