I was born and grew up in Tulsa with a sense of stark contradictions. My grandparents migrated West at the turn of the century, in the classic American story, seeking opportunity. One grandmother journeyed West as a child in a Conestoga wagon to a land-grant farm in Western Kansas. The man she would marry was a poor lawyer who took the offer of $20 and a one-way ticket to Indian Territory on the pledge to stay for a year. In 1905, oil gushed from the ground in the famous Glenn Pool. Tulsa became a boomtown and almost every white person with skills and gumption got rich. But Indian Territory was also the destination of thousands of American Indians who were forced to trudge the “Trail of Tears” to the wind-swept prairie. The land that gushed black gold was soaked with their blood.

There were more contradictions: we lived in a big, inviting house, my parents were sociable and loved each other. But upstairs, my grandmother wallowed in her bed and moaned out the tragedy of her life – a husband who died too young; three handsome sons who were struck down in quick succession – from polio, a crashed Model T, insanity. My beautiful, life-loving mother was the only survivor. She accepted the challenge of tending her mother’s misery, but sometimes the tension was so great, the demands so impossible that her whole body broke out in painful hives. Our formal family dinners were served at a gleaming mahogany table. While my younger siblings chattered happily, I tried to decipher my father’s embattled silence as my mother’s hives crept up her neck.

My goal was to escape from Tulsa, but until I could do that, I escaped from the house. I wrote plays and stories in the impossibly high treehouse I built with my sister and best friend. I organized my classmates to perform plays, studied ballet, rode horses, tried figure-skating. I explored the creek that ran behind our house and wound on for miles, promising dangerous excitement. Wild grapevines dangled over the rocky stream – with enough momentum, one could swing out and over the water to drop down on the other side. Where the creek cut deepest, there was a pile of leaves raked up from the towering oaks and dumped far below. We dared each other to leap out from the rock ledge and hurtle down more than 20 feet to land in a cushion of musty leaves. No grownup knew what we did. It was freedom. It was bliss.

In the house, the kitchen was my refuge. It was the territory of our black maid, “I.E.” real name Guyeather Davis. She was smart and strong-minded. I could tell her what no one else wanted to hear – that I hated my grandmother. She scolded me for any grade below an A; watched and critiqued the “shows” I directed where she was the only audience; she pronounced her opinion of everything. From her, I heard about Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington, Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. Suddenly, in 1954, I.E. was no longer a maid – she was a college student. Thurgood Marshall had argued and won a case before the Supreme Court, Brown vs. Board of Education. Segregation was over and Tulsa University was open to blacks. I.E. graduated magna cum laude, and then earned her M.A. in Education, and became the director of Tulsa Head Start. She was part of my life to the end of hers.

My parents said I would go East to a good college, to one of the Seven Sisters. I agreed, but I was restless in the insulated world of the private school for girls. I wanted to explore the wild, chaotic world beyond the green lawns and hazy beauty of our neighborhood. I announced that I would go to Tulsa Central High School. They said no, emphatically. I realized that I would have to fight, and I did.

Finally, my father called me into the library and shut the door. He presented his case – my future, my education, etc. I presented mine – the challenges, gritty reality, the excitement of difference, etc. Did I say that I wanted to be a writer, and a writer has to know the world? Maybe. At bottom, I felt a passion to escape, and a desire to explore. He issued his verdict – no. I was furious. For the first time, my respect for my brilliant father the great lawyer evaporated; my good manners were erased. I raged and sobbed in desperation. “How can you say you love me if you don’t care what I want or whether I’m happy?!” At last, he proposed a compromise – I could go to Central for one year if promised to return to Holland Hall for the last two years of high school. I agreed.

On the first day, I walked up the endless stairs to the imposing entrance of Central High and its 3000 students with a dry mouth and pounding heart. I plunged into that wild world and began to learn the things I was desperate to know.

Two years later, as the plane lifted off the runway to take me East to college, I wrote in my journal, “Goodbye Tulsa. I’m never coming back.” But I carried with me the intense contrasts of home and place – the fascination and the fury I felt there, and the determination to follow Kant’s advice, “Dare to know.”

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