Remembrance and reclamation in ‘We Refuse to Forget’

David Wilson for the

Growing up Black and Jamaican in Tulsa, Oklahoma, could be challenging sometimes, Caleb Gayle says. Still, his family’s relative isolation made them close, and his hardworking parents provided what the children needed. There were other Black kids in Tulsa, but Gayle began noticing something unusual: A lot of them would say, “I’ve got Indian in me.”

“I think the immediate reaction was to dismiss what they said as pure myth,” said Gayle, a journalist and senior fellow at Northeastern’s Burnes Center. “But it was said so often. As much as I wanted to brush it off, I really couldn’t.”

Nothing he learned in school could account for the children’s claims. “The histories of these places and the people in these places was often shrouded from view,” he said, “and, my hunch is, not by accident.”

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An assignment to write an article about an Oklahoma lawsuit led Gayle back to Tulsa, where a group of Black Creeks was suing for tribal recognition after having been un-enrolled from the tribe years earlier. He began investigating the complex and intertwined histories of Black Americans and the Creek people — ancestors of those children he’d been in school with. Soon, the story outgrew its source material; Gayle knew it had to be a book, “to contain the multitudes that are contained in the people about whom I write.”

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That book, “We Refuse to Forget: A True Story of Black Creeks, American Identity, and Power” (Riverhead), not only explores the history of Black Creek people, but also argues for the reclamation of all the complex identities that Americans claim. “By hyphenating, by complicating these identity markers, we are saying we refuse to give up on the vision for America, especially for those on the margins,” Gayle said. “If we lose the inclusive way in which we refer to people and identify people, we cede ground to those who would limit who America is for, and the ways in which we can belong.”

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Caleb Gayle will read at 7 p.m. Tuesday in person at Harvard Book Store.

Kate Tuttle, a freelance writer and critic, can be reached at kate.tuttle@gmail.com.

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