Take Me Back to Texas?
Late last month, my husband and I flew from Boston with our kids to Texas to share with them some of the things we most enjoyed as children. While our three have their own special warm-weather adventures (searching for sea anemones in craggy Cape Ann tide pools, crabbing with nets at low tide in Wellfleet Bay), they had never straddled horses or seen bluebonnets in bloom.
We headed for Bandera, self-proclaimed “cowboy capital of the world,” where we met up with family who joined us from Dallas. Grandparents and uncles took part in our delight at watching the kids cover themselves in barbeque sauce, fish for bass in inch-deep creeks, revel in carpets of wildflowers, exult in the shenanigans of an expert trick roper, ride sweet-tempered, thick-middled horses, and swim – outdoors! – at the end of March. Nostalgic yearnings sated, I gazed at the heat lightning one evening and was thankful that some things just don’t change.
At the end of our time in Bandera, we drove through the Hill Country on to Austin to visit my sister for a few days. Once we’d hit MoPac, I caught sight of that pink granite dome and wanted to share it, too, with my kids. With Bunker Hill and the U.S.S. Constitution and Boston’s Freedom Trail out their front door, my three have no idea that they are missing out on a critically important rite of passage. Safe to say that no teacher of theirs will ever demand that they create from sugar cubes the Texas State Capitol, never mind the Alamo or the monument at San Jacinto. After a good night’s sleep, we ate breakfast the next morning and eagerly herded everybody over to the Capitol, which, even from a distance, inspired a significant amount of excitement and curiosity. In the car, my sister entertained the kids with sagas of the replacement and restoration of the “lady” who sits atop the dome.
We parked and ambled up to the building, with my sister providing commentary on the extensions built underground in the early Nineties. As I pulled open those magnificent doors leading into the building, I let out a happy sigh: great to see those big, book-like brass hinges, still letting the portals swing wide, welcoming The People into the seat of power. Our eyes smarted as we moved from bright sunshine in to hushed corridors. Despite my having coached the kids on proper demeanor (No running! No shouting!), they raced ahead, eager to climb stairs and look around. We walked up to the fourth floor, inspected portraits of governors past, dizzied ourselves looking over the railing down below. Remembering the official tour from my childhood, I asked if anybody wanted to take it. All shouted (so much for demeanor) “Yeah!” The tour, it turned out, would begin in half an hour, so we headed back to the lawn to get out wiggles and have a snack. My sons made a beeline for a series of cannons, which they proceeded to climb and mount. What were the cannons for, they wanted to know. We adults read the postings and informed them that these were cannons used in the Civil War. “Isn’t that like celebrating slavery?” my daughter asked. (Not bad for seven-and-a-half.) We hemmed and hawed and handed out pretzels.
Back inside, we met up with our guide, a Latino first-year student at the University. Adding to my embarrassment over the cannons, this young man began to reel off a version of Texas history that has apparently mildered in the Capitol since my youth. As if time had not passed, he described the inlaid symbols on the floor. Yes, yes, Six Flags, like the amusement park, we whispered to the kids: France, Spain, Mexico, the Republic, the Confederacy, the United States. Nothing to do with the mine train, the log ride, or Pink Things. Our guide quickly ran through the stories depicted in the paintings crowded with historical figures: Sam Houston, wounded, lying under the tree, with humiliated Santa Anna standing, a prisoner of war, symbol of Mexican defeat. Then to the Elisabet Ney marbles, Sam Houston on one side, Stephen F. Austin on the other. Two statuesque patriarchs, symbols of independence and bravery, expansiveness and entrepreneurial spirit.
Before we’d even left the ground floor, what had the kids learned? That Mexico was an easily conquered nation and that the two most important figures in early Texas history were both white men. No mention in our guide’s recounting of the important roles Tejanos played in the events of the Texas revolution. Not a word about Juan N. Seguin and his famous struggle to reconcile his decision to support Texas independence with his experience of prejudice after the war with Mexico. Nothing about the instantaneous disempowerment of an entire group of people when the United States and Mexico signed the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Our guide said nothing – not one word – about the presence of African Americans in Texas, not as slaves, not as soldiers, not as cowboys, field hands, civil rights crusaders, business owners, or legislators. Though we would come across a portrait of Barbara Jordan later in our tour, the guide never mentioned her stellar career or her awe-inspiring abilities as a thinker, leader, and orator. Missing, too, from his spiel was an appreciation of the stories of native peoples; Indians’ significance lay in their adoption of Sam Houston, depicted in paint and stone with a blanket, sign of his abiding kinship with the Cherokees. Looking around at our group, which included African Americans and Mexican Americans, my husband and I locked eyes and winced, wondering together how this version of the past must strike many of those who daily submit to the tour.
Listening to the guide and reading labels on history paintings took me straight back to the sixth grade, in 1973, before trends in American history emphasizing stories of ethnic, racial, and gender diversity had filtered into textbooks, public exhibits, and popular culture. While I experienced the mythic timelessness of Bandera as wonderfully comforting, finding that same timelessness at the Capitol left me troubled and angry. Like eating barbeque and riding horses, coming in contact again with that spectacular dome, those dark-paneled legislative chambers, and the gleaming terrazzo floors, infused me with a sense of happy nostalgia for childhood long gone. But realizing that I’d unwittingly introduced my kids to the same tired, inaccurate, racist version of Texas’ past that I’ve worked, professionally, to complicate, made me simultaneously angry and sad.
I led my family outside, onto the grassy areas surrounding the Capitol, glad to be back out in the uncomplicated sun. Instead of finding relief, I followed the kids to a set of bronzes that confirmed my worst suspicions about the official state interpretation of Texas history. My three ran over to a newish bronze memorial to Texas schoolchildren; all of whom, it appeared from a cursory glance, are white. (One was missing – perhaps, I hoped, this one might bear non-Euroamerican facial features?) Similarly, a bronze tribute to Texas “pioneer women” (a single white woman, windswept and bonneted) celebrated a fictional lack of diversity that I expected Texans to have jettisoned during my almost twenty-year absence.
Nostalgia is a tricky mood, one that is necessarily predicated on the illusion of a rosy past. Horseback riding and bluebonnets are things to savor; racism and cultural amnesia are not. Should George W. Bush continue to campaign as the representative of la gente, perhaps he’d like to consider hiring some historians to re-script the walking tour of that magnificent pink granite palace of the people.
Cathy Corman lives with her husband and children in Brookline, Massachusetts, and is an assistant professor in the history department at Harvard University.