By Miriam Moore-Keish
Today we’re pleased to welcome Nikki Shannon Smith to the WNDB blog to discuss Lena and the Burning of Greenwood: A Tulsa Race Massacre Survival Story, illustrated by Markia Jenai, out January 1, 2022.
In the early 1920s, the Greenwood District in Tulsa, Oklahoma, is the wealthiest Black community in the United States. But Tulsa is still a segregated city. “Black Wall Street” and white Tulsa are very much divided. Twelve-year-old Lena knows this, but she feels safe and sheltered from the racism in her successful, flourishing neighborhood. That all changes when Dick Rowland, a young Black man from Greenwood, is accused of assaulting a white woman. Racial tensions boil over. Mobs of white citizens attack Greenwood, terrorizing Black residents and businesses, and forcing many—including Lena and her family—to flee. Now Lena must help her family survive one of the worst incidents of racial violence in American history. Readers can learn the real story of the Tulsa Race Massacre from the nonfiction backmatter, including a glossary, discussion questions, writing prompts, and author’s note, in this Girls Survive story.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
In the foreword to the book, you write, “turning this event into a work of fiction was a challenge for many reasons. Researching the Tulsa Race Massacre was heartbreaking. I cried almost every time I wrote a scene.” How did you deal with that?
You know, the only way out is through, as the saying goes. So there were days where I just gave myself some grace and didn’t do it. There were days where I knew, “this is just how today is going to feel” and pushed through it. I think it was deeply, deeply personal, for a lot of reasons, number one, just as an African American woman writing about a tragedy like this. But the backdrop was actually January 2021. The insurrection had just happened when I started my research. So I felt like we were reliving the same mentality [as the Tulsa Race Massacre]—and that allowed the insurrection to happen. There’s a quote in that foreword at the very end. One of the survivors [of the Tulsa Race Massacre] said, “we have to tell the truth so that this can never ever happen again.” And I kept those words near. Emotionally near, physically near—because they were in the notebook I was using. I knew I had to tell this truth and tell this story, to get this story out truthfully but appropriately for children, and to do it justice, for it to be a work that I could be proud of and that my people could be proud of: both ancestors and those yet to come.
It’s interesting that you mention the truth but kid-friendly. How do you balance those two?
So during the research I was finding details that would never go in a children’s book. There were specific details about murders of the people of Greenwood and I wrote those in my notes because that level of emotion needed to be in every scene. So while I wasn’t going to write those details, the horror and the fear and the devastation…the emotional truth could be there without the physical details. I teach fourth grade so I’m pretty in touch with how far you can go with a child. I teach a lot of social studies and history and so I knew that kids are really empathetic. So if the emotions were there, and they really cared about the characters, and the plot details were correct, then I felt like I was doing it justice in terms of balancing the truth and balancing appropriateness for kids.
How do you think being a teacher influences your writing?
It definitely helps me to be around children. I think that just like they’re my audience, I’m theirs. So the ability to listen to the types of questions they ask and know what they’re curious about—or if I read another book to them (because I don’t read my own books in the classroom), the things they notice or the connections they make to other things—those inform how I piece together a story so that those largest questions I think children might ask are answered.
Do you have any recommendations or hopes for other teachers who are teaching Lena and the Burning of Greenwood in the classroom?
That whoever is reading read the author’s note. There are pieces in there that don’t make it into the story or little nuances that I’ve brought as an author to the story that are important to me. And some of my books, in fact, I will ask that in the author’s note: “how can you make a difference?” I hope that dialogue is happening.
So do I. Are there any books that you read to ask that question?
I’m about to read We Are Water Protectors to the class. I’m looking forward to that conversation because they’re not all going to have that pipeline background. So we’ll talk about it in that context: what would you do? I’ve had kids as young as second grade—we were reading a book about civil rights—and I had a kid say, “Mrs. Smith, what were the kids doing during the marches? What were kids doing during the Civil Rights Movement?” And my job is either to say, “I don’t know” or to tell them. So we looked it up! And we learned. And we asked, “well, what would you be doing? Would you be in that march?” And it’s okay to say no. Then, “how can you work behind the scenes to support change?”
Do you teach the Tulsa Race Massacre?
I never have. The bulk of my teaching has been either second grade or fourth grade, and fourth grade has a focus on California history. That doesn’t lend itself naturally. I think had I been teaching in person in January of 2021, it would have…I read a quote—it was on Twitter and I’m definitely not going to get it right but Carole Boston Weatherford—the author who wrote the picture book on Tulsa—when the insurrection actually happened, she said that the people who committed it were cut from the same white cloth as those who raided Greenwood. I think those of us who knew about Tulsa saw it.
