Imagining Tulsa

How must they have felt I ask. I write historical fiction primarily from an urge to re-tell the past, to rehabilitate the skimpy, fractured, fragmented and often hostile narratives of the people of The Americas, the so-called New World. I believe that much of the national narrative of The United States is based on limited facts, racially motivated lies and the visceral belief that all people are NOT created equally. Sometimes it feels like I have a score to settle, an injury to repair. I think I must be a caretaker of imagination so that our race of people are not unimagined and thus disappear from the earth. I feel I need to be like Scheherazade. I think I survive daily because I’m able to continue to tell stories of myself, of ourselves. 

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Hundreds of bodies are thought to have been shoved into mass graves, dumped in the Arkansas River or loaded onto trains, victims of The Tulsa Race Massacre of May – June, 1921. 

As recently as February, 2020, The city of Tulsa announced plans to conduct a limited excavation of the site of a possible mass grave containing bodies of African Americans.

Pearl Miller, my maternal grandmother always spoke of Tulsa, Oklahoma with delight, in glowing terms. She’d been there as a child, part of a migration of African Americans leaving the south. Throughout her life she kept a child’s awe and admiration for it. She didn’t mention the massacre of 1921 which for most of the twentieth century has been referred to as the Tulsa Race Riot. 

A massacre is defined as an indiscriminate and brutal slaughter of people. A riot is a violent disturbance of the peace by a crowd.

I believe the events of June, 1921 would best be defined as a massacre. 

May 31, 1921

“During the night and day of the riot, deputized whites killed more than 300 African Americans. They looted and burned to the ground 40 square blocks of 1,265 African American homes, including hospitals, schools, and churches, and destroyed 150 businesses. White deputies and members of the National Guard arrested and detained 6,000 black Tulsans who were released only upon being vouched for by a white employer or other white citizen. Nine thousand African Americans were left homeless and lived in tents well into the winter of 1921.”

From “Burning Tulsa: The Legacy of Black Dispossession,” Linda Christensen

More on The Legacy of Black Dispossession

 Voices of those who survived

I could see planes circling in mid-air. They grew in number and hummed, darted and dipped low. I could hear something like hail falling upon the top of my office building. Down East Archer, I saw the old Mid-Way hotel on fire, burning from its top, and then another and another and another building began to burn from their top,” wrote Buck Colbert Franklin (1879-1960). 

The Oklahoma lawyer, father of famed African-American historian John Hope Franklin(1915-2009), described the attack by hundreds of whites on the thriving black neighborhood known as Greenwood in the booming oil town. “Lurid flames roared and belched and licked their forked tongues into the air. Smoke ascended the sky in thick, black volumes and amid it all, the planes—now a dozen or more in number—still hummed and darted here and there with the agility of natural birds of the air.”

Franklin writes that he left his law office, locked the door, and descended to the foot of the steps. continue at Smithsonian Magazine May 2016

Pearl Miller Higgins

Pearl Miller Higgins

My grandmother didn’t share any specific stories. She just spoke of the town admiringly. I reach back and scratch around in my memory and I have no recollection that she spoke of the massacre or of any trouble. But we always had the sense that there had been, that there could be, that there was racial trouble.

Even if nothing dire or transformational happens in a place, it changes over time. I learned this the first time I’d gone away from my hometown, Washington, D.C., and returned to find it not the same – block after block was not the same. At first I took it personally. The town had refused to remain like the photo in my brain, the snapshot I’d carried away vowing always to remember it just so. One aspect of the imaginative work I like to do is archival. I preserve a snapshot of words about the days based on first-hand reports if I can find them and pictures I build from interior interrogation. What must they have been thinking, smelling, feeling?  So  for the story surrounding the events following the Tulsa Massacre of 1921, I weave the known experience of my grandmother with what my text needs. The two are never the same. I don’t write auto fiction or family memoir. 

Over the years, I’ve maintained an interest in the events of this little-known racial genocide. As we approach the one hundredth anniversary of the massacre, I’m imagining those events and juxtaposing fictional accounts with the so-called official historical record. How do I plumb my own feelings of connection to the events to mine them for my story and my characters?

