Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Thoughts on the Bob Bullock Texas History Museum

The Bob Bullock Texas History Museum borders the University of Texas at Austin. Opened in 2001 and funded in part by polluting oil industries and the famously corrupt and extinct Enron Corporation, the museum attracts more than 500,000 visitors a year, according to its website, a far larger audience than enjoyed by books produced by Texas historians.

Visitors to the Bob Bullock Museum in 2009 were treated to a popular understanding of multiculturalism. Exhibits, dioramas and narrative plaques include Native Americans, African Americans, Mexicans and Mexican Americans and women in a sweeping tale of Texas’s rise to greatness. At the Bob Bullock Museum as of December 2009, one ascends staircases as one moves from Indians on the first floor to Mexicans and Anglos on the second floor to a third floor overwhelmingly dominated by the economic and scientific achievements of white Texans. This organization implies racial hierarchy, with visitors ascending from the world of dark-skinned people toward a heavenly realm at the top in which people of color play only bit parts.

A subtle white supremacy, and a more obvious sexism, marks the entire museum. An effigy of armored conquistador on horseback guards the entry to the first-floor exhibits. Texas history thus begins when Europeans arrive. An interactive map highlights the movements of European explorers against a map of the American South depicting the territories held by Indians nations as static. The map suggests Indians and Indian identity forever frozen before the European conquest. The role of disease in destroying Native communities receives far more space than specific instances of European mass violence. When wars between Europeans and Natives receive attention, the text on wall plaques joins this information with description of conflicts between Indian nations and European “settlers.” Thus, rarely acknowledged racial violence becomes the shared responsibility of whites and Indians. Throughout the museum, the narrative texts that adorn exhibits describe Europeans seizing land from the Native population with the morally neutral term “settler” rather than with the more accurate “invader.” Spanish missionaries “rely on peoples they encountered for . . . labor” rather than enslaving them. Plaques claim that Indian demographics “changed dramatically,” with the few details explaining the causes of that change scattered widely on the first floor. Only a film projected on a screen inside a teepee and treating Comanche resistance to the U.S. captures the poignancy of the Anglo onslaught on Texas’ Native peoples.

The Native American section largely amounts to a whitewash, but African Americans suffer worse treatment in the exhibit. Just as the museum uses wars between Indians to minimize the scope of Spanish and Anglo violence against Native Americans, virtually every exhibit plaque that notes Texas slavery pairs that information with a description of Texas’ small free black population before the Civil War. One of the few life-sized representations of African Americans consists of a mannequin representing a free woman, Fanny McFarland, who lived in Texas before the Civil War. Washing laundry, the mannequin bows so visitors can’t see her face. A plaque notes without explanation that the Congress of the Texas Republic refuses her petition to be allowed to stay, but observed, “she stayed here anyway.” The museum thus passes on an opportunity to explore the role of racism in Texas history. Instead, visitors enjoy another happy tale detailing McFarland’s successful laundry business leading to a career as “one of Houston’s first real estate developers, acquiring and selling land for a profit.” If McFarland and her descendants experienced ugly racism at any point in their lives, patrons can only guess.

One of the Bullock Museum’s major story-telling techniques involves using Mexican Americans to narrate historical chapters dominated by white racism. For instance, a film screened at a mini-theater with an Alamo-style entrance on the second floor has an actor reading the diary of Tejano revolutionary hero Juan Seguin describing the Anglo revolt against Mexico in 1835-1836. The script never alludes to the dominant role in the Texas Revolution played by slaveowners who wanted to separate from Mexico, which earlier outlawed slavery.

Over and over again, viewers hear Seguin describe the revolution as being a fight for “freedom.” Although massacres of surrendered soldiers by the Mexican Army at Goliad, the Battle of the Alamo and of the Mier expedition (which had attacked the Mexican border town of Ciudad Mier in 1842, museum plaques cover up the Anglo slaughter of Mexican troops after the Battle of San Jacinto in March 1836. A plaque covers the Battle of San Jacinto this way:
The decisive battle of the Revolution opened with shouts of ‘Remember the Alamo!’ and ‘Remember Goliad!’ After 18 minutes, the fighting was over. The Mexican army lost 630 men and the Texans nine in the battle that won Texas Independence from Mexico.

Visitors relying on the museum for their understanding of history would never know it, but most of those 630 Mexican casualties happened after the Mexican army surrendered. As historian Rodolfo Acuña notes, “Few Mexican prisoners were taken at the battle of San Jacinto. Those who surrendered ‘were clubbed and stabbed, some on their knees. The slaughter . . . became methodical; the Texan riflemen knelt and poured a steady fire into the packed, jostling ranks.’ They shot the ‘Meskins’ down as they fled.”

