Sunday, December 11, 2016

Plantations to Greenwood: Intolerance in The American Mainstream

Plantations tobacco shop in Oklahoma
The KKK marches to celebrate the election of a president-elect who named an overtly racist anti-Semite like Steve Bannon as a key White House policy advisor.

Republican fundraiser Betsy DeVos gets tapped as Secretary of Education, a billionaire with no experience in public school education with a dubious record of lobbying to shift Michigan taxpayer's dollars to poorly performing charter schools.

Lately it's kinda feeling like intolerance is going mainstream in this country.

Check out this photo my friend James sent me the other day,  he lives out in Oklahoma and he recently snapped this photo of a tobacco specialty shop in a mall near Oklahoma City called "Plantations."

Is intolerance going Main Street as well? Or is this a not-so-subtle pushback against what some see as "political correctness" in America?

James and I have been tight since we were classmates and became close friends at West Windsor-Plainsboro High School South back in the late 1980's.

Our initial bond over a shared passion for graphic novels and films eventually morphed into a professional creative partnership that endures to this day.

We both share a somewhat offbeat sense of humor marked by cynicism, as well as a similar political outlook, so when he texted me this photo the other day we both had a good laugh.

As two of the handful of ethnic minorities in our suburban New Jersey high school in the late 80's, James and I found a measure of comfort in one another's company based on our shared sense of cultural isolation in the (then) mostly-white community of West Windsor.

Slaves picking cotton on the Oak Valley Plantation
in Vacherie, Louisiana    
[Getty Images]
So having (at times) been on the business-end of some not-so-nice acts of hostility, violence or ignorance related to our respective ethnicity growing up - we couldn't help but laugh at the idea of someone deciding to name their specialty tobacco store Plantations.

Now I really don't know much about this store in Oklahoma aside from the name.

It has a rather generic Facebook page which suggests that it has also branched into serving coffee as well (which was also grown on plantations), but undoubtedly the word plantation conjures different things to different people.

Journalist and writer Kelsey Minor offered an interesting perspective on plantations in an essay published on the Huffington Post back in 2015.

Given the context of the institution of slavery in this country, why would someone intentionally name a tobacco shop, or any other place of business, "Plantations?"

To provoke in order to tout an "anti-PC" perspective?

Scarlett O'Hara's slave "Big Sam" happily marching
off to labor for the Confederacy in Gone With the Wind 
Or simply to evoke some kind of sentimental memory of old tobacco plantations in the same way the 1939 film Gone With the Wind sought to romanticize the 19th century southern slave-plantation system in America?

Personally speaking I come from a cultural background where some of my ancestors harvested tobacco (and other crops) as part of the systematic indentured servitude of the horrific institution of slavery.

An institution based on the incalculable misery of enforced human bondage that was the backbone of the American agrarian economy in the 18th and 19th centuries.

My friend James' descendants were part of a vast culture that first introduced tobacco to European colonists back in the 16th century, in fact it was the explorer Columbus who became the first known European to "discover" tobacco when he recorded an entry in his diary after seeing a Native American in a canoe loaded with tobacco leaves on October 15, 1542.

James is an exceptionally talented professional illustrator and sculptor who makes his home with his wife within the boundaries of the 13 different counties that comprise the Chickasaw Nation.

The Chickasaw are one of the Five Civilized Tribes, Spanish explorer Hernando De Soto was the first European to make contact with them in 1540 during his exploration of the interior of the southeastern United States, when the tribe lived in areas of Mississippi, Tennessee and Alabama.

They lived in towns and had an organized system of tribal government by the time Europeans began expanding west in larger numbers in the 18th century.

The Chickasaw-owned WinStar World Casino  
Like other tribes such as the Cherokee and Seminole, the Chickasaw were forced to cede their traditional lands to the U.S. and were forcibly relocated Oklahoma in the 1830's; some 500 Chickasaw died along the  Trail of Tears.

Like some other tribes they also owned slaves, and brought them with them to Oklahoma.

