What Lies Beneath
May 24, 2021

Writing about race is our literary third rail. Most white fiction writers these days won’t touch it; we’re afraid to appropriate, offend, be wrong, be too damn white. We know there’s been too much presumption and theft on the one hand, too much silence on the other, and the voices that need to be heard at this moment are the ones who’ve suffered this country’s long nightmare of racism and violence. I’ve written about race in the past, don’t know if I will in the future, but the question still haunts me: in the act of imagining oneself into the life of another that fiction writing entails, can white writers be part of our racial reckoning?

I began writing about white anti-Black racism thirty years ago in a novel about the Tulsa Race Massacre. I’d grown up near Tulsa and never heard about the 1921 massacre when thousands of armed whites swarmed into Tulsa’s prosperous Black district, looting, burning, destroying Black-owned homes and businesses, causing untold Black injuries and deaths. In the months following the assault, there was collective white silence, and within a few years, the history of the massacre was expunged from white history. When I finally learned about it in young adulthood — not through white historical or literary sources but through reading a biography of Black novelist Richard Wright — I knew I wanted to write the story not as history, but in fiction, the form that is still, for me, the most compelling pathway to truth.

The voices that need to be heard at this moment are the ones who’ve suffered this country’s long nightmare of racism and violence.

When I began my research in 1990, I held two intentions before me: to be as historically accurate as possible and not to whitewash the white characters in order to make them more palatable to white readers. No white saviors, I promised myself. I had to learn how to uncover facts that had been so successfully buried for so many years. I had to immerse myself in the racist rhetoric of the day, trace the cultural climate that led to the massacre, deck the facts in flesh and bones and psyches of characters, and give those characters passions, objects, modes of travel, a conflict, a purpose, a narrative arc. That work took eleven years.

When the novel, Fire in Beulah, came out in 2001, I expected it to become part of the racial reckoning the country has so long needed — a narrow part, surely, no more than a book can contribute — but I did think that telling the truth about that hidden history would spark some kind of ownership among white readers, some kind of recognition, repudiation, remorse. What happened, in fact, was that the novel seemed to drop into a dark well. At bookstores and readings, I was met with a kind of blank, smiling politeness. I’d think to myself, well, that passage doesn’t give the real flavor, let me try another. At the next event, I would try a different bit. No passage seemed to help. I was naïve in those days about what fiction can do, and what white readers were ready to receive.

But six years later the book was chosen for Oklahoma’s statewide reading program. For a year, I traveled around visiting libraries to talk about the novel and its subject matter. The audiences were predominantly female, engaged, civic-minded supporters of their libraries and communities, middle-aged, as liberal in their thinking as small-town Oklahoma allows, and white. They were women who’d grown up, as I did, cocooned in the silence surrounding not only the 1921 massacre but all of America’s white-on-Black violence: riots, lynchings, burnings, assaults. Seated on folding chairs, sipping iced tea, eating cookies, they’d start out talking about the characters in the novel, why they do what they do, which characters they liked or didn’t like. The talk would turn to the events of the massacre itself. “I didn’t know,” the readers would always say. “No one ever told me. I never heard a word about it in school.”

I did think that telling the truth about that hidden history would spark some kind of ownership among white readers, some kind of recognition, repudiation, remorse. 

Then the conversation would shift, almost invariably, to how these same readers grew up inside their worlds of whiteness. Not that they ever called it that. Their worlds of whiteness were, to them, just America, just the towns and cities and neighborhoods they grew up in, and so they would say we, meaning all of us white people, and they, meaning Black people. The specifics were unique to the various places they were raised, and yet remarkably the same.

When I was a kid (they would say), we…

never saw a Black person.

still had segregated schools and water fountains.

never had any race trouble.

had a sign on the edge of town that told colored people not to be caught there after dark.

treated our Black maid so good; she was like a member of our family.

had a lynching a long time ago. It was a big deal when it happened, but no one talks about it now.

almost had a race riot in the 1980s, but the town cops and the sheriff stopped it.

loved our Black athletes, one football player was the most popular guy in school.

had a huge scandal when a Black football player started dating a white girl.

lynched/burned/ran a Negro family out of town back in the 1920s, and after that, we never had any Black people living here.

never saw a Black person except when we played other towns in football, baseball, basketball, track.

never saw a Black person except on TV.

never saw a Black person except in the news.

never saw a Black person…

Their words are testament to one of the starkest legacies of the Tulsa Race Massacre: how profoundly segregated Oklahoma has been. Often the women’s voices would drop to a whisper when they said Black, as if they were worried the word might be offensive. They weren’t sure of the correct term to use now. Some said African American, or, if they were from an older generation, they might use the word “colored.” They tried to be as correct as they knew how to be, given their experiences. Sometimes I’d hear defensiveness in a few of their voices, a clamped, reined-in resentment at being forced to think and talk and read about such things. Much more often what I heard was a helpless sadness, an almost wistful yearning. They wanted to reach across the divide, fix history, end racism in America, past and present. They didn’t know how.