And now, Trump has callously decided to launch his reelection campaign in Tulsa on Juneteenth. He is making his hostility to the lives and feelings of Black People very plain.

I’ve reflected on the imaginary Tulsa, Oklahoma of my debut novel,  River, Cross My Heart. I realize that I wanted to invest my depiction of the town in the same ways that my grandmother did. It was a place of pride, of childlike wonder. I wanted to attach to that feeling of magic and security in a place that had a large, successful African-American population. This is the image that stayed in my grandmother’s mind and is the depiction that has passed to me. I developed the character of Pearl – which is my maternal grandmother’s name – as a vessel to explore the feelings my grandmother must have experienced in the Black incorporated towns in Oklahoma. 

Breena Clarke reads an excerpt of River, Cross My Heart that describes Tulsa

Experience the new audiobook version with narration by Karen Chilton, produced by Recorded Books.

Explore Breena Clarke’s books at http://www.BreenaClarke.com

Some source books on Tulsa massacre of 1921:

Oklahoma Commission to study the Tulsa Race Riot Report

Black History in Oklahoma-a resource book, published by Oklahoma City Public Schools

Black Wall Street by Hannibal Johnson

Death in a Promised Land:The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921, by Scott Ellsworth

The Burning: Massacre, Destruction, and the TulsaRace Riot of 1921 by Tim Madigan,

Reconstructing the Dreamland by Alfred Brophy, Oxford University Press

Self-Determination

Habari Gani?  Kujichagulia (self-determination) to be responsible for the community and to speak for oneself.

Reader on the shelf

Self-determination is, like food, water, and shelter, a human right. Tragically, many of our most vulnerable young people, especially young girls are unable to determine the course of their lives because they are subjected to sexual exploitation by gangs of predators who traffic them, i.e. sell them to others as sexual slaves.  The problem is thought to be particularly acute at this time of year as the Super Bowl approaches, but statistics on trafficking do not support a jump in activities. Human trafficking is a serious, year-round industry. January is Human Trafficking Awareness Month, which is why the issue is getting more attention now than at other times of the year. And, with the Super Bowl drawing large crowds to the host city, outreach groups and activists say they see an opportunity for public awareness initiatives.

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Cyntoia Brown-Long

Cyntoia Brown-Long, author, speaker and advocate for criminal-justice reform and victims of trafficking, writes in The Washington Post about her own experiences of trafficking and about the case of a young woman charged in the murder of the man who held her captive and sold her to other men for sex.

I was jailed for my trafficker’s death.

Brown-Long speaks about the justice system’s blindness to the peculiar, particular horror of sexual slavery. She speaks about the case of teen, Chrystal Kizer, who faces life in prison for killing her enslaver.

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Chrystul Kizer shot and killed the pedophile who abused and imprisoned her and is charged with his murder

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Let’s celebrate Kwanzaa by being determined to recognize the needs of our communities and by being willing to stand for justice and dignity and against racism and sexual exploitation.  For more information about Kwanzaa, go toWhat is Kwanzaa

more information about Breena Clarke’s books at www.BreenaClarke.com

River, Cross My Heart, an Oprah book club selection and a classic of African American fiction is now available for your e-reader.

“The acclaimed bestseller–a selection of Oprah’s Book Club–that brings vividly to life the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, DC, circa 1925, a community reeling from a young girl’s tragic death.”  Amazon.com

River, Cross My Heart, kindle edition

 

 

Kwanzaa 2019

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Kwanzaa greeting: Habari Gani?

Today’s response: UMOJA, Unity.

I enjoy the opportunity to celebrate Kwanzaa, a harvest festival created in 1966 by Dr. Maulauna Ron Karenga to acknowledge African culture in the Americas, not as an angry alternative to Christmas, but as an opportunity to reflect before the incoming New Year. The frenzy of Christmas commerce has made celebrating that holiday a very noisy, frenetic tug of emotions about being there and getting there and wishing to be or get or re-get. If you’re ready to sweep up the wrapping paper and bring out the kinara, use these seven days of Kwanzaa as days for self-reflection and community.

