Most American: Notes from a Wounded Place

In her first nonfiction collection, award-winning novelist Rilla Askew casts an unflinching eye on American history, both past and present. As she traverses a line between memoir and social commentary, Askew places herself—and indeed all Americans—in the role of witness to uncomfortable truths about who we are.

Through nine linked essays, Most American: Notes from a Wounded Place evokes a vivid impression of the United States: police violence and gun culture, ethnic cleansing and denied history, spellbinding landscapes and brutal weather. To render these conditions in the particulars of place, Askew spotlights the complex history of her home state. From the Trail of Tears to the Tulsa Race Riot to the Murrah Federal Building bombing, Oklahoma appears as a microcosm of our national saga. Yet no matter our location, Askew argues, we must own our contradictory selves—our violence and prejudices, as well as our hard work and generosity—so the wounds of division in our society can heal.

In these writings, Askew traces a personal journey that begins with her early years as an idealistic teenager mired in what she calls “the presumption of whiteness.” Later she emerges as a writer humble enough to see her own story as part of a larger historical and cultural narrative. With grace and authority she speaks honestly about the failures of the dominant culture in which she grew up, even as she expresses a sense of love for its people.

In the wake of increasing gun violence and heightened national debate about race relations and social inequality, Askew’s reflections could not be more relevant. With a novelist’s gift for storytelling, she paints a compelling portrait of a place and its people: resilient and ruthless, decent but self-deceiving, generous yet filled with prejudice—both the best and the worst of what it means to be American.

Story Circle Network:

Since the killings of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and countless other black women and men by police, racism has once again exploded in American media and psyches. As people of conscience, we bear painful witness to the unending violence of our racist culture. We seek understanding and maybe absolution, by reading the words of Black writers: Ta-Nehisi Coates, James Baldwin, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

But white readers also need the voice and experience of a writer who has wrestled with the white journey through racism and speaks from personal experience to the deep denial of whiteness. Rilla Askew is such a voice. In Most American: Notes from a Wounded Place, she courageously shares her story as a white woman growing up and living through and with the blood and fire of America's racial history over the last century.

Most American contextualizes the horror and violence of Black American experience squarely within the deluded denial that is the essence of the parallel white experience. Askew, the granddaughter of an Oklahoma history teacher, writes of being an adult when she first learned about the Tulsa Race Riot. In 1921 three hundred people, mostly black, were murdered. Tulsa's relative prosperous black commerce community, known as Black Wall street, was destroyed. "You think you know who you are, but you don't know. In all the years I had lived both in and near Tulsa, I had never heard one word about a race riot there. I had never heard about any kind of race trouble in Oklahoma at all. . .and all the while that sickening, bewildering feeling kept reeling in me, that sense of having been left out of something hugely important—of having been lied to. What else weren't they telling me? What else didn't I know?"

Askew's story is a map, a key, an opening to liberation from the pervasive, sticky, and engulfing ignorance of whiteness. I read Most American as a treasure hunt for her pivotal turnings: sitting alone on the couch in the living room of a black home swirling with smells of curried goat, stewed peas, Jamaican spices, and pounding rhythms of reggae. In James Brown's cozy back stage dressing room at the Tulsa Civic Center in 1969. The hard bench and bright lights of the police station where her black godchild was wrongly booked for theft. On disordered streets of Oklahoma City in the aftermath of the 1995 bombing of the Murrah Federal Building and the tightly-packed pew of the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in Manhattan for James Baldwin's funeral.

The daughter and granddaughter of Southern Baptist deacons, Askew reminds us that ignorance is not the same as innocence; that the Old Hebrew understanding of repentance requires us to own our history; and that redemption must be earned. She reminds us that Beulah, sometime equated with heaven, or the Promised Land, means married. That we are all married: black, white, indigenous, Asian, Middle Eastern, African, and European; in this wounded place called America.
--Juniper Lauren Ross

Kirkus Reviews:
A respected novelist muses on the tortured nature of her relationship to the state where she was born and raised.

Askew (Creative Writing/​Univ. of Oklahoma; Kind of Kin, 2013, etc.) often thought of Oklahoma as “a black hole…a literal and figurative no-man’s land” that she escaped by going to New York and teaching. But as she grew older, the author found that her greatest wish was to go home. In this collection of nine essays, Askew considers her life in relation to the question of what it means to be Oklahoman and American. For most, to be an Oklahoman means to come from a vaguely anonymous place located “somewhere in the middle of the country.” Yet for Askew, Oklahoma is more like “the underbelly, the very gut of the nation” that Americans would prefer to forget. It has been the site of many historic tragedies, including the 1838 Cherokee Trail of Tears, the 1921 Tulsa race riots, and the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, which happened not long after Askew began feeling the pull to return. Realizing that her background kept racism and other dark secrets at bay, the author speaks frankly about growing up with “all the privileges and presumptions of whiteness.” At the same time, she discusses the ways in which her adult experiences, both in New York and Oklahoma, forced her to face what her upbringing had left unspoken. In “Passing,” for example, Askew addresses the question of a “nebulous heritage” that may have erased her Cherokee ancestry, while in “A Wounded Place,” she discusses how she learned about being black and male after becoming the godmother of a black boy. Honest and searching, Askew’s book deftly interweaves a personal narrative about belonging with a larger cultural one. The author also offers hope that “the worst sins” of who we are as Americans can be balanced by “the best of what’s worst and best in us.” An eloquently thoughtful memoir in essays.

In nine skillfully linked essays, Rilla Askew offers Oklahoma history as a microcosm of our national saga as Americans, insisting--and demonstrating--that our personal and state stories fall within national and global narratives. Askew's essays are particularly timely today, her themes playing out in the Black Lives Matter movement and in the violence--and intolerance and hate--seething in the 2016 presidential election campaign. Few books offer such a clear, engaging, and revealing evocation of particular Oklahoma sites and scenes, which Askew repeatedly places within the larger national and global frame. Most American is an important book, an artful contribution to literature that raises vital issues for Oklahoma and national conversations.
—Barbara Lounsberry, author of The Art of Fact: Contemporary Artists of Nonfiction

In Most American, Rilla Askew brilliantly captures her feelings, beliefs, and behaviors about race relations. This book should be read by anyone who is trying to move past clichés and establish positive relationships with individuals who come from cultures different from their own."
--George Henderson, author of Race and the University: A Memoir

Rilla Askew shows us the inner workings of a concerned, but generous, critic of our state, Oklahoma. Her style is uniquely gracious even as it rebukes. Though she gives with grit, guilt is never far from the possibility of grace.
--Ken Hada, author of Spare Parts