Terry H. Schwadron

July 7, 2021

There was another singular skirmish in the culture wars over the holiday weekend, a perfect gem of a dispute over how to learn history.

The Bullock Texas State History Museum in Austin scheduled, and then, four hours before it went off, canceled a book tour panel for the authors of a new historical re-telling of the battle at the Alamo in 1836.

The cited reason was “increased pressure on social media,” and within a day, Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who constantly re-assures us that he is burnishing his particular brand of exclusive conservativism, took credit. Patrick tweeted, “As a member of the Preservation Board, I told staff to cancel this event as soon as I found out about it. This fact-free rewriting of TX history has no place @BullockMuseum.”

The book challenges the gauzy notion that 200 white Texans alone held off thousands of Mexicans towards Texas independence.

As Jason Stanford, one of the three authors of “Forget the Alamo: The Rise and Fall of an American Myth,” the book in question, noted in an explanatory Washington Post commentary, “Apparently, the state history museum was no place to discuss state history.”

By the way, this same museum has a current exhibit called Black Citizenship in the Age of Jim Crow explores that explores “the struggle for full citizenship and racial equality that unfolded in the 50 years after the Civil War.”

Maybe that one is somehow okay for Lieutenant Governor Patrick, or just maybe he just hasn’t attended it.

Heroes vs. Humans

It’s not as if there are no current issues to cause division, but the desire to go back into American history for the re-telling of tall tales seems irresistible. That’s why we’re going through a now-constant battle most evident on the web pages of Breitbart News, Newsmax, OANN and Fox about the awfulness of thinking critically about the role that race has played over three-plus centuries of American democracy and how we have not yet reached the promise of equal justice — or housing, income, health or environment — for all its people.

Clearly, the Alamo has long been seen through that lens.

Here’s author Stanford: “The Heroic Anglo Narrative is that in 1836, about 200 Texians (as White settlers were known, to distinguish them from Tejanos) fought a doomed battle at a Spanish mission in San Antonio against thousands of Mexican troops, buying Gen. Sam Houston enough time to defeat tyranny in the form of Mexican ruler Santa Anna and win freedom for Texas. The myth leaves much out, most notably that Texians opposed Mexican laws that would free the enslaved workers they needed to farm cotton.”

The Washington Post review says the authors “challenge the traditional view” of the Alamo saga, one popularized by Disney and John Wayne and cemented by politicians in the Texas school curriculum. For example, the book describes the role of Tejanos, including some who had fought in Houston’s army, who started having second thoughts about independence when their Anglo allies pushed them aside in the new republic, according to the review. ”Enslaved Texans found their yoke weighing more heavily under Texan rule than it had under that of Mexico, which nominally forbade slavery,” read the review.

It also compares the reactions of two more contemporary celebrities, Ozzy Osbourne and Phil Collins, to re-learning the details of the Alamo mythology and their contentiousness over any efforts to change perceptions about the story.

It would be good if we could remember that looking at history should remind us that there are many ways to tell a story, many viewpoints, and that current-day perspectives alter the lens with which we view the past. That’s the heart of critical thinking and learning.

Requiring Patriotism

In 2018, a panel reviewing the state history curriculum suggested not requiring seventh-graders to learn that those who died at the Alamo were “heroic,” Stanford recalls. Republican state political leaders, including Sen. Ted Cruz and Land Commissioner George P. Bush reacted “as if the Alamo were once again besieged.”

Gov. Greg Abbott tweeted at the time to “Stop political correctness in our schools. Of course, Texas schoolchildren should be taught that Alamo defenders were ‘Heroic’!”

All this brings us to the current efforts to whitewash the teaching of American history to “patriotic” themes that retain the mythology of a perfectly fair, inclusive, equal society in which individual effort always overcomes societal pressures. More than 20 states have introduced or passed legislation that limits how racial matters can be taught. In Texas last month, Abbott signed into law an act establishing a committee called the 1836 Project to “promote patriotic education.”

Breitbart News yesterday was headlining stories about women soccer players turning away from the Flag and “activist teachers bragging” about weaving issues of race into school curricula.

It used to be that we would be reading about madrasas in Islamic countries shunning actual history for propaganda. Now it is the stuff for recall elections of local U.S. school board members.

“Texas conservatives continue to appear quite exercised about the possibility of public-school students learning more about slavery and racism. So much so that Abbott has added further discussion about a ban on the teaching of critical race theory to the agenda for an upcoming special legislative session,” argues Stanford.

Texas state officials may call all this protecting a state image. The rest of us should call it censorship.