Saturday, March 21, 2009

Why Is Big Tex a White Cowboy?: Race, Gender and the "Other Texans" (a rough draft, Part 6)

Afro-Texan scholarship still has to contend with a powerful “plantation myth,” which is paired in Texas with a willful amnesia concerning the peculiar institution. Visitors to the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum in Austin might think that slavery formed a minor chapter in the state’s past. Absent from the family friendly tourist trap is recognition of the horrible human suffering engendered by slavery. Minimizing the importance of slavery to Texas’ economic and political development, of course, serves a political agenda as it whitewashes the guilt of the state’s conservative hegemons. Brutal honesty about the tragedies attending the peculiar institution might also cloud white racial identity, which the dominant culture has always associated with “advanced civilization” as opposed to black, brown and red “savagery.”

That is why Elizabeth R. Rabe’s heartbreaking essay, “Slave Children in Texas: A Qualitative and Quantitative Analysis,” originally published in the "East Texas Historical Journal" in 2004, provided an important corrective. Mike Campbell’s monograph on Texas slavery didn’t gloss the cruelty of Texas slaveowners, but Rabe’s work is the first to focus on the impact of physical and mental abuse on the youngest African American slaves. Rabe’s work not only provided ammunition against the stubbornly durable plantation myth, but it also directly confronted the modern right-wing attacks on the black family as she outlined how a communal approach to raising children evolved among African Americans out of necessity because slave owners often separated children from their parents via the auction block. A book-length study of the Afro-Texan family similar to Herbert G. Guttman’s "The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom, 1750-1925" (1977) would be a major contribution to Texas race and gender scholarship, but Rabe’s essay provides a good start. Race scholars in particular should investigate the family as a site where new generations learned racial definitions and the code of behavior expected of blacks, whites, Mexicans, and Asians.

Similar to findings by researchers of the Chicano movement, Afro-Texan historians in the last two decades have noted the conflicts between race and class identity in the black community. SoRelle has argued that across the Lone Star State, black teachers and entrepreneurs divided between advocates of desegregation, those who saw in segregation an opportunity to promote self-reliance and economic independence, those who saw a collapse of Jim Crow as a threat to black-owned businesses, and those who saw the issue from a combination of these perspectives. Black businesses, however, faced hardships in obtaining badly needed credit and black consumers at times undermined African American businesses because they believed that these enterprises lacked the quality and variety of similar businesses owned by whites. According to SoRelle, some African Americans also absorbed white racism and feared that black doctors and other professionals were less qualified than whites in those fields. SoRelle’s work complicates the vastly understudied field of civil rights history in Texas and subsequent works will undoubtedly owe much to his nuanced approach. However, as is the case with scholarship on Mexican American identity in Texas, the definition of “blackness” could be interrogated more closely to see if ethnic divides, as well as generational conflict, afflicted the Afro-Texan community. A spectrum of color exists within the so-called black community, which in recent years added new immigrants from the Caribbean and Africa. Have the imperatives of whiteness continued to forge the diverse African American community into a unitary “blackness?” Scholars have yet to explore how different “black” groups relate to each other. Such research would unpack the concept of blackness, which has been seen to date as essentially monolithic.

Not only have perhaps differing racial self-identities within the black community been ignored, but also so have non-mainstream political movements among Afro-Texans. Outside of W. Marvin Dulaney’s brilliant essay, “What Happened to the Civil Rights Movement in Dallas, Texas?” (1993), there has also been little exploration of black radicalism in Texas and the impact, or lack thereof, of groups such as Marcus Garvey’s United Negro Improvement Association, the Black Panthers and their successors the New Black Panthers, the Nation of Islam, or the small Black Israelite cult. Kellar paid some attention to black nationalists in Houston, but much of the black political spectrum right and left has been ignored.


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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