Celebrate Kwanzaa 2019 –  December 26 – January 1

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There are seven principles of Kwanzaa called Nguzo Saba and each day is dedicated to one of these principles:

Umoja (unity) to maintain unity in the family and community

Kujichagulia (self-determination) to…

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Angels Make Their Hope Here

Angels Make Their Hope Here

“A tender historical novel” (Oprah Magazine)

 On Sunday 10/27/19 for ONE DAY ONLY Amazon will be promoting ANGELS MAKE THEIR HOPE HERE in a “Historical Fiction” GoldBox. The ebook edition of the novel will be available all that day at a special low price.

Link here to purchase as part of this special promotion:

AMAZON

B&N

KOBO

 ANGELS MAKE THEIR HOPE HERE is set in an imagined community in a mountainous area roughly north and west of Paterson, New Jersey in the 19th century. Russell’s Knob is a hidden, secretive place settled by people who might be described today as bi-racial or tri-racial. The inhabitants describe themselves as runaways and stay-aways. They are people who reject the limiting definitions of racial identity and character of 19th century, mid-Atlantic, North America and live outside of the “white” towns. They are spoken of derisively as “amalgamators” and “race mixers” though their true history is as complex as is the history of settlement in the region.

Dossie Smoot

Mrs. Dossie Smoot

Dossie, a young girl on the cusp of puberty is conducted on the Underground Railroad from an island plantation in southern Maryland in hopes of finding freedom with the help of the bold, committed individuals who lead escapees through the region toward the free states and the Canada border. Duncan Smoot, one of Russell’s Knob’s bold, charismatic, entrepreneurial citizens, a member of a distinguished founding family, is a conductor on the Underground Railroad. It falls to him to rescue the young wayfarer when another conductor is arrested and tortured. He brings Dossie to Russell’s Knob—to his home—and she comes to believe that she has reached the promised land, a heaven.

READ MORE

With the same storytelling brio that distinguished the acclaimed novels River, Cross My Heart and Stand the Storm, Breena Clarke weaves the richly dramatic story of one woman’s triumph in the crucible of history in Angels Make Their Hope Here.

Breena Professional Photo    Angels on shelf

Celebrate the 20th anniversary of the publication of Breena Clarke’s debut novel, River, Cross My Heart with a new eBook Edition

visit Breena Clarke‘s author website at www.BreenaClarke.com. 

 

River, Cross My Heart Celebrates 20 years

River, Cross My Heart, the Oprah Book Club selection and debut novel by Breena Clarke celebrates twenty years since its publication. It’s now available in River, Cross My Heart Kindle edition.

River, Cross My Heart

“A genuine masterpiece … full of grace and beauty and profound insights … RIVER, CROSS MY HEART bears traces of Eudora Welty’s charm and Toni Morrison’s passion.” — The Baltimore Sun

Five-year-old Clara Bynum is dead, drowned in the Potomac River in the shadow of a seemingly haunted rock outcropping known locally as the Three Sisters. River, Cross My Heart weighs the effect of Clara’s absence on the people she has left behind: her parents, Alice and Willie Bynum, torn between the old world of their rural North Carolina home and the new world of the city, to which they have moved in search of a better life for themselves and their children; the friends and relatives of the Bynum family in the Georgetown neighborhood they now call home; and, most especially, Clara’s sister, ten-year-old Johnnie Mae, who must come to terms with the powerful and confused emotions stirred by her sister’s death as she struggles to decide what kind of woman she will become.

Legends abound that the Potomac River is a widowmaker, a childtaker, and a woman-swallower. According to the most famous tale, the river has already swallowed three sisters–three Catholic nuns. Yet it did not swallow them, only drowned them and belched them back up in the form of three small rock islands. They lie halfway between one shore and the other, each with a wimple made of seabirds’ wings.

