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Forget the Alamo: The Silver Anniversary of Lone Star | MZS

I don’t use the word “us” lightly. Before I was a New Yorker, I was a Texan, specifically a white Texan, a distinction that’s crucial to understanding what Sayles is doing in “Lone Star.” Being a white Texan means being indoctrinated with an official self-image of what it means to be a white Texan. Despite occasional shamefaced apologies and self-chastisements, the white Texan is the only kind of Texan to whom the image of The Texan—the soft-spoken tough guy with the ten-gallon hat and six-shooters and square jawline, standing up for truth and justice and independence—truly applies. The ground shifted a little bit until 1981, when the demographics of South Texas allowed the election of Henry Cisneros, a Mexican-American, as the first nonwhite mayor of San Antonio. (The last time a person of color held that job was 1942, when Juan Seguin, a Tejano-Spanish military and political figure who sided with the breakaway Texans in their fight against Antonio López de Santa Anna.)

I spent over 20 years of my life in the Lone Star state, a part of the former Confederacy, and I can testify to the level of indoctrination that every Texan of every color received through the educational system and popular culture until pretty recently. State law required a semester of Texas history for all middle schoolers, and again in high school. “History,” alas, meant white supremacist propaganda. My textbooks taught my schools’ racially diverse student bodies that even though slavery was wrong, the Union’s violation of the concept of “State’s Rights” (i.e., the right to own other human beings, though the books were careful not to dig into that) was somehow equally wrong, and that it was hurtful and incorrect to describe Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederate States of America, as a traitor, because from his point-of-view, and the points-of-view of people who supported him, the Union was cruel and tyrannical. 

Students of my generation were also taught that it was wrong for the Union to “punish” the South after it lost the war (though, as even a cursory study of Reconstruction easily demonstrates, there wasn’t all that much “punishment” against traitors compared to what has happened in other countries where parts of the population tried to break away and form their own country. And former Confederates quickly figured out ways to disempower former slaves who had been briefly empowered, eventually leading to Jim Crow laws, which didn’t begin to be seriously challenged until the Civil Rights marches of the 1950s and 1960s. In regular US History courses, I learned that the Radical Republicans, who wanted legally-enforced freedom and agency for former slaves, were the bad guys in the post-Civil War period; and that president Andrew Johnson, an obstructionist of racial progress, was vilified for daring to undermine them, and never got a fair shake. In the U.S.-Mexico war, according to official Texas history books, Mexico was the bad guy, white “settlers” who had claimed portions of Texas for themselves were the good guys, and the battle of the Alamo represented a heroic act of defiance against the intransigent, control-freak dictatorship of Santa Ana. It wasn’t until university that I learned about complicating factors that conveniently got left out of my earlier studies, such as the fact that many white Texans wanted to break away from Mexico because Mexico refused to allow the importation of new slaves after 1830.

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