It’s Not “the Government” – Hidden Power of Words Series, #12

One part of the oral portion of my comprehensive exams back in May 2013 has stayed with me (“haunted” you could say!) more than any other: Discuss the government as a plural noun and as a singular noun.

At first I was baffled and surprised. I asked for clarification (and the question was repeated). I knew this was getting at something important than I had ever specifically grasped before.

This one question has really had a strong imprint on how I think. The idea of the government as being both a plural and singular noun is important and either not recognized or under recognized most of the time.

Most people say “the government” so and so as if it were one entity. Or use “government” as a generic (and ambiguous) noun to refer to any and all aspects of the government.

Upon a closer examination and specific examination (or should we say specific recognition) we realize that “the government” is a gigantic multi-faceted, multi-layered organization with various branches that are frequently at odds with themselves. Consider the recent (and not-so-recent) conflicts between states in the South and the Federal Executive branch.

Instead of saying “government,” we should at least say “governments” and at best specifically say what part of the government we are talking about—the FDA, County Police, a City Mayor, a School Board, a State Supreme Court, the Speaker of the U.S. House, the Secretary of Education, etc., etc., etc.

We can all increase our civic and historical literacy by recognizing, specifically acknowledging, how powerful and over-simplifying the word “government” really is and reform our language to be much more specific.

Please check out other articles in the Hidden Power of Words Series!

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The Rhetoric of Exclusion: Assumed vs. Stated

In my Texas History class, this week and the next two weeks are devoted to the question: “How revolutionary was the Texas Revolution?”

Yesterday’s lesson was “Blacks from Africa to Texas.” We looked at the development of enslavement in Texas; how (unlike in the British Colonies) it was transplanted as a pre-existing, very established institution by White  settlers in Texas; the debate related to enslavement between the Mexico government and settlers in Mexican Texas; and briefly at the institution after the Texas Revolution. Tomorrow we will look at Women and the Texas Revolution – Black Women, White Women, Hispanic Women, and Native Women. Over the next two weeks we will look at the Texas Revolution and historical memory, manifest destiny and the Mexican War, and the institution of slavery as Texas became a “slave society.” 

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This week in particular we are looking at the 1836 Constitution of the Republic of Texas. You can read a copy of this here. One of my goals this week is to get students to examine the rhetoric of stated vs implied exclusion.

This Constitution specifically prohibits Blacks and Indians in the following places: 

Article I, Section 7: The senators shall be chosen by districts, as nearly equal in free population (free negroes and Indians excepted) as practicable

General Provisions, Section 10: All persons (Africans, the descendants of Africans, and Indians excepted) who were residing in Texas on the day of the declaration of independence shall be considered citizens of the republic and entitled to all the privileges of such.

(This document also prohibited non-enslaved Blacks from residing in the state without special permission. Enforcement increased and decreased. Later on, perhaps in an attempt to cover up the illegal importation of Africans directly from Africa, Texas passed a law allowing non-enslaved Blacks to voluntarily enslave themselves.)

That this exclusion of Blacks and Indians is specifically stated is interesting. Why was it necessary to specifically state what had been assumed before? At this time, I do not have a direct answer per se, but by applying knowledge from other historical situations, this stated exclusion indicates there was more tension–a lot more tension–and fear in the air and challenges to prevailing mores. The institution of enslavement was one of the main–if not the main–causes of the Texas Revolution. Texas Enslavers were constantly worried about the security of being able to have their human “property” — due to both racism and that they had a lot of money invested. In 1836, the average enslaved person was sold for $575 ($15,000 in 2013), and in 1860, $800 ($23,000 in 2013). The 1835 enslaved population was at least 5,000 and by 1860 it was at least 183,000. Like most other “slave societies,” Texas’s enslaved black population ranged from about 25-30 percent of the total population. 

In two places–when it came to who could hold office and the establishment of new counties–the Republic of Texas Constitution excludes females. But elsewhere says:

Every citizen of the republic who has attained the age of twenty-one years, and shall have resided six months within the district or county where the election is held, shall be entitled to vote for members of the general congress.

In this case, especially since we know Women were not allowed to vote, the exclusion and inequality was assumed. 

Just as in the Declaration of Independence and in the United States Constitution, when the so-called Founding Fathers wrote “We the People” and “all are created equal” and similar rhetoric, it was so-assumed that this only included White cis-Men that it was not necessary to spell it out. Although we still have far too much inequality today, the equality we do have would be insane and morally wrong to the George Washington and others celebrated by our founding myths. Except for some minor threat from the British, the institution of enslavement was very secure and very established in the United States when the Constitution was written. No one needed to specifically exclude in writing those racialized as Black because “all are equal” did the job sufficiently.  

