© Copyright 2022 Jeh Allen CREATIVE. All rights reserved.
Principal Newman wasn’t happy. His pale face was ashen behind a set of rosy cheeks, and a clear sheen of sweat covered his balding head and brow. Winston sat directly in front of him, on the other side of the mahogany desk, his hands clasped together in his lap. Julia Ball, the district’s legal counsel, sat in a chair to the right of Winston, listening, leaning ever so close to him as not to miss his retorts to Principal Newman’s line of questioning.
“Why would you say such a thing?” Principal Newman asked from a seated position behind his desk. “To a classroom full of impressionable ninth graders? Are you even paying attention to the news reports, what their parents are saying about us?”
Winston leaned back in his chair, undeniably confounded by the forcefulness of Principal Newman’s assertion. Winston was fully aware of the heated exchanges that had been occurring between school board members and the parents of Loudoun County students. But he had also surmised that conservative Republican operatives had embedded themselves into these audiences and were largely responsible for turning the monthly school board meetings into circuses, bastions for the dissemination of half-truths, lies and disinformation.
Winston only had one year of teaching under his belt. And that first year went by without a hitch. But the more the Republican presidential incumbent used his public rallies to rail against teachers like him, the more he realized he had to stop being so loose with his words. In 2020, the incumbent Republican president was running for a second term, against the Democratic Party’s nominee, and the incumbent Republican president had shown that he would remain undeterred in openly berating public school administrators and their faculty for teaching K-12 students what he and so many other conservative Republicans considered wrong lessons about race.
“I am,” Winston replied. “But I stand by my statement. Black Americans are the true builders of opportunity and sustainable success.”
“But that’s not true, Winston, and you know it. Don’t get me wrong. You Blacks have had a lot to overcome. But for a highly intelligent Black man like you to tell a room full of White kids that. That’s a bit much, don’t you think?”
Winston immediately countered, at least in his mind, with, “That’s rich.” Better to think it than say it out loud.
“Winston,” Julia interjected, using her right hand to brush a few strands of her blonde hair off her face. “We’re not here to be overly critical of you, as a teacher. Your students love you. Your colleagues love you. But our parents are questioning what their children are being taught in your class about race. And while the claim that Critical Race Theory is being taught in K through twelve classrooms is ridiculous, the fact remains that there are elected officials – all conservative Republicans, mind you – on the local, state, and national levels who are legitimizing it in hopes of peeling away a few votes from the Dems during the upcoming elections.”
“And I get that,” Winston said, a hint of exasperation in his voice. “But the only critical thing I’m trying to teach my students is to think critically about American history. They don’t have to take what I say at face value. But my hope is they fully process what I am trying to communicate to them. I want them to leave class wanting to do their own research. I want them to have an appreciation for the complete historical record, paying attention to all its blemishes.”
“And we respect that,” said Principal Newman. He stood and walked around to the front of his desk. He was now a mere six feet from Winston, three from Julia. He sat on the edge of his desk to look down at Winston.
“It’s a Friday, Winston,” Principal Newman exclaimed, his right eye twitching once, maybe twice, as he spoke. “Having to talk with you about this bullshit is the last thing I wanted to do today.” He stood, stepped to his right. “But go home. Use the weekend to think about how uncomfortable your words made the White students in your class feel.”
Winston raked his hand across the full length of his face before leaning back once more, thumbing the sides of the wooden chair. He had not become an educator – more specifically a history teacher – to make his White students feel comfortable. He knew, like so many other educators, that if one is to teach true American history, the hearers of what is being taught must have the capacity to deal with its undertones.
However, the fact that his boss got up out of his chair to remove the barrier between them, let him know that he sincerely wanted Winston to remain on staff. But that would require that he toe any line Principal Newman set for him moving forward. Therefore, Winston stood, extended his hand. Principal Newman met and clamped down on it in midair, holding it steady in the space between them.
“I will,” Winston said as he shook his hand free. Then, backing away toward the exit door, he added, “See you on Monday?”
Principal Newman replied, “Yes. See you on Monday.”
