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Notes from a Wounded Place
By Rilla Askew
UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESSCopyright © 2017 Rilla Askew
All rights reserved.
Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?
— RALPH ELLISON, Invisible Man
In 1994, Rand McNally accidentally left Oklahoma out of the index to its national road atlas. That same year, as the winter snows outside my house in upstate New York climbed toward one hundred inches and the daytime temperatures sat stubbornly near zero, I began to talk of escaping to Oklahoma. My friends in the frozen Catskills exclaimed, "But isn't it cold out there?" They seemed to imagine Oklahoma existing in an area vaguely north of Nebraska and south of the Dakotas. Americans aren't noted for their geographical acuity, but Oklahoma's elusiveness in the public mind goes beyond a lack of knowledge: there has long been an almost mystical anonymity to the place.
Before 1995, Oklahoma kept its invisibility well: we were an indefinable vowel-state located somewhere in the middle of the country, a place recalled, if at all, mainly through the catchy show tune of the same name. Even now, on the Weather Channel, Oklahoma is generally where reporters stand to discuss the fronts moving through the rest of the United States. Calls for submissions from southwestern writers often do not include Oklahoma; nor do calls for writers from the West, or the Midwest, or the South. These regions don't claim us, although Oklahoma borders, and reflects, all of them. It's as if each region shrugs and says to itself, "No, it's no part of us; it must belong to them over there."
Growing up in Oklahoma, I silently agreed. My home state seemed to me then a black hole in the center of the country, a literal and figurative no-man's-land. I came of age biding my time till I could shake its dust off my heels and make for the coast, because I knew very well that the real world was "out there."
My sense of Oklahoma's unimportance, its lack of grandeur or glamour or coolness, was acute but hardly surprising. I'd been molded by a literature created primarily by outsiders, educated to a sanitized, romanticized version of Oklahoma's past, coupled with a half-suppressed history curtailed by the state's own lawmakers, teachers, and civic leaders, and all of this largely unknown to me. What I've come to understand, and what I wish I'd been told as a girl growing up here, is that, far from being a blank spot in the middle of the nation, Oklahoma is America: we are its microcosm; our story is America's story, intensified to the hundredth power.
For a time after the 1995 bombing of the Murrah Federal Building, it seemed the rest of the country understood this. The name Oklahoma City, like Ruby Ridge and Waco before it, and Columbine to follow, came to represent far more than a place; it came to stand in the mind of the nation as an elliptical shorthand for the awful event of the bombing itself, for domestic terrorism, the rise of American rightwing militias, and, because of the behavior of Oklahomans in the aftermath, an opportunity for the nation to be proud of itself. For many weeks after the bombing, the Oklahoma character — or that portion of it available to the camera's eye, witnessed on television screens in living rooms and airports and sports bars around the country — was claimed by the whole of the United States.
To be swept from near invisibility to the public stage within seconds by a single act of psychopathic violence is an iconic American story, as the entire drama of the Oklahoma City bombing, from the most horrid detail to the noblest action, is a distinctly American story. As Oklahoma itself is America's story. The media sensed this; they tried to put a face to it, an identity, a name. They called us "America's Heartland," and I think most Americans, and most Oklahomans, believed it. In my view, they got the idea right but the anatomy wrong. This state that had long been a cipher and a mystery, and, like an illegitimate child, was unclaimed by any region, is not the heartland: it is the viscera, the underbelly, the very gut of the nation.
An acquaintance of mine, who originated from Long Island and had traveled widely, found herself living for a time in a small town in southeastern Oklahoma; she told me it was the most foreign country she'd ever been in. And that is true, too. In language and history and culture, Oklahoma is such an extreme distillation of what has taken place on this continent over the past five hundred years that it is nearly unrecognizable to the rest of the nation. Too southern to be midwestern, too western to be southern, too midwestern to be purely southwestern, Oklahoma has kept the secret of its identity as a chameleon does. To the degree we've been seen by outsiders at all, it's been in stereotype: Curly and Laurey, the Joads, tornados and trailer trash, cowboys and Indians, dust — worn one-dimensional sketches that we ourselves have been too willing to adopt. But like Thomas Wolfe's Brooklyn that only the dead can know, Oklahoma is an enigma, a will-o'-the-wisp that can be recognized only slantwise, in relation to its mystery; it is never, I think, what it seems to be.
