Saturday, March 21, 2009

Why Is Big Tex a White Cowboy?: Race, Gender and the "Other Texans" (a rough draft, Part 10)

Built on whiteness studies, inter-generational analysis and the examination of collective memory, race and gender studies in Texas historiography have expanded dramatically since the 1970s, and have grown in sophistication. Nevertheless, the literature on many subtopics remains shockingly thin or completely neglected. To date, Asian Texans have been under-researched. Thoughtful scholarly debates on the relationship between different Asian communities and between those communities and Anglo, Mexican and African Americans in Texas, on the impact of Asian immigration on Texas communities after the fall of South Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia to the communists in 1975, and on Asian Texan political perspectives still await the future. Some of the most interesting work regarding Asian immigrants in Texas have come from University of Texas at Arlington historian Stephanie Cole who found that, even with the intense anti-Chinese racism on the West coast at the dawn of the twentieth century, the Chinese in Dallas enjoyed greater tolerance, in part because of their small numbers and in part because of a local fascination with Chinese culture and religion. Their experience compared favorably with white ethnics and Mexican immigrants who found that their status depended on the lightness of their skin, their mastery of English and higher income. The specific experiences of Cambodian, Laotian, Vietnamese, Indian and Indonesian immigrants to Texas, however, have not yet been adequately studied.

Another subtopic of race and gender studies – sexuality in Texas – remains mostly overlooked, though Mark M. Carroll made an admirable start with his 2001 book "Homesteads Ungovernable: Families, Sex, Race, and the Law in Frontier Texas". Carroll emphasized the use of law by Texas’ governing Anglos as a tool to prevent inter-racial sex and the birth of mixed-race children. Anglos sought to prevent a transfer of wealth to African Americans, Indians and Mexicans and their multi-cultural off-spring, Carroll argued, and thus used law to criminalize miscegenation and to, in the case of the children of black slave women and white men, to render them as “bastards.”

Carroll built on the work of feminist historians like Joan Wallach Scott, a specialist in French history at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton, N.J., who have suggested that constructions of masculinity and femininity are unstable across historical epochs. Carroll also looks to Southern historians such Victoria Bynum who have suggested that analysis of Southern gender and sexuality “built exclusively on planter hegemony and the cult of male honor are too blunt to account for the considerable variety in family relations within particular regions and among various groups.” Carroll suggested that frontier conditions loosened Texan attitudes towards interracial sex, gender roles, and definitions of the family. According to Carroll, “[S]tressful living conditions, institutional disarray, land-grant rules designed to promote rapid settlement, and a dysfunctional law of matrimony made settling Anglo-Texan families highly unstable as did the often self-indulgent and sexually promiscuous behavior of Texas men.” These factors, he maintained, undermined plantation patriarchy and created spaces where women could on occasion exercise domestic authority and economic autonomy. “[P]ioneer conditions, land policy, and the Hispanic matrimonial property regime prompted homesteading spouses to work cooperatively and often ruthlessly as conjugal joint venturers, grounding their marriages in survival and economic imperatives rather than in republican family ideals,” he concluded.

While Carroll’s work will probably shape how future Texas historians view the state’s 19th century heterosexual family life, Texas historiography between 1991 and 2011 did not analyze the impact of the state’s gay, lesbian, bisexual, and trans-gendered population. There has been no Lone Star equivalent to George Chauncey’s innovative "Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940", which made innovative use of police records, vice commission reports, oral histories and other sources to uncover a world not usually covered in historical archives. Yet, collections for studying gay/lesbian/bi/trans-gendered history in Texas are available in Texas. The Phil Johnson Historical Archives and Library houses such materials as interviews with gay activists at the John Thomas Gay and Lesbian Community Center in Dallas. The Gay and Lesbian Archives of Texas in Houston is also available to researchers. Such collections await exploration by a new generation of scholars. Another field, reproductive politics and abortion, has received more attention but has been focused on individual participants in the pro-choice and pro-life movements. A history of those movements from the 19th century on has of this date not been attempted. A sophisticated theoretical approach to the politics of reproduction, its relation to concepts like “race suicide” (in which Anglo leaders encouraged white women to reproduce in order to prevent people of color from “threatening” Western civilization as their numbers increased), the impact of Mexican immigration and the Catholic Church on the abortion debate in Texas, and differing perceptions of abortion among white women and black women remains to be offered. The role of eugenicists and their intellectual heirs in the state’s psychology programs who study alleged differences in IQ between races and genders, in shaping Texan views of race, gender, and reproduction, and Texas feminists’ attitudes toward the family have also not been adequately studied. Finally, the position of women in unconventional religious movements, and how they are impacted by reproductive ideology, such as female adherents in fundamentalist Mormon sects or the right-wing Protestant “Quiverfull” movement (which pressures women to bear children who, the movement hopes, will one day outnumber supporters for feminism and abortion rights) has yet to be considered.

