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‘This is Oklahoma history’: OU professor choreographs dance to commemorate Tulsa Race Massacre

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Sisters

Marie Casimir (left) and J’aime Griffith (right) perform and co-choreograph the "I Dream of Greenwood" dance premiering April 9 on Zoom.


Editor's note: In commemoration of the 100-year anniversary of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, The OU Daily Enterprise team has assembled five stories about the Greenwood District's past, present and future for our summer issue of the Crimson Quarterly magazine. Click below to read more.


As Marie Casimir read eyewitness accounts of the Tulsa Race Massacre, she was drawn to the stories of children watching their world burn. 

“They might have been aware on some level, but some of the younger kids, to not be aware and then one day to have your entire community burned down and people killed was just mind-blowing,” Casimir said. 

Casimir, who is an adjunct lecturer in OU’s African and African American Studies Department and currently teaches African dance, was researching the massacre to choreograph the dance film, “I Dream of Greenwood,” which premiers April 9 as part of the OU Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial commemorations.  

While researching, she found Eddie Faye Gates’ book “Riot on Greenwood: The Total Destruction of Black Wall Street,” which became a major inspiration for the dance. Gates was one of the lead interviewers in the 2001 Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riots of 1921 and spent over 20 years interviewing survivors, most of whom were children at the time of the massacre.  

Marie Casimir

Marie Casimir, adjunct lecturer in OU’s African and African American Studies Department, performs choreography in the "I Dream of Greenwood" dance premiering April 9 on Zoom.

“We brought the text into the rehearsal space,” Casimir said. “We would read it separately; we'd come back. We'd read a few sentences, and then we would move.”

By looking at the massacre through the eyes of the children who survived it, the dance film connects the massacre to the modern-day and to children who are continuing to watch acts of racial violence unfold. 

To commemorate the 100-year anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre, OU worked throughout the 2020-21 academic year to provide events and projects to educate students and community members about the massacre, including public lectures, book drives and museum exhibits, according to the OU Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial commemorations’s website. 

One of the main events is “Reflecting on the Past, Facing the Future: The Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Symposium,” which features several panel discussions, a keynote talk by former U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith and the premiere of the dance film. 

Daniel Simon, the assistant director and editor in chief of World Literature Today, is on the coordinating committee for the OU centennial commemorations alongside Kalenda Eaton and Karlos Hill from the African and African American Studies department at OU.

Simon said the symposium will be a hybrid event, with limited in-person attendance April 8 and an online schedule April 9. 

The idea for the centennial symposium came from Hill’s speech at a student rally in response to the blackface incidents in 2019, Simon said. In an opinion piece on the OU Daily’s website, Hill stressed the importance of communities coming together to prevent hate speech and make a more inclusive community. 

“I was really moved by his words of historical memory and solidarity and witness,” Simon said.   

The two began planning, and Eaton joined the committee, working to create an event that would include OU’s Norman campus as well as the Tulsa and Oklahoma City campuses.

While planning the symposium, Simon reached out to Casimir, who had previously choreographed a performance for the 2018 Neustadt Festival. Simon said the dance was a way to connect the symposium with the arts.  

Casimir, along with second-year modern dance performance graduate student J’aime Griffith, served as co-choreographers, and OU professor of dance Leslie Kraus was the dramaturg.

Kraus said that defining her role was difficult, but “dramaturg” felt appropriate. While her work with the project did not focus on researching the context for the performance as a dramaturg normally would, Kraus said she felt privileged to help the project in any way she could, like booking rehearsal spaces or being “an eye in the room” giving feedback. 

“I honestly feel very, very lucky for Marie to ask me to be a part of the process and to witness these stories and to listen to them and to be a part of the creative process,” Kraus said. “I’m humbled by it.” 

J'aime dreaming

Second-year modern dance performance graduate student J’aime Griffith plays a child dreaming in the "I Dream of Greenwood" dance premiering April 9 on Zoom.

Casimir and Griffith are also the only dancers in the film. While Casimir said that she would normally have four or five dancers for a project like this, a smaller cast was more ideal.   

“It felt like we wanted to create a bubble where we felt safe and good and also could have a deeper engagement,” Casimir said. 

After reading Gates’ book, Casimir said the team decided to look at the massacre through the eyes of children.

“When we talk about the massacre, I don't know that we think about the young people who were traumatized or who may not have been aware of the racial tension,” Casimir said.   

The team began working last summer, reading books, finding stories and watching videos. Griffith said she watched a video of a survivor describing how she initially thought the gunfire was fireworks until her mother explained to her the truth. 

“So she brought her to the window to show her, and she was like, ‘No, that's your country. That's your country shooting at you,’” Griffith said. “And that really stood out to me.” 

The dance tells the story of two sisters who were separated during the massacre, Simon said.  

Casimir said the dance uses the idea of dreamscapes and passing in and out of nightmares to capture the traumatizing nature of the massacre. 

And, while the dance examines the massacre’s destruction, it also looks at Greenwood before as the center for a prospering community. 