This is the land that gave birth to twentieth-century America's premier athlete, a Sac and Fox Indian, Jim Thorpe; its definitive white workingman's hero, Woody Guthrie; one of its most celebrated black novelists, Ralph Ellison; and its deadliest pogrom, the Tulsa Race Riot, all within a few dozen years and a hundred miles of one another. Oklahoma is the only place, anywhere, that ever spawned a committed struggle to create an all-black and an all-Indian state, and yet the first laws enacted by our virgin legislature after statehood were Jim Crow. Still, we have more incorporated black towns than any other state in the nation. Still, more Native tribes survive and thrive here than anywhere on the continent, but with the added irony that in Oklahoma they don't live on reservations: in the Land of the Red People, Indians have lost most of their land.
Oklahoma's history is a compressed, ironically inverted miniature of the national narrative, unfolding in a matter of days and weeks and months — sometimes hours — rather than decades, beginning with the Trail of Tears. Our schoolchildren receive a sanitized version of that history, one that is justifiably eloquent about the heroic survival of the Cherokee people but seldom mentions the other tribal nations that suffered equally in being forced to come here, and who have survived just as nobly. The Trail of Tears is never named in our history books for what it was: the United States' largest-scale government-sanctioned bureaucratically administered program of ethnic cleansing. Native people died by the thousands during the Removals, and some of the histories tell us that, but they seldom tell how, within only a fewdecades after that suffering, this new "Indian Territory" was legislated out of Indian hands. We celebrate again and again the dramatic reenactment of the land runs, but aren't told what those runs meant for tribal people already settled here. We learn about Oklahoma's oil boom, but not about the Osage Reign of Terror, when dozens of Indian people were assassinated for the sake of oil greed.
In terms of numbers and attitude and collective forgetfulness, Oklahoma is predominantly white; it is profoundly religious, politically conservative, inextricably rooted to the land. And this land, a vast skyscape of mountains and lakes and prairies, is peopled with descendants of pioneers and mountain folk, slaves and Indians, entrepreneurs and oil barons, coal miners, immigrants, farmers, cowboys, and outlaws — an inheritance that is like the rest of the country's, except that in Oklahoma, we're hardly a hundred years removed from these roots. Like southerners, we speak a language that is richly accented and idiomatic, and like midwesterners, we still hold the prairie habit of neighbor helping neighbor, even as we carry a ferocious western notion of independence that makes us suspicious of federal control and interference from lawmakers. Some of America's most superb fine artists, from ballerina Maria Tallchief to sculptor Willard Stone, come from this state where children die at the hands of their parents at twice the rate of the rest of the nation. Good-natured friendliness is the dominant trait of a people who were among the first to enact a law allowing private citizens to carry concealed handguns.
Paradox and dichotomy dominate Oklahoma's character, and this is part of what accounts for our mystery, for why we cannot be classified, categorized. Paradox doesn't lend itself readily to sound bites or to easy history lessons. Our story is a study in self-contradiction: unity and division, widespread socialism and reactionary politics, Christian faith and outlaw culture, neighborly helpfulness and murderous greed. If one tries to capture who we are simplistically, with a single cohesive viewpoint, looking only at what is best in us, the effort is doomed to failure. Yet it seems that this is exactly what was handed down to me, a one-dimensional understanding of who we are: a half-truth version of Oklahoma's story. And half the truth, of course, is no truth at all.
I wish I'd been told that ethnic cleansing was the founding condition of my state, about the conflagration that took place in Tulsa in 1921. I wish someone had told me that Woody Guthrie was a worthy native son, as worthy of honor as our other famous native son, Will Rogers. I would have liked to grow up knowing that Woody was a genuine folk hero — not just Oklahoma's but the nation's. I knew he was from Okemah — I had an aunt and uncle who lived there, and we visited often — but I thought we were supposed to be ashamed that Woody Guthrie came from Oklahoma because he was supposedly a communist, although we sang "This Land Is Your Land" in our school.
I wish I'd been told about Oklahoma's Progressive past, our Socialist past, as well as the facts about the sudden rise and almost as sudden disappearance of the Ku Klux Klan here, or that there were more female Klan members in Oklahoma than in any other state, or that one of our early governors was impeached in part because of his opposition to the Klan. I wish I'd known about the Green Corn Rebellion, that ill-fated, courageous, perhaps foolish rebellion of Native, black, and white Oklahomans who resisted the draft, the jingoism and false patriotism that led the country into the First World War.
Growing up Baptist in this deeply segregated state, I wish someone had told me that the very first Baptist church here was founded by two African Americans, one Native American, and one Anglo American — a blending of the races that is so distinctively Oklahoma's story, as it is fundamentally the American story. Scott Malcomson, in his study of race in America, One Drop of Blood, writes of the great experiment of race in Oklahoma; he speaks of what he calls America's three founding races, and returns many times to Oklahoma in order to examine how those forces of race played out here, but as a young person growing up in this state, I had no idea how dramatic, how singular, that story was. I knew nothing about Oklahoma's black towns or the proposed state of Sequoyah or the post-Reconstruction expectation among African Americans that Oklahoma would finally be the Promised Land. It was not until I came to adulthood and read the essays of Ralph Ellison that I learned that the "Territory" toward which Huckleberry Finn lights out at the end of his adventures was our Indian Territory — that is, Oklahoma. No educator or parent or preacher told me that.