That night, sometime between eight and nine, Winston found himself stretched out on his living room sofa, feet propped up on the coffee table, as he flipped through the pages of a book titled The 1619 Project. The last slice of a pizza grew cold in a box on the dining room table, basking under the glow of chandelier lights. The seven other slices had been good enough for Winston, at least for now. The sound of an explosion made him look over at the wall-mounted television across the room, increasing the anxiety he was feeling about the real possibility of losing his teaching job.
He already had a sense of who ratted him out. It could have only been one of two suspects – Johnny Richards or Pamela Towns. Johnny didn’t say much in class, but when he did, his classmates seemed to hang on his every word. Pamela, on the other hand, was very outspoken in class, and Winston could tell she was a “my way or no way” kind of girl. But he also knew Johnny’s parents’ politics ran counter to his own. Therefore, if he were a betting man, he would put all his chips on Suspect Number One.
And for good reason. When Johnny, a new student, stepped into his classroom during the middle of the 2021-22 school year, after the school’s Winter break, he proudly announced to everyone within earshot that in 2016 his parents had voted for the Republican presidential incumbent, who was then the Republican presidential nominee. It didn’t matter that the man bragged about how the women he knew loved it when he grabbed them by their pussies. And it didn’t matter that he told reporters that there are good people on “both sides” after one of those “good” White supremacists ended a White BLM protestor’s life by running her over with his car. All that seemed to matter to Johnny’s parents, and Johnny as their child, was the belief that the Republican presidential incumbent could do no wrong because all he wanted to do was “make America great again.”
Winston chuckled to himself at the intended cockiness of this statement. He knew no one president, or political party for that matter, could truly make America great again. All he, or she, or even they, could hope to do is do what their predecessors had committed themselves to doing, which was to create a more perfect union. The last time Winston checked, creating a more perfect union was the corporate vision laid out in both the U.S. Constitution and Declaration of Independence. Now, he wondered how this truth had become lost on the Republican presidential incumbent, Congressional Republican legislators, and the six Republican Supreme Court justices.
Winston had a more difficult time reading Pamela. She considered the Second Amendment, the right to bear arms, sacred, and she was an outspoken critic of abortion rights. She believed that persons kill people, not the arms they bear. Consequently, she felt all the United States government, in collaboration with the Christian church, had to do was win the hearts and minds of gun purchasers, keep guns out of the hands of citizens with psychological problems. Pamela also believed that life begins at conception. But when it came to same-sex marriage, her views seemingly became more liberal and less conservative.
When her gay and lesbian classmates reminisced aloud during classroom discussions about the 2016 Pulse Nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida, in which 49 people were killed, another 53 injured, Pamela defended them. These classmates talked about how they are now scared to openly display any type of affection toward their same-sex partners. Pamela now believed that people should be able to love whomever they wanted to love, whether male, female, or nonbinary. But Winston had heard from Issac, another Black man who just happened to be the school’s Physical Plant director, that Pamela had extra motivation for her defense. He divulged that a female member of his janitorial staff caught Pamela and another White girl, Leslie Cooper, French kissing and feeling each other up under the gymnasium bleachers about a month before Winston was called into Principal Newman’s office.
Winston peered over at the wall clock on the far side of the room. Nine fifteen. He opened The 1619 Project book once more, with every intention of reading Nikole Hannah-Jones’ piece on Justice. However, as his eyes soaked in the words on the chapter’s first page, he could feel them getting heavier. Not long after that, they were completely shut, his nostrils flaring from the forcefulness of his snores. When his eyes opened, he was…
…sitting in a barber’s chair, his upper body covered by a barber’s cape from the neck down.
“They know Dick didn’t do nothing wrong,” said Sammy, the establishment’s proprietor. Sammy, his round belly fighting to stay under his waist-length barber’s smock, took great care in using a pair of scissors to put the finishing touches on Winston’s cut. There were about five other Black men sitting in chairs in front of and around Winston. Others sat patiently in the two rows of chairs positioned in front of the plate-glass window with Sammy’s Barbershop painted on it on the outside. “But Hubert and his boys down at the courthouse now. Making sure those crackers don’t take Dick out back to hang his ass.”
A light-skinned brother getting his hair cut to Winston’s right shifted in his chair, causing his barber Damon to take a momentary pause.
