Deep into midwinter and the pandemic, I’m standing around a backyard fire with my wife and two childhood friends. It’s nighttime in Hominy, Oklahoma, and we’re doing what we’ve done much longer than the law has allowed us: drinking cheap beer.
“Do you think this place is cursed?” I say.
“Hell yeah,” one friend replies.
When we gather, my wife, who’s from Italy, is subjected to stories of what we witnessed here. What people did to others, the things we’ve done, friends and family lost to this place, of some that lost their minds—to drugs, to ideologies, to life lacking definition. If there is a curse, it is that Oklahoma reveals the truth of America’s founding and troubled identity, yet rejects it and denies how we arrived here. At the end of the Trail of Tears is Indian Territory, at the end of Indian Territory is Oklahoma; and Oklahoma statehood robbed its Indigenous and Black diasporas of their agency and freedom.
To truly see this place is to look through a glass, darkly. I’ve known this for a long time, that I grew up in territory that was hard to define except by its degeneration. It was my wife, an outsider, who caused me to question if this land might be cursed.
In her first essay collection, Most American: Notes from a Wounded Place, Oklahoma writer Rilla Askew helps frame Oklahoma’s history and invokes our contradictions. “Oklahoma is a wounded place,” she writes. “The country as a whole is wounded, but my home state, birthed as it was in such profound hope and greed, violence and promise, is wounded in a particular way.”
Many writers in Oklahoma are moved by the tension of longing for definition and our inexplicability; cut off from a past our ancestors were forced to break from and facing the same indeterminate future. Askew’s essays remind us that Oklahoma represents what it really means to be American, with its legacy of violence, which other states have been quick to forget. America’s troubled past lingers in Oklahoma in tangible ways.
She writes in “Most American”: “This state that had long been a cipher and a mystery, and, like an illegitimate child, was unclaimed by any region, is not the heartland: it is the viscera, the underbelly, the very gut of the nation. … Paradox and dichotomy dominate Oklahoma’s character, and this is part of what accounts for our mystery, for why we cannot be classified, categorized.”
Rilla’s writing helps put Oklahoma’s past in perspective, but how does one accept their place among such unkind revelations? The closest I’ve come to answers for these questions, to understanding the space Oklahoma occupies in this nation, is in French philosopher Michel Foucault’s concept of the Heterotopia, or “other space.” (source
Heterotopias are physical spaces connected to but removed from society and culture. They are both real and mythic, because access to them goes against and inverts conventional systems and circumstances. As examples, Foucault mentions boarding schools, charnel houses and burial sites, ceremony, colonies and colonization. Oklahoma has been a prominent host to each of these. From pre-colonial earthen mound complexes by Mississippian culture such as Spiro, used for rituals and to inter the dead, to Indian Boarding Schools of the 19th and 20th centuries—the legacy of this place is composed of heterotopic spaces that we have yet to escape. Considering Indian Territory and contemporary issues concerning tribal sovereignty like the McGirt Supreme Court decision, or the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre in Greenwood, and a current reparations lawsuit against the City of Tulsa, Oklahoma still resists and contests the other while championing itself a mythical place of resilience.
This is a place of inequality, tribal sovereignty, and nostalgia. In Oklahoma, we are caught in a heterotopia that reveals our true nature, that the state occupies a space that splits past and present, lawlessness and justice. To paraphrase Foucault, he says Heterotopias are both isolated and penetrable, they are not “freely accessible like a public space,” but the barrier to entry is either compulsory or requires rites and purification. Oklahoma is the land of broken treaties, land runs, sundown towns, and overpopulated prisons—purification was once Native American dances, war paths, and rituals, now this land is molded by megachurches and socio-political ineptitude.
The circumstances of Oklahoma can either be regarded as a curse, or a path towards empathy and understanding. As Oklahomans, our otherness is a balance between reality and myth, sin and forgiveness. Askew says, “those worst sins are balanced here by the better part of human nature—the best of what’s worst and best in us.”
For me, with a case of beer, friends, and backroads, the imagination opens.
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