Sunday, March 22, 2009

Why Is Big Tex a White Cowboy?: Race, Gender and the "Other Texans" (a rough draft, Part 1)

[Note: The following essay was written as part of a 20th anniversary update of "Texas Through Time" to be published by Texas A&M Press. I post this in hope of receiving feedback from readers.]

In 1952, the symbol most associated with the annual Texas State Fair in Dallas made a memorable debut. That year, workers erected the 52-foot high cowboy “Big Tex.” In a previous life the imposing figure served as a “the world’s largest Santa Claus” created to encourage Christmas shopping in the town of Kerens. In his new incarnation, Big Tex, with his size 70 boots and 75-gallon hat, embodied the larger-than-life Texas myth.

As historian Gregg Cantrell noted in his 2007 essay “The Bones of Stephen F. Austin: History and Memory in Progressive-Era Texas,” by the early twentieth century elite Texas Progressives embraced a Western, as opposed to Southern, identity for the Lone Star State. The cowboy image served an economic purpose. Linking Texas identity with the Confederacy meant tying the Lone Star State to the “Lost Cause,” a past redolent of defeat, nostalgia and sleepy rural rhythms. In contrast, the Progressives who came to dominate Texas politics in the early twentieth century wanted to attract outside investment by linking the state with a more triumphant, Western narrative of bold, independent mavericks conquering an untamed frontier. Free-spirited and independent cowboys gradually displaced defeated soldiers in grey in the state’s mythology.

The ideas Big Tex embodied rested on racist foundations. The West stood for triumph, which in the Anglo mind meant the victory of superior whites over Mexican and Indian barbarians. Meanwhile, by the time Big Tex arose over the Fair Park landscape, the state’s historians, primarily from the University of Texas at Austin, had driven Mexican Americans and African Americans to the margins of the master narrative. Anglo writers erased the Indian and Mexican contributions to the culture of Texas, the role of black and brown labor in building the state, and the political importance of men like Texas Revolutionary Lorenzo de Zavala and African American Republican Party leader Norris Wright Cuney in the 1870s and 1880s.

In both popular culture and the state’s scholarship, Texas heroes remained monochromatic until the 1970s. Just as significant as his Western (as opposed to a Southern) identity, Big Tex was white, not black or brown, and a man, not a woman. Texas boosters and even historians saw the state’s history as a clash of civilizations, providing intellectual cover for segregation and other racially discriminatory policies in Texas, a viewpoint that has still not completely disappeared. Meanwhile, women in historical narratives appeared as ciphers, assuming importance only in their roles as dutiful housewives, widows (Alamo survivor Susannah Dickinson) or as sexual diversions (Emily Morgan, the so-called “Yellow Rose of Texas” who supposedly amorously distracted Mexican dictator Antonio López de Santa Anna at the start of the decisive battle of the Texas Revolution at San Jacinto.)

As a state icon, Big Tex obviously failed to capture the ethnic diversity and economic complexities of the Lone Star state, let alone the fact that the image ignored the importance of women. This essay discusses how scholarly apartheid placed white men at the center of Texas’ historical narrative, why a more diverse narrative took so long to develop and what has happened in the last two decades to create a more sophisticated understanding of the state’s past. The politics of racial identity and historical memory, the influence of postmodernism and “whiteness studies,” as well as new approaches to examining gender, will be considered along the way. The essay ends with a discussion of how it was only in the late 20th and early 21st century that the ideology that created Big Tex as a symbol of the state could be fully understood and the difficulties in creating an alternative representation of Texas in the modern era and new areas of race and gender scholarship that might still be explored.

The weight of Lone Star mythology depressed scholarship examining race and gender in Texas for the first six decades of the twentieth century in spite of the opportunities the state offered researchers. First of all, for decades Texas history was the work of amateurs. Four decades elapsed between the Texas Revolution in the 1830s and the establishment of the state’s first two public universities, the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Texas (later renamed Texas A&M University) in 1876 and the University of Texas at Austin in 1883. The lack of credentialed historians created a vacuum filled by men like John Henry Brown, mayor of both Galveston and Dallas in the mid and late 19th century, who authored The History of Texas from 1685 to 1892. The pro-Confederate and anti-suffragist sentiments of history buffs like Brown ensured that people of color would be marginalized in the state’s master narrative. Both the University of Texas and Texas A&M remained segregated until the second half of the twentieth century, meaning that black and brown historians remained unheard outside their communities.

The old racial attitudes endured in T.R. Fehrenbach’s weighty "Lone Star: A History of Texas and the Texans," published in 1968, which became perhaps the most popular rendition of Texas narrative history ever. Fehrenbach characterized Indians as warlike and “sadistic,” and claimed the Indian male “seldom soiled his hand with labor.” Of African Americans, Fehrenbach commented, “The Negro was never a prime mover, but always a dangerous catalyst in American life.” Tejanos failed to record substantial achievements post-Texas independence, he wrote, because they embraced a culture that belittled hard labor. “Nowhere in the Mexican ethos were the bedrock assumptions, the value system that lay so close to the Anglo heart . . . work as a virtue, transcending all necessity; wealth as desirable, if not the only desirable, basis of status; the drive for status itself.” Women were also largely invisible. Only 26 women appear in Fehrenbach’s 28-page index, with many identified by their husband’s names, such as “Mrs. James Bowie.” Several of the identified women appear in the text only as victims of Native American and Mexican military attacks.