“I told him not to go down there,” the light-skinned brother exclaimed. “At least not armed. Told him some of the White folks around here don’t take too kindly to what we have going on over here, in Greenwood. I been hearing rumblings around town, how they scheming to take all this away from us.”
Another man sitting in a chair on the front left row of the chairs interjected, asking, “How they going to do that O.W.?” He uncrossed his legs and spread them wide. “You and J.D. purchased Greenwood outright,” he continued, gesturing with his hands for emphasis. “All of us working together is what turned it into a thriving community. So, I’m sorry. We built this, not them.”
“We did, Clive,” O.W. replied. “But some of us are getting caught up, drawing too much attention to what we built. That White girl down at the Drexel Building done come out and said Dick stumbled and accidentally stepped on her foot. But them White boys still lying about the whole thing, saying he attacked her. Makes you wonder what they plan on doing to the rest of us.”
Just as O.W. mouthed these words, the plate glass window to his right imploded, causing shards of glass to rain down on the row of seated patrons. All eyes followed the trajectory of a large brick as it flew over their heads and bounced across the floor. Seconds later, they watched again as a Coke bottle with a flaming makeshift wick flew through the open space to splatter trails of kerosene and flame across the room.
Winston ripped the kerosene-soaked cape from around his neck and tossed it toward the billowing flames. It became ash before it could hit the floor. He then hastily followed Sammy, O.W. and the others to the back storeroom. Once there, they all exited through a door that led to the back alley. But once he was outside, Winston froze.
O.W. briefly stood with Winston before trotting away. Before getting too far, he peered back at Winston. He motioned to Winston. O.W. watched as Winston seemed to recognize the urgency of now. So, when Winston caught up to O.W., they wasted little time retreating down the shadowed alleyway.
Night had fallen on the Greenwood District, and all Greater Tulsa for that matter, but the full moon and the flames rifting from the burning buildings provided enough lighting for them to get around. But when O.W. and Winston reached one of the main streets, they found themselves walking past the dead bodies of Black, and a few White and Native American, Greenwood residents. A mix of splatters and pools of dark, red blood surrounded the bodies, many of them riddled with gunshot wounds. Overwhelmed by it all, Winston froze again, almost falling to his knees.
“Come on, young buck,” O.W. pleaded, as he prepared to take a left onto an adjoining street. “They still out there. Hunting.”
But before Winston could get back to his feet, a tall White man dressed in denim overalls, carrying a shotgun, rounded the corner of a brick building. When he spotted Winston, he raised his shotgun, finger on the trigger, taking aim. Fortunately for Winston, O.W. got him first. A single shot to the back of the White man’s head from O.W.’s revolver sent the White man reeling face first onto the dirt turf.
“Let’s go,” said O.W., slipping the revolver back into the shoulder holster hidden under the confines of his suit jacket. “They’re waiting.”
The further they walked away from Greenwood, the darker it became. A thin line of sunlight peeked over the horizon to the east. Moonlight allowed Winston to make out the trees, bushes and vines that stood between them and their destination. But those darn thorn bushes caused him to wince as they tore into the exposed skin around his hands and forearms. Winston kept telling himself that he was born for conditions like this. Frolicking around the woods as a child with his friends used to be an everyday occurrence during the summer months.
Of course, he knew the armed White mob was rumbling through Greenwood’s dusty streets, frothing from their mouths at the mere thought of destroying everyone and everything that had a connection to Greenwood. It was then that Winston realized he was indeed a man out of place, out of time.
“You’re O.W. Gurley, aren’t you?” asked Winston when they stopped briefly to catch their breaths.
O.W. replied, “I am. And you are?”
“Winston. Winston James.”
“Pleasure meeting you, Winston James.
Winston flopped to his bottom and allowed his back to rest against a large oak tree. “Seems like we been running for hours, sir. Where we going?”
O.W. joined Winston under the tree but opted to remain standing. He pulled a handkerchief from his inside pocket, using it to dab at his brow. “Somewhere safe, Winston. A gathering place.”
Winston peered at O.W., admiring how O.W.’s pale face was shrouded in light and darkness. As a student of Black American history, Winston knew a little about the role gathering places played in helping his enslaved ancestors develop a sense of identity and purpose. And while these gathering places were used mostly to practice their version of Christianity beyond the oversight of White overseers, the frustrated and anxious Black men of that bygone era used them to plan, coordinate and execute a somewhat radical form of activism that would one day win them their freedom.