The Three Sisters is a landmark. When you say the Three Sisters, people know you’re going to tell about something that happened on the river to cause grief. And it isn’t really clear whether it’s the boulders or the river at that spot that causes the grief. Nobody in his right mind goes swimming near the Three Sisters. The river has hands for sure at this spot. Maybe even the three nuns themselves, beneath the water’s surface, are grabbing ankles to pull down some company.

–From River, Cross My Heart

Oprah and Breena in 1999

Being chosen for the Oprah Book Club and appearing on the Oprah show in November 1999 was a delight. The book club continues to bring “River, Cross My Heart.” to new readers. For the complete list of all of the Oprah Book Club selections, go to  BookRiot 

 

I’ll be reflecting on my work and celebrating River, Cross My Heart’s 20th anniversary at

Crossing Thresholds: 42nd Annual ODU Literary Festival, October 6-10

For more information, go to

Old Dominion University Lit Fest.

 

My Neighbor

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By Breena Clarke

Every morning he walked by my house as I came out with my appealing and peaceable dog. Every morning he pushed his toddler past us. He never looked at me. I was open-faced, accessible, tried to catch his eye. He looked away. I was pissed. I began to shout, “Good morning.” He could not avoid responding. He did try. Next time I shouted, “Good morning,” he mumbled a pleasantry. He looked for a second. Generally, he tried to avoid me. Later with more children and a dog, he caught me unawares coming out of my house. He shouted, “Good morning.”

           
Breena Clarke is the author of three novels, Angels Make Their Hope Here,River, Cross My Heart, an October 1999 Oprah Book Club selection, and Stand The Storm. She is a founder and co-organizer of the Hobart Book Village Festival of Women Writers and…

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How Must They Have Felt?

How must they have felt I ask. I write historical fiction primarily from an urge to re-tell the past, rehabilitate the skimpy, fractured, fragmented narratives of the people of The Americas, the so-called New World. I believe that much of the national narrative of The United States is based on limited facts, racially motivated lies and the visceral belief that all people are NOT created equally. .Sometimes it feels like I have a score to settle, an injury to repair. I think I must be a caretaker of imagination so that our race of people are not unimagined and thus disappear from the earth. I feel I need to be  like Scheherazade. I think I survive daily because I’m able to continue to tell stories of myself, of ourselves. 

 – Breena Clarke

Angels Make Their Hope Here         River, Cross My Heart           Stand The Storm

READ excerpts of Breena Clarke’s Novels

Stand The Storm

Angels Make Their Hope Here

River, Cross My Heart

What techniques can the fiction writer employ to create voices of the past?

They Must Have Felt is an idea that I use I my writing. I try to find a way to express what my historical characters felt and how they acted and reacted in their day to day lives. This is often a huge job because little is known about the individuals I’m most interested in. I have written about the mid-nineteenth century struggle to end chattel slavery in this country in two novels, STAND THE STORM and ANGELS MAKE THEIR HOPE HERE. The many diaries of slave owners, traders and ordinary white people of the era form the basis of much available research of this period. The very important work of imagination has to fill in the gaps. A novelist must know what thoughts and feelings all of their characters have. The mind of the character is precisely where a fiction writer wants to be. And this is precisely why we are so sketchy about the lives of African peoples in this era.  Much of historical research does not include their voices.

Thinking about the 19th century, the period in which the enslavement of African people was legal in this country is a hard moment to inhabit.

Dossie Smoot

I begin by posing the questions. How did they feel?  How did they react? I nourish myself  on details about the daily life of my characters. For this writing tool to be successful, I begin by imagining how a human being lives in the moments I’ve constructed because a novel is a composition of moments just as a play is a composition of beats, small actions.

I’m heading to Washington, D.C. to discuss historical fiction, D.C. Emancipation and to read from my novels set in the city. This event is presented by INKPENClarke and Scott

for more information, go to Breena Clarke’s Books

Najeeb Walid Harb 1974 – 1989

Baby Najeeb

Najeeb Walid Harb 1974 – 1989

He was beloved of his parents, Breena Clarke and Walid Najeeb Harb. He was beloved of his stepfather, Helmar Augustus Cooper. He was beloved of his aunts, Cheryl Clarke and Victoria Clarke Wood.

