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By Randi Pink
This summer, a rumor began circulating around Birmingham — the Klan was making its way downtown in opposition to the Lynn Park Monument removal. Rumors amidst a pandemic strike harder than regular rumors. Without co-workers to lessen paranoia, rumors such as this can swarm a housebound woman into panic. Especially a woman writing a book about Greenwood.
For nearly two years, I’ve been writing and editing ANGEL OF GREENWOOD. This novel takes place in the summer of 1921 in Greenwood, a district in Tulsa, Oklahoma once known as Black Wall Street. But on May 31, 1921, Memorial Day, when a Black man named Dick Rowland is accused of sexually assaulting an elevator operator, a white mob converged onto Black Wall Street, ultimately destroying nearly forty blocks.
As I researched for this work of historical fiction, the Ku Klux Klan loomed over Birmingham.
I remember that day vividly, Googling and refreshing for updates, and praying. So much praying. I prayed like I’d been told my great-grandmother used to. Pleading prayers. Lobbying God to save my children and let me be spared so that I may raise them.
I’d been waiting for the Klan to return since high school when they converged onto my city. But this time, I was a parent. A protector holding my children in close, using my tired arms as shields.
The whole world seemed to be coming apart in that moment, and all I could do was watch with my son’s tiny body in one arm, and my daughter’s dainty hand wrapped around the other. I, a writer risen from the red dirt of Alabama, had no words.
I felt that I should’ve had the perfect expressions in my back pocket. I should’ve been preparing them since the Klan came in the nineties. Instead, I was tangled up in mind and heart and body with George Floyd’s final words looping inside of my head. I watched those around me, brave fists raised, somehow knowing the right thing to Tweet or say or sing. By and by, Lord, by and by, they marched and sang in spaces where countless others marched and sang for the same cause. Yet, I sat silent.
Until, that is, I began to fight.
I’ve never been much of a fighter in the conventional sense. I fight with my fingertips in quiet rooms with legs crossed underneath me. I fight with meditations and hymns from the deep-seated South. I fight with history and the knowing that this moment is not new.
So, I poured my spirit into Angel and Isaiah and Muggy and Greenwood itself. I researched while a newborn dozed at my bosom. I jotted worthy words with crayon as I colored with my toddler. Once, I even wrote the final punctuation of a sentence with my big toe as not to interrupt the sleeping children in my lap. I fought with the only thing I knew to fight with, and in the process, freed myself.
In my novel, there are moments when Greenwood itself speaks, expressing its pride toward the Black ingenuity and strength of will it took to create such a place in the face of such racial vitriol:
From your blood, I rose. Brick by brick, I was built with tired hands that deserved rest. You. Black. Beautiful. Never broken. I prayed for you to thrive and watched with pride when you did. I wanted to touch your shoulder and whisper my pride into your ear but I could not.
So, I showed myself in the quiet ways…
Yesterday, a white woman’s scream swung the atmosphere so far that I could not catch it. Her scream lit an already angry brew, fueling and feeding a starving mob whose hunger was not for food. Her scream echoed through newspapers, and living rooms, and up and down sidewalks until today – the thirty-first day of May in the hopeful year of 1921 – when the brew has overflowed.
The Klan never showed up in Birmingham that day. But the threat set off a flow of events that led me to loose something powerful from of my frustrated mind, and when I look at the cover of ANGEL OF GREENWOOD, I see the fight won. I see the strength of a woman doing that which should not even be possible. I see one foot in front of the other without ever leaving the house. And maybe above all else, I see myself building something beautiful in the most challenging of times.
Randi Pink is the author of several young adult novels including INTO WHITE (2016) and GIRLS LIKE US (2019). She lives and writes in Birmingham, Alabama with her family.