Reverberations of Racial Violence: Critical Reflections on the History of the Border
Sonia Hernández and John Morán González, Editors
University of Texas Press, 2021
“Yeah, so? It was a metaphor for justice.”U.S. Rep. Chip Roy, Republican of Hays County, Texas, when asked about the racial connotations of lynching for African Americans after he defended lynching as “justice” during a U.S. House Judiciary Committee hearing on Discrimination and Violence Against Asian Americans days after the murder of six Asian Americans in Atlanta.
Reading the comment submitted by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton and 19 other state AGs to the U.S. Department of Education on proposed history and civics education grant programs, I once again found myself asking why these people spend so much time bearing false witness in their writings and statements. U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert and other Republicans’ recent denials about and official rejection of the creation of a commission to investigate what has gone from being called “the insurrection” to “a riot” at the U.S. Capitol on January 6 are another example of this, as are Texas Republicans’ efforts to ban discussions of racism from Texas classrooms. In fact, I think most people wonder what value these people find in making themselves look like fools.
The answer is simple — if hardly believable because of its simplicity. History and common knowledge is written through repetition, erasure and dissimulation. If you say it enough, it becomes true. If you block out facts and overwrite them a million times with falsehoods, you can indeed fool a certain contingent. In fact, there are those, like fake historian Joe Barton, actively looking for well-crafted, believable lies (or disingenuous shadings of the truth, a favorite of National Review) they can peddle as truths to base their personal desires and profits upon. If anything should be surprising, it might be the blatant lies forwarded by individuals so well-placed in the Republican elite.
I know it sounds stupid, but it’s true. History isn’t made by historians. History is made by those who leave a trace. I don’t mean “leave a mark,” but that is in the case,. in a way. Archives are filled with the materials individuals considered valuable enough to save and store and, ultimately, donate to a longer-lasting institution.
It’s the reason people — politicians, especially — write books: to leave their version of events with their justifications and their perspectives. Of course, most people don’t write books.
The vigorous concern shown for the continued memorialization of Confederate statues is a similar demonstration of this work. Keeping those statues in public places are seemingly innocuous reminders and reiterations of the status quo. They’re subtle. Which is part of the reason for Refusing to Forget’s work to install historical markers at the sites of significant state violence. It is not only an acknowledgment by the state and an educational site for those who happen to read it, it’s that subtle reminder that the way things are isn’t the result of false heroism but rather violence, dispossession and self-blindness. And the point of pointing that out is to make us remember that we choose whether to continue to operate in ways that produce those effects. that’s what reverberations are: the echoes of past acts that impact our present and limit our futures, if we let them and even more if we don’t know about them. The point isn’t to blame entire categories of living or dead people. There are examples in the book of White individuals, like Ralph Warnock’s grandfather, who were killed because they recognized the basic humanity of someone with darker skin. We’re not all guilty of those crimes. But you can be guilty of willfully ignoring them or trying to erase them. Who knows how long the 1919 Texas Ranger Investigation would have languished decaying in state archives had a graduate student not stumbled upon the (least interesting) parts of it in Washington, D.C.?
That’s why it’s important we refuse to forget.
Since 2013, the Refusing to Forget project has pushed for the public acknowledgment of a largely forgotten era of illegal yet tacitly state-sanctioned killings of Mexican Americans living along the border of the U.S. and Mexico border during the first quarter of the 20th century. In less than a decade, the multidisciplinary group of scholars has worked to raise awareness of La Matanza, or “The Massacre,” through applying and advocating for historical markers, sparking the organization of a groundbreaking and award-winning exhibit at the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum in Austin in early 2016 and a National Endowment for the Humanities-sponsored Conference on the Centennial of the 1919 Canales Investigation of the Texas Rangers in 2019. The group’s latest effort at collective anamnesis1 is the UT Press collection, Reverberations of Racial Violence: Critical Reflections on the History of the Border. The book presents the work of members of the project along with contributions from others who became involved over the course of its existence, including the current director of the Bob Bullock State History Museum.
1 The Injustice Never Leaves You, page 294
We can’t expect U.S. Rep. Chip Roy to have spent the pandemic learning about the state he represents. He has far more important things to do, like polishing his head and finding ways to allow insurance companies to profit more off/deny life-saving care to those suffering from Hodgkin’s lymphoma, the very same cancer he survived while on government-paid insurance, by repealing the Affordable Care Act.1
I mean, he doesn’t know what a metaphor is but, then again, neither does the Republican Party of Texas, though Texas GOP Chairman Allan West, himself no resource of Texas historical knowledge, did call his comment “unfortunate” while recommending he “engage the brain before firing the mouth.”2
Chip Roy didn’t grow up in or go to school in Texas. He spent his formative years in Virginia, where the lynching hidden from history didn’t involve the same genealogy, motivations or consequences as it did and does in Texas. So, it’s unlikely he’d have heard the stories from friends or family of those affected by Texas’ version of that violence. We’re all familiar with the whitewashes still called modern-day history classes, so it would be a bit much to expect 3. And, given he doesn’t even care about those clearly affected by the violence he does know about,
I’m an advocate for reading critical theory for the very reason that it can destabilize one’s oft-unreflected-upon approach to a subject or concept or issue or idea. To argue there’s nothing to be learned from these discussions is just another method of shutting down conversation and the questions they always hold. It’s the same thing Ratio Christi attempts to do in their takedown of critical theory by limiting the definition of “oppression.” Which is no different than the voice you can hear screaming between the lines in the AGs’ comment, That’s not traditional American history! And they demand the right to define what that tradition will be at any particular time and place.
