Update: Jerica Wortham on the transformative power of art
How does a city confront a violent past? Tulsa, Oklahoma, is wrestling with the question as it prepares for the centennial of the brutal race massacre that took place there on May 31 and June 1, 1921.
For Tulsa native Jerica Wortham, one answer is through art – especially art that lets Tulsa’s Black community members process their painful history, own the stories for themselves, and find a path toward healing. As program director for The Greenwood Art Project, Ms. Wortham is hoping the project will facilitate space for that to happen.
In the final episode of “Tulsa Rising,” Ms. Wortham gives our reporters the latest on the project’s status and her reflections on the transformative power of music, poetry, and creativity.
“It is my hope that with … the opportunity to experience these narratives in a way that makes it human, we take it from just the sensational to real life practical, policy change,” she says.
This episode is an update to Part 3 of our podcast “Tulsa Rising,” which commemorates the centennial of the 1921 Tulsa race massacre. To learn more about the podcast and find other episodes, please visit our page.
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Samantha Laine Perfas: Hi everyone, I’m Samantha Laine Perfas.
Jessica Mendoza: And I’m Jessica Mendoza.
Sam: This is “Tulsa Rising,” a podcast by The Christian Science Monitor –
Jess: – where we take a close look at the legacy of the 1921 Tulsa race massacre.
Sam: This is the final episode of the podcast! If you’ve listened to our other episodes, you’ll know that we first reported this series in the fall of 2020. And because a lot has happened since, we called back some of the people we spoke to. We wanted to know what they were up to just ahead of the massacre’s centennial on May 31st.
Jess: Today, we hear from Jerica Wortham, program director of the Greenwood Art Project. We talked to her about how the artists she’s working with have adapted to the pandemic. A lot of their art projects will be available online, which is great news for out of towners like us!
Sam: We also get a peek at Jerica’s latest work with “Fire In Little Africa” – that’s the big multimedia hip hop project that celebrates Black Wall Street.
Jess: We even play a bit of, “Shining” – the song she’s in – near the end of the episode.
Sam: And Jerica shares what she’s hoping for – for Greenwood and for Tulsa – beyond 2021.
Jess: Don’t forget, you can find all the episodes of “Tulsa Rising” wherever you get your podcasts! Or visit csmonitor.com/tulsarising. Now: our conversation with Jerica.
Jess: OK, it’s Jess here talking. Sam’s on the line as well.
Jerica Wortham: Hello, hello.
Jess: And just wanted to say thank you for taking the time to catch up with us.
Wortham: Not a problem. Not a problem. I’m excited.
Jess: Well, how are you doing? It’s been a while.
Wortham: I am well. I, of course, am working through all of the last details to prepare the Greenwood Art Project. So really just navigating all of the moving pieces, and just really excited to see it all take place, really, that’s where we are. That’s where we are.
Jess: I mean, the last time we talked, everything for the commemoration was still sort of covid pending. So we’d love for you to walk us through what’s happened over the past eight months, if there’s been any new additions or adjustments to the activities you’d had planned and what folks can look forward to.
Wortham: We naturally had been navigating how we can safely share these installations with our community and with the world at large. Some projects have been able to lend themselves to virtual experiences. Many have also worked out either having outdoor spaces or the venues have very strict covid protocols in place. And we’re training volunteers to navigate restrictions so that everyone can have a safe and enjoyable experience. We have also commissioned a series of mini documentaries. In Tulsa, Oklahoma, we have a drive-in theater. And we will be filming a series of the mini documentaries so that people still have the opportunity to engage with it in a meaningful way. We’ve also engaged our Downtown Coordinating Commission to light our town green in honor of the historic Greenwood district, but also the commemoration of the 1921 race massacre. So we’re just really looking for all the ways to – to share this story and this narrative with the world.
Sam: I think it’s so exciting just to hear all of the different things that you guys are planning. It sounds incredible. Selfishly, I’m very excited for all of the digital components because I won’t have the luxury of being there in person. So for all of the people who will be tuning in from around the world, where can they find these amazing parts of the project?
Wortham: Absolutely. So just simply go to our website, which is GreenwoodArtProject.org.
Sam: As I’m thinking about all the different aspects of this project and probably the evolution it has had to go through during a pandemic, I’m wondering how the artists in the community have been feeling. You know, has it been a time of stress or in some ways, has it created opportunities for artists to try new things?