What was it like writing this book after the summer of 2020 uprisings and working with a publisher in the Twin Cities and in Minnesota? Was that on your mind? I can’t imagine it wouldn’t be…
Yeah it was. I think, for me, in May of 2020…nothing surprises me. If you know history, it’s just repeating, repeating. We’ve heard the comment over and over that nothing has changed. Our ability to broadcast it or videotape it or bring it to life for more people—that’s what’s changed. They showed that murder on a loop. I had to stop watching TV. I started walking every day. Shortly after that murder, I didn’t want to walk…but I went on this walk in my neighborhood. And I knew I was feeling it. I knew I was carrying it. Tears had been shed. But I came around one stretch and probably seven of the neighbors in this small stretch—they and their children had taken sidewalk chalk and there was, “Black Lives Matter!” and “No justice, no peace.” And it was “Justice for George Floyd,” and it was “We care about you,” “You matter,” and I just stopped in the middle of my walk and I just dropped—not on the ground—but like how when you have to catch your breath. And I just cried in the middle of my walk. I don’t think that’s ever gone away. The combination of the devastation and the sorrow and, even though it’s the everyday truth, it’s…not surprising but jolting. It’s jolting. And it’s paired with what you see happen as a result. And I think watching Black Lives Matter have deeper roots after that, having people joining together. I still carry it with me. I have a son who is 18. My husband is Black. I’m very much aware of it. But that particular incident lives with me. Because there was that visual on a loop, it’s a visceral memory and response. And what I have to do is not bring the anger to the piece.
[laughs] You know…my audience could be anyone and, because it’s not my job to make anyone feel better about what happened in history, it is my job to give people hope. To any child of any color, any age, and background, who is reading it. That’s how I do it. I weave in a little bit of hope. One of the things we talked about in the editing process was I wanted to be really careful that the illustrations combined with the words didn’t sensationalize [the Tulsa Race Massacre] in any way. We wanted to be really sure that we were capturing emotion without doing what they did to George Floyd.
I want to go back to something that you said earlier, about nothing having changed. “Nothing ever changes” is exactly what Lena’s dad says, which is in juxtaposition to when she thinks “it wouldn’t be this way forever.” I think it’s so important that both of these ideas coexist. They’re both the same and in opposition. It reminds me of Amiri Baraka’s phrase “the changing same.” What do you want your readers to take away from both of these ideas and the two of them as a unit?
Right, they’re both correct! We’re still being discriminated against—no, it’s not slavery—but it’s oppression, it’s institutional racism. I want [readers] to understand that the change is slow, sometimes so slow you don’t see it. I want them to take that piece away, but also that there’s something you can do. I think our younger generation—both in the book and in real life—they are the generation that often grasps that hope and does something with it. And that’s when the change comes.
Are there any questions that you wish I would ask? Anything you have the right answers to but no one has had the right questions yet?
Not really. I’m always really curious about how this will be perceived. Are there people who are going to come after me? I worry about people who don’t like honest content. I also worry about the fact that we’re centering joy right now. And it’s important and I believe in that. But we are all of that. We are all of that as human beings. We are all of that as Black people. But I still worry, that here I am, after everything that’s happened, writing this book. How will my brothers and sister perceive me? Like wow, Nikki just decided to write one of the most terrible histories!
What are your favorite books right now? Do you have any recommendations?
I love Another by Christian Robinson for younger audiences. He’s done so much that makes kids wonder. And that harmless wondering and questioning teaches skills that one day lead us to wonder and question things that are more difficult. Very recently I read Milo [Imagines the World] by Matt de la Peña and Christian Robinson. In our class we’ve been talking about big feelings a lot. I felt a great deal of empathy towards Milo. We talked about that. How we see people and they’re criminals to us, but someone loves that person. That brought something that I’ve never seen in my classroom before.
Nikki Shannon Smith was born and raised in Oakland, California, but now lives in the Sacramento area. She has been an elementary school teacher for over twenty-five years, and is the author of 16 published and forthcoming books for young readers. Her titles include five books in Capstone’s multi-author Girls Survive series, the Azaleah Lane chapter book series (Capstone), and the Brown Baby Parade board book series (Random House, 2022, 2023). When she’s not busy with family, work, or writing, she loves to visit the coast. The first thing she packs in her suitcase is always a book.
Originally from Atlanta, Georgia, Miriam Moore-Keish received her B. A. in English from Macalester College in St. Paul, MN, and her MPhil in Education and Critical Approaches to Children’s Literature from the University of Cambridge in Cambridge, UK. She has written and edited books for all ages, consulted on manuscripts, taught creative writing classes, guest lectured, and engaged in general bookwormery. Miriam currently publishes children’s books at Capstone, designs anti-bias preschool curricula, and curates libraries’ children’s collections. She lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where they don’t (but she does) sweeten their tea.