Hilary Beard and Tim Madigan in Conversation on “The Burning” and the Tulsa Race Massacre

In advance of the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre, the author and adapter of The Burning (Young Readers Edition): Black Wall Street and the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921, discuss their book and this painful part of American history.

The 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre—when a white mob attacked Black residents, homes, and businesses in the thriving community of Greenwood—is May 31–June 1. It is one of the worst acts of racist violence in American history, and has long been omitted from news reports and history texts.

This month marks the publication of The Burning (Young Readers Edition): Black Wall Street and the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921, which Hilary Beard adapted from Tim Madigan’s adult book. Here, Beard and Madigan discuss how the young readers edition was developed, their different experiences as a Black woman and a white man, and how the book highlights resilience over horror.

You can find more books and resources on this vital and overlooked piece of American history here.


Tim MadiganTim Madigan: It was in mid-2020 when Kate Farrell, a senior editor at Henry Holt publishers specializing in books for young readers, contacted me to say she was interested in adapting The Burning for her audience. I thought that was a fantastic idea. Kate and I agreed that we needed just the right person and writer to adapt the book. Kate found that person. So Hilary, a logical first question might be, why did you take the gig?

Hilary BeardHilary Beard: When I first received the offer I felt stunned. As my family’s genealogist, I felt like my ancestors were inviting me to stand in for them and help tell more under-told American history, including Native American and African American history. As I read The Burning, I could see the tremendous skill, care, and craftsmanship that Tim had put into his research and shaping the story of the Greenwood District of Tulsa, known as Black Wall Street. I also imagined the spiritual, emotional, and intellectual journey the project must have taken Tim upon, and I admired that as a white man who’d had little exposure to Black history, he’d allowed himself to be transformed by it.

Madigan: One of the things I’ve realized over the years is you can’t fully understand the African American experience in this nation unless you’ve lived it. As such, I was a bit nervous when you went to work on the book, wondering what you would think. That’s why your reaction to it was so gratifying and frankly, a bit of a relief.

There are some pretty graphic descriptions of violence in The Burning, and one of the things we discussed early on was how much it should be toned down for younger readers. How did you approach that part of it?

Beard: Well, I did see some things a bit differently because I have the lived experience of being a Black person. But my overall response was that I was blown away by what it had taken to research and write the book and I could empathize as a human being with what an emotional rollercoaster it might have put you on, since so much of the history was new to you and so different from what you’d been taught.

I read The Burning during the intersection of the pandemic and the protests that followed the deaths of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and so many other Black Americans. Sadly, many of the issues were shockingly similar, which was very disheartening. The story of Black Wall Street amazed me, though. So I cut back some of the Massacre’s gruesome details and expanded upon and complicated both the history of the settling, mostly by white Americans, of the Indigenous Creek Native American lands, which the U.S. government called the Oklahoma Territories, as well as the account of how formerly enslaved people and their children built lives as free citizens and created Black Wall Street, seemingly from nothing. I shifted from the passive to active sentence construction. I layered in more women’s stories and connected this history to today’s quest for racial justice and multiracial democracy. And since teenagers will be the primary readers of the youth version, I started with a teenager, Don Ross, who didn’t like school but found his passion after he stumbled upon this story while working on Greenwood’s high school yearbook, and has become the hero who helped bring it to national attention.

Madigan: A phrase I came upon recently, in a newspaper story about the new series The Underground Railroad, is “in spite of.” That refers to all the African Americans have achieved over the centuries despite all the terrible headwinds they faced. As you say, I know that was important to you as you worked on The Burning. Not to shy away from the horror, but to also highlight the remarkable resilience, courage, talent, and grace of Black people.

So now, what is your fondest wish for our newly adapted book, and why do you think it is an important one for school libraries?

Beard: Yes, Tim, and as this story shows, there has been a long-standing campaign to dehumanize Black people and portray us as less than human, a reality that we still experience.

I’m hoping that the young readers version helps young people and the adults who love them to develop a more complete and complex understanding of U.S. history and of themselves. Not to oversimplify things, but the American story is about a lot more than perfection, progress, and bootstraps. I hope that more of us grapple with and accept the underside of our history, including the “original sin” of slavery and its aftermath, and our combination of progress and backsliding. As we learn a more complete story—from the wonderful to the unconscionable—I hope that we develop greater empathy toward each other, fear one another less, and seek a common path forward that resists the authoritarian impulses and perhaps even self-destruction and instead allows us to live into our potential as the world’s first multiracial democracy.

Madigan: Beautiful. That is also my hope. What I’m about to say may sound naive, but it goes back to something I heard from Fred Rogers, the late icon of children’s television. Fred and I became close friends in the mid-1990s, and one of his favorite sayings was, “It’s much easier to love someone when you know their story.” That was true when I learned the story of my father’s wretched childhood. It fundamentally changed the way I looked at him. And that was true when, finally, I learned the real story of African American people in this nation. It changed the way I looked at people different from myself, with more compassion and curiosity. What I’ve realized is that by learning the story of another, you allow their humanity to emerge in some magical way. There is so much to do around this topic in our nation, but, here is the naive part, I think it all begins with learning the story. Too many whites still don’t know it. That’s why all the attention to the centennial anniversary of the Massacre is so important. I think our book will also be a really important resource in that regard.

With that, it’s always good to talk to you, my friend. See you soon in Tulsa, I hope.

Beard: Well, while I’d love to wrap up with a happy ending, though I possess a plane ticket to Tulsa for the centennial, given the disparate impact of COVID-19 upon Black Americans and the flights with long layovers in less-vaccinated places, I’m not sure whether I feel safe enough to risk it. And that is, perhaps, a metaphor for this story—same country, but different experience of it.

Hilary Beard is an award-winning writer and an expert in book collaborations. She has partnered with many celebrities, experts, and public figures, including Katherine Johnson on her book Reaching for the Moon: The Autobiography of NASA Mathematician Katherine Johnson.

Tim Madigan has been a journalist for more than three decades, writing for the Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Politico, Reader's Digest, and, for thirty years, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Tim's books include I'm Proud of You: My Friendship with Fred Rogers and Every Common Sight. He lives in Forth Worth, TX.

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