Inspired not just by post-modernism, but also by post-1960s multiculturalism and feminism, Texas historians now acknowledge the diversity of historical actors key to the Texas past. More complex and inclusive scholarship, however, has not resulted in a more diverse body of scholars. As a result of globalism and immigration, the Texas population will in the future only encompass more national cultures, native languages, and religious traditions, increasingly multi-dimensional racial politics, and myriad new definitions of masculinity, femininity and trans-gendered identities. Unfortunately, Texas historians remain overwhelmingly white and male and the near future does not promise the rise of an academic rainbow coalition. According to the “National Science Foundation Survey of Earned Doctorates” records from 1997 to 2005, only 4.6 percent of new history Ph.D.s in the United States were African American, only 4 percent were Hispanic, less than 2 percent were Asian American and just below 40 percent were women. This point is not made to question the ability of white scholars, the author included, to make intelligent inquiries regarding African Americans and others. However, the dominance in the past decade of white Ph.D.s in the history field means the questions asked and the conclusions reached by the historical profession will remain grounded in a too-narrow cultural perspective.

Nevertheless, the mountain of research into the construction of identity in the last 20 years transformed and inverted the larger myths of the Texas past. Events once hailed as triumphs, such as the Battle of San Jacinto now are seen as atrocities. Old heroes like William Travis, Jim Bowie, and Davy Crockett have morphed into genocidal imperialists. Texas under the Confederacy no longer represents a flowering of independent spirit but stands as the desperate gamble of a slave empire. Reconstruction no longer appears in scholarly pages as a period of corruption and “Negro Rule,” but as a false spring of inclusive democracy destroyed by domestic terrorists like the Klan. Cowboys have retreated to the margins, and triumphant tales of Anglo “civilization” prevailing over dark-skinned backwardness have transformed into an often tragic collusion of cultures that produced not homogeneity but hybridization. Finally, if historians once regarded the dawn of the twentieth century as the end of Texas history (or at least of its most interesting stories), more modern scholars have placed battles over modernization, integration and sexual discrimination along side the set piece conflicts between Sam Houston and Santa Anna as the most important conflicts of the Texas past. The old Whiggish narrative of Texas history as an unending tale of progress receded, replaced by a confused zig-zag journey producing as many losers as winners. Conflict, rather than consensus, rules in the post-modern narrative.

From the standpoint of scholarly integrity, the post-modernist project continues to be hampered by the still too small number of African American, Mexican American, Asian American and women historians examining Texas history. The audience for Texas history, however, remains largely white and male. The new race and gender historiography represents a repudiation of the public memory nurtured by that audience and groups like the Daughters of the Texas Republic. The postmodern take on the Lone Star state stands at a distance from how most Texan citizens probably view their past. The new history is too fractured and too particularized to profoundly shape collective memory as did the old white supremacist myths and Whiggish myths celebrating the triumph of Western civilization still reign supreme. Historians increasingly work in alienation from their potential audience. As Randolph Campbell noted, in a state where its citizens view Texas as “an exceptional place in the world, the home of the Alamo where selfless patriots fought to the last man for freedom, a noble defender of states’ rights against northern aggression, a long-suffering victim of carpetbagger corruption, and in the end a place of heroic western values,” then historians have to work harder to “write accounts of the past that entertain, inform, and instruct but at the same time are critical, analytical, and true to the sources.”

Even if they still compete to shape historical consciousness, usually unsuccessfully, with the vision of T.R. Fehrenbach, modern race and gender scholars have made an impact. Even popular public history sites like the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum in Austin, Texas, have had to make concessions to modern scholarship. A state pantheon once limited to white soldiers, statesmen and buccaneering entrepreneurs has made room for union shop leaders, organizers of reform-minded women’s clubs, black nationalists, and proud Chicanos. Big Tex still rules over the State Fair of Texas every year, but increasingly he seems less an icon than a cartoon.


Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

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