It's not surprising that we teach only part of our history. To look at one's own transgressions requires great spiritual and emotional maturity, and this is as true for a people or a nation as it is for an individual. Our natural impulse is to open our eyes only to what's best in us, to own that part and no other. The nation remembers the three thousand victims of the September 11th attacks, a necessary remembrance, but one that says these attacks on civilians were an exception, an unforgivable atrocity, a new kind of warfare, while simultaneously choosing to forget the hundreds of thousands of civilians who died at the hands of America in Dresden and Tokyo, in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Just so do we in Oklahoma memorialize the 168 innocents who died in the Murrah Building, while carefully, consciously, legislatively choosing not to acknowledge the unnamed, uncounted citizens who died in Tulsa in 1921. To me there is more than a bit of neat numerical bookending in the fact that 2005 marked the tenth anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing and the fiftieth anniversary of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
In April 1995, a few days after the bombing, I drove to Oklahoma City. My purpose, like that of thousands of others who came, was to try, in my pain and grief and bafflement, to do something to help, though I had only a dim idea what that might be. When I pulled off I-35 in the late afternoon, I was deeply uneasy, fearful of intruding, disquieted by the surreal aspect of downtown. The streets were nearly empty. There were no rubberneckers, no gawkers, no hustlers or hawkers trying to con a buck from the merely curious, none of the opportunistic hustling my years in New York had taught me to expect. Nor were there as yet the grieving witnesses who would come later, to stand outside the fence and look on in silence, to lay wreaths and notes and teddy bears. On that spring afternoon, at what should have been nearly rush hour, the whole of Oklahoma City seemed abandoned. There was almost no traffic. I saw no pedestrians, no cops. Yes, there were blue sawhorses and yellow strips of police tape lining the perimeter of the bombing site; there were people in uniforms and bright slickers scattered along the approaches to the Murrah Building; but the other streets were empty, and although I expected at any moment to be directed away, to be told, "If you have no official business here, ma'am, you're going to have to leave," in fact, no one told me I had no right to be there. As I drove the quiet streets, located the gutted too-small semiloaf of the Murrah Building in the distance, parked my car, and walked in that peculiar engineless silence toward City Church, where I'd heard I might be able to help feed rescue workers, I was struck by the incredible restraint of Oklahomans to put aside their curiosity and anger; to come to help, if they might, or to stay away, out of respect and a profound sense of decency, if they could not.
One legacy of the Murrah bombing is that no event since the Second World War, none so rooted in place, so tied to America's idea of itself, so heedless of race and class and our other unnamed divisions, had done for America, in that time, what the actions of the people of Oklahoma City did: allowed us to remember what is right about us. In a terrible way, it made us glad — not glad about the destruction or the unspeakable grief of the victims' families, of course, nor glad to understand for the first time how vulnerable we are — but glad to remember that we can be willing to risk our lives to save the life of another; to believe that at the moment of highest duress, we will behave with honor, we'll forget race, forget fear; that the American character retains the capacity for dignity, willingness, self-sacrifice.
That evening I watched trays of food pour into City Church, sent by individuals, civic groups, businesses, till the church kitchen counters were filled to overflowing and we had to throw much of it away. I saw the too-many willing hands reaching to do the too-little work, people struggling to find a way to contribute, in the same way thousands had stood in line for hours on the day of the bombing waiting to give blood, though there would be tragically too few survivors to receive it. I was moved by these people — my people — even as I couldn't help but be aware of a kind of unspoken hierarchy among the volunteers, defined by who traveled inside the perimeter and who did not. I listened to a young society matron enthuse about having the met the governor at one of her volunteer efforts, saw young men swagger as they drove the empty streets in their humming golf carts, decked officially in Day-Glo slickers, holding walkie-talkies to their lips to report on the coffee needs of the rescue workers. I saw the self-conscious nature of the people's giving, their secret pride in themselves. In an age when no tragedy is too sacred for the camera's eye, even the best must suffer the postmodern curse of Self watching self.
Excerpted from Most American by Rilla Askew. Copyright © 2017 Rilla Askew. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
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Table of Contents
Foreword Susan Kates ix
Most American 3
Passing: The Writer's Skin and the Authentic Self 27
A Wounded Place 35
Near McAlester 77
The Tornado that Hit Boggy 95