A Professor’s Book on How Blacks Became Native Americans

It was four years ago Caleb Gayle came across a report from Tulsa, Oklahoma that helped open up new perspectives, both historical and personal.

This article from the newspaper of his former hometown, where the black descendants were to chase for the right to be recognized as citizens of a Native American tribe, inspired him to continue the narrative of his new book, “We Refuse to Forget: A True Story of Black Creeks, American Identity, and Power.”

“It lit a fire in me to make people understand that there have been unconventional ways to be an American,” said Gayle, the practice’s journalism professor at Northeastern. “And that maybe we don’t need to reinvent the wheel to reconsider what it looks like.”

Gayle’s first book was published last week before the June 19 holiday that commemorates the end of slavery in the United States. Her book explores the complexities of the Creek Nation, a federation of tribes that owned black slaves while allowing them to gain tribal citizenship through marriage, adoption, or other means.

The acclaimed book is a marriage of history and memory, as Gayle explores her personal story. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

“We Refuse to Forget” tells the story of America’s defining triangle formed by white settlers, the Native Americans they displaced, and the blacks they enslaved. Weekly editors calls the book “a powerful portrait of how white supremacy ‘divides marginalized groups and pits them against each other’.”

At the heart of the epic tale is a black man who was named “Cow Tom” by Chief Creek who once possessed him.

“It was Cow Tom who…negotiated an 1866 treaty with the U.S. government, an agreement that included citizenship rights for all blacks in the Creek Nation, whether slaves, adopted, or free,” Gayle writes.

The right to Creek citizenship enabled Cow Tom to become a tribal leader and wealthy landowner in Indian Territory.

“He left the Creek Nation a chance to be better and his people a way to be freer,” Gayle writes. “He left us all an incredible story that once we learn it, then we must refuse to forget.”

Portrait of Caleb Gayle.

Caleb Gayle, practice journalism professor at Northeastern. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

More than a century later, Cow Tom’s great-great-great-great-grandson, an attorney named Damario Solomon-Simmons, is suing the Creek Nation over its 1979 decision to abruptly withdraw the inheritance. of citizenship to its black members.

Black and Indigenous peoples had come together to try to make sense of a white world that subjugated them, Gayle says. The same dynamic eventually tore them apart, as the Creeks redefined citizenship as a racial issue of native blood.

“The revulsion of what the settlers were doing brought these parties together in part because they were both screwed up by the same kind of forces,” Gayle says of the Creek Nation-black alliance. “And then what separated them was the same forces, just in different forms.”

The book is a marriage of history and memoir, as Gayle’s research helps him make sense of his own identity as the son of Jamaican immigrants who raised him in Tulsa, the site of the Black Wall massacre. Street in 1921. Otherwise known as Tulsa Race Massacremobs of white residents killed hundreds of blacks and injured and arrested several thousand more.

“What I learned about myself was… my frustration at not fitting into the categories and boxes I thought I was supposed to fit into – that maybe I’m not the problem,” Gayle said. “Maybe it’s the fact that we keep building places that are pretty cramped and not accommodating for people to occupy. We’re not as imaginative about who we can be, and we’re not as informed by the archives historical as to who we can be.

“It kind of got into our heads that because our brain wants to sort people into categories, those categories are confined and mutually exclusive,” Gayle continues. “In reality, who we are is a collection of many different things. Many different stories. Many different experiences. we didn’t ask for and that we didn’t create.

The United States provided opportunity and stability for her immigrant family, as Gayle writes in her book. But he also thinks the American approach to identity is limiting.

“It’s very clear to me,” he says, “that if we want people to be fully themselves, maybe that means giving grace to each other, spending time fully understand who we are and to understand who we have been.

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Nohemi M. Moore