Seguin describes Anglo revolutionaries in glowing terms in the Revolution! film. Meanwhile, Seguin portrays Mexican leader Santa Anna as “like the cold hand of death.” The movie ends with Texas triumphant in its revolutionary struggle. Anyone who only saw the movie and ignored a more obscure plaque later in the museum would not know what happened to Seguin after the revolution. A plaque notes that, “Tejanos found life in Texas increasingly difficult.” The museum plaques provide little information for visitors on the nature of these difficulties. Just as the Spanish murder and enslavement of Mexicans gets short shrift on the first floor, the museum obscures the Anglo lynching and physical assaults against Tejanos.

“Despite the service of Juan Seguin, Lorenzo de Zavala, and others during the revolution, newly arrived Anglos were suspicious of anyone of Mexican ancestry,” the plaque continues. Thus, ‘real’ Texans accepted Mexicans but those vague outsiders arriving after the Revolution caused the racial strife of the 1840s. “When the Mexican Army invaded San Antonio in 1842, attitudes hardened, forcing many Tejanos to flee to Mexico,” the plaque says. “Among them was Juan Seguin . . .” The plaque then declares that Seguin faced false accusations of collaborating with the Mexican enemy when it attacked San Antonio. In this section of the museum narrative, the blame for anti-Tejano racism and violence ultimately rests on Mexico. Though highly flawed as an historical text, this plaque still gives a more realistic view of how Tejanos experienced life in Texas during the 1830s and 1840s, but it remains much harder to find than the Revolution! film, portraying collegiality between Anglos and Mexicans, displayed behind a big Alamo façade.

The museum glosses Texas Reconstruction, an era in which whites murdered 1 percent of the black population between ages 15 and 49 from 1865 to 1868, in this passive-voice manner: “In this period called Reconstruction there were clashes over politics, land, education, race and work. But many people, in the process of rebuilding their daily lives, contributed to the slow, sometimes painful process of redefining the Lone Star identity.” Other plaques celebrate the achievement of Africans Americans during Reconstruction.

The museum text’s feel-good tale obscures the common experience during Reconstruction of black men, women, boys and girls like Dolla Jackson of Bosque County, raped and robbed of 25 cents by a gang of white men who faced no prosecution, or Limestone County freedwoman Jo Ann Brooks, who suffered the cutting off of her ears and arms, which were then burned to a crisp, for no apparent reason other than her blackness. Despite the widespread nature of such racially motivated violence during Reconstruction-era Texas, the museum’s creators find this to be an “inconvenient truth” that would dampen the endless cheeriness of the exhibits and thus chose to shroud such crimes with vague allusions to “clashes.” Bad acts are attributed to “extremists,” thus misleading patrons about how many Texans participated in anti-black violence and lesser acts of oppression.

Texas ranked third among all states in the number of lynchings between 1882 and 1930, but this horrid chapter receives no attention from the museum. Other notable omissions in the museum narrative include the Populist movement, which represented a rare chapter of biracialism in Texas, and the Ku Klux Klan’s political dominance of the state in the first half of the 1920s. Throughout, women disappear to the point of invisibility, and the black civil rights struggle gets significantly less attention than the Texas Revolution.

Based on the museum exhibits, one would conclude that gays don’t exist in the Lone Star State. Like Fehrenbach, the museum suggests that most of the big stories in Texas history happened in the 19th century. Cattle drives, and the space program in Houston assume exaggerated emphasis. The overall effect is one of narrative tokenism. Prominent blacks, browns and women simply serve as evidence of how justice inevitably “triumphs” in Texas and how the state today is better than yesterday and that tomorrow will, undoubtedly, be even sunnier.

The Bob Bullock narrative represents an archconservative spin on history. Historians could easily deconstruct each exhibit in the Bob Bullock Museum, but they have not found a way to share this knowledge with the public. Texas scholars have transformed and inverted the larger myths of the Texas past. Events once hailed as triumphs, such as the Battle of San Jacinto, now appear 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 alongside 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 zigzag journey producing as many losers as winners. Conflict, rather than consensus, rules in the post-modern narrative.

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 new history, however, 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.” Until then, the Bob Bullock Museum will represent the distorted lens through which the public views the Texas past. To the larger public, Texas history will be monochromatic and phallocentric, a place where women, African Americans, Mexican Americans, Jews and political radicals play bit parts and white men are the central and only important characters.

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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