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Tom Hanks says it's time to end whitewashing of U.S. history in school curriculums and movies

"The truth about Tulsa, and the repeated violence by some White Americans against Black Americans, was systematically ignored, perhaps because it was regarded as too honest, too painful a lesson for our young White ears."

Tom Hanks says it's time to end whitewashing of U.S. history in school curriculums and movies
Cover Image Source: In this screengrab, Tom Hanks speaks during the Celebrating America Primetime Special on January 20, 2021. (Photo by Handout/Biden Inaugural Committee via Getty Images)

In a powerful New York Times opinion piece last week, actor Tom Hanks urged America to teach the truth about the 1921 Tulsa race massacre in schools. Calling himself "a lay historian who talks way too much at dinner parties," Hanks recalled how he had never once come across a school history book addressing the destruction of "Black Wall Street" during all the years he spent in high school and community college in Oakland, California. The 65-year-old noted that this experience is all too common because of history being "mostly written by White people about White people like me."



 

 

"By my recollection, four years of my education included studying American history. Fifth and eighth grades, two semesters in high school, three quarters at a community college. Since then, I've read history for pleasure and watched documentary films as a first option. Many of those works and those textbooks were about White people and White history. The few Black figures — Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. — were those who accomplished much in spite of slavery, segregation, and institutional injustices in American society," Hanks wrote.



 

 

"But for all my study, I never read a page of any school history book about how, in 1921, a mob of White people burned down a place called Black Wall Street, killed as many as 300 of its Black citizens, and displaced thousands of Black Americans who lived in Tulsa, Oklahoma," he continues. "My experience was common: History was mostly written by White people about White people like me, while the history of Black people — including the horrors of Tulsa — was too often left out." Although his education touched on historical keystones such as the Boston Tea Party, the rise of Teddy Roosevelt, and the executions of Sacco and Vanzetti, "Tulsa was never more than a city on the prairie," Hanks wrote.



 

 

"The Oklahoma Land Rush got some paragraphs in one of those school years, but the 1921 burning out of the Black population that lived there was never mentioned," he recalled. "Nor, I have learned since, was anti-Black violence on large and small scales, especially between the end of Reconstruction and the victories of the civil rights movement; there was nothing on the Slocum massacre of Black residents in Texas by an all-White mob in 1910 or the Red Summer of White supremacist terrorism in 1919. Many students like me were told that the lynching of Black Americans was tragic but not that these public murders were commonplace and often lauded by local papers and law enforcement."



 

 

"The truth about Tulsa, and the repeated violence by some White Americans against Black Americans, was systematically ignored, perhaps because it was regarded as too honest, too painful a lesson for our young White ears," he continued. "So, our predominantly White schools didn't teach it, our mass appeal works of historical fiction didn't enlighten us, and my chosen industry didn't take on the subject in films and shows until recently. It seems White educators and school administrators (if they even knew of the Tulsa massacre, for some surely did not) omitted the volatile subject for the sake of the status quo, placing White feelings over Black experience — literally Black lives in this case."



 

 

Hanks also called out the entertainment industry, which he said "helps shape what is history and what is forgotten," for playing a part in this Whitewashing of American history until fairly recent times. "Today, I think historically based fiction entertainment must portray the burden of racism in our nation for the sake of the art form's claims to verisimilitude and authenticity. Until recently, the Tulsa Race Massacre was not seen in movies and TV shows. Thanks to several projects currently streaming, like 'Watchmen' and 'Lovecraft Country,' this is no longer the case," he wrote. "Like other historical documents that map our cultural DNA, they will reflect who we really are and help determine what is our full history, what we must remember."



 

 

As for whether schools today should teach students about Tulsa, Hanks wrote: "Yes, and they should also stop the battle to Whitewash curriculums to avoid discomfort for students. America's history is messy but knowing that makes us a wiser and stronger people. 1921 is the truth, a portal to our shared, paradoxical history. An American Black Wall Street was not allowed to exist, was burned to ashes; more than 20 years later, World War II was won despite institutionalized racial segregation; more than 20 years after that, the Apollo missions put 12 men on the moon while others were struggling to vote, and the publishing of the Pentagon Papers showed the extent of our elected officials' willingness to systemically lie to us. Each of these lessons chronicles our quest to live up to the promise of our land, to tell truths that, in America, are meant to be held as self-evident."

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