They wanted to reach across the divide, fix history, end racism in America, past and present. They didn’t know how.

To be clear, this is how conversations went when all the members of the group were white. When even one Black person was present, the atmosphere changed. The white audience members would become diffident, uncertain, less willing to speak. They seemed to think they had no standing to talk about race, or they were afraid they might say the wrong thing. They didn’t want to talk in front of Black people about how racial conditions were when they were kids growing up, or how conditions are now. Zora Neale Hurston famously wrote, “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.” In these small gatherings of nice white people, I saw a reverse image of Hurston’s words: the people in the room knew they were white only because a Black person was there.


But the library event in Tulsa was different. It was held at the Rudisill Library in North Tulsa, in the heart of the area devastated by the white mobs in 1921. The audience was large, by library event standards, and one of the first truly racially mixed audiences I’d seen in Oklahoma at that time. As people filtered in, a kind of semiconscious self-segregation took place. Whites sat mainly on one side of the room, Blacks on the other. I read from the novel, as one does at such events, and then the Q&A portion of the evening began. The questions in Tulsa, their tone and framing, were different than what I’d heard elsewhere. This was a community trying to reckon with its past. I should say beginning to try.

From white audience members, I detected a bit of the awkwardness and uncertainty I’d come to recognize in mixed audiences, but not nearly so much as in other places. They’d come into a primarily Black space in North Tulsa. They were more willing to ask questions, and to listen, than white audiences I’d seen before. They spoke of their own heartsickness and regret. Many of the Black audience members were descendants of race massacre survivors. All were members of the community that had lived the legacy of that violence, and the public silence about it, for 86 years. While white audience members might murmur, I didn’t know, these Black audience members did know — not just the facts of the massacre but their own family stories, horrific tales of survival and injury and destruction and death, handed down in living memory.

One young man stood to ask how I thought I could write about it, what did I know about that assault, his grandfather had hidden beneath a car while the white rioters swarmed all around, he’d barely escaped with his life, what did I have to tell him about what that violence meant?

But that night lingers. It was the first time I recognized in a conscious way something that has grown more intentional over the years. 

I don’t remember what I answered. Something along the lines of I heard him, I understood his concerns, I’d tried to be as historically accurate as possible. I do remember the tension in the room. The white people shifting in their seats, pulling back, nervous, uncomfortable. A few Black members of the audience began to try to ease the situation. Some were friends of mine, but others I didn’t know. I remember one gentleman, an older man who obviously had stature in the community, telling the young man that he himself had read the book and it didn’t whitewash the event. This, surely, was what the young man expected: that a white writer would blunt the truth of white violence; that I would tell the story in the guiltless way white folks have been telling, and not telling, our history forever: one more instance of the white savior remaking the story, leaving Black voices, and Black witness, unheard.

That’s a long time ago now. I’ve spoken about the Tulsa Race Massacre many times, read from the novel in racially mixed audiences and predominantly Black audiences and white audiences, for sure. But that night lingers. It was the first time I recognized in a conscious way something that has grown more intentional over the years. Of course, I had nothing to tell that young Black man about racialized violence, nothing to tell any person of color who lives it every day. I have something to tell white folks.

In the beginning, it was the facts of the massacre itself, what the journalists and teachers and history books wouldn’t tell — but that censoring of history has changed. Because of the work of Black writers, artists, historians, legislators, and activists, people know what happened in Tulsa in 1921. It’s not just telling the story of what happened anymore.

Now, I think of writing racist history as something else, a kind of mirror. Or, no, it’s more like an X-ray: white images on a dark background showing our inner scaffolding, our bones. Writing about white racism from inside white characters’ heads is hard. Truthfully, I don’t know if I’m brave enough to go there again. But I think that I should. How else can I render what I know about the unnamed secrets white folks hold tight?

Not just our hidden histories but the secrets that lie beneath, the assumptions and presumptions we carry inside us, our unacknowledged ignorance and fear. I can describe it abstractly, as here, in the words of nonfiction. Or I can show it from inside the character’s skin.


When I visit with readers these days, the substance of the conversations has changed, but not the demographic. It’s still mostly middle-class white women who invite me to their book clubs to talk about Fire in Beulah. Because of the work of Black activists and journalists, we don’t talk about “I didn’t know” anymore. We know. Not just what happened in Tulsa a hundred years ago, but what is happening this hour on our city streets and dark parking lots and backroads: Black lives crushed, choked, shot, destroyed by white police and vigilante violence. They read with different eyes than white readers a few years ago. When they read about the white female character in the novel crying hysterically, falsely, that she’s been chased by Black men in Greenwood, they see not only the fictional character in 1920 but the very real white woman calling 911 on a Black birdwatcher in Central Park in 2020. They know that then is now, that something deep and fundamental at this country’s core is rotten. I’ve not yet heard them call it by its name, white supremacy, but I’ve seen them beginning to recognize that this force is not “out there” somewhere, but here, inside, this embedded history we carry within us, this silent, violent force that underpins everything, which we have for so long kept hidden from ourselves.


Photo by Nsey Benajah on Unsplash

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