I am writing this on January 7, 2021, and I have no idea how to review a book that depicts a notorious historical event where white supremacists rioted and destroyed a Black community, when yesterday, almost exactly 100 years later, white supremacists rioted their way into the U.S. Capitol Building. But ‘Angel of Greenwood’ deserves to fly into the world on the biggest wings she can spread, so I’m going to try.
The year is 1921. Angel Hill and Isaiah Wilson are Black teenagers living in the Greenwood district of Tulsa, Okla. Greenwood, sometimes called “Black Wall Street,” is a place where people can live together and run businesses and go about their lives, set slightly apart from the racism and Jim Crow atrocities that are the reality for Black people across America.
Angel and Isaiah know that their community is special. Angel gives thanks for it by offering everything to her family and her neighbors, sacrificing her youth in order to tend to her dying father and provide help to anyone who needs it. Isaiah takes advantage of his freedom to run wild with his best friend Muggy, getting into trouble and being a general nuisance. But then, one Sunday, Isaiah watches Angel dance in church, and he suddenly sees both her and their community differently. He sees himself differently — he wants to be worthy of a girl like Angel and of the place they call home.
What follows is a love story: Angel and Isaiah have a lot to learn from each other, whether it’s figuring out how to overcome their own inner demons or seeing the merits of each other’s philosophical and literary idols, Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois. They banter, they work with and for their neighbors, and they build a bond that could lead to a future.
Then comes the Tulsa Race Massacre. White rioters loot and burn 35 blocks of Black homes and businesses, decimating Greenwood and killing and injuring hundreds. Angel and Isaiah have to choose how to act in the face of such terror and destruction.
‘Angel of Greenwood’ is fundamentally a story about love, but because this is America, it’s also a story about hate. The romantic love in it is big and beautiful and pure. And beyond the love between two teenagers, there’s a deep love of community and home. Greenwood feels so wholesome, so idyllic, and when the hate breaks through, it will break your heart.
Though it is historical fiction, ‘Angel of Greenwood’ walks a tight line between depicting the time accurately and a more modern understanding of race in America. There are times throughout the book where the dialogue and language feel old-fashioned like it belongs in one of the 19th-century texts that Angel and Isaiah recommend to each other, while simultaneously using current terminology. This is clearly a deliberate choice by the author, and an innovative one, though at times I found the juxtaposition a little jarring. I expect that effect is also a deliberate choice.
While reading, I wondered if there would be enough conflict and plot in the first two-thirds of the book to carry me through if I wasn’t waiting for a terrible shoe to drop. Upon reflection, I think the answer is that the love story would have been enough. It was beautiful, and I wish these two fictional teens could have just been in love without having to face tragedy. We need books about Black love and joy, too. But ‘Angel of Greenwood’ has a bone to pick with history, and it could not be more timely.
I hope teachers assign this in schools and librarians turn it face-out on the shelves. American kids need to know this history to be good citizens. They need to feel it in their very bones if we’re to have any hope of not repeating it again and again. They need to see more depictions of Black teens falling in love and being happy. And now, more than ever, they need examples of the bravery that it takes to stand up in the face of white supremacy and not lose hope. It is something we all must do, in the days to come.
Caitlyn Paxson is a writer and performer. She is a regular reviewer for NPR Books and Quill & Quire.