She argues that the prevailing images of “the rancher,” “the cowboy” and “the oilman” have popularized the idea the world over that “Texas is a white man,” riding through the dusty, windswept desert. Those clichés are also true in part, glorified in Hollywood movies like “The Alamo” and “Giant,” which Gordon-Reed saw as a child in her hometown of Conroe.
But Texas is also a place where, after gaining its independence from Mexico, slavery was written into its constitution. Stephen F. Austin, the so-called “Father of Texas,” was ultimately successful in his drive to turn hundreds of thousands of acres of land into wealthy cotton plantations. East Texas was built in great part by enslaved people living in the massive, fertile region of the state. Except for an enslaved character in “The Alamo,” which always made Gordon-Reed “slightly embarrassed” whenever he appeared on screen, Black people and their history were never part of the Lone Star State’s commercial legend.
“Divorced from plantation slavery, coming from a part of the state relatively devoid of Black people, the image of the cowboy on the range quiets the noise a bit and avoids the tragic element in Texas history — the element that Juneteenth supposedly closed the door on, even as it opened another tragic phase in the state and country’s history,” Gordon-Reed writes.
But Mexican, Tejano and Native American culture are foundational to the state. And while Gordon-Reed spends a chapter on Indigenous people’s culture, its erasure and Hollywood’s commodification of it, much of the book centers on Black people’s experiences, starting with the African “Estebanico,” who came to the Americas with the early Spanish explorers who enslaved him in the early 1500s. He literally found freedom in the land that would become Texas, emancipated almost 350 years before Juneteenth.
The image of the white cowboy being the true representative of Texas had rubbed off on me, too. That’s why Laverne’s deep pride in her home state was at first jarring. Texas belonged to them, not to us Black folk, I thought. But here was this woman from Doucette, a seventh-generation Texan, passionately claiming it.
Gordon-Reed’s book is a historian’s interrogation of her home state. But like Juneteenth, it speaks to the rest of the nation. As Gordon-Reed writes: “It is an American story, told from the most American place.”
by Annette Gordon-Reed
Liveright; 128 pages; $15.95