Tom Hanks has long been regarded as America’s dad—more national treasure than actor with each passing year. His and his wife Rita Wilson’s coronavirus diagnosis led to a reckoning with the pandemic’s severity (and a string of mask-wearing PSAs). He delivered a soaring speech at the Joe Biden inauguration. And onscreen, Hanks has played heroic figures from nearly every historical era, from Fred Rogers to Forrest Gump. But in his latest op-ed for The New York Times, Hanks is criticizing the way a dark day in our nation’s history is remembered: the Tulsa race massacre of 1921, in which as many as 300 people were killed by a mob of white residents.
In an essay titled “You Should Learn the Truth About the Tulsa Race Massacre,” Hanks detailed how his own historical education often erased the experiences of Black people, save for Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and Martin Luther King Jr. “But for all my study, I never read a page of any school history book about how, in 1921, a mob of white people burned down a place called Black Wall Street, killed as many as 300 of its Black citizens and displaced thousands of Black Americans who lived in Tulsa, Okla,” Hanks wrote.
The 64-year-old pointed out that “history was mostly written by white people about white people like me, while the history of Black people—including the horrors of Tulsa—was too often left out.” Hanks then called out his own filmography’s lack of Black history acknowledgement. “Until relatively recently, the entertainment industry, which helps shape what is history and what is forgotten, did the same. That includes projects of mine,” he explained, admitting to only learning of the Tulsa massacre last year, “thanks to an article in The New York Times.”
Hanks reflected on the ways “repeated violence” on Black Americans by their white counterparts “was systematically ignored” by white educators, “perhaps because it was regarded as too honest, too painful a lesson for our young white ears.” He reasoned that many predominantly white schools didn’t adequately cover Black history “for the sake of the status quo, placing white feelings over Black experience—literally Black lives in this case.”
The Oscar winner then turned his analysis to the current #BlackLivesMatter moment, asking: “How different would perspectives be had we all been taught about Tulsa in 1921, even as early as the fifth grade?” Hanks continued, “Today, I find the omission tragic, an opportunity missed, a teachable moment squandered. When people hear about systemic racism in America, just the use of those words draws the ire of those white people who insist that since July 4, 1776, we have all been free, we were all created equally…. Tell that to the century-old survivors of Tulsa and their offspring. And teach the truth to the white descendants of those in the mob that destroyed Black Wall Street.”
As for how the entertainment industry properly depicts “the burden of racism in our nation,” Hanks cited both HBO’s Watchmen and Lovecraft Country as recent projects that address the Tulsa race massacre. He then seemed to acknowledge how some of his most popular movies should’ve included racial inequity in their narratives. “An American Black Wall Street was not allowed to exist, was burned to ashes; more than 20 years later, World War II was won despite institutionalized racial segregation [Saving Private Ryan]; more than 20 years after that, the Apollo missions put 12 men on the moon while others were struggling to vote [Apollo 13], and the publishing of the Pentagon Papers showed the extent of our elected officials’ willingness to systemically lie to us [The Post].”
Hanks concluded, “America’s history is messy but knowing that makes us a wiser and stronger people. 1921 is the truth, a portal to our shared, paradoxical history.”
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