Last year, Oak Park was an early adopter when it formally recognized the Juneteenth holiday. Now, it seems municipalities everywhere are scrambling to issue their own resolutions, proclamations and ordinances.
Juneteenth, of course, refers to June 19, 1865 — the date Major General Gordon Granger’s Order No. 3 was read in Galveston, Texas.
“The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them, becomes that between employer and hired labor. The Freedmen are advised to remain at their present homes, and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts; and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.”
Now, some two centuries later, Texas appears to be ground zero in our present cold civil war (a term I picked up from Howard University Professor Greg Carr). The cold civil war is an ideological struggle to win hearts and minds through interpreting the past. It is being fought between two sides — one which sees America as a heterosexual white man and another who sees America as a multiracial polyglot.
This month, right in time for all of those Juneteenth celebrations, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed into law House Bill 2497, also called the “1836 Project,” which seeks to counter the narrative put forth by the New York Times’ 1619 Project.
“To keep Texas the best state in the United States of America, we must never forget why Texas became so exceptional in the first place,” Abbott said.
The new law establishes an “advisory committee designed to promote the state’s history to Texas residents, largely through pamphlets given to people receiving driver’s licenses,” according to Governing Magazine. “It will also award students on their knowledge of the state’s history and values.”
But what values? And what history? To answer that, we can look to the state’s self-avowed exceptionalism. Texas is, indeed, exceptional. It’s the second-largest state in the country when measured by both landmass and population. And it’s the only state in the country that was once its own sovereign republic, whose citizens were known as Texians.
That republic only lasted for 10 years, from 1836 to 1846 (hence the “1836 Project”), but that was enough to seal the fierce ethos of independence and braggadocio that is the state’s calling card to this day.
But for all of these claims to exceptionalism and independence, we need to ask why Texas wanted to be free in the first place? What did it want to be free to do? And who was the land liberated for?
Two books published in recent weeks seek to deconstruct the mythology of Texas. Together, they connect the significance of the Alamo and the significance of Juneteenth.
“Forget the Alamo: The Rise and Fall of An American Myth,” by Bryan Burrough, Chris Tomlinson, and Jason Stanford, urge readers to “reconsider the Alamo, a symbol we’ve been taught to fiercely and uncritically remember,” writes Nic Yeager in a helpful review of the book in the Texas Observer.
The “Cowboy, the Rancher, the oilman — all wearing either 10-gallon hats or Stetson — dominate as the embodiments of Texas,” writes historian and proud Texas native Annette Gordon-Reed in her new book, “On Juneteenth.”
“Of great importance, as I have said in another context, the image of Texas has a gender and a race: ‘Texas is a White man.’ What that means for everyone who lives in Texas and is not a White man is part of what I hope to explore in the essays of this book,” Gordon-Reed writes.
Gordon-Reed unearths another important figure in Texas mythology, “a figure who helped make Juneteenth necessary: the Slave Plantation Owner. Although this species of Texan no longer exists, the influence of the world he (maintaining the gender convention) put in place continues to this day.”
This archetype presided, the historian writes, in an area developed by Stephen F. Austin, a “Virginian-born and Missouri-raised” man who would come to be known as the “Father of Texas.”
Austin came to the state “not to create cattle ranches and hire cowboys, but to turn huge swaths of the Mexican province Coahuila y Tejas into a western version of the cotton fields of Mississippi that had produced such great wealth for plantation owners.”
The Mexican government, looking to “create defenses against Comanche raids,” among other motivations, was eager to welcome Anglo-Americans,” she writes. The problem, however, was that there was a strong antislavery sentiment in the country.
“As much as they wanted Whites to come to Texas, most Mexicans were not so keen on them bringing cattle slavery with them,” Gordon-Reed writes.
“Although Austin and his supporters eventually succeeded in gaining exemptions that allowed slavery to continue, the situation remained precarious for them so long as they were a part of Mexico,” she adds. “The Mexican government continued to nod toward ending slavery, while the Anglos and their supporters kept resisting. The matter was settled when Texans successfully rebelled against Mexico and set up the Republic of Texas in 1836.”
With that move, the historian continues, “the right to enslave was secured, and White settlers poured into the new republic.”
As an added measure of protection, the Constitution of the Republic of Texas, which was ratified in 1836, legalized slavery in the new country and defined people of color who were slaves for life in Mexico as property in Texas. And slaves, who are not citizens, cannot vote (more on this later).
“Forget the Alamo,” Yeager writes, “challenges what the authors refer to as the ‘Heroic Anglo Narrative.’ The traditional telling, which Texas public schools are still required to teach, glorifies the nearly 200 men who came to fight in an insurrection against Mexico in 1836. The devastation at the Alamo turned those men into martyrs leaving behind the prevailing story that they died for liberty and justice.
“Yet the authors of Forget the Alamo argue that the entire Texas Revolt — ‘which wasn’t really a revolt at all’— had more to do with protecting slavery from Mexico’s abolitionist government. As they explain it, and as Chicano writers, activists, and communities have long agreed, the events that occurred at the Alamo have been mythologized and used to demonize Mexicans in Texas history and obscure the role of slavery.”
The whole purpose of miseducation is to perpetuate the social order and for too many whites in power like Gov. Abbott, the social order depends on a racial hierarchy that makes whites who don’t stand to materially benefit as much as elite whites from racialized capitalism feel good about at least not being Black.
The goal, in their minds, is to hold onto power through non-democratic means and through an ideological framework that provides the glue for binding their ever-dwindling constituency of fearful white voters.
And so, it is also no coincidence that, as Juneteenth celebrations kick off, Gov. Abbott has signed a bill that would make voting and holding democratic elections much tougher.
“In Texas, legislators have taken one trend we warned about—the criminalization of election administration—to unprecedented levels,” according to a report released in April by three nonprofits: Protect Democracy, States United Democracy Center and Law Forward.
“Texas has also invented a new dubious approach to overturning election results that we had not previously seen,” the report explains, adding that Texas is not alone.
“The 2021 state legislative season may ultimately prove to be a turning point in the history of America’s democracy,” the authors write. “The number of anti-voter laws that have been introduced and passed is unprecedented. These are the ingredients for a democracy crisis.”
As William Faulkner once wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”