Aria on the 1921 racial attack in Oklahoma will screen online via UMass and other sites
A century ago, what some consider the worst episode of racial violence in U.S. history erupted in Tulsa, Oklahoma, as a white mob invaded the black neighborhood of Greenwood, attacking the residents and torching homes and businesses.
The 18 hours of destruction left thousands of blacks homeless and hundreds of others hospitalized; by some estimates as many as 300 people, mostly blacks, were killed. A prosperous neighborhood that had been called “Black Wall Street” was gutted – and for decades after, the news was largely withheld.
As Tulsa residents and officials present a series of events to mark the centenary of what has come to be known as the Tulsa Race Massacre from May 31 to June 1, 1921, the issue continues to burn.
In late March, an aria New York composer and violinist Daniel Bernard Roumain wrote for a memorial concert in Tulsa by black opera performers was rejected for inclusion because it included the line “God damn America” - a line that Romanian refused to remove from his piece.
But now, a film like that will be screened online on May 25 by arts organizations across the country, including the Fine Arts Center (FAC) at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. The short film “They Still Want to Kill Us” was commissioned by the FAC and a dozen other organizations, including the Apollo Theater and Joe’s Pub in New York City.
After the film, an online discussion between Romanian and aria singer, mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges, will be moderated by Jamilla Deria, CAF Executive Director. The full program will run for just under half an hour.
In a recent phone call, Deria said she had been in regular contact during the pandemic with other arts organizations which, like the FAC, had to switch to online programming.
“Because we’re all so decentralized, it’s a way for us to connect with each other and discuss how we can support each other and the arts during this difficult time,” she declared.
When news of the Romanian aria was dropped by the Tulsa program, Deria said the FAC and other groups felt they needed to support him. She knows him personally: before coming to UMass, she produced numerous artistic events in New York and elsewhere, including a Romanian opera.
“I said that in a time of racial reckoning, we shouldn’t shut up the stories,” Deria said. “I’m really encouraged by the way these different organizations have come together.… We hope this project can shed some light on those terrible events of a century ago.
“They Still Want to Kill Us,” directed by Yoram Savion and produced by arts organization Sozo Creative, features Bridges singing a Romanian tune in New York City, including in an area of Central Park known in the 19th century as Seneca Village, a community populated mostly by African Americans. They were forced to leave when the city took over the land to create the park.
In a simple and terse libretto, the Romanian aria tells the story of the Tulsa massacre: how an uncertain meeting between a young black man and a young white woman in an elevator led, hours later, to the attack from the Greenwood neighborhood. The play ends with the lines “God Bless America / God Damn America”.
In a statement on its makeup, Romanian said that “the toxic mixture of disinformation, bigotry, ignorance and white rage” that sparked racial violence in Tulsa a century ago continues today, leading to problems such as police shootings of people of color.
“The daring and hypocrisy to ask God to bless America are not lost on me or many of my friends,” Romanian says. “God Damn America has its place.”
According to a number of reports, notably in The Oklahoman, Oklahoma’s largest newspaper, Roumain was one of four black composers commissioned by the Tulsa Opera Company to write pieces for “Greenwood Overcomes”, a concert by black artists who would be part of the city’s effort to mark the centenary of the 1921 massacre.
But according to the concert’s co-commissioners, mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves, who was to sing the aria from Roumain, was uncomfortable with the expression “God damn America”. When they asked Roumain to revise the line, he refused.
A March 28 report in The Oklahoman said the concert’s co-commissioners called the dispute an artistic issue, saying they were “extremely disappointed” that Romanian had “turned an artistic disagreement into a racial debate.”
But Romanian said on Twitter: “As a black human being, I ask: who owns the BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and Colored People) story about our bodies, our blood, our stories and our stories? I say yes.
For her part, Deria said the effort in Tulsa to recognize the horror of 100 years ago, including the “Greenwood Overcomes” concert, appears to be in good faith. But she added that she was troubled by the idea of canceling the Romanian aria by the Tulsa Opera, seeing a parallel with what happened after the massacre.
“The story around this horrific event has been silenced for years,” she said. “I am happy that we can help make the work (of Romanian) heard.”
The May 25 presentation, Deria said, will also serve as a teaser for a short opera the composer is writing about the 1921 massacre that the FAC plans to bring to the valley within the next two years.
Additionally, the program will include a statement from Damario Solomon-Simmons, an attorney for the Justice for Greenwood Foundation, seeking reparations for three survivors of the 1921 massacre as well as the descendants of those killed. The program will continue to air on the platforms of each presenting organization until July 31.
To sign up for the free program, go to fac.umass.edu and click on the “They still want to kill us” link. The program can be viewed at 8 p.m. on May 25 on the CAF Facebook and YouTube pages.
Steve Pfarrer can be reached at [email protected]