The culture wars are alive and well, deep in the heart of Texas. The latest battle, which flared up last week, involves the recently published and controversial book, “Forget the Alamo.” The book received fanfare from the expected left-of-center outlets, but the state history museum’s preservation board canceled a promotional event due to what board member and Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick called its “fact-free rewriting of TX history.”
Lost in the back-and-forth about the event is the fact that the book is atrocious history. Perhaps its most lasting contribution is showing just how far the revisionists of Texan and American stories will go — and just how politicized they have made the study of history.
I say that neither as a jingoist nor as a layman. As a historian with a doctorate in American history from the University of Texas, I know the subject of the book well; I have taught U.S. and Texas history to thousands of students.
I am also a kindred spirit with anyone who wants to incorporate into our national and state histories people who have been overlooked. During my academic career, my scholarship focused on enslaved peoples, the slave trade, and the cultural evolution of Africans in America.
In fact, all of my academic publications focused on African American history and culture, bringing enslaved people’s lives to center stage through innovative approaches in analyzing historical records. Suffice it to say, I have a keen interest in historical studies that carefully — and with great balance — provide us with new perspectives.
‘Forget The Alamo’ Is a Historical Scarecrow
Unfortunately, that’s not what Bryan Burrough, Chris Tomlinson, and Jason Stanford do in “Forget the Alamo.” Far more of an anti-Texas polemic than serious history, the book is an utter disappointment.
The key reason is the presence of dozens of “straw man” arguments. The primary example reduces anyone who supports the popular understanding of what occurred at the Alamo to a white supremacist. Consequently, anyone with the gall to question their work (like Patrick did publicly last week) is an “Alamo-head” or “Bible-thumper” who clings to what the authors call the “Heroic Anglo Narrative.” Burrough et al. leave no room for someone to reject both the extremes of the early 20th century Texas jingoists and their own, even more baseless analysis.
In that light, perhaps the authors’ recently canceled book event, loftily entitled “The Craft of Writing,” should be rescheduled with a new title: “The Craft of Writing Straw-Men.” Apparently their kind of work passes muster now as serious historical inquiry, provided the straw men involve, in the authors’ words, “older, conservative whites who vote in the Republican primary.”
What’s worse is the authors’ extreme lack of balance. This is ironic, as they decry imbalance in the early histories of Texas. The authors use an extremely thin set of historical records to launch a full-scale, ideological assault on the Alamo—and, by extension, Texas.
This assault (along with their other professional work) reveals a strong desire to re-make modern Texas into their own ideological fantasyland. But doing so requires tearing down whatever historical foundations of Texas exist — just as the 1619 Project aims to do for the whole country.
Historical Errors and Generalizations
The result is a series of glaring historical errors, each of which could have been mitigated if the authors started with the historical evidence rather than imposing onto the evidence their desired conclusion.
First, the authors overstate the importance of slavery to previous generations of Texans. Yes, slavery was a part of Texan history, and crucially so in eastern and southeastern Texas. But that has been acknowledged among historians for many decades.
The authors, however, must emphasize this non-controversy so they can erect their straw-man: anyone who sustains the history of the Alamo must, therefore, be a defender of slavery and a “white supremacist.” This is as preposterous as concluding that every single Texan, including the heroic defenders of the Alamo, were there to defend slavery.
But the fallacy of presentism lives loudly in “Forget the Alamo.” The authors would have us believe we can’t accept both as true: that slavery was evil, and that Texas, like America, was founded on noble ideals. (To say nothing, by the way, of those very ideals being the foundation for all the social progress since the 1800s.)
Conversely, the authors would have us believe Mexico is a paragon of civic virtue. In their portrayal, Mexico was far advanced in moral thinking about slavery, while every white Texan (and Southerner) defended slavery on moral grounds. While it is true that some Mexicans were fighting for abolition, the historical record is far more complicated than the simple conclusion offered.
Likewise, a few Southern agrarians used morality to defend slavery, but the prevailing notion in Texas and beyond was that slavery would eventually die off on the weight of its own inefficiency, perhaps hastened some by abolitionists. What interesting stories those are to recount! What heroic figures we find in Texas, and throughout America, when we teach students those stories. But anything positive about Texas has no room in “Forget the Alamo.”
I could go on about the authors consistently portraying Mexican historical figures in the most positive light and Texan figures in the most negative. I could also write at length about the simplistic, even insulting portrayal of all Spanish-speaking Texans as a monolith. In the authors’ minds, apparently every Tejano for centuries has been a proto-Chicano activist, ignoring the millions of Texas Hispanics who love, helped build, and now sustain the Texas ethos.
Racializing Texas History
The result of these shortcomings is one massive flaw in the book: every event in Texas’ past, and every episode in the present, is portrayed as a battle between oppressed people of color and whites. Of course, almost every white person (save for the enlightened elite intellectuals of the modern era who are working to “correct the record”) is painted as evil. Not to be a member of the enlightened group is to adhere automatically to the Heroic Anglo Narrative.
At best, this is simplistic. It creates a false dichotomy between the overwrought legend in some movies and in some early accounts of the Alamo, and this equally overwrought, postmodern portrayal of history as the marginalized versus the oppressor. At worst, this is intentional, revealing the authors’ desire to redefine Texas by undercutting one of its iconic moments.
In that light, “Forget the Alamo” is eminently forgettable. But to ignore the larger context in which this book was conceived, published, and promoted — the massive push to define all of history, and all of us, by the color of our skin — is to be mistaken.
Like our heroic Texan forebears (of all ethnic backgrounds) who fought against the oppression of the Mexican government, we must fight the intellectual tyranny of those, like these authors, who undermine the noble aims of Texas and America.