It’s like their parenthetical — because it isn’t clear, clearly — that the U.S. was founded upon equality, despite Black people being reduced to less-than-human in the texts of our founding documents. Only an elected lawyer could split those hairs to mean the former. Maybe they all adhere to the same legal methodology as Chip Roy.
The right’s statements opposing and legislation banning the critical study of areas, beyond being just a continuation of their work at the State Board of Education and elsewhere to ensure public school textbooks perpetuate whitewashed and one-sided narratives, demands we who disagree with them continue to communicate all sides of our shared histories.
We are not an intelligent species. Our hubris fills too often supplies the confidence any real attention would reveal to be founded mainly upon limited personal experiences, little-considered rules of thumb and incredibly short memories.
For instance, we all know — don’t we? — about U.S. Americans’ reactions to the airing of Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds radio play, but how many know of the reaction of Ecuadorians living in Quito to its airing? Scholar Marc Becker recounts that the radio station that aired the program was burnt to the ground.
Welles had informed his listeners that the broadcast was radio theater, but his Ecuadorian counterparts did not bother with those niceties. The radio station only belatedly explained that the broadcast was a hoax. Officials pleaded for people to remain calm, but watched helplessly as the crowd’s fear turned to rage with the realization that they had been duped. The mob descended on the radio station and set it ablaze. Because the police had gone to Cotocallao, the government called in the military to restore order. The army responded with tanks and tear gas to disperse the crowd, but not before the station was reduced to rubble with the besieged staff of one hundred still inside. Some managed to escape out of a rear exit, but others were trapped on upper doors. As many as fifteen charred bodies lay in the wreckage. The daily newspaper El Comercio, Quito’s oldest newspaper, owned the radio station and was located in the same building. The fire destroyed the newspaper’s presses and files, and for three days it was not able to publish. When the paper resumed distribution, it was thanks only to the generosity of their competitor El Día who lent them their printing press.
. . .
The communists had nothing to do with the broadcast or the resulting riot and ruin, but that did not stop the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) from assuming that radicals must have been behind the mayhem. After all, the events matched the agency’s preconceived notions of how communists operated. Rather than engaging in a serious political program to build a better world, US government officials charged that the communists were subversives bent on death and destruction designed to disrupt the smooth functioning of society. For that reason, the CIA was on the lookout for communist inspiration or instigation of violent events. In this case, however, the agency concluded that the riot had no political undertones, nor did any evidence emerge that it was communist-inspired. From an investigation into “sources inside the higher echelon of the National Headquarters of the Ecuadoran Communist Party in Quito,” the CIA concluded that the communists were not aware in advance of the broadcast, nor did they have plans to exploit the carnage left in its wake. In fact, according to the CIA’s sources, two communists lost their lives in the fire.Becker, Marc. The CIA in Ecuador. Duke University Press, 2021. Library of Congress ISBN, https://library.oapen.org/bitstream/handle/20.500.12657/41885/9781478012993.pdf.
Our local and brief knowledge of our own histories is obvious.
James A. Sandos “Recovering the 1919 Canales Investigation of the Texas Ranger Force”
1 Zheng-Lin, B., Wang, Q. and Jiang, C., 2019. Insurance Status and healthcare disparity in patients with Hodgkin’s lymphoma before and after the Affordable Care Act: a SEER database study. Journal of Scientific Innovation in Medicine, 2(2), p.13. DOI: http://doi.org/10.29024/jsim.28
2 “Statement Regarding Remarks Made by Chip Roy.” Republican Party of Texas, 19 Mar. 2021, https://www.texasgop.org/statement-remarks-by-chip-roy/. For recent Florida transplant Allan West’s own misunderstandings about basic state and national history, see CNN, Andrew Kaczynski and Em Steck. “Texas GOP Chairman Allen West Falsely Says Texas Could Secede from the US: ‘We Could Go Back to Being Our Own Republic.’” CNN, https://www.cnn.com/2021/04/09/politics/allen-west-texas-kfile/index.html. Accessed 10 May 2021.
3 In fact, I’ve spent nearly twenty years working in some way with Texas Freedom Network, a group specifically created by Cecile Richards to counter the Texas right’s falsifying of public school textbooks.