Tom Hanks: Schools and Hollywood ‘Must Portray the Burden of Racism in Our Nation’

Tom Hanks arrives to the New York premiere of the film Where the Wild Things Are, Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2009. Hanks co-produced the film which has been adapted from the children's classic book. (AP Photo/Stuart Ramson)
AP Photo/Stuart Ramson

An op-ed from actor Tom Hanks published by the New York Times Friday urges Americans to “learn the truth about the Tulsa Race Massacre.”

The June 4 op-ed landed days after the 100th anniversary of one of the most disgraceful incidents in American history, where between May 31 and June 1, in 1921, the city of Tulsa, Oklahoma, erupted in a deadly race riot.

Estimates of the number of deaths from the conflagration seem hard to pin down. Some estimates claim that riot resulted in the deaths of at least 26 black people and 10 whites. However, other estimates posit that as many as 75 to 300 people died during and immediately after the two-day incident.

The Forest Gump star noted at the outset of his article that he has been a fan of studying American history but growing up and during his formative education, he was never exposed to the facts of the Tulsa massacre — sometimes deemed “the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot.”

“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, Okla,” Hanks wrote.

The Toy Story star says he was rarely treated to the historical contributions of minorities during his education because, “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.”

Tom Hanks even blasted Hollywood for ignoring the experiences of minorities in American history and said he never heard of the horrible attacks in Tulsa until last year when he read an article about it in the Times.

The piece continued lamenting the lack of exposure the massacre has received in schools.

The op-ed goes on to say that the lack of education on the massacre is “tragic” and has been a “missed opportunity” to inject some truth into Americans’ education on racism and American history.

Hanks begins to wrap up his piece praising Hollywood for finally starting to take a look at this slice of American history: “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.”

Attention to incidents such as this, Hanks says, “will reflect who we really are and help determine what is our full history, what we must remember.”

The piece ends insisting that teaching about Tulsa’s race battle is the right decision. School curricula should also end the effort to “whitewash curriculums to avoid discomfort for students.”

Hanks adds:

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,” Hanks says in conclusion, “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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