Northeastern professor Caleb Gayle tells a story of Black people who became Native Americans

Portrait of Caleb Gayle
Caleb Gayle’s new book, “We Refuse to Forget: A True Story of Black Creeks, American Identity, and Power,” explores the complex relationship between a Native American tribe and its Black citizens. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

It was four years ago that Caleb Gayle came across a news report from Tulsa, Oklahoma, that helped him unlock new points of view—both historical and personal. 

That article from the newspaper of his former hometown, where Black descendants were suing for the right to be acknowledged as citizens of a Native American tribe, inspired him to pursue the narrative of his new book, “We Refuse to Forget: A True Story of Black Creeks, American Identity, and Power.”

“It lit a fire in me to ensure that people understand that there have been unconventional ways of being an American,” said Gayle, a journalism professor of the practice at Northeastern. “And that perhaps we don’t have to reinvent the wheel to reconsider what that looks like.”

Gayle’s debut book was published last week in advance of the Juneteenth holiday that commemorates the end of slavery in the U.S. His book explores the complexities of the Creek Nation, a federation of tribes that owned Black slaves even as it enabled them to earn tribal citizenship by way of marriage, adoption or other means.

The acclaimed book is a marriage of history and memoir, as Gayle explores his personal history. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

“We Refuse to Forget” tells a story of America’s defining triangle as formed by white colonists, the Native Americans they supplanted, and the Black people they enslaved. Publishers Weekly calls the book “a powerful portrait of how white supremacy ‘divides marginalized groups and pits them against each other.’”

At the heart of the epic narrative is a Black man who was named “Cow Tom” by the Creek chief who at one time owned him.

“It was Cow Tom who … negotiated an 1866 treaty with the U.S. government, an agreement that included citizenship rights for all Black people within the Creek Nation—whether slave, adopted, or free,” writes Gayle, who is also a senior fellow in Northeastern’s Burnes Center for Social Change.

The right to Creek citizenship enabled Cow Tom to become a tribal leader and a rich landowner of Indian territory. 

“He left the Creek Nation a chance to be better and his people a way to be freer,” Gayle writes. “He left all of us an incredible story that once we learn it, we must then refuse to forget.”

Portrait of Caleb Gayle.
Caleb Gayle, journalism professor of the practice at Northeastern. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

More than a century later, the great-great-great-great-grandson of Cow Tom, an attorney named Damario Solomon-Simmons, has been suing the Creek Nation over its 1979 decision to abruptly strip the heritage of citizenship from its Black members. 

The Black and Native peoples had come together in an attempt to make sense of a white world that was subjugating them, says Gayle. The same dynamic wound up tearing them apart, as the Creek redefined citizenship as a racial matter of indigenous blood.

“The repulsion of what colonists were doing drew those parties together in part because they were both being screwed over by the same kind of forces,” Gayle says of the alliance between the Creek Nation and Black people. “And then what broke them apart were the same forces, just in different forms.”

The book is a marriage of history and memoir, as Gayle’s research helps him make sense of his own identity as a son of Jamaican immigrants who were raising him in Tulsa, the site of the 1921 Massacre of Black Wall Street. Otherwise known as the Tulsa race massacre, mobs of white residents killed hundreds of Black people and injured and arrested many thousands more.

“What I learned about myself is … my frustration for not fitting into the categories and boxes that I thought I was supposed to fit into—that perhaps it’s not me that’s the problem,” Gayle says. “Perhaps it’s the fact that we keep constructing pretty narrow and non-accommodating places for people to occupy. We’re not as imaginative about who we can be, and we’re not as informed by the historical record as to who we can be.

“It’s somehow gotten into our heads that, because our brain wants to sort people into categories, those categories are confining and mutually exclusive,” Gayle continues. “When in actuality, who we are is an assemblage of a lot of different things. A lot of different histories. A lot of different experiences. And cobbled together, we can’t necessarily synthesize them and then truncate them into small little boxes we didn’t ask for and didn’t create.”

The U.S. has provided opportunity and stability to his immigrant family, as Gayle writes in his book. But he also believes that the American approach to identity is limiting.

“It’s abundantly clear to me,” he says, “that if we want people to be their full selves, it perhaps means that we must extend grace to each other, to spend the time fully understanding who it is that we are, and understanding who we’ve been.”

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