Bearing witness to murder: Aria on 1921 racial attack in Oklahoma will screen online via UMass and other sites

  • Mezzo-soprano J’nai Bridges performs the aria written by Daniel Bernard Roumain in “They Still Want to Kill Us.” TODD ROSENBERG PHOTOGRAPHY

  • The ruins of part of a section of Greenwood in Tulsa, Oklahoma, smolder after a white mob destroyed the prosperous Black neighborhood in 1921. LIBRARY OF CONGRESS


Staff Writer
Thursday, May 20, 2021

A century ago, what some consider the worst episode of racial violence in U.S. history erupted in Tulsa, Oklahoma, as a white mob swarmed the Black district of Greenwood, attacking residents and burning homes and businesses to the ground.

The 18 hours of destruction left thousands of Blacks homeless and hundreds of others hospitalized; by some estimates, as many as 300 people, mostly Black, were killed. A prosperous neighborhood that had been called the “Black Wall Street” was gutted — and for decades afterward, the news was largely covered up.

As residents and officials in Tulsa present a series of events to recognize the centennial of what came to be known as the Tulsa Race Massacre of May 31-June 1, 1921, the issue continues to smolder.

In late March, an aria that New York composer and violinist Daniel Bernard Roumain wrote for a commemorative concert in Tulsa by Black opera performers was rejected for inclusion because it included the line “God damn America” — a line Roumain refused to remove from his piece.

But now a film of that aria will be screened online May 25 by arts organizations across the country, including the Fine Arts Center at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. The short film, “They Still Want to Kill Us,” has been commissioned by the arts center and about a dozen other organizations, including the Apollo Theater and Joe’s Pub in New York City.

Following the film, an online discussion including Roumain and the aria’s singer, mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges, will be moderated by Jamilla Deria, the art center’s executive director. The complete program will run slightly under half an hour.

In a recent phone call, Deria said she’s been in regular contact during the pandemic with other arts organizations that, like the Fine Arts Center, have had to switch to online programming.

“Because we’re all so kind of decentralized, it’s a way for us to check in with each other and talk about how we can support each other and the arts in this difficult time,” she said.

When the news broke of Roumain’s aria being dropped by the Tulsa program, Deria said the arts center and other groups felt they needed to support him. She knows him personally: Before coming to UMass, she produced numerous arts events in New York City and other locales, including an opera by Roumain.

“I put it out there that in a time of racial reckoning, we should not be silencing stories,” Deria said. “I’m really heartened by the way these different organizations have come together. … Our hope is this project can shine a little light on these terrible events from a century ago.”

“They Still Want to Kill Us,” directed by Yoram Savion and produced by the arts organization Sozo Creative, features Bridges singing Roumain’s aria in New York City, including in an area in Central Park that in the 19th century was known as Seneca Village, a community populated predominantly by African Americans. They were forced to leave when the city took the land in creating the park.

In a straightforward, terse libretto, Roumain’s aria relates the story of the Tulsa Massacre: how an uncertain encounter between a young black man and a young white woman in an elevator led, hours later, to the attack on the Greenwood district. The piece ends with the lines “God Bless America/God Damn America.”

In a statement about his composition, Roumain said the “toxic mix of misinformation, bigotry, ignorance, and white rage” that sparked racial violence in Tulsa a century ago continues today, leading to problems like police shootings of people of color.

“The audacity and hypocrisy to ask God to bless America is not lost on me or many of my friends,” Roumain says. “God damn America has its place.”

According to a number of news reports, including in The Oklahoman, Oklahoma’s largest newspaper, Roumain was one of four Black composers commissioned by the Tulsa Opera Company to write pieces for “Greenwood Overcomes,” a concert by Black performers that would be part of the city’s effort to mark the centennial of the 1921 massacre.

But according to the concert’s co-curators, mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves, who was slated to sing Roumain’s aria, was uncomfortable with the phrase “God damn America.” When they asked Roumain to revise the line, he refused.

A March 28 report in The Oklahoman said the concert co-curators characterized the dispute as an artistic issue, saying they were “extremely disappointed” that Roumain had “turned an artistic disagreement into a racial debate.”

But Roumain said on Twitter “As a Black human being, I ask: who owns the BIPOC (Black, indigenous and people of color) narrative to our bodies, blood, histories, and stories? I say we do.”

For her part, Deria said the effort in Tulsa to recognize the horror of 100 years ago, including the “Greenwood Overcomes” concert, seems like a good-faith one. But she added that she’s troubled by the idea of Roumain’s aria being canceled by Tulsa Opera, seeing a parallel to what happened in the aftermath of the massacre.

“The history around this horrific event was silenced for years,” she said. “I’m glad we can play a part in letting (Roumain’s) work be heard.”

The May 25 presentation, Deria said, will also serve as a bit of a teaser for a short opera the composer is now writing on the 1921 massacre that the Fine Arts Center plans to bring to the Valley within the next two years.

In addition, the program will include a statement from Damario Solomon-Simmons, an attorney with the Justice for Greenwood Foundation, which is seeking reparations for three survivors of the 1921 massacre, as well as for descendants of those killed. The program will continue to stream on the platforms of each presenting organization through July 31.

To register for the free program, go to fac.umass.edu and click on the link for “They Still Want to Kill Us.” The program can be viewed at 8 p.m. on May 25 on the arts center’s Facebook and YouTube pages.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.