Today the Chickasaw are a federally recognized independent nation of some 49,000 people.

James and his wife make their home in Ada, Oklahoma where the Chickasaw government is centered and oversees not just the land and people, but also a vast network of economic interests with a nearly $14 billion footprint that includes 18 different casinos and hotels and a wide array of businesses that includes radio stations, truck stops, gas stations, entertainment venues and of course, smoke shops.

So the Chickasaw know tobacco too, they were growing it for hundreds of years before the 1830's when they lived in the Mississippi valley and Tennessee; where their ancestors had lived for thousands of years.

So in a way that "Plantations" sign on the outside of that tobacco shop near Oklahoma, City is symbolic of some deep, unhealed wounds in this country.

Part of the 35 square blocks of Tulsa, OK destroyed
during the Tulsa Race Riots in 1921
For example James told me that outside of Ada there's a limestone quarry located on the site of what used to be a small town of freed slaves.

He said it was essentially destroyed and wiped off the map by enraged mobs of whites in the early 20th century in the same way that hundreds of African-Americans were killed in the Tulsa, Oklahoma neighborhood known as Greenwood in 1921.

To this day he said it's hard to get people in Ada to even talk about it.

The Tulsa Race Riots, as they are commonly known, were never taught as part of the American history I learned in school.

One of the worst incidents of racial unrest in U.S. history, they took place over the course of May 31 - June 1, 1921 when mobs of enraged whites, including Tulsa police, tore through the thriving black community and murdered hundreds of African-American men, women and children and burned 35 square blocks of some 600 black-owned businesses including 21 churches, 21 grocery stores, 2 movie theaters, a bank, a library, a post office, hotels, barbershops, and scores of private homes to the ground.

This massacre was documented in the 2008 book "Black Wall Street" by Jay Jay Wilson and Ron Wallace.

The area known as the Oklahoma Territory wasn't made a state until 1907, the approximately 15,000 African-American residents who lived in the Tulsa section known as Greenwood in 1921 were part of the thousands of blacks who migrated west to Oklahoma to escape the entrenched racism of the south during the late 1800's.

Dr. A.C. Jackson
Some had fled slavery as runaways, while some had come as slaves of the Chickasaw or other tribes during the Trail of Tears in the 1830's; some were feed blacks simply looking to make a new start.

Some came from other parts of the country, including Chicago, New York, Boston and Philadelphia seeking business opportunities in the thriving mid-west community that was once known as the 'Black Wall Street'.

Some residents were nationally recognized figures, like physician Dr. A.C. Jackson (pictured left).

According to the 2007 book 'Black Wall Street: From Riot To Renaissance In Tulsa's Historic Greenwood District', the Mayo brothers regarded hi as the most prominent black surgeon in the country at the time.

He was shot and killed trying to leave his home during the riots.

The Greenwood section of Tulsa was a prosperous independent black community attacked and destroyed by a cooperative effort by the KKK, local law enforcement, municipal and business leaders and private citizens - so there's a legacy of racial hatred and bigotry that still looms over Oklahoma.

And not just against African-Americans either.

For example, one of the events the Chickasaw produces, the annual Artesian Arts Festival, takes place in Sulphur, Oklahoma about 30 minutes from Ada.

James told me that he was walking around the festival with family and friends not far from the Chickasaw-owned Artesian Hotel when he saw a one of those chalkboard signs outside of a small local bar with the words "Two-For-One Pow-Wow Shots!" written in chalk.

He said the group all stopped and laughed about the absurdity of such a term being misused in such a demeaning and subtly racist way that made it a derogatory reference to Native American culture written on a sign during an event sponsored by the Chickasaw Nation that attracts scores of visitors.
One of the group went inside to speak with the bar's white manager about it, and he actually came outside and erased it from the board, which was cool but as James told me - didn't he realize that using the term "Pow-Wow" to sell shots during a Native American arts festival might be considered offensive?

Maybe the person who decided to name a tobacco shop Plantations didn't consider that either.

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