Let's Take a Deep Breath

A brief intermission

My back yard in Tulsa after a storm last spring

I just did a word count and I’m currently at 44,898 words in my manuscript for Built From the Fire, the narrative nonfiction book I’m writing about the history of Greenwood. That puts me close to halfway through the first draft, as I’m guessing the book will come in at something like 100,00 words. Today, I wrote about Greenwood residents’ experiences during World War I, both at home and abroad. I went in expecting one narrative but came out understanding, once again, that history does not bend to the myths we like to tell about the way things used to be. The writer must bend--not their words, which is the easy way out, but their perspective. This is painful at first, but you grow to appreciate becoming more flexible.

I’m now writing Run It Back at the same time as I write Built From the Fire. So far I’ve poured 32,410 (!!!) words into this newsletter, most of them totally distinct from the ones in the manuscript. The serialized format has been a useful tool for me; it keeps me from getting sidetracked in research rabbit holes and forces me to transform all I’m learning into something at least somewhat readable almost in real time. I think great writing requires a certain amount of confidence, and testing out arguments and narrative frameworks here allows me to bring more confidence to the pages of my book. 

But I realized, poring through the winding path of these past 25 issues, that Run It Back has gotten really complicated. Like, how would you jump in, if you were new to this project, besides reading an approaching-novella-length batch of historical essays? One reason I wanted to work in this format was to make neglected black history free and accessible, but I’m starting to realize that “accessibility” is about more than just keeping journalism outside of paywalls. It’s also about the way you write, and how much you write, and who you expect to read your work. 

So anyway, I am trying a new format for Run It Back in addition to my biweekly narration of the Greenwood story. I will be regularly updating a post called “Learn the Story of Black Wall Street” which summarizes the history of black Oklahoma that I have reported so far in the newsletter. It will stay about the length of a single Run It Back issue, even as the chronology marches on into the Great Depression, World War II, and the Civil Rights Movement. Hopefully as it loses certain details, it gains more big-picture clarity. This will be posted at the top of the Run It Back website and should be more easily shareable with others than the biweekly, in-the-weeds missives.

I really like this serialized format and would like to implement it for other projects in the future. But this question of accessibility is a real conundrum. I’d love to hear from any of you who signed up while the story was in progress (so almost everybody, though shoutout to my Day 1’s) about how you caught up. Did you binge-read all the issues? Pick out a few good ones? Ignore the early stuff and just dive in? And when you share this newsletter with others, does it seem like a positive or negative thing that there is so much available for them to read?

Here’s a link for “Learn the Story of Black Wall Street” you can share with others who you think would care about this history: https://runitback.substack.com/p/learn-the-story-of-black-wall-street

And a couple of other things I’ve been up to you may want to read/join:

  • Run It Back is now on Instagram. I update Monday to Friday with images and insight about black Oklahoma history, plus some thoughts on the books I’m reading and some of those long-promised black country songs. Here’s the link for the account: https://www.instagram.com/runitbackarchive/

  • I wrote a feature story for the Smithsonian Magazine about the early history of black Oklahoma. This piece is a good example of the strength I’m able to draw from this newsletter; events from the early Run It Backs are presented with more clarity and confidence. Check it out at: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/unrealized-promise-oklahoma-180977174/

That’s all for now. This was a good week for an interlude because the last Run It Back more or less concludes the first section of the book. Part II is about the period of Greenwood history people rarely talk about: its resurgence as a more prominent and nationally renowned neighborhood, the unheralded role of black Oklahomans in the Civil Rights Movement, and the role that finally defeating Jim Crow ultimately played in the neighborhood’s demise. 

These are topics where I still have a lot to learn myself, so we’ll be figuring it out together.