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We cannot repair what we refuse to remember

Q&A with Caleb Gayle, author of ‘We Refuse to Forget: A True Story of Black Creeks, American Identity, and Power’

"We Refuse to Forget: A True Story of Black Creeks, American Identity, and Power" by Caleb GayleGlobe staff illustration/Riverhead Books

It is no coincidence that U.S. democracy is deteriorating while lawmakers ban the teaching of American history. The past can be a powerful political accelerant; it can either open the door to greater equality or restrict rights to a small minority. Typically, the United States has opted for the latter. Honest historical accounts threaten the status quo because they remind us of promises that never materialized, checks never paid. Few people understand this better than Caleb Gayle, author of the newly released “We Refuse to Forget: A True Story of Black Creeks, American Identity, and Power.”

With startling clarity and relevance, Gayle’s book introduces readers to a community of Black citizens who — within a nation they helped to build — were stripped of political equality in the 1970s. As Black Creeks fight to regain citizenship in their political homeland, their stories add new levels of urgency to national struggles for freedom, justice, and reparations. The Emancipator spoke with Gayle about the legacy of Black Creeks, how White supremacy divides as much as it oppresses, and why we cannot repair what we refuse to remember.

Q. “We Refuse to Forget” shines a light on the Creek Nation, a tribe that both enslaved Black people and accepted them as full citizens. What drew you to this history?

A. As a Jamaican kid from New York growing up in Oklahoma, there were certain phrases that haunted me: “I got Indian in me” was one of them. It was a way of explaining proximity to power, a difference between myself and others. I constantly asked myself if I could ever belong. Could I ever be American enough? Was my Blackness dilutive to my Americanness?

The story of Black citizens within the Creek Nation — their acceptance, rise to prominence, and relative expulsion from the nation in 1979 — tells the story of how America crafts identity. And how identity is a gateway to understanding who holds power and who doesn’t.

Q. How did Black people come to be a part of the Creek Nation?

A. There is a documented history of interactions between Black people, free and enslaved, and the Coosa tribe, a group that eventually joined the Creek Nation. But another route was slavery. Slavery was largely imposed upon the Creek Nation, so it operated differently; it wasn’t always inherited, relegated to chattel, or permanent. Ways of being were more numerous in the Creek Nation than within the U.S. government.

The refusal to forget is a moral imperative, the first step in radically reimagining what we can be.

Q. You dedicate a few chapters to the story of Cow Tom, a putative formerly enslaved man who walked the Trail of Tears. What can we learn from his story?

A. Cow Tom was a citizen of the Creek Nation who emerged as a leader during the Civil War. He helped negotiate the Creek Nation Treaty of 1866, which granted full citizenship to Black people in the Creek Nation. Consequently, Cow Tom and his counterparts were afforded opportunities that you couldn’t find elsewhere. They forged a very different future for themselves than other Black people at the time.

Q. So Black Creeks have this incredible legacy, yet nearly all were ejected from the Creek Nation in 1979. What happened?

A. Henry Dawes happened. [As chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs], he created a commission in the late 1800s to determine who would get what in “Indian territory.” As a White man from Massachusetts who had no business deciding where Native Americans should live, he naturally anchored his decisions on the erroneous belief that race can be scientifically determined. That’s how we ended up with blood quantum as a measurement of Native American identity.

The federal government established two different streams of identity within the Creek Nation, two ancestral rolls: the Freedmen Rolls, which characterized all Black Creeks as the descendants of slaves, and the “by blood” rolls. Chief Claude Cox, the leader of the Creek Nation in 1979, wanted, in his words, “to keep the Indian in control.” That meant adhering to identity markers created by people like Henry Dawes. Suddenly, if you were Black or on the Freedmen Rolls, you were no longer Creek.

Author Caleb Gayle.Jeremy Castro

Q. Can you say more about the link between citizenship, biology, and race?

A. The Creek Nation is a federation of many tribes that amalgamated together. It was a political homeland for many different types of people. Racializing Creek identity flattened its complexity and beauty; it turned Blackness into a stumbling block to being more than one thing at once. The U.S. government created a fictitious struggle between groups that were once one and fueled a scarcity complex of land, opportunity, and identity.

Q. Last year, you wrote about the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre. Many of the people fighting for reparations in Tulsa, Oklahoma, are also in your book fighting for citizenship rights for Black Creeks. Can you unpack the connection between these struggles?

A. Tulsa was not founded by White men but by people like Legus Perryman, a Black Creek who helped establish the city and led the Creek Nation for eight years. The erasure of that history typifies what happened during and after the Tulsa massacre. More than 300 people died. We’re still finding bodies 100 years later. The reason that the same people fighting for citizenship in the Creek Nation are also fighting for reparations for Tulsa is because they are the same fight. Both are fighting for us to remember, to repair. Remembering is a radical launching pad to repair.

Q. What lessons can be gleaned from the struggles of Black Creeks to be recognized as full citizens?

A. Look at the manufactured crisis around critical race theory. It’s being used to silence our history at the precise moment when Black folks are reshaping our understanding of U.S. history. We can learn much from Black Creeks. We can refuse to forget. The refusal to forget is a moral imperative, the first step in radically reimagining what we can be.

Nia T. Evans is a writer, researcher, and storyteller based in New York City. She is an inaugural Black Voices in the Public Sphere fellow at Boston Review, where she writes about racial inequality, social movements, and policing. This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.