The New York Times published an op-ed by movie star Tom Hanks on June 4 about the Tulsa Race Massacre and the gaping space in history classes it leaves behind, titled Tom Hanks: You Should Learn the Truth About the Tulsa Race Massacre. Hanks made fantastic points about how detrimental the omission of the massacre is to the education of American citizens, many of which Black Americans said for years but never made it as far into the public eye as this op-ed did in a mere morning.
Some may ask why a popular public figure like Hanks would care so much about this instance in history as to write an op-ed in a major publication about its significance. But a better question is why it gained such popularity so quickly. Or better yet, why was Hank’s opinion on the Massacre so important as to warrant an op-ed, published alongside those written by Black scholars who studied the Massacre for years?
Past articles circulated about the Tulsa Massacre, and its importance today, by many other Black reporters on Today.com, CNN, and other major news sites. Despite these articles predating Hanks’s op-ed, more articles about Hanks writing the op-ed appear on a first search than the actual articles. One of the most recent articles was actually published by the Times on May 31, just four days before Hanks’s, titled What I’ve Learned Teaching the Tulsa Race Massacre for Two Decades, written by lawyer, professor, and scholar, Hannibal B. Johnson. Johnson’s profile, and article, provide a unique foil to Hanks, with eerie similarities.
Johnson graduated from Harvard Law and served as a professor at colleges across Oklahoma, including the University of Tulsa College of Law. Not only does Johnson chair the Education Committee for the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission, among other organizations preserving Black history, but he also wrote numerous books on the subject. Among them are Black Wall Street 100: An American City Grapples with its Historical Racial Trauma, Images of America: Tulsa’s Historic Greenwood District, and Black Wall Street. Hanks, while also an author, wrote a series of short stories compiled into his book Uncommon Type, which is vastly different from the topic at hand.
Not only does Johnson’s expertise lend him immediate credibility, but it makes one question why his extensive knowledge on the subject didn’t lend him as much attention as Hanks. What better perspective could there be than that of someone who has studied, written about, and taught the Massacre’s and Black Wall Street’s history?
The Times has struggled with amplifying diverse voices for years, especially in the newsroom. The Times has the same amount of Black staff as it did in 2015 (9%), according to a 2020 report released by the publication. The percentages for Latinx and Native American/Pacific Islander staff are even lower. The leadership at the Times follows a similar pattern. While POC staff take up 23% of leadership positions at the Times, white staff take up 74%. While the publication has diversified in the past years, the gap remains stark.
The articles even say similar things: the importance of teaching the history of violence against Black Americans, how schools have instead opted not to teach it, and the possibilities we have as citizens to make our country more united and well-informed. Considering this, what does this say about who is allowed to tell our history and remain popular? Who is allowed to claim that white violence must be addressed, and not lose an ounce of spotlight or credibility, but gain it?
Hanks, being a celebrity, was bound to attract attention for an op-ed on any subject. The title even began with his first and last name. But for that topic to be the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921, and for there to be an article written by a Black scholar just days before that escaped the limelight, is disheartening. Black scholars aside from Johnson have said the same thing for years, if not decades, and yet Hanks received praise for his exceedingly similar viewpoint? To have more people believe that the Massacre taught in schools as a result of Hanks’s op-ed would be fantastic, a miracle even. At the same time, to only be able to change the minds of our citizens through a white, male, wealthy, actor counts as a loss all the same. When will it be possible for Black people to speak of the injustices brought against their community and be believed, on their own, without assistance from the likes of Hanks?
Tom Hanks made amazing points in his op-ed and brought attention to the necessity of a complete education. In fact, we need people of his status and privilege to acknowledge these truths if we are to make any progress in our relationship with race in America. But as long as he stands in line before all the other Black scholars, teachers, and sure, even actors, saying the exact same thing, we will have failed as a nation.
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