Welcome to “Off The Shelf”, our comic book reviews of recent titles. These are designed to be brief reviews of current books and series that we think you should check out.
Today, Sam reviews the recent graphic novel Across The Tracks-- Written by Alverne Ball with art by Stacey Robinson.
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Across the Tracks
Writer: Alverne Ball
Artist: Stacey Robinson
We’ve covered a lot of comics here on Church of the Geek, and in doing so it’s been amazing to see the breadth and depth of what comic books and graphic novels can convey and how it’s conveyed. Comics, even though they have become much more accepted as literature today, still have an association with superheroes and fantasy tales. However stories such as Maus and Persepolis show that the medium can also convey serious stories as well. This has a way of making tough subject more approachable and relatable, and can also serve as a way to present difficult material to younger generations. Across the Tracks is a great example of this at work.
I’m writing this episode on June 1, 2021, which marks the 100th anniversary of the destruction of Greenwood, just outside Tulsa, Oklahoma, and the massacre and displacement of its residents. It’s a story that many people first heard about through, remarkably enough, the comic-book inspired HBO series Watchmen. In a cultural season of rising racial tension and activism, the series opened up a startling chapter of American history that had sat dormant and unread among the other chapters of our history.
But while Watchmen told the untold story (or at least the “not told enough” story) of the destruction of Black Wall Street, Across the Tracks tells another untold story, the story of how Black Wall Street came to be in the first place. If Watchmen served as a missing piece to a puzzle, Across the Tracks serves as a missing piece to that puzzle as well.
In his preface to the story, writer Alverne Ball noted that while the story of Greenwood had been only been brought to light to many non-white people because of Watchmen, the story had been “talked about around Black folks’ kitchen tables and front porches for years.” To him, Greenwood was almost parallel to the Wakanda of Black Panther comics, a place where Black people could not only live in peace but grow and thrive.
Ball accomplishes this by setting the story of Greenwood within the greater historical context of post Civil War America. The story is bookended by a timeline of the history of the region and a detailed essay by Dr. Colette M. Yellow Robe and Reynaldo Anderson about the complicated history of Blacks, Whites and Native Americans pre-Civil War. These serve as an important reminder of history and context as we read and process the story of the founders of Greenwood.
The ever-growing numbers of post-Revolutionary War settlers along with the discovery of gold in Georgia had pushed many Native Americans out of their Eastern homelands westward. The forced relocation of the Cherokee, Creek, Seminole, Chickasaw and Choctaw nations from the southeastern United States to the “Indian Territory” of Oklahoma resulted not only in massive displacement but the deaths of thousands along what became called the Trail of Tears. Further westward expansion spurred by colonialism brought not only new white settlers to the region but African slaves as well. As time went on the Oklahoma Territory became sought after for oil rights and land acquisition, leading to even more encroachment and land seizure.
Slavery, which continued to flourish in the southern states, moved westward as well. Both white settlers and American Indians took the liberty of owning African slaves for labor, with the authors noting that at one time the Cherokee owned the majority of slaves in the territory. After the Civil War, racial solidarity among African Americans grew while the influence of the Five Nations continued to suffer. In 1890, just a few decades prior to the founding of Greenwood, Oklahoma was seen as a haven for newly freed slaves and other African Americans, and as many as fifty towns grew up there which were founded by African Americans.
The comic part picks up the story here to tell the story of how Greenwood was founded, beginning in 1905 when O. W. Gurley, a wealthy Black businessman from Arkansas, bought forty acres of land. He then opened a grocery store for African Americans in Tulsa, followed by a boarding house for Black settlers, commercial buildings, a church and homes. Gurley named the area Greenwood, and continued to grow and prosper because it was physically separated by the white part of Tulsa by a set of railroad tracks. It was Booker T. Washington who gave Greenwood the nickname “Black Wall Street”.
Ball goes on to share the stories of other notable figures in Greenwood and what they accomplished in a relatively short time. By 1910 Greenwood had African American doctors, dentists, a newspaper, and an elementary school with over 200 students its first year.
This to me is what I appreciated so much about this comic. I was somewhat familiar with the story of Greenwood, as I said before, from the Watchmen series. However the series did nothing to set up what Greenwood was, what it had accomplished, and what it meant to African Americans at the time. The comic does of course reveal the events that eventually led to the destruction of the town, as power and phone lines were cut and turpentine bombs set the town on fire and mobs attacked the residents. However the focus here is not on the destruction, but on the inspirational story of the residents of Greenwood before and after the massacre. It’s a story of overcoming tremendous adversity, both political and racial.
As I said previously comic art has a way of making stories more relatable and approachable to children as well as adults. While the story is told very much in the manner of a children’s book, it captured my attention as well. Stacey Robinson’s art is engaging and rich, and his depictions of the residents of Greenwood help give life and breath to the story being told. Ball also takes pains in his story to tell the story of the recovery of the town, not just its destruction. It doesn’t dwell on the hate, rather it shines light on the inspirational stories of its citizens and encourages the reader to overcome the negative stereotypes that perpetuate racism and also to grow past them. Across the Tracks serves as another means to recover a lost history, one that is lost to many white Americans but not to African Americans.
The framing of this story against the plight and relocation of Native Americans adds another layer of complexity and ambiguity though. Native Americans were displaced from their land and suffered tremendously at the hands of whites, but they also took slaves and in some cases treated them no better than the Southern plantation owners. Blacks suffered from racism and discrimination, but benefitted from the same westward expansion that stole land from its original inhabitants.
On one hand then, Across the Tracks tells the story of the building of a dynamic community during a time of oppression as well as the rebuilding of that community when it was attacked and destroyed. But it also tells a deeper story of the hidden and ongoing costs of colonialism and Manifest Destiny in the United States. For as much as we wish to believe that we have moved on from the Jim Crow era, there are constant reminders of it for those who care to look.
Today President Biden visited Tulsa to mark the occasion and promote ways to address the racial disparities still inherent in our society. Meanwhile a New York gallery exhibit on the Tulsa Race Massacre was vandalized with white paint. We still have a long way to go. But thankfully Across the Tracks gives me some hope that we can continue to address our past while working towards a brighter, common future.
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