Even after the Civil Rights movement from the 1950s to the 1970s, Texas remained relatively overlooked by American scholars because the state’s past did not fit easily within established historical niches. My description in White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, 1841-2001 regarding the scholarly neglect of Dallas applies to Texas as a whole. “Too small [in population] in the 1860s and 1870s to merit extensive consideration in histories of the Civil War and Reconstruction, too Southern to be placed in the context of the great labor battles of the late nineteenth century, and too Western to be incorporated into monographs on the Southern desegregation struggle in the mid-twentieth century,” Texas attracted little historical attention outside of the Lone Star state.

Texas thus represented a missed opportunity for understanding how race and gender are constructed in American culture. As historian Amilcar Shabazz observes in "Advancing Democracy: African Americans and the Struggle for Access and Equity in Higher Education in Texas" (2004), Texas provides a fascinating contrast with other Southern states due to its status as “the South’s most unique and diverse state. It is the only former slave state that was once a part of Mexico and that has a substantial Mexican American population . . . The diversity only begins there. Texas is where the East meets the West.” In addition, Texas provided the setting for one of the most important Supreme Court decisions in the Civil Rights era. As Shabazz observes, the Supreme Court’s Sweatt v. Painter ruling (which desegregated the University of Texas at Austin law school) not only opened public colleges and universities to black students but also set a precedent for the more famous Brown v. the Board of Education decision that ordered the desegregation of public schools. Historians were also slow to recognize how Texas provides an excellent case study for gender scholars. Conditions on the Texas frontier appeared to have softened the rigid gender roles imposed in other Southern states. Thus in 1925 Miriam “Ma” Ferguson, along with Nellie Tayloe Ross of Wyoming, became the first women governors in the United States. A Texas woman, Jessie Daniel Ames, led the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching. Texas also provided the setting for the divisive Roe v. Wade decision, which legalized abortions in the first two trimesters of pregnancy.

Yet, these stories would not begin to be told until the last third of the twentieth century. Two historical developments changed Texas scholarship on race and gender in the 1970s. First of all, in the 1960s Gov. John Connally and Lt. Gov. Ben Barnes successfully lobbied the Legislature to substantially increase university budgets, arguing this was needed to maintain the state’s economic competitiveness. The pair hiked university and college faculty salaries, attracting more academic talent from out of state, improved and expanded the state’s community colleges, added the University of Houston to the state system and turned Angelo State College and Pan American College into a four-year schools. In addition to an upgrade of the state’s higher education system, the women’s movement and the African American and Mexican American civil rights movement successfully battled to desegregate and break down gender barriers at Texas colleges and universities. This created a pressure for more inclusive scholarship and diverse faculties, which in turn produced more sensitive and imaginative scholarship.

Secondly, a new generation of race and gender scholars tapped into the revisionist zeitgeist of the 1960s, including Lawrence D. Rice, Alwyn Barr, Cary D. Wintz, James M. SoRelle, Arnoldo de León, David Montejano and Randolph Campbell. These scholars opened the first serious examination of black and Tejano history in Texas. Most of these pioneering works in the 1970s and 1980s aimed at establishing a non-racist narrative, to provide the life stories of prominent Latinos and African Americans, to note their contributions to Texas society and to document their struggles against slavery, segregation and racial violence. These scholars expanded on what constituted history and on who could be considered historical actors.

Works like de León’s "They Called Them Greasers: Anglo Attitudes Toward Mexicans in Texas, 1821-1900" (1983); Jacquelyn Dowd Hall’s groundbreaking essay "'The Mind That Burns In Each Body': Women, Rape, and Racial Violence" (1984); Montejano’s "Anglos and Mexicans in the Making of Texas, 1836-1986" (1987); and Campbell’s "An Empire for Slavery: The Peculiar Institution in Texas, 1821-1865 (1989)" went deeper, examining how racial and gender identities are constructed, the relationship of racism to class politics, and how women, African Americans and Tejanos created counter-hegemonic cultures to resist white male oppression.

These concerns shaped race and gender historiography in the last 20 years and clearly informed the most nuanced work ever on the role racial ideology played in Texas politics: Chandler Davidson’s "Race and Class in Texas Politics," published in 1990. Beginning with Dwight Eisenhower’s two presidential campaigns against liberal, pro-civil rights Illinois Senator Adlai Stevenson, Davidson argues, the segregationist leadership of the Texas Democratic Party began ticket-splitting, voting Republican in presidential races and for conservative Democrats in local races. Right-wing Democrats crossed the Rubicon and became Republicans in the 1970s and 1980s as the Democratic Party became an unstable coalition of African Americans, Mexican Americans, and left-of-center whites. Davidson argued that the ascendant Republican Party in Texas benefited from instigating Anglo resentments over issues like affirmative action and illegal immigration. According to Davidson, race became the grammar by which Texans engaged in political conflict.

