A Review of ‘Across the Tracks’

Greenwood, Oklahoma aka “Black Wall Street,” dubbed so by Booker T. Washington, was a once thriving Black community. Thoroughly segregated from the rest of white Tulsa, nevertheless it boasted entrepreneurs, shopkeepers, entertainment venues, and markets, everything a town would need to sustain itself. To be happy and self-sufficient. That is until 1921 when a mob of deputized whites burned the town to the ground. Not only were the murderous white mob deputized to engage in the massacre, they were given weapons by officials of the city government. The even used an aerial bomb.

The impetus for the horror was that Black 19-year-old shoe shiner, Dick Rowland, was accused of assaulting 17-year-old elevator operator, Sarah Page, who was white. While the details are murky, the most commonly accepted order of events was that Dick tripped and grabbed Page’s arm to steady himself. She screamed and the police were called. He was arrested and jailed for this transgression. Angry white men showed up to make sure the nigruh was lynched for the crime. This traveled along the negro-whisperstream and a group of Black men arrived at the jail to ensure that Rowland would not be lynched. Some accounts record that the group of Black men heard that Rowland had already been lynched and came to avenge him.

When the groups of Black and white men confronted each other someone fired a shot. All hell broke loose. If you want to read a more detailed exploration, I suggest you start here and with Alverne Ball and Stacey Robinson’s Across the Tracks: Remembering Greenwood, Black Wall Street, and the Tulsa Race Massacre from Megascope, an imprint of AbramsComicArts.

Across the Tracks… is a close cousin to Golden Legacy comics.

In this slim graphic volume, Ball and Robinson take a most welcomed detour. Instead of highlighting the violence of the event, they focus on the Black prosperity of Greenwood. The team refused the dwell on misery and trauma to focus on what was. Not engaging in petty nostalgia, Ball and Robinson gives us a full and vibrant portrayal of a miracle community. That this community existed in that state, in that city, in that time in the U.S.’s history is nothing short of miraculous. It is another example that white supremacy isn’t all-powerful. That a generation of Black people, not too far removed from slavery and living under Jim Crow conditions, were able to build this (and other) thriving Black communities is a testament to Black resilience and ingenuity, not to mention a huge middle finger to white supremacy. It says, ‘We bounced back. We will always bounce back.’ Robinson’s pencils almost vibrate with this sentiment.

His use of angles, colors, and the most beautiful facial expressions on the population of Greenwood is pure #BlackJoy.  Stacey has always been a very deliberate artist. His work is always very professional and assured. While his work in Tracks is up to his usual high quality standards, there seems to be a care taken here that isn’t as prominent in his other work. Maybe it was the awe-filled task of contributing to the discourse around such a heinous tragedy, but Robinson is in top form. This, coupled with Ball’s sparse, nigh-journalistic approach to the subject matter — that delivers so much information in so few words — makes this book a wonderful introduction, not just to the Tulsa Race Riots, but to the history of African American community-building and mutual aid. For those unfamiliar with Ball, I suggest you start here.

The book is closed out by a thoughtful essay by Drs. Reynaldo Anderson and Colette Yellow Robe that contextualizes the historical, geographic, and demographic moments intersecting on Greenwood.

With the attacks on Critical Race Theory (those who oppose it have absolutely no idea what it is), the denial of the numerous atrocities done to Black people throughout this nation’s history, and that so many people did not have a clue about the Tulsa Race Riots until watching HBO’s Watchmen demonstrates the need for this book. Despite the culminating tragedy, this book gives a balanced, yet brief, exploration of this American wound.

Across the Tracks: Remembering Greenwood, Black Wall Street, and the Tulsa Race Massacre is a book that is perfect for 6-12 year olds, but necessary for all.

Greenwood’s legacy is in good hands with Ball and Robinson.

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