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.
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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
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.
“One thing we ought not forget in this America is how our impulse to forget is so strong.” Rilla Askew, Most American
From where I sit right in Shawnee, Oklahoma, I am 41 miles from Rilla Askew, a professor at the University of Oklahoma and author of Most American: Notes From a Wounded Place, a collection of essays on race, violence, history, and Oklahoma. Six months ago, I would not have expected this proximity and would have read this novel from a distance out of curiosity, but disconnected from the Oklahoma Askew memorializes in these pages and connects to the larger American drama. Less than six months ago, however, I became Oklahoman, part of the landscape of this book and, reading as an Oklahoman, I realize how much truth-telling Askew has done, how much I am also part of what Rilla calls “a wounded place,” a state “birthed . . . in such profound hope and greed, violence and promise,” a stamp in America’s center that has come to represent “the best of what’s worse and best in us.” A memoirist, historian, and anthropologist, Askew has suspended time and distilled Americanism, everything that we think we are and ought to be, and as an American this self-awareness both grates and inspires me, horrifies, and renews my hope. I have never read a book so profound and prophetic in nature, so accurate and forgiving, forthright and kind.
Askew begins by writing of the people of Oklahoma:
"Oklahomans reflect the whole of the American paradox: our selflessness and keen self-absorption, our conservatism and revolutionary impulses, our modernity and deep ingrainedness in the past. We are a generous people, compassionate, hard-working, self-sacrificing, capable of great heroism, decent. Violent. Filled with prejudice. Profoundly and pridefully independent. Sentimental."
It’s true. This is us. In 160 pages of memoir mixed with historical nonfiction, Askew reveals these qualities through our American stories of racial prejudice from the Trail of Tears to the Tulsa Race Riots; our national heroes such as Jim Foley; our great tragedies, such as the destruction of the Twin Towers and the Oklahoma City bombing; our Judeo-Christian sentiments producing misguided harm and demanding redemption; and through Askew’s own awakening from a childhood in Bartlesville, OK to young adulthood in Tulsa to an exodus and then years as an author in New York until now as a daughter returned to her Oklahoma homeland.
I am amazed by the scope of Askew’s life and vision as well as the depth she travels in her work. A skilled fictionist, Askew has managed to create narrative arch in her nonfiction. Every line and essay echoes another. The book reads like a baptism. Predominately concerned with racial issues in our nation, Askew reminds Americans how completely awash we are in these sins. She writes:
"When I think of why the wounds of race won’t heal in this country, I think of the fact that for decades blacks and whites lived and worked in close proximity to one another, with most black people knowing what happened in Tulsa in 1921 and most white people entirely ignorant of it. That’s the nature of the chasm between us. That’s the legacy we’re living out, not only in Oklahoma but all over the nation, just as we’re living out our birthrights of slavery and genocide and our homegrown brand of terrorism: massacres and lynchings. We’re still living Wounded Knee and Jim Crow, still suffering the long hurt of the boarding schools, the theft of Indian children through forced adoptions. As a nation we’re all living it, but it’s only the dominant culture, the so-called normative culture, that doesn’t recognize this."
Askew connects each of these histories to her own life as she speaks of her “nebulous heritage” as part Native American and part white; her eye-opening experience as a godmother to an African American boy growing up in Brooklyn and witnessing the penalties leveled against him and his family simply exacted for the color of their skin; her pain after the televised execution of James Foley in Afghanistan, a young man who had once been her creative writing pupil at the University of Massachusetts and who represented the best in all of us; and her close proximity to domestic terror when the Murrah Building was bombed and, afterward, she wandered through the rubble, or the foreign terror of 9/11, her godson’s mother nearly suffocated by its dust. Askew herself has been personally immersed in America’s deepest tragedies, darkest secrets, and brutal awakenings.
Indeed, Askew is no stranger to immersion. Having grown up Southern Baptist, she is as familiar with the art of baptizing with words as she is with water. “I grew up on the King James Bible,” she claims, “I grew up listening to stories.” Those stories blend and collide with the Native American and African American narratives she also grew to know, creating tension—stories and narratives that informed her novels, such as The Mercy Seat, and stories that resonate with the way religion, ritual, and ceremony can be both redemptive and destructive. This immersive storytelling is perhaps why her collection of essays in Most American are so interconnected and bear the marks of religion and ritual. As I read the book (and could barely put it down), I felt caught in its stream of memory, woundedness, and redemptive cry. Askew is deeply aware of how these things flow in our blood and coincidentally reveal themselves in a variety of ways to remind us of who we really are and how we really interact with other stories.
While visiting the small Oklahoma town Medicine Creek, Askew contemplates the way that Native history emerges with white Christianity and her own Baptist upbringing as she walks through a life size nativity:
"An uneasiness nicked at me. Every faux setting here, every cornily labeled pile of rocks, had a matching story in my memory, etched there by the colored drawings in my Youth Bible, confirmed in the poetic syntax of King James. The discomfort I felt then was no more than a vague apprehension, an uncomfortable sense that to make jokes about this little mini-Holy Land was also, in some inherent way, to blaspheme."
And despite the weighty nature of these essays that deal with racism, terror, religion, and historical tragedy, Askew’s prose is so pure and regenerative that, as a reader, I feel hope not despair. Most American doesn’t condemn our national sins as much as it explores our propensity to turn away from them, to be men and women of conscience who review our histories and forge a new path. In the wake of current events—racism, assault, and phobias on the rise—Askew’s book could not be more timely. This is a good time to learn about ourselves and seriously ponder whether or not we want to continue going this way.
“I’m always looking for the connectedness in things,” admits Askew in the final essay, “cohesion, some kind of invisible orchestration.” In a conversation with her friend Connie she explains, “Charles Dickens said it, . . . [w]hen people criticized all the coincidences in his novels, he said we are all so much more connected than we could ever believe.” Askew has proved this as her narratives and characters blend and borrow from one another’s wounds and histories. But she says, “modern readers won’t stand” for coincidence in a novel, in fiction, “even when it’s based on events that really happened.” “We may believe in chaos theory,” she continues, “that the flutter of a butterfly’s wings halfway around the world can change a tornado’s path in Oklahoma, but we don’t believe in coincidence.” Well, after reading this book a mere 41 miles from Askew in Oklahoma—a place I never expected to be merely six months ago—after having requested from my editor a book to review that considered the topic of racism while sending out over 200 applications to jobs all over the United States, I do believe.
Last week I walked the halls at the University of Oklahoma to speak to someone about a graduate degree, Askew’s office nearby, she already having left for Christmas break. And though I may never attend OU, our lives have touched in a strange act of coincidence. Given this connectedness and that each individual really does bear such a strong responsibility for the whole of human history and separate communities, I highly recommend—I mean highly recommend—Askew’s book. It is now one of my top favorite nonfiction works. I’m heartened by her willingness to tackle these tough topics, but with grace and full disclosure of her own complicity. Most American is beautifully written, both confronting and forgiving. Don’t start this new year without it.
--Kimberly Ann Priest