Najeeb & Mr. Peanut

I still have the hat worn on this day

Najeeb and Breena

I am happiest here

These are my favorite pictures of the days that I remember fondly. These are days that I can recall in great sensory detail. These photographs are precious tokens for recollection.

Najeeb W. Harb

one of a series of headshots

Najeeb with football

at Hershey Park, Pa. with Popsi and Mother wearing a Hershey kiss hat and a silk shirt from Syria

Najeeb holidng bag

on the street near Cheryl’s apartment in NYC

 

 

Taming The Sweet Tooth

These Avocado Peanut Butter Brownies are low, low sugar, high fiber and oh, so delicious.

Don’t deny your sweet tooth, hoodwink it!

Few of us can remain healthy if we indulge in the abundant sweet temptations of Valentine’s Day. This recipe could become your favorite.

1 cup of natural, creamy peanut butter
1 12oz. bag of dark chocolate chips (baking chocolate)
1 cup of *Truvia baking blend
1 avocado, peeled, pitted, and mashed
1/2 cup of soy milk (for vegan) OR 1/2 cup of fat-free milk
1/2 cup of canola oil
1 cup of whole wheat flour
1 teas. baking powder
1 teas. of salt
Preheat oven to 350 (175 degrees C) Lubricate 9X13 inch baking pan with canola oil spray. Melt peanut butter,  chocolate chip, and Truvia together in a saucepan over low heat, stirring until mixture is melted together. Then cook together at medium to low heat until slight bubbling at the edges. Blend avocado, milk and canola oil until smooth. Stir avocado mixture into the chocolate until thoroughly combined. Whisk flour, baking powder and salt together in large bowl and add the chocolate avocado mixture. Stir until just blended. Pour batter into baking pan and cook for 20-25 mins, until beginning to crisp at the edges. Cool completely before cutting and serving.
* is made from the stevia plant and has a small amount of granulated sugar for baking.
Celebrate February Black History Month with the historical novels of Breena Clarke

For more information, go to www.BreenaClarke.com

WAKE UP, EVERYBODY! IT’S 2020

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Habari Gani?

The final principle of Kwanzaa is Imani (faith) to believe in our people, parents, teachers, and leaders. It’s a simple principle, the easiest . . . most dangerous. Eyes wide open! Don’t put faith in celebrities. Don’t put power in the hands of charlatans.

Disavow the anti-semite, the racist, the misogynist. Believe, Have Faith, Imani  – in a better future, a better world, a more equitable world.

Wake Up Everybody!

Beginnings: LeBron James

 

free-vector-kwanzaa-icon_101867_Kwanzaa_Icon        MLK

Let’s ruminate on the plausible (?) utopia  Martin Luther King delineated so specifically in a speech that is instantly google-able. In anticipation of the official holiday commemorating MLK, here is a well-known portion:

“I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.”

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

I have a dream today.

I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification; one day right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.

I have a dream today.

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.

This is our hope. This is the faith that I go back to the South with. With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.

This will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with a new meaning, “My country, ‘tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrim’s pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring.”

And if America is to be a great nation this must become true. So let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire. Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York. Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania!

Let freedom ring from the snowcapped Rockies of Colorado!

Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California!

But not only that; let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia!

Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee!

Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi. From every mountainside, let freedom ring.

And when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”

———– Dr. Martin Luther King

for the   entire text of the speech   

IS THIS DREAM STILL POSSIBLE?

for more about Breena Clarke’s booksBreena Clarke.com

River, Cross My Heart, an Oprah book club selection and a classic of African American fiction is now available for your e-reader. River, Cross My Heart, kindle edition

“The acclaimed bestseller–a selection of Oprah’s Book Club–that brings vividly to life the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, DC, circa 1925, a community reeling from a young girl’s tragic death.”  Amazon.com