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Saturday, November 26, 2022

Annette Gordon-Reed’s Surprising Recollections of Texas

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She didn’t understand then, but as she grew older she realized how breaking the color line could be seen as threatening on both sides. Her parents’ decision to send her to a white school was interpreted by some Black families as a vote of no confidence in Black schooling. And the integration project, as a whole, undermined the solidarity — albeit imposed from outside — felt within the Black community. Integration involved teachers as well as students; Gordon-Reed’s mother was assigned to the previously white Conroe High School. The experience there wasn’t the same. “My mother confessed, later in life, that while she took joy in all of her students, she had become a teacher ‘to teach Black students.’ ‘I can’t talk to them the way we used to,’ she’d say. What she meant was that it was harder to address Black students in the classroom, and talk openly about their common mission of moving the Black community ahead.”

The seventh-grade history class remained very traditional when Gordon-Reed took it. “I cannot say with certainty that slavery was never mentioned,” she writes. But it received nothing like the attention it deserved. “Of course, I didn’t need school to tell me that Blacks had been enslaved in Texas.” Juneteenth informed her of that every summer, and her parents and grandparents made reference to slavery. So did Black children. “A common retort when another kid — often a sibling — insisted you do something for them you didn’t want to do was ‘Slavery time is over.’”

A staple of Texas history classes was the story of Cynthia Ann Parker, a white girl stolen by Comanches on the Texas frontier and adopted into the tribe. She bore a son, Quanah, who became the last great war chief of the Comanches. Gordon-Reed at first accepted the story as straightforwardly told, but the more she thought about it, as a Black person and a woman, the more complicated it became. “It seemed to me that so many wrong things were packed into this one narrative,” she writes. She learned that the land the Comanches were defending from the whites was land they had seized from other Indians. She discovered that Indians held slaves, with some for this reason siding with the Confederacy during the Civil War. As for the kidnapping itself: “Whatever sympathy we have for a people under siege and fighting for their very existence, there is no way to minimize the problem with kidnapping girls to make them brides.”

Gordon-Reed never lost her affection for Texas, even after she left. “When asked, as I have been very often, to explain what I love about Texas, given all that I know of what has happened there — and is still happening there — the best response I can give is that this is where my first family and connections were,” she writes. “Love does not require taking an uncritical stance toward the objects of one’s affections. In truth, it often requires the opposite. We can’t be of real service to the hopes we have for places — and people, ourselves included — without a cleareyed assessment of their (and our) strengths and weaknesses.”

The Juneteenth ritual in the Gordon household evolved over time. Her grandmother added tamales to the menu. The young Gordon-Reed joined the women in the time-consuming preparation. “Those hours seemed endless to me as a child, but they were actually fleeting,” she says. “This ritual was fitting, and so very Texan. People of African descent, and to be honest, of some European descent, celebrating the end of slavery in Texas with dishes learned in slavery and a dish favored by ancient Mesoamerican Indians that connected Texas to its Mexican past; so much Texas history brought together for this one special day.”

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