Moments later, Winston, once again, found himself falling in lockstep with O.W. for what Winston hoped was the final leg of their journey. However, the sound of barking dogs and the sight of lit torches caused them to take refuge behind a row of bushes. When the dogs’ barks became growls mixed with the slopping sounds of flesh being ripped from bone, Winston knew one of this White crews had caught up to some Greenwood residents. And by the sound of things, the dogs wasted very little time making mincemeat of their captives, buoyed by the urgings of their White owners. Then, five thunderous claps from a shotgun rang out.
With the White crew and their dogs moving further down the road, Winston and O.W. emerged from their hiding place. They were headed in the same direction as the crime scene, so there was no avoiding the carnage wrought by the rabid dogs and their White owners. As they drew closer, O.W. turned slightly away from the piles of ripped flesh and exposed bone, looking instead toward the heavens, seeking comfort wherever any could be found. Winston could tell O.W. recognized the four lifeless bodies – A Black man and woman, their two elementary school-aged children. Tragically reduced to nothing more than empty vessels.
“Dem bastards,” muttered O.W. Then, from a squatting position, inches from what appeared to be the Black father, he extended his right hand, and with his thumb and index finger, he forced the Black father’s eyes shut. If only he could have done the same for the others. But how could he? Deep, bloody holes and indentions now occupied the spaces where the mother and children’s faces had been.
Winston surmised that two members of the White crew had probably forced the Black father to his knees as they shot his wife and children in their faces with their shotguns. Images of them standing the Black father up and then riddling his battered but not broken body with bullets played in Winston’s mind. All to show the Black father that they were the one’s wielding absolute power absolutely, he thought.
O.W. rose from his stooping position to stand tall with his head tilted toward the full moon. Down but not beaten. Then, without saying a word, he took a single glance at Winston, seemingly to see if he was still engaged.
Winston found himself following O.W. as he crawled into what appeared to be a large hole on the side of a rolling hill. The hole was covered with foliage with a thick row of bushes to its left, so one had to know what he was looking for to find it. O.W. was definitely in the know. Winston entered behind O.W. Once inside, he stood upright, his eyes widening at the spectacle before him. They were now in a spacious cavern, the only lighting coming from fiery flames atop torches that had been secured high in the crevices of the cavern’s stony walls.
Winston spotted O.W. greeting, tightly embracing and then releasing a dark-skinned brother to his right. Several feet to his left, the eyes of what appeared to be some of Greenwood’s displaced residents looked back at him. The displaced sat three or four rows deep in multiple huddles throughout the cavern. Winston surmised that their numbers included more Black bodies than others. But as he surveyed their downcast faces, Winston was pleased to see Greenwood residents of Native American, Asian and Caucasian descent sitting among the displaced. This was the Greenwood that the history books didn’t tell you about, Winston thought. A coalition as colorful as the rainbow, built by Black entrepreneurs to uplift the Black race while simultaneously being open to conducting business with anyone willing to sufficiently compensate hardworking Greenwood residents for their labor.
O.W. motioned to Winston as he and the dark-skinned brother solemnly walked toward a stony enclave situated in the right-hand corner of the cavern. Winston spotted Sammy and two other Black men that he had seen earlier at the barbershop sitting inside, around a blazing fire.
O.W. and Winston sat with the others around the fire. The dark-skinned brother did the same. “This here J.D. J.D. Stradford.”
Winston nodded at J.D. as he settled in around the fire.
“He the one that helped me do all this,” O.W. continued. J.D.’s gaze shifted from Winston to the logs burning in the fire. “Amazing what we were able to accomplish.”
Winston sat patiently, waiting for J.D. to say something, anything, to him. But J.D. remained silent as the tears mounted in his eyelids to roll down the sides of his ebony cheeks.
“All we ever wanted to do was create a better life for ourselves,” he said, “for our people. We didn’t ask them for nothing; just wanted to be left alone. But they couldn’t even allow us to have that. What we built with our own blood, our own sweat, our own tears.” He locked eyes with O.W. “They done took it from us, O.W. What we going to do now?”
