Branding in America

Apex Hides the Hurt

by Colson Whitehead
Doubleday, 212 pp., $22.95

Ralph Ellison talked about the formerly enslaved looking for freedom in the West of the old Indian Territory after the collapse of Reconstruction in the early 1880s. Oklahoma, where Ellison was born in 1913, had been a sanctuary for runaway slaves and it continued to attract the descendants of freed slaves

who considered it a territory of hope and a place where they could create their own opportunities. It was a magnet for many individuals who had found disappointment in the older area of the country, white as well as black, but for Negroes it had a traditional association with freedom which had entered their folklore.1

Going to the territory—that was what Jim and Huck aimed to do; it was something Bessie Smith sang about.

The discovery of oil in Oklahoma at the beginning of the twentieth century made it a boom territory, and a wildcat atmosphere surrounded some of the lynchings that took place there during that time. In 1911, four years after Oklahoma was admitted to the Union, a black woman accused of killing a white sheriff was taken from her cell in Okemah, Oklahoma, by a mob, raped, and then hanged along with her teenage son.2 Blacks had settled before whites on the Cherokee- and Creek-inhabited land that became Tulsa, and the prosperity of some of the city’s blacks seems to have been among the provocations for the race riot of 1921. A white mob burned down the black business district.3 Nevertheless, Ellison was eloquent about the Oklahoma City of his youth as free, uncharted territory sheltering people of different races and backgrounds who exchanged ideas in defiance of barriers against their communication.

Oklahoma still has all-black towns, most founded in the late nineteenth century as places where black people could have authority over their lives. The small town in American literature was for a long time the microcosm, symbolic of the whole country. The all-black town is generally a small town, but in black literature it represents an exceptional social situation, not the usual. Toni Morrison’s Paradise is set in one such Oklahoma community at the close of the Vietnam War. Her all-black town is an isolated patch of murderous patriarchal repression, a utopian project that has been betrayed. But Morrison’s tale of violence toward outsiders ends in possible rebirth, a second chance, for this particular black town. The descendants of the town’s founders can reclaim the psychic freedom of the open territory.4 Black people share in the history and mystique of the American West, though the chance for them to homestead in Oklahoma in the late nineteenth century came about because the federal government considerably reduced the reservations set aside for the Five Indian Nations.5 After the stories of the eastern seaboard and the West Coast, the tales of midwestern upbringings and memories of the Deep South, the West as a subject or setting for black writers still has the freshness of a history different from the rest…

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