Sharon Carson |
Here in North Dakota, we have recently endured watching one of those “Ban the Teaching of Critical Race Theory” bills fly through a special session of the legislature, complete with high-pitch handwringing in our majority party by people who clearly can’t define Critical Race Theory but who equate CRT with most any teaching of the history of race and racism in the United States. The whole spectacle was almost comically unanchored to facts on the ground and sparked eyerolls from exhausted teachers and citizens across the state.
But eyerolls aren’t enough, given that this kind of dismal display of political theater is animated by aggressive and racially charged politics, and has real consequences for people on the ground, especially in this case K-12 students and those who hope to teach them.
When dealing with harsh winter weather here in the north, both literally and politically, it can help to gaze elsewhere for a little comparative perspective. In this case, we turn to the warm winds of Texas, where these debates have flared hot and heavy in the open for many years, especially when it comes to school textbooks, historical memory, historical amnesia, and politics.
Into that particular fray has come a recent and quite constructive book written for a wide public audience: Forget the Alamo: The Rise and Fall of An American Myth, co-authored by writers and journalists Bryan Burrough, Chris Tomlinson, and Jason Stanford. This work of narrative nonfiction covers a great deal of ground, but related to our recent experience in North Dakota, makes very clear the cost to students and citizens when public education fails to directly deal with the complexities of American history, especially history related to race and racism.
As the authors put it, their project is historiography: a history of the telling of history. Their call is to “forget” the false story of the Alamo, to face the longstanding social consequences of that false story, and to assert that “we are what we remember,” thus what and how we remember the past matters a great deal in shaping our collective present.
It’s the kind of work that serious Americans and serious teachers are trying to do, here in ND and around the country.
Forget the Alamo lays out a critical retelling of events leading to the famous 1836 battle, which is itself a very useful and animated review for many American readers. The authors reveal the stresses in Mexican and American politics of the era and they attend to key players less familiar to many readers. In a move that has inflamed some of their critics, they clarify that many Anglo-Texian colonists, including some of the “heroes” of the Alamo, were intent on protecting slavery and resisting the authority of Mexico in its own Texas territory. Especially, it turns out, the authority of abolitionism in the newly independent Mexican Republic.
But the bulk of the book explores in even more detail the ways that “Remember the Alamo!” became a rallying cry long after the famous battle, and especially the ways that it became a mythologized rallying cry first for whitewashers of history who lamented the loss of white supremacy during Reconstruction and Jim Crow, and later for American Cold Warriors and various opponents of racial equity and civil rights. Forget the Alamo is packed with specifics about battles to control the actual Alamo site/museum, about battles amongst historians and community activists over historical evidence, artifacts and interpretation, about the ways the story of the Alamo has been invoked across political controversies and, more recently, in political theater aimed at churning up Texas voters and votes.
Some of that theater involves legislation to restrict the teaching of the fuller story of the Alamo, and to limit the teaching of a critical history of American race and racism. A key strength of this book is that it makes very clear through sharp analysis and first hand interviews that whitewashing history via the “Heroic Anglo Narrative” has real intellectual and emotional consequences for students: all students, but especially Tejano, Hispanic, Latino and Indigenous students who have for generations been subjected to an inflammatory “anti-Mexican” Alamo narrative in Texas schools.
Just one example:
“’Everyone has the seventh-grade story where, you know, they make the field trip [to the Alamo] and then all the white kids start treating them differently,’ says Ruben Cordova, a San Antonio art historian. ‘Davy Crockett’s [death], it’s sort of like a Chicano version of the Jewish Christ killers. If you’re looking at the Alamo as a kind of state religion, this is the original sin. We killed Davy Crockett.” (221)
Forget the Alamo offers a sharp counternarrative to the Heroic Anglo Narrative and the book overall poses a direct counterargument to those in Texas and elsewhere these days who are frantically calling for an end to the teaching of what they call “Critical Race Theory” but is for too many proponents simply an attempt to restrict any critical and fuller teaching of American history related to race and racism. As the authors of Forget the Alamo emphasize, in public debates these days, “Ground Zero in the conflict between traditionalism and revisionism would be the State Board of Education, the agency that decides what Texas schoolchildren learn in school.” The stakes are high, in Texas, in North Dakota, and elsewhere.
Reviews of the book have predictably tracked along the lines of political sympathies, and even getting the three authors onto a forum stage at the Bullock Texas State History Museum in Austin has proven a challenge in Texas. Here and here are a couple of reviews from the Texas media.
Thankfully, Forget the Alamo also takes good care to highlight the work of those in Texas who are fighting for a better and more representative public story. For just one example, the book illuminates the key role of Tejano participants over time in these interpretive debates, but also covers the subsequent efforts by Tejano/Chicano historians, artists and activists to tell the story more fully on their own terms.
In fact, Ruben Cordova, quoted above, wrote a book on “a collective of Texas-based Chicano artists” entitled Con Safo: The Chicano Art Group and the Politics of South Texas (2011) and he organized the San Antonio art show The Other Side of the Alamo: Art Against Myth, which opened in 2018 at the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center. Here is a short film clip of one video exhibit, Enlight-Tents, based on a 2009 installation at the Alamo site created by Laura Varela and Vaago Weiland.
And in matters tragically familiar to many in the Dakotas and elsewhere, Forget the Alamo also points to recent efforts to protect the Alamo as an Indigenous burial site and to craft public commemoration based upon the historical memory of Indigenous communities.
Lastly, for readers interested in other historical and regional contexts for these issues, take a listen to a story from 1970s West Virginia, told with excellent detail in the still strikingly relevant and Peabody-winning radio documentary The Great Textbook War, by Trey Kay, Deborah George and Stan Bumgardner.
Sharon Carson is Chester Fritz Distinguished Professor, Department of English, University of North Dakota and the reviews editor (and former editor) of North Dakota Quarterly.