If We Must Die:
A Novel of Tulsa's 1921 Greenwood Riot

by Pat Carr


TCU Press, 2002. ISBN 087565262X.
Reviewed by Linda Wisniewski
Posted on 09/06/2002

Fiction: Historical; Teen/Girls

This engrossing novel captured my interest from the first page, though I can't say I enjoyed reading about this horrible chapter in our nation's history.

Soon after Berneen O'Brien, a woman of black Irish descent, accepts a teaching position in 1921 in the Greenwood neighborhood of Tulsa, Oklahoma, she realizes she is teaching at a black school. Her uncle, who took her in after her mother's death, is a racist and a member of the Ku Klux Klan. The staff and students of Liberty Elementary School assume that Berneen,with her olive skin and black curly hair, is also black. Berneen finds herself identifying with them, while living in her uncle's white neighborhood.

Written for young adult readers, the book contains disturbing scenes of a lynching and mention of prostitution. Sadly, these scenes are based on true incidents and bring to life what it must have been like to be black in America in 1921. But the author makes her points subtly without a preaching tone.

Through the eyes of Berneen, we discover how damaging racial prejudice is to both the oppressed and the oppressors. In one scene, Berneen's uncle speaks against education for poor children. Believing they are incapable of learning, he points to a bowl of roses and says, "American Beauties can bloom in full splendor only by sacrificing the less significant buds around them."

Berneen drily replies, "In case you hadn't heard, the scent's been bred out of American Beauty roses, too." This confrontation illustrates the richness brought to our society by racial and cultural diversity, as well as the bland sameness that results when we try to keep it out. Racial tension pervades every day of Berneen's life in Tulsa. When the tension explodes into violence, Berneen is trapped in the school with her principal and several other teachers. Her reaction is key to the suspense and uplifting nature of this story. During the riots, a plane dropped bombs on the Greenwood neighborhood.

Ms. Carr provides a brief afterword explaining the actual aftermath of the Greenwood Riot. Until this year, I never had heard of the incident. Why was the worst race riot in American history not in my history books? How did it feel to the people who lived it to have this shameful episode hushed up? This engaging novel would be a wonderful gift for a high school student, or a high school library. While reading it, I learned some things I didn't know but should have. Black men fought with the French Army in World War I because their own country's army wouldn't allow them to be soldiers. Brown bag clubs were segregated dance halls that only admitted people whose skin was as light as a brown paper bag.

Why were there so few strong young women like Berneen O'Brien in the novels I read as a young adult? Ms. Carr's book brings lots of questions to mind. Thinking about your answers can only be a good thing.

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