Texas's History is Under Ideological Attack—from the RightRoundup
tags: Texas, Alamo, teaching history
John R. Lundberg is a history professor at a north Texas college. He is among those who have launched a petition in defense of the TSHA, available at www.concernedtshamembers.com. He holds a Ph.D. in history from Texas Christian University and is the author of The Texas Lowcountry: Slavery and Freedom on the Gulf Coast 1822-1895 (forthcoming, Texas A&M University Press, 2024).
The history of Texas, in the way it is taught, researched, and presented to the public, has reached a crisis point. Since 1897, the principal organization in the presentation, teaching, and researching of Texas history has been the Texas State Historical Association (TSHA). For 126 years, the TSHA has welcomed academics, lay historians, and anyone else at its meetings. On May 1, 2023, the interim executive director of the TSHA, J.P. Bryan, a retired oil billionaire, filed suit against the organization’s board of directors to block the board from meeting, and also threatened to sue the current president of the TSHA, Nancy Baker Jones, for defamation. The allegations in the lawsuit are important to this story, but when Bryan and his compatriots reached out to reporters regarding the controversy, it became clear that they have a much broader agenda. In short, they framed their dispute over the composition of the TSHA board as an ideological conflict, painting academic historians as “leftists, Marxists,” and worse, and Bryan and his supporters as defenders of “true” Texas history.
Given their published statements, Bryan and his supporters consider “true” history to be the perniciously persistent Texas mythology that uses white supremacy as a guiding principle. They favor triumphant tales of Anglo males conquering and defending a vast wilderness while ignoring the contributions and treatment of minority groups. The danger of returning to a whitewashed triumphalist history of Texas lies in erasing the contributions of minority groups. Such erasure would give us a warped sense of the past and lead to racist policies and politics in the present. Maintaining a mythic, triumphalist Anglo history would lead to increased discrimination and exclusion of minority groups in Texas today.
The writing and teaching of history never have been—and never can be—fully neutral. The way history is presented always tells the audience more about the present than about the past. History consists of two elements: historical facts and interpretation to provide a context, and a narrative to explain what those facts mean. Yet even the topics historians choose belie neutrality. As James Baldwin wrote in a powerful essay in the 1960s: “White man, hear me! History, as nearly no one seems to know, is not merely something to be read…The great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do.” At best, historians must attempt to discover narratives while inevitably viewing topics from different and often competing perspectives.
This does not suggest that accurate or quality history cannot be achieved, but its creation requires confronting and attempting to overcome forces that have silenced or influenced the record. Michel-Rolph Trouillot describes how silences enter the historical record in four phases: during fact creation by the sources themselves, during fact assembly in the making of archives, during fact retrieval in the assembly of a narrative, and during retrospective significance in the making of history in its final expression. Minority groups suffer greatly in these silences. They often have had fewer sources created about them, received less attention in the assembly of archives, were included in fewer narratives, and therefore were often assigned less retrospective significance by historians. Other than silence, the force that influences history most is the personal. As Baldwin noted, “It is with great pain and terror … that one enters into battle with that historical creation, Oneself, and attempts to recreate oneself to a principle more humane and more liberating: one begins to attempt a level of personal maturity and freedom which robs history of its tyrannical power, and also changes history.” Trouillot wrote that “[W]e are never so steeped in history as when we pretend not to be, but if we stop pretending we may gain in understanding what we lose in false innocence.”