An Oklahoma Bestseller
Look down as you buzz across America, and Oklahoma looks like another “flyover state.” A closer inspection, however, reveals one of the most tragic, fascinating, and unpredictable places in the United States. Over the span of a century, Oklahoma gave birth to movements for an African American homeland, a vibrant Socialist Party, armed rebellions of radical farmers, and an insurrection by a man called Crazy Snake. In the same era, the state saw numerous oil booms, one of which transformed the small town of Tulsa into the “oil capital of the world.” Add to the chaos one of the nation’s worst episodes of racial violence, a statewide takeover by the Ku Klux Klan, and the rise of a paranoid far-right agenda by a fundamentalist preacher named Billy James Hargis and you have the recipe for America’s most paradoxical state. Far from being a placid place in the heart of Flyover Country, Oklahoma has been a laboratory for all kinds of social, political, and artistic movements, producing a singular list of weirdos, geniuses, and villains.
In The Great Oklahoma Swindle Russell Cobb tells the story of a state rich in natural resources and artistic talent, yet near the bottom in education and social welfare. Raised in Tulsa, Cobb engages Oklahomans across the boundaries of race and class to hear their troubles, anxieties, and aspirations and delves deep to understand their contradictory and often stridently independent attitudes. Interweaving memoir, social commentary, and sometimes surprising research around the themes of race, religion, and politics, Cobb presents an insightful portrait that will make you rethink everything you thought you knew about the American Heartland.
Journalist Cobb (The Paradox of Authenticity in a Globalized World) offers an unflattering and eye-opening history of his home state of Oklahoma. Cobb hangs out the state's dirty laundry, describing Oklahoma's statehood as the product of a "forced marriage" between Oklahoma and Indian territories in 1907 and chronicling how land allotments for Native Americans concentrated in Indian Territory rapidly ended up in the hands of white owners after oil was discovered on the land. Cobb depicts the rise and fall of a vibrant 19th-century Oklahoma Socialist Party, the 1909 insurrection by Crazy Snake and his militia, a statewide near-total political takeover by the Klu Klux Klan in 1923, and the popularity of far-right preacher Billy James Hargis. In the most striking section, he covers "Black Wall Street," a prosperous enclave of black professionals in Tulsa that was burned to the ground in the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot. For Cobb, these events illustrate the "toxic mix" that runs through Oklahoma's past. Cobb argues that honesty in reckoning with Oklahoma's past and increased work for social justice remains the only solution. This unflinching look at Oklahoma's singular past helpfully fills in lesser-known aspects of the historical record.