Saturday, March 21, 2009

Why Is Big Tex a White Cowboy?: Race, Gender and the "Other Texans" (a rough draft, Part 7)

Any episteme that emphasizes personal subjectivity must ultimate consider the interaction of these inner mental worlds in the larger society. In addition to whiteness, and the generational approach taken by Garcia and other scholars of Tejano history, a third academic approach stemming from postmodernism, the analysis of collective memory, profoundly shaped race and gender scholarship in Texas since the 1990s. In the 19th century, collective memory primarily derived from word-of-mouth and folklore. As Gregg Cantrell and Elizabeth Hayes Turner noted in their 2007 essay “A Study of History, Memory and Collective Memory in Texas,” the folk recollection of the past has been shaped by “the history lessons taught in schools; visits to museums, monuments, historical sites, or public celebrations; and the viewing of historically-themed art, television, and movies – to name a few.” White men, however, remained central to that collective memory for much of the twentieth century.

The academic reassessment of Texas’ Anglo-centric myths from the 1970s to the 1990s led many historians attempted to fill gaps left in the collective memory by exploring the separate histories of black and brown Texans and of women. Biographies of important Mexican Americans, African Americans and women in the arts, politics, the labor movement, and the civil rights struggle, dominated the study of race and gender in Texas for much of the past 20 years. In particular, Ruthe Weingarten and Hollace Weiner staked a claim to the modern biography-driven historical narrative. Their emphasis on biography meant that these authors spent less time on racial and gender ideology and the social construction of identity. Nevertheless their works, generally aimed at a popular audience, made an important contribution to the new Texas historiography rejecting the myth that white men alone served as historical actors in Texas.

While Weiner and Weingarten sought to fill gaps in state’s historical consciousness, other historians identified collective memory as an historical force in its own right. According to William D. Carrigan’s "The Making of a Lynching Culture: Violence and Vigilantism in Central Texas" (2004), collective memory played a key role in shaping the bloody race relations in the heart of the state. In part, lynching and other acts of mass public violence, according to Carrigan, derived from local folklore grounded in Central Texas’ past as a frontier, where white colonizers engaged in warfare against Native Americans and outlaws. In the public memory, brave pioneers exploited the lack of political infrastructure to impose a crude order, and their supposed successes legitimized the tradition of violence. The experience of slavery, with its brutal discipline and its armed slave patrols also bolstered later-day vigilantism. Finally, memories of past resistance to constituted authorities on the part of African Americans, Mexicans and Mexican Americans, and poor whites – combined with myths concerning these groups’ alleged propensity toward violence – incited the fear that lay at the heart of group retaliation.

Changing demographics combined with more immediate local memories ultimately racialized lynching, according to Carrigan. While whites accused of being abolitionists, Republicans, or criminals formerly suffered violent death at the hands of mobs, by the end of the 19th century the Central Texas victims increasingly became black men. Carrigan writes that increased Mexican immigration to Central Texas reduced the importance of black labor in the region. Also, the implementation of de jure segregation alienated blacks from whites, loosening whatever emotional bonds might have existed between the two groups. In addition, Carrigan says, local whites remembered the 1900-1901 murder case against Will King, an African American from Waco accused of killing a white police officer. King’s white lawyers mounted an unusually spirited defense and the court twice overturned King’s conviction before he died at the gallows October 25, 1901. Whites perceived the King case as an example of excessive leniency towards African American criminals. This local collective memory, Carrigan argues, sparked later vigilantism, culminating in the gruesome 1916 murder of the teenaged Jesse Washington who had been accused of the murder of a white woman.


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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