The Bright Side of a Bad Texas History Bill? It’s Too Late to Whitewash the PastRoundup
tags: curriculum, racism, Texas, culture war, teaching history
John Morán González is the J. Frank Dobie professor of American and English literature and Director of the Center for Mexican American Studies at the University of Texas at Austin and a founding member of Refusing to Forget.
Benjamin H. Johnson is professor of history at Loyola University Chicago.
The Texas legislature passed a bill that aims to limit how teachers discuss race and violence in the state’s history. House Bill 3979 presents teachers of social studies in public schools with a long list of prohibitions, which include “giving deference to any one perspective,” or introducing the idea that “an individual, by virtue of the individual’s race or sex, bears responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race or sex.” The bill prevents schools from working with any organization that engages in lobbying or “social or public policy advocacy” in curricular development, teacher training, student internships or service learning.
Historians and other educators have protested that such measures will gravely harm teachers’ ability to meaningfully address the American past with students. This fight exemplifies how 2021 is a dangerous moment for scholars, educators and students alike, as states like Texas work to roll back academic freedoms.
But the Texas bill and other aggressive measures may also be signs that whitewashed histories are fading in relevance. Indeed, the teaching and public presentation of Texas history has become much more honest and inclusive in recent years. Scholars, teachers and museums have made great strides in incorporating not only Black, Latino and Indigenous histories, but also in addressing racial violence and other forms of White supremacy in the state’s history. The Texas legislation may end up being a rearguard action in a battle already lost for the hearts and minds of a new generation.
Thanks to concerted, decades-long efforts in public education and mass media, the state's history is a significant aspect of Texans’ identity. Every Texan has been admonished countless times to “Remember the Alamo!” through two years of mandatory Texas history (in fourth and seventh grades) and popular culture. San Antonio, where the Alamo is located and the most Mexican American large city in Texas, annually celebrates “Fiesta,” a 10-day party commemorating Mexico’s loss of Texas in 1836. Throughout the state, over 16,000 state historical markers tell a largely celebratory, and thoroughly whitewashed, story of Texas’s origins and development.
This obsession with “Texas history” as a central component of being Texan coalesced at the same time that the “Lost Cause” ideology shored up White Southern identity in the 1890s. Only in the early 20th century did the Alamo mission become “the Shrine of Texas Liberty”; until then it had fallen into disrepair and was used as a warehouse.
Starting in 1905, however, the Daughters of the Republic of Texas, a lineal descendant group styled after the Daughters of the American Revolution, began using the site to shape Texans’ understanding of the past. They maintained the location and portrayed the 1836 battle as a noble sacrifice for freedom led and accomplished by White, Anglo Texans. They erased Mexican-descended defenders from the narrative altogether. The Daughters similarly made no mention of the enslaved Black people brought by White migrants from the South during the 1820s and 1830s — enslaved people who would have been freed under Mexican law had the Texas Revolution failed.
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