Reliable Narrators and the Role of History


In 1921, violence erupted in Tulsa, Oklahoma, when armed African American men—many of them returning veterans—tried to protect a young black man from lynching. By the time the Tulsa race riots were over, at least 10 whites and 26 African Americans were dead. In one African American neighborhood, white rioters burned 35 city blocks to the ground.

The above excerpt is from my sophomore daughter’s US History book, published by Prentice Hall. Sounds fine, right? Yeah yeah, there were riots in America in the years after WWI. There was tumult. There was the sting of unmet expectations. Everybody knows that this was a wild time in this country. Every one knows who starts which riots. Right? Or do we?

There are three problems with these three sentences. First of all, the first demographic mentioned: “armed African American men…” sets the context for a lazy reader to draw all the necessary conclusions. In today’s context, readers may jump immediately to the fact that we’re talking about riots and ARMED African Americans are the root of the problem. After all, that’s what we primarily read. However, it’s not until the end of the third sentence that we see white rioters were to blame for the torching of 35 city blocks. On the surface, the information is all accurate but the context and the syntax leave a lot to be desired.

Finally, the death toll was in fact much much larger. We know that at least 120 graves were dug by African Americans, and that bodies were dumped into these graves, no cofins, no funerals, no dignity. We know that at least 68 black people were killed and at least 9 whites. We know this. The death count wavered nearly every day after the riots, but we know, we know for a fact, that more than 36 people. An additional note: this wasn’t ONE African American neighborhood in a slew of many. The area that burned was known as Black Wall Street or Greenwood District. It was the ONLY African American neighborhood in Tulsa. It was a bastion of industry, growing affluence and hard work.

While there is some satisfaction in having one of the deadliest and costliest riots in American history mentioned in a national text book, I can’t help but wonder why it is so short? Why is it so wrong? And how do we tell history?

In fiction, we all understand that while we may trust the hero, may even root for the hero, it’s just their story. There are as many angles as there are characters involved, and we get that. We agree to understand we are hearing one person’s story. But in non-fiction, it’s a little more tenuous. We need to understand, too, that non-fiction writers approach their work with biases they may not even realize. In order to truly understand the riots, students must seek out various perspectives and synthesize the information into a reasonable sequence of events.

History is important, for context, for future generations, for present decision making. History is important in fiction, too. So how do we decide whether to trust our narrators. If I knew nothing about the race riots, I would have accepted the above three sentences straight up.

Try this: Read a few news pieces this week and see if you can spot the biases. Then, try to write a scene from a different character’s perspective.