Randi Pink, author of Girls Like Us, is a writer, mother, and advocate for Black lives. Her latest book, Angel of Greenwood, is a YA historical novel that follows teenagers Angel and Isaiah as they fall in love in their Black neighborhood of Greenwood on the eve of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. We spoke with Pink about Black Excellence, redlining, and about how her newfound motherhood reshaped her activism and writing.
What inspired you to write a fictional account of the Tulsa Race Massacre, a tragic historical moment? What about it feels timely to you?
I’ll rewind to two years ago. I have a folder on my laptop that’s entitled “Therapy.” If I’m going through something especially troubling, frustrating, or something I feel like I can’t get out of I open a Word document in that folder and just start writing. At the time I was a brand-new mother (probably a little bit post-partum) and frustrated, which is an understatement, but frustrated with the fact that I was still trying to figure out which side of the red line in my town to live on. Now that I had a child—a Black child—I had to decide if I should live in the mostly white neighborhood or mostly non-white neighborhood. Those red lines are still pretty stark in Birmingham. I felt the same way my mother felt 30 years ago. So, I opened the Therapy folder and just started writing about a place for myself and my Black children to live. No hope of publication, no plot—a mom and pop ice cream shop here that was Black-owned, a bank across the street that was Black owned, everywhere you can smell flowers. It was beautiful; it was me dreaming.
I spoke with a librarian a few weeks after I started that and she asked a dreaded question, “What’s next? What are you working on? What’s the next book?” I said, “Well I don’t have a book, but I have this,” and I explained it to her. Then the librarian said, “Well have you heard of Black Wall Street?” I remember the visceral shame in my gut after she explained it. How did I not know about this? I went home, researched a little bit that day and immediately moved [the story] from my Therapy folder to my work-in-progress folder. That was the essence of Angel of Greenwood.
The protagonists are both in high school, and find immense joy in using the mobile library to bring literature to disenfranchised areas of their community. What led you to tell this story through the eyes of teens? What are some ways that children and teens today can take initiative in their communities, even in a pandemic?
I love that you use the word “joy” because when I think of Angel and Isaiah, I think of joy. The mobile library, the building of the relationship, the debate: it’s all just typical teen stuff that kids should do. But they’re doing all of this “teen stuff” on the heels of Reconstruction! Their parents were possibly enslaved themselves or directly descended from enslaved peoples! So just the fact that they’re able to fall in love in peace is a triumph. For their parents to have a slice of time when they could watch their children walk down the street in peace—that’s the joy of the novel for me.
How can teens now take initiative in their communities even in a pandemic? Whether you’re a writer or not, write. Whether you’re a teen or not, write about this moment. Get a journal, open a Therapy folder on your laptop and write about the pandemic. Maybe it’s not going to help right now, but in the future you’ll certainly be happy you did it.
When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
I’ve always been one. I don’t even think I wanted to be one; it’s just like having a beating heart for me. I don’t have a choice. I grew up in a house full of talkers and I was the quiet one in the corner observing and listening. I’d have strong opinions, but I didn’t know how to vocalize them. I felt like they got stuck somewhere between heart and mouth and I couldn’t make it happen. The only way I could do it was to take a pen to paper. I never thought it would be possible to make a career out of it—it felt like a pipe dream. Whenever I expressed that I wanted to do that I would get told, “No, it’s not possible. Get a real job, Randi. Move on.” But whether I had a “real” job or not, I was a writer.
Did that experience influence you at all while characterizing Angel or Isaiah?
I was writing for three months with an infant and a toddler on my shoulder 24/7. I had no escape from these precious babies. I was writing in chaos, so I don’t think I realized just how close I was to Isaiah until a final readthrough a couple of months ago. I cried at one particular scene when Isaiah was walking and performing like a peacock. Isaiah is perfect as he is, but he’s hiding himself and all of the things that make him perfect and is wondering, “What makes me okay? What makes me acceptable?” I cried when I read that because I realized I was writing myself in that. How many times had I wondered, “Is the world going to accept me?”
The ideologies of W.E.B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington are mentioned frequently throughout the book as Angel and Isaiah’s tools for discussing how to navigate their society. Do you lean toward one writer’s ideals more than the other?