O.W.’s gaze retreated from J.D. to the faces of the other Black men seated around the fire. Then, while gazing into the fire, he replied, “We rebuild. And we keep rebuilding until they stop coming at us, after us. Sooner or later, they’re going to get the message – that we’re not going anywhere, that we’re here to stay.”
Winston closed his eyes to whisper a silent prayer. When they opened, he found himself…
…back in his living room, reclining on the sofa, The 1619 Project book lying open with the pages pressing into his chest.
Winston tilted The 1619 Project book up so he could pick up where he left off. His eyes immediately fell on the bolded words “Freed people” in the middle of the page. His interest piqued, he continued, reading, “…tried to compel the government to provide restitution for slavery, to provide at the very least a pension for those who, along with generations of their ancestors, had spent their entire lives toiling for no pay. They filed lawsuits. They organized to lobby politicians. And every effort failed.”
Winston shifted his gaze from the page to the talking heads on the television across the room. Even though he was looking at them, he really was looking past them, at the faces of O.W. Gurley and J.D. Stradford staring back at him.
It saddened him that these two Black, self-made, American men had their dream of a self-sufficient Black American community scuttled by a White American populace that didn’t have an appetite for Black people pursuing and achieving life, liberty and happiness, excellence even. His own analysis of what had transpired in Greenwood revealed that its Black American residents weren’t filing lawsuits or lobbying politicians to get what they wanted, what they were entitled too. Hell, they could have cared less about receiving handouts from the Federal government. Again, they had legally purchased Midwestern land. Now, or least then, they wanted to be left alone so they could lead lives that were free of turmoil and strife.
Winston watched quietly as his students packed up their belongings and made a hasty exit through the door at the back of the classroom. After most of them had cleared out, he used the remote to power off the smart board. But when he looked up, he spotted Johnny approaching.
“Hey, Mr. Winston,” Johnny began, nervously tugging on the bookbag dangling from his shoulder. “Can we talk?”
“Sure,” said Winston, dropping to the rolling ergonomic chair between his desk and the smart board.
“I owe you an apology, sir.”
“An apology?” Winston said, feigning surprise. “For what?”
“For telling my parents about what you said in class last week.”
“No worries, Johnny. No harm, no foul. I just hope your parents understand that I wasn’t trying to be mean-spirited by saying what I said.”
Johnny allowed his bookbag to slide off his back and drop to the floor. “That’s the problem,” he said, slipping into the desk chair directly in front of Winston’s. “They act like they don’t, but they do. They plan to make an issue out of it anyway. The school board has agreed to allow my mother to speak out against you at Wednesday’s meeting.” Winston swallowed hard. “I just want you to know, I do. I understand exactly what you were saying.”
Johnny shifted his body and legs to lean sideways in the desk chair, his left elbow on his thigh, his right on the desktop. “I did my own research, sir. Like you always encourage us to do. Came up with my own conclusions. Black people have always been about the business of showing the rest of us what it truly means to be, well, American. Because of the way people that look like me used to treat Black people, America has never been great; it has always been a country in search of greatness. These MAGA people – my parents included – are trying to confuse the issue by referring to history that focuses on Black enslavement, oppression, and disenfranchisement as Critical Race Theory. They want to make White people think we have done enough to right our ancestors’ wrongs. But we haven’t. If anything, we have only been making things worse for everyone by ignoring the wrong things that we have done and keep doing to Black people.” Johnny sat upright. “I just think too many of us are tone deaf, sir.”
Winston allowed his backside to come into alignment with the contours of his ergonomic chair, his elbows on the right and left armrests, his hands coming together to form a bridge, inches from his face.
Johnny glanced up at Winston and then quickly looked away.
Winston stood, walked to the front of his desk. Once there, he offered his right hand to Johnny. When Johnny reached up and accepted it with his own, Winston pulled him up from the chair. The two stood there, for two or three ticks, eyeing each other in silence.
“You see,” Winston began, “this here is what I’m talking about. Connection. You now see what I see, what I and my people experience or have experienced. And that, young buck, is the first step to building community, together.”
Johnny nodded, smirking, as Winston patted him on the back.
Johnny felt fortunate to be in this number.
© Copyright 2022 Jeh Allen CREATIVE. All rights reserved.