“When we talk about Black pain and Black suffering, we forget to talk about the humanity and Black joy,” Casimir said. 

Originally, the committee intended to have an in-person dance performance, but COVID-19 moved things online in the form of a dance film. Casimir said that change ended up being an excellent artistic choice.  

“It's like the practical always leads to the creative, and then we thought that we can actually tell, I think, perhaps an even better story in this format,” Casimir said. 

Griffith said the film format allows the dancers to be recorded in different places, using different kinds of scenery to tell the story. The dance will be filmed in Martin Park Nature Center in Oklahoma City, Casimir said. 

The film enables the dancers to tell a story more quickly because the performance can be edited, Casimir said, but it also allows the story to be told in a more abstract way that gives the audience more emotional information.   

“They're able to witness and feel connected to just the terror that these children might have felt, and also (have) an understanding that yeah, life existed before and after the massacre and to not focus on just that one event,” Casimir said.  

Kraus said the film also allows a wider audience to see the performance and to be impacted by the story Casimir and Griffith tell, and she is hopeful it will bring communities across the state together.

“I think it’s going to be a pretty incredible event for all of Oklahoma,” Kraus said. 

Griffith said she hopes people will not only absorb emotions from the performance, but also the desire to learn more about the Tulsa Race Massacre. The thriving community that existed in Greenwood before the massacre gave her a sense of pride, Griffith said, and she wants others to be able to experience that same emotion.  

The committee also worked with Norman Public Schools to create a curriculum tie-in for classrooms. Tenth-grade students will watch the film as a part of their English and language arts classes, said Stephanie Williams, the executive director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion for the Norman Public Schools.

The curriculum packet includes information about the dance film, excerpts from Gates’ book and discussion questions for classroom conversations, Williams said. The curriculum also ties into the classes’ social justice unit and asked students to make connections between the works they study in class and the stories from the massacre.    

At the time of the film, Norman High students will be reading Angie Thomas’ “The Hate U Give,” and Williams said one of the questions in the packet asked students to compare the events of that book with what they learned about the Tulsa Race Massacre.    

“Although, for them, 100 years — that's so long ago, but it's really getting them to think about … some similarities or differences and really getting them to just have a conversation and talk about it,” Williams said.  

Williams said that growing up in Oklahoma, she never learned about the Tulsa Race Massacre in school and said she wanted the school system to be able to use classrooms as a safe place for conversation. 

“This is Oklahoma history,” Williams said. “And it is very important for me, in my position for Norman Public Schools and for all of us here, that our students know their history and that we are able to really, really have some thoughtful, intentional discussion about that.”

In recent years, Norman has made national news for instances of racism, and in March, a commentator used a racial slur at a Norman High girls’ basketball game. 

Williams said the dance film and its curriculum tie-in is a way for Norman Public Schools to embed social justice education and to create an inclusive environment for all students, acting upon the district’s diversity, equity and inclusion commitment.   

“I always call it a commitment and really not an initiative,” Williams said. “I think when people hear the word initiative, they think of something short-lived, like this, too shall pass. So really, it's our commitment. It's our commitment to ensuring that we are a district where equity is a cultural strength of ours, and it's just kind of embedded in all that we do.”

J'aime running

Second-year modern dance performance graduate student J’aime Griffith plays a child running in the "I Dream of Greenwood" dance premiering April 9 on Zoom.

After the film premiers, there will be a live discussion with the choreographers and keynote speaker Tracy K. Smith over Zoom to discuss their thoughts on the performance. Students and audience members will be able to ask questions about the performance and the story it told. 

“They'll open it up to questions … and just have a conversation about what it means to represent the massacre artistically, to be true to the history of what actually happened," Simon said, "but also to be thinking about where we're at in 2021 in terms of racial equity and justice, and how we can imagine having these reckonings around these issues in society that are demanding our attention these days.” 

The choreographers hope the dance film showcases this connection between the past and the present. 

Casimir said while researching the massacre, she felt connections to current events, including the overwhelming death toll of the pandemic.

“There are all these people who passed that didn't get proper burials, that the community wasn't able to lay their bodies to rest in the way that they would have liked to,” Casimir said. 

Casimir also said it was impossible to work on this project without talking about the racial injustice continuing in this country, such as the death of Breonna Taylor.  

“Thinking about this government-sanctioned racial violence in Tulsa and then what's essentially the state killings of Black people that's still happening today, it may not be a massacre. It may not be happening all in one day, but the numbers sure do add up,” Casimir said.

While it is easy to think of the Tulsa Race Massacre as a singular event, Casimir said the burnings of Black towns across America show there was something “bubbling up” in the early 1900s. As seen through the social justice movements of the past year, racism continues to shape the country’s history.    

“There is a potential that this could happen again. I don't doubt it. I don't wish it, but I don't doubt it,” Casimir said. “So what does that mean for us as people?”

The dance film will premiere at 10 a.m. April 9 via Zoom. Registration for the event can be found on OU's Centennial Symposium website.

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