by Ashley Dickson-Ellison (@teachingtheapocalypse)
Randi Pink's Angel of Greenwood was my first full book of 2021, and what a great way to start the year! I was thrilled to see this book, and as soon as I saw that it was historical fiction and covered the Greenwood Massacre that took place in Tulsa, OK, in 1921, I knew I wanted to read it. That event is something I personally knew very little about until well into my adult life, and I was excited to see this important and tragic US event being addressed in a young adult book. I'm so thankful to #partner NetGalley for access to the e-galley of this one in exchanged for an honest review! The book comes out on January 12th.
Right away, I loved the main characters, Angel and Isaiah. In many ways, this is a classic story of coming of age and of young love. The story is much more focused on Angel's and Isaiah's lives as teens in the booming Black metropolis of Greenwood than it is on the massacre itself, which doesn't come about until the end of the book—but there is an omnipresent sense of dread for the reader as the chapters count down to the event itself and as the community members sense a storm coming.
Angel, born to help others, is loved and admired in her community. She is always ready to lighten the burden of everyone around her, and she has a strong sense of purpose. Isaiah, on the other hand, lost his father in WWI and has spent much of his life following in the shadow of the town bully, Muggy Little, Jr. Although he has a side that people don't see, one that loves reading books and writing poetry, the perception of him is not a favorable one. However, when Angel's and Isaiah's paths collide, Isaiah finally finds the courage and desire to show his inner self to the world, and he gradually finds his way toward becoming a better person.
Another aspect of the novel I absolutely loved was the exploration of Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois, both as paragons and as people. Through conversations between Isaiah (a follower of Du Bois), Angel (a Washington follower), and their amazing teacher Ms. Ferris, they discuss the ideals of both thinkers and their impact on the time. Pink resists the temptation to simplify the views of either man, and through the characters' adamant adoration of each one respectively, she explores the problems of blind loyalty and the important consideration of nuance.
As the burning of Greenwood happens, Isaiah finds himself thinking of Du Bois in a moment of despair. In response to the cries of his neighbors, "Not here. Not here. Not here," he considers his own perspective:
"Of course here. If not Greenwood, where? It's textbook. Stamp out the most prosperous among us, and the rest lose hope. Eliminate the talented tenth, and there you had it, eternal servitude. Did these people not read Du Bois?
As the events of the massacre unfurl, Isaiah and Angel each find the strength to be pillars in their community. Despite the horrifying events that occur, the love that community members have for each other helps them find a way forward after the atrocity. Although Pink addresses the massacre directly without dismissing its impact or minimizing its horror, she leaves readers with hope for the future of the Black people in the community as they rebuild their lives.
At the end of the novel, Randi Pink includes a section about the facts of the attack (as well as her acknowledgements, which are well worth reading!). She states that after a white woman (Sarah Page) screamed in an elevator while with a Black teenager (Dick Rowland), tensions between the white and Black communities mounted over several days, resulting in the burning of Greenwood:
In the early morning hours of June 1, 1921, idyllic, prosperous, exceptional Greenwood was looted and burned by white rioters. In the wake of twenty-four hours, thirty-five city blocks were charred, over eight hundred people were treated for injuries, and historians have estimated around three hundred lives were lost.
She goes on to explain that this event went largely unknown and unrecorded until 2001, when a commission in Tulsa reviewed the details of the event, finally and gradually shedding some light on the atrocity that occurred.
This book prompted me to read more about the Greenwood Tulsa massacre. For more information about the event, here are a few places to look. (I did not thoroughly research this, but these were articles I found illuminating.)
From Tulsa Historical Society and Museum: "1921 Tulsa Race Massacre"
From NY Times: "What to Know about the Tulsa Greenwood Massacre"
On a personal note, I finished this book in 2021 on the day that domestic terrorists stormed the Capitol. While that action did not result in the devastating loss of life and property that the atrocity did in Greenwood, the attitudes that brought about that terrible massacre in 1921 are still, 100 years later, present in American society.
May books like this one shed more light on the shadowed parts of our past so that our future as Americans can be bright for all of us.
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