- The Power to Undo Sin:Race, History and Literary Blackness in Rilla Askew's Fire in Beulah
Rilla Askew's novel follows the tradition established by fellow Oklahoma writers Ralph Ellison (Juneteenth) and Linda Hogan (Mean Spirit) whose works give prominence to minority voices in the turbulent days of Indian Territory and early statehood under Jim Crowism. Askew's historical fiction demonstrates the authority of what Toni Morrison and Henry Louis Gates Jr. understand as literary blackness. Askew writes the black presence into her novel as a corrective to the often romanticized notions white supremacy found throughout much of the history of the American southwest. Like Hogan, Askew unearths corruption concerning oil and greed, her novel culminating with the Tulsa race riot—the most costly race riot in American history. Askew's vision not only gives voice to the presence of the Other, she essentially crosses literary boundaries to appropriate and celebrate the minority presence.
Historically, the Southwest has been a place where cultural tension exists between the extremes of assimilation and outright genocidal conquest. Such tension has proved to be fertile ground for both fiction writers and historians, who continue to reconstruct these cultural interchanges by positing what can be known of the real past. Fiction writers like Cormac McCarthy, Larry McMurtry, Dagoberto Gilb, Rudolfo Anaya, Leslie Marmon Silko, Linda Hogan, Louis Owens, M. Scott Momaday, William Humphrey and others, to some extent undermine the mythical assumptions of a great open Southwest territory, destined to be a newfound paradise for the white race. To do so, these writers understand the interpretive potential of historical analysis, frequently using it to subvert the sentimental notions of white supremacy still hung over from the days of Manifest Destiny. These writers create [End Page 166] realistic plots, employing authentic dialogue, violent scenes and venerable references to the timeless landscape.
A relatively new Oklahoma writer, Rilla Askew, follows the lead of fellow southwestern and western novelists who demythologize the assumptions of white power structures on the frontier. Her themes of racial and ecological tension are commensurate with similar issues found throughout American history of the southwest. Askew, a native Oklahoman, has set her first two novels, The Mercy Seat (1997) and Fire in Beulah (2001), in the Oklahoma landscape, a landscape that in no small way determines the actions of her characters. The Mercy Seat is set in pre-statehood, Indian Territory while Fire in Beulah is set in 1921, fourteen years after statehood, its plot climaxing with the historical event of the Tulsa race riot. In various interviews, Askew has made it clear that one of her purposes for writing is to convey a sense of accuracy about the shameful racial past of Oklahoma in hopes that a reconciliation between white and non-white peoples might occur. For example, she tells Brad Gambill:
My perspective on history has changed tremendously. Part of what has happened in this nation, especially for us as whites, is that we have tried to shut the door on all that. We have tried to say that it's in the past. Why don't they get a life? Why can't they let that go? What's happened is that we have never owned it, we have never dealt with it. In biblical terms, we've never repented of slavery and genocide, the slavery and genocide with which this nation was formed, and until we do, we can't talk about this. We can't get past it. Things won't change.(Askew 2001, 113)
Additionally, she has said, "Oklahoma is a microcosm of the nation. Our state history is a microcosm of what's happened on the whole continent. We can't separate it from the past" (2001, 114). In a yet-to-be published essay she explains:
In language and history and culture, Oklahoma is such an extreme distillation of what has taken place on this continent over the last five hundred years that it is nearly unrecognizable to the rest of the nation. Too Southern to be Midwestern, too Western to be Southern, too Midwestern to be purely Southwest, Oklahoma has kept the secret of its identity as a chameleon...