The other day, the Tulsa World released a poll that queried Tulsans about the Brady District naming controversy. In play: a so-far, largely insider war of words goes public -- should Tulsa's rapidly developing, already-renowned downtown art and cultural district be re-branded? The poll's bottom lines -- a majority of Tulsans queried oppose changing the "Brady" label -- with huge gaps among black respondents (for the change) and white Tulsans (against the switch) .
The Poll, The Poll
Polling can be an exquisite tool for mining the contours of public opinion. Modern survey research offers a bevy of powerful mathematical and cognitive science techniques for illuminating the attitudes of various "tribes" about matters large and small. But sometimes, absent a protracted "campaign" of the kind we see in immersive moments--what we experience during our national elections, the "wall of info" that comes with debates over epic legislation, a foreign-policy crisis, a world beater criminal trial or after a natural disaster-- polling can be a feckless, primitive exercise--one that can hide as much as it illuminates And this isn't because Americans or Tulsans are ignorant, or heedless: it is because most people don't have the time, the psychological energy, or the motivation to follow an issue deeply unless it's on the front burner. This is arguable true just now of the Brady matter which has only very recently been the subject of articles in the Tulsa World, local electronic media and in UTW.
Great, But Blinkered Figures
Historical figures, like T.S. Eliot, Robert Oppenheimer, Malcolm X or say Charles Lindberg--some of my personal obsessions, are often complicated, morally challenged figures. But we don't have to look to the past: I'm a huge fan of contemporary filmmaker Kathryn Bigelow. Readers will recall Bigelow took the best film prize a couple of years ago for her "Hurt Locker", but this year, was locked out of contention because of feckless assertions about her depiction of torture in her astonishing Zero Dark 30.
T.S. Eliot won the Nobel prize for literature, was a deeply influential book editor, an eclectic critic and was arguably the greatest English poet of the 20th century. And for me, his facility with the language, his uncanny capacity to conflate low and high moments in the human drama, his telegraphic, seemingly effortless capacity to precisely evoke emotions, sometimes in a single line, was simply magical. And while it's almost impossible to imagine now, Eliot was also a popular figure. In 1954, he filled a football stadium on the occasion of one of his readings in Minneapolis.
As some readers may know, Eliot was almost certainly an anti-Semite, especially at the outset of his brilliant voyage as a poet. And there is an array of unassailable stuff that establishes his great enthusiasm for the fascist movement in thirties Europe, the reactionary Futurist tendency in prewar Italy and his initial "wow" for Hitler's reign. And Eliot wasn't alone, there was a whole cadre of modernist poets, writers, and thinkers who were fellow travelers during this period. And many of them later deeply regretted their infatuation with the dark engines of fascism and their mostly indirect association with what became the horror of WWII and the grisly events of the Holocaust. But one of the other things we know from his letters and other evidence is that Eliot often worked in very productive ways with Jewish colleagues and did so during the launch of one his major literary journals. And he was very friendly with people like Norbert Wiener, the German Jewish physical science genius who he apparently regarded with awe and affection.
So I'm okay, and I have abundant company, with naming things, volumes, symposia, buildings and such after T.S. Eliot, because he was an audacious contributor in a realm that was much bigger than his burst of enthusiasm for a bunch of world historical monsters, and he backed away, in the end, from this bad world.
Can we say the same about Mr. Tate Brady? Brady was a fellow who was, yes, a city father -- a city founder, a big politico, a serial entrepreneur/oil dude.
But he was also, in fateful measure, a leading local instigator of racial hatred and a frontline leader of the Ku Klux Klan -- a 20th century American terrorist gang -- that hunted, harassed and sometimes killed political dissidents, Catholics, Jews and black people.
Keep The History, Start A New Timeline
Some people I've spoken to regard the Brady rename "project" as misguided and somehow a denial of history. But the reality is that the history of the Brady district was incredibly informal. Peter Mayo bought the Old Lady on Brady, which was previously a city-operated performance venue, around 1984. Sometime thereafter, the management crew at Living Arts of Tulsa decided casually that it might be a good thing, from a map-savvy and place-making vantage, to call the entire area the Brady Arts District. Another immediate part of the process was the launch of the ill-fated Tulsa Center for Contemporary Arts in the immediate area in 1989 (disclosure: I was a board member).
There's a sense in which renaming the Brady would be kind of conscious affirmation of an important part of Tulsa's history: an affirmation that doesn't stop us from forging a conscious break, a thrilling turn away. A rebrand would be a simple reckoning that would tell the world that Tulsa has a new story to tell -- one that looks aggressively forward to a period of audacious honestly and energetic reconciliation. And I'm betting that the change would yield mountains of free PR, a big day or ten in the sun -- something we need in light of the recent Olympic "joke" piece in the New York Times and a bunch of other stuff that I don't even want to mention.
Tulsa's shiny new arts district, together with our new Kaiser park, is already becoming the "it" in a phalanx of urban planning, city/downtown, and urban art publications. Our still-reanimating arts district is brimming with multimillion dollar investments in new museums, art galleries, and other facilities, and obviously, the whole district is undergoing a radical break with its previous history as a warehousing district -- and a pretty damn boring one at that.
Why not complete the circle by junking a moniker that produces confusion and is radically inconsistent with the galloping kinetics, awesome tone and quickened energy of a bustling new art enclave?
The Big Question
Can those who want to leave the Brady name in play cite outsized achievements, social, community, or charitable counter facets of Tate Brady that outweigh his leadership role in the Tulsa Outrage (a heavy beating and tar and feathering of a small group of industrial workers/political activists in 1917)? In the Sons of Confederacy convention of 1918? In the Klan? Brady's 1918, 40,000-plus visitor confab and his other "adventures" were precursors to that disastrous day in 1921 when as many as 300 lives and a lively 40-acre black business enclave were consumed by fire, wanton assault and organized attacks, including bombardments from the sky. Some Tulsans are now arguing that Mr. Brady was indeed a more complex figure than commonly understood -- they say that he was moving away from his connection to the Klan and violent activities at the end of his life -- a self-inflicted death at the age of 55. Some list his support for Jack Walton, a 1922 anti-Klan candidate for Oklahoma governor and his supposed backing of a 1923 military tribunal investigation of Klan activities in Tulsa County. Is that all there is? Is there full documentation that shows Brady's u-turn?
It doesn't matter. Tulsa's singular arts district deserves a much better name than one anchored to a reactionary fellow who made it his business to lead the forces of strife, racial antagonism, and violent retribution. Mr Brady, you see, was no Eliot, he was no Oppenheimer, he wasn't Lindberg. He was a powerful figure, a wealthy person with xenophobic hang-ups who apparently had an appetite for strife and mayhem. A glittering 21st-century art mini town -- in the heart of a resurgent, increasing ly pluralistic Tulsa -- deserves better. Much better.
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