Davidson, in addition to de León, Hall, Campbell and Montejano, brought these insights into Texas history: that white supremacy and sexism formed a central part of Texas politics and culture; that African Americans, Mexican Americans, and women were both shaped by and shaped Texas history and culture; that the story of marginalized groups in Texas is a contingent tale swinging from the extremes of compromise and accommodation on one hand to resistance on the other; and that gender and racial hierarchies in Texas are uniquely shaped by the state’s ambiguous geographical position at the intersection of the South, the West, the Mexican borderlands and, some suggest, the southern extreme of the Mid-West. These writers provided an alternative vision of Texas history, one no longer monochromatic.

Even as a new generation of scholars launched exploration of Afro-Texan, Tejano and women’s history, a new theoretical framework fragmented the study of race and gender in the 1990s. With the fall of communism in Eastern Europe history graduate programs in the late 1980s and 1990s de-emphasized class conflict as the engine of American history. Now scholars embraced post-modernism. Post-modernist theory, with its emphasis on individual subjectivity, dovetailed into the expanded conception of historical analysis at the dawn of the twenty-first century. This scholarly paradigm rejects teleological notions of history, including the notion that history is a tale of relentless progress leading to the inevitable triumph of liberal democracy. Post-modernists acknowledge that the political and economic dominance of Western society in the world in the 19th and 20th centuries carried a heavy cost of high mortality, economic exploitation, and cultural oppression to Africans, Asians, and Native Americans. Post modernists, rejecting the notion that the rise of the West represents an unalloyed good, noted that Euro-American society since Christopher Columbus made advances in medicine and technology but also brought the world colonialism, the trans-Atlantic slave trade, atomic weapons, and the Holocaust.

At its heart, post-modernism suggests that much of what has been embraced by majority cultures over the years as objective reality (that capitalism derives from “natural” human instinct; that homosexuality is “unnatural”; that gender differences extend beyond variation in genitalia; and that humans divide into discreet biological categories called “races” and each of these races has defining characteristics in terms of character and intelligence) is socially constructed.

Whether derived from the “common sense” of the people or disseminated downwards from elites, these definitions of reality serve a distinct political agenda reinforcing the existing power structure and dividing any potential opposition into mutually alienated camps: white vs. black and brown; men vs. women; straights vs. gays; the poor vs. the rich and middle class; citizens vs. the undocumented, etc. Post-modernism rejects the notion that there can be any master narrative that accurately describes any era. To the post-modernist, perceptions of reality are refracted by each individual’s identity in terms of not just race and gender, but also of class position, language, culture, age and so on.

Post-modernist thought became so pervasive that even scholars who don't acknowledge the influence of this intellectual movement still use its methods. This approach has yielded an array of important insights into not just race and gender studies but across other fields previously obsessed with "dead white men," such as political history and military history. Diplomatic historians Colin and Miriam Fendius Elman once wrote that, “Although postmodernism has had a substantial influence on the philosophy of history, it has had less influence on the actual writing of history.” The Elmans most certainly err regarding the race and gender fields. A work not grounded in particularized perceptions runs the risk of imposing a new, oppressive, exclusivist narrative on the history of any topic, post-modernists argue, so scholars influenced by this theory place emphasis on the formation of individual identity. Because of the post-modernist project, therefore, race and gender scholarship in the 1990s splintered into endless micro-categories: Afro-Texan, Tejano, Native American, Asian American, and women’s history ; biography ; racial and gender politics ; slavery ; racial violence ; immigration and ethnic studies ; histories of the various civil rights movements since World War II ; African Americans, Mexicans and women in the labor movement ; and studies of non-white culture and values. Post-modernism has proved a boon to creative research, but has also reduced analysis to ever smaller universes farther and father removed form the general public’s historic consciousness.


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.

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

Since white scholars erased the "legacies" of others then we should erase the historical legacy of whites.

Anonymous said...

Since white scholars "erased" the legacy of others we should erase the cultural legacy of whites. Right. Please get a life - or just move out of texas and leave us alone.

Michael said...

Well, you completely missed the point of this essay. I never suggested erasing the stories or contributions of white people. Right-wingers need to learn how to read carefully and base their responses on what has actually been said.

Michael said...

Also, please note that this right-wing critic courageously posted his comment anonymously.

Shabazz said...

Your essay has many incisive points Michael. The discussion of Big Tex reminds me of my visit to the State Fair in Big D in the mid-1960s. I look forward to talking to you more by email or at TSHA or OAH. Best wishes.

Anonymous said...

Shabazz, I am a fan of your work. I hope we see each other at an historical conference soon. What are you working on?

Michael said...

I didn't mean to be anonymous for the last comment. Shabazz, please contact me at my Collin College address. Thanks.

Michael