Ah, the television. With old pejoratives like “boob tube” and “idiot box,” it’s clear that TV has a bad rap in comparison to other forms of media.
But given trends like the advent of streaming and the rise of high-budget shows (see: Netflix’s The Crown, Disney’s The Mandalorian, and—forgive me—HBO’s Game of Thrones), the television landscape has made significant shifts over the past decade. These transformations have arguably bolstered the medium with a new sort of power. Say, the sort of power that rewrites school textbooks…
That’s right, I’m talking about HBO’s Watchmen (2019), a nine-episode TV continuation of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ 1987 comic book series. Run by Damon Lindelof, the show explores an alternate history in which superheroes live undercover after emerging in the mid-20th century and descendants of racial injustice receive reparations (financial compensation for slavery).
The show opens with a depiction of one of the most violent racially-motivated incidents in American history: the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921. Over the course of May 31 and June 1, large mobs of white people in Tulsa, Oklahoma, descended upon an affluent black neighborhood nicknamed “Black Wall Street” and burned it down. They leveled homes, businesses, and entire city blocks—killing hundreds of black people in the process. The exact body count remains unknown to this day.
While the Watchmen series is fiction, the Tulsa Race Massacre is very much real. Unfortunately, it has also been omitted from Oklahoma classrooms for decades, to the point where the current superintendent of Tulsa Public Schools did not learn about the massacre until she became a teacher herself. When HBO premiered Watchmen on October 20, 2019, scores of viewers expressed on social media that it was the first time they had heard of the incident.
Change is coming, though. In February, two months after the conclusion of Watchmen, Oklahoma’s state education department announced that starting fall 2020, all students in elementary through high school will learn about the Tulsa Race Massacre through the state’s new curriculum framework. On Twitter, acclaimed writer N.K. Jemisin cited Linderlof’s show in response to the news:
For me, the good news of Oklahoma’s new curriculum leads me to the following questions: What role should the government play in ensuring full and honest history is taught to all students? By what standards is a moment in history deemed necessary for state curriculums? And what other impacts can popular media have on education policy?
Having broached the above questions, I must make a crucial disclaimer that television alone cannot generate social and structural change. While Watchmen brought greater mainstream visibility to the Tulsa Race Massacre, it and the Oklahoma school curriculum undoubtedly owe thanks to activists who have worked to increase public knowledge for decades. Lindelof, Watchmen‘s show creator, has credited Ta-Nehisi Coates and his essay “The Case for Reparations” for introducing him to Black Wall Street. Media plays a role in shaping public awareness, but the bulk of the work is done by other players.
You can learn more about the Tulsa Race Massacre through the links compiled in this The New York Times article. Vanderbilt students with on-campus housing can stream Watchmen through our Xfinity service for free (and by free, I mean “included in the tuition we pay the school”).
4 thoughts on “On TV and Oklahoma’s New State Curriculum”
This is shocking to me. Like Dr. Clayton has always said, the arts can definitely have an effect on policy! However, I’m not sure whether this form of art influenced policy because it existed (I’m sure there were documentaries before Watchmen) or because it got attention from the public. Either way, I’m glad it sparked the change in the curriculum. Because I’m skeptical, it seems to me that the pressure from the public was an important factor in the change.
Hi Alice – great post! This statement in particular really resonated with me: “Media plays a role in shaping public awareness, but the bulk of the work is done by other players.”
I wonder how activists like Ta-Nehisi Coates feel about how their message has been portrayed in shows like Watchmen. I’m curious as to whether they ever imagined their work inspiring this kind of popular media (and then being amplified by it); I did a quick Google search and couldn’t find anything about Coates responding to Watchmen, but I will definitely be checking out his work now.
(The tweet you highlighted definitely raises an interesting point too; I’m also not sure “whether to laugh or cry” that the work of so many historians, journalists, etc. only received the attention it deserved after an HBO drama came out several years later.)
Thank you for sharing this post. It is an excellent example of public policies influenced by a work of art, and as you have stated, it could not have been done without the work done by prior people. It also raises a question for me: would the previous work have gone ineffective without the production of Watchmen? (I’m sorry my computer isn’t typing italics) If a curriculum is only altered after the matter gains attention through commercial ways, does it question the structure of the related government agencies? While we acknowledge the show’s success and its achievement in raising people’s awareness, we might need to think about policy issues that can not be moved to screens but still need public attention.
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I forgot to reply to this on Tuesday! That said, this is a great post (not that I’m surprised). I was considering watching Watchmen while we still have HBO access, and this cemented that decision.
You give a really good example of the type of work that’s central to this class. Unfortunately, a lot of times it DOES take art to influence public opinion on something that seems to have obvious importance. I remember my teachers echoing a similar sentiment to the Tulsa superintendent regarding things like the Japanese internment of WWII. For them, it was historical fiction books that filled the gap in knowledge, and I can’t say I’m shocked that a similar thing happened with Watchmen.
Lastly, I love that you and Lindelof tie this process to the groundwork that activists lay. If art and media are an agent of change/a mechanism by which it occurs, activism is the reason they’re successful.