No. I look at them as activate vs. tolerate. I read The Souls of Black Folk and Up from Slavery back-to-back. After hundreds of years of slavery, one philosophy is not enough. I toiled with that because if I’m writing a historical fiction novel set in 1921 in a Black community, I can’t not discuss how Black people are going to move forward on the heels of slavery, because that’s all anybody was thinking about. Is one better than the other? God no, they’re just so different. My heart kind of breaks for Booker T. Washington because of his upbringing, being born enslaved, his mother probably taken by force by a neighboring white man (it was a mystery who his father was), no working door on the shack. His most impressionable years were full of that experience. So, for him to rise up from that in the first place is a triumph, but he was probably terrified! Then there’s W.E.B. DuBois, “Why did God make me an outcast and stranger in mine own house?” It’s like screw this! Fists in the air. No! We’re not doing it this way. We’re going to make them listen to us or we’re going to protest. There’s no wrong answer. The wrong lies with the white people who caused the pain. The right lies with whoever decides to do something.
Do you consider yourself an activist? What does activism mean to you?
If you ask my mama she’ll say, “Yes.” But am I? I don’t think I can avoid that title anymore. So yes. What shifted me into this place was becoming a mama. Once that little Black child took a breath of air I was like, “I can’t shut my mouth no more.” I’m still the child in the corner that’s not going to involve herself vocally in an argument. I don’t know how to do that, but I know how to write a book and essays and I know how to break things that way. My activism is my books.
What crossed your mind this summer when the President initially announced that he would be holding a rally in Tulsa on Juneteenth, a day of celebration honoring Black emancipation? (The date of the rally was later changed.) Did it bring a new sense of urgency to your novel’s publication? Where were you in the process?
I still don’t even know what to say about that. I had trouble processing. I first saw it on the ticker tape of CNN and I was angry. Angel of Greenwood was actually moved up. It was supposed to be published later in 2021, but got moved up to January last minute. So, we were in the thick of copyedits and timeline edits. When I saw that on the ticker tape I was like, “Okay, laptop open. Kids in the pack n’ play.” I was pissed off. It’s kind of good for the sake of Angel of Greenwood that all of those things happened because I write my best when I’m pissed off.
In the back of your novel you list other communities like Greenwood that existed before and after it. Do you think it’s important that Black people have the right to continue to have flourishing communities that embody Black Excellence?
Yes. That’s where the novel came from. Before the world shut down, I used to write in a private room in a beautiful library—the best library in my town by far. The private room has a panoramic view of this quaint neighborhood. The problem with the neighborhood is that it was not built for me. I would not have been allowed there unless I was cleaning somebody’s house. That’s no longer the case, but as a result of how it was built I believe it’s still over 90% white, this neighborhood with the best library. Sometimes I zone out, longingly looking at this place thinking, “We could’ve had this if it was not taken.”
In my research of those towns—which has become a passion project—there were a few, like Tulsa, that were just torched and taken, but the majority were taken by eminent domain, a freeway project, and “urban renewal.” Some of these beautiful Black towns are not even on the historical registry and how dare they not be when they were built by enslaved or formerly enslaved people! They deserve to exist! I don’t know how to fix that, but I sure am not going to stop trying to at least get them on the historical registry somehow. Redlining was still legal in the 1940s. I believe my city is still one of the most redlined cities. The green and red spots according to those 1940s maps are still the same. The green spots have multi-million-dollar homes; the library I love so much is in a green spot. The red spots, where my grandmother was allowed to live, are still struggling. It’s a hard question, but you almost have to open a book on the bylaws of the 40s to understand why things are the way they are and why these things have to be discussed.
What’s next for you?
My hope is to keep writing and be able to make a life doing it. That’s all I can do, [all] I’m good at. As far as works in progress, I have a lot of them, but none that have been announced yet. I have been doing a Thirty Black Towns in Thirty Days thing on my Instagram, @randi_pink. I’ve been releasing two-minute videos highlighting those places every morning. Hopefully, one day, there’ll be another book on that. Fingers crossed.
Angel of Greenwood by Randi Pink. Feiwel and Friends, $18.99 Jan. 12 ISBN 978-1-250-76847-6