Wortham: I think they have gone through – or they’ve, they’ve just run the full gamut of emotion. They signed up for this project, 2019, 2020. They had their idea of what this project would look like, how it would manifest itself, and then a pandemic hits. And so they’ve had to shift. But I think once they got through the stress of exactly, “How will my project shift?” You’re now seeing the light in their eyes. “Wow, I’ve created something and I’m excited for people to engage. And I want them to come out and I hope they get it.” And as of now, the sentiment seems to be getting those last final details together, of making sure that their installation is ready and that it qualifies as far as honoring their ideas and navigating technically through a pandemic.
Jess: Well, the Greenwood Art Project – the centennial, really – commemorates, you know, the 1921 Tulsa race massacre. But it’s also really about Greenwood and Black Wall Street and the businesses and the community that was and is there now. How has the pandemic affected those businesses and what role, maybe, are they playing in the centennial or as part of the Greenwood Art Project, if any?
Wortham: The roles that they are playing are varied in nature. Everyone is trying to find a way to stay viable, even if people are not able to engage with their storefronts. For many small businesses of color, a lot of their operations, at least in the Tulsa area, are – ran online. And so I think they’ve been able to maintain some sense of normalcy. Now for the caterers and live event people like me – yeah, it just hasn’t happened. I’m still waiting to feel safe enough to really just open it up for the world. But I’m getting closer.
Jess: The other thing we wanted to ask about was “Fire in Little Africa.” I was sort of peeking through your Instagram and saw that – did you guys do a show recently? What’s been going on with that?
Wortham: Yes, they had a show in Oklahoma City, which is absolutely phenomenal. It was a great experience. This project has really taken several forms: a podcast, the live shows, an album that will be released on all streaming platforms beginning May 28th. That project has also just recently been picked up by Motown Records under the Black Forum label, which is actually a space that has not been utilized for over 30 years. Martin Luther King was signed under Black Forum. And so to have a representation of Tulsa artists telling the stories from their perspective on a label that has so much significance historically is – is beautiful.
Sam: What a huge moment for all the “Fire in Little Africa” artists. I just wish I could be in the room when you guys found out and when all that went down.
Wortham: It was surreal. It was absolutely surreal.
Sam: As we near the centennial and summer and recovery seems more tangible. Where are you finding hope during this time and what are your dreams for the city coming out of this difficult season?
Wortham: What I hope is for everyone to come and be open to a perspective outside of what they may have thought they would experience. And then from that, thinking through what it really would mean to move forward and to think about it in a meaningful way, in a real-life way beyond 2021. How do we carry this narrative forward where we’re also open to learning the lessons that come from that? How do we make sure that this never happens again? Listening to the needs of the survivors and their descendants. What does it look like to have reparations to these communities? How do we make this real? It is my hope that with the Greenwood Art Project and really having the opportunity to experience these narratives in a way that makes it human, we take it from just the sensational to real life practical policy change, real life, practical community engagement and organizing, real life accountability to the Greenwood community, what it has lost, and bring it back in a beautiful but equitable way.
Jess: Great. Well, thank you, thank you so much. Sam, did you have anything else you wanted to ask?
Sam: No. Just that I’m – I’m so excited to look up where we can find all these things. Can you say the website one last time?
Wortham: It is GreenwoodArtProject.org.
Jess: Before we close, so one thing that people really loved about the series that we did was hearing you perform your poetry for us. So we were wondering if you had written anything new or had anything you might be willing to share and read out with us today? Not to put you on the spot, but kind of.
Wortham: Let me think. I don’t know. Let me think through – OK, so my verse from the “Shining” song speaks to Greenwood’s history, but then it also speaks to resilience and being able to continue to move forward in spite of.
[Music from the song, “Shining”]
Here is the verse. The verse is:
Picture this: Greenwood Ave.
Red Man’s Land.
See the brilliance built by a Black man’s hand.
It was for us, by us, false prop, plot us, hold up, trot us, peg leg got us.
These jewels cost.
This shine ain’t free.
And for a buck they switch the Rubik’s of our history.
But we’re what it looks like when we got our own backs
and we’re what it looks like when we build it back Black.
We’re what it looks like in a hundred years’ time.
Got the audacity to walk up out these ashes and shine.
[Fade out music from the song, “Shining”]
Sam: Thanks for listening! If you enjoyed this series, please rate and review us! You can find all our episodes on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, and Stitcher. Or visit csmonitor.com/tulsarising.
Jess: This episode was reported and produced by me, Jessica Mendoza.
Sam: And me, Samantha Laine Perfas.
Jess: Edited by Clay Collins. Sound design by Morgan Anderson and Noel Flatt.
Sam: And special thanks to the team at “Fire In Little Africa” for letting us use a snippet of the song, “Shining,” feat. Steph Simon, Ayilla, Dialtone, and Jerica Wortham.
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Jess: This podcast was brought to you by The Christian Science Monitor, copyright 2021.