 

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“6 Flags Over Texas”: History, Rhetoric, and Deleting the Past

Teaching Texas History this semester has been a blast. Teaching is always an excellent way to learn, and teaching something from a different framework/reference point is also a way to learn. 

One thing we have talked about a few times relates to: What does “6 Flags Over Texas” mean? Who and what does it include and exclude? What is the rhetoric of this conceptualization of History? 

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The concept of “six flags” and the choice of the “six flags” privileges a very certain White narrative of History – one that is also pro-Confederacy when we consider the cumulative total of who is and is not included. While Native American nations did not have “flags” (at least not as we think of them), they are excluded from this concept. The “six flags” conceptualization does not represent all of the nations that have controlled or had influence in Texas.

Additionally, when we recognize notions of borderlands and geopolitics, we know that parts of present-day Louisiana, New Mexico, Kansas, Colorado, Wyoming, and Oklahoma were at one point officially or unofficially part of the area claimed to be “Texas.” These states and peoples are also excluded. 

Additionally, the Fredonia flag is excluded. The Fredonian Revolution was nothing more than a failed revolution. Labeling it a rebellion is to assert a form of imperialism and a “we won, you didn’t” imprint on History. 

The Flag of Fredonia

The Flag of Fredonia

 

The French flag is included and the French were never even that established in Texas. 

To be erased and written out of History is indeed a most horrible thing to do and feel. The geopolitical area presently called Texas should be proud to fully embrace its full history and all of its “flags.”

Gilded Age and Progressive Era Immigration – Podcast Lecture Series #2

Once again I am posting a podcast. In this case, this podcast was made last February when we ran out of time one class because we were having such a good discussion about World War I! Now I’m using the podcast version as a regular part of the course. There is so much to discuss in any course that it is easy to run out of time and to use extra time for something good. This podcast is about 20 minutes, and it covers immigration from c. 1880 – c. 1920. 

Red Lobster is clearly not owned by a Texan

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I eat at Red Lobster each week. (They have delicious grilled chicken, salads, and of course bread and Dr Pepper! Plus, I have good friends there.) Anyway, I have seen this hundreds and hundreds of times, but only today “really” noticed it and took a picture of it. You “know” with 10000000000 percent certainty that the owners of Red Lobster (or in the case of their recent separation from Darden, former owners) are not Texans. BECAUSE “a good Texan” would have the Texas flag equal to the US flag not the Red Lobster flag! 

And NO I do not support Texas Ethnocentrism, Texas Exceptionalism, etc. etc. :)

Just found the rhetoric of this flag arrangement very interesting. 

That’s all. 

“Nothing Happened Here”: History vs. history

On the first or second day of class each semester, I always do some version of my “What is History?” lesson with students. This lesson introduces major ideas and terms (such as agency, mores, etc) that I use all of the time. We also spend a great deal of time talking about various definitions of history.

One of the very first questions I ask in this lesson–and that we talk about all semester–is, “What is the difference between history with a little “h” and History with a capital “H”?”

Usually, they get pretty close.

[h]istory with a little “h” is anything and everything everywhere that has ever happened. Most of history (or the past) is not recorded. One example I use is what you had for breakfast ten years ago today is history with a little “h”. It’s history, it’s the past, it had some small impact on the world for sure, but there is no “evidence” of it and it is not deemed “important” in larger historical narrative and trajectories. 

History with a big “H” is the study of the past, the writing of the past. It’s the history that we know and have access to. It’s the events and peoples we study in this class. It’s a socially constructed narrative based on available evidence, mores, hopes, fears, etc, and changes as all of these factors adjust. 

I see history and History e-v-e-r-y-w-h-e-r-e. 

Had supper this evening, and noticed this very disturbing sign: 

 

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The idea that nothing happened in a given spot privileges “Great Men History” per se. In the particular spot where this sign was specifically and in the area more generally, hundreds and hundreds of enslaved individuals forcibly worked for abusive enslavers. Women cooked and cleaned. Etc. We have numerous records of these people and events in the particular spot in question.

This sign also privileges human life. In the particular spot in question, animals and plants and the broader environment also operated in a symbiotic relationship and lived and did things. 

So of course many, many things happen in e-v-e-r-y particular spot and happen all the time. Most of these become history and not History. But that does not make it permissible to ignore it. Recognition is the first step toward something becoming History. 

Additionally the date used–April 21, 1861–has significance as the date when slave-holding states in the South fired what is considered the first shot of the Civil War. Texas was very clearly and very deeply involved in the Civil War for the purpose of maintaining enslavement. So on this particular date, especially this particular date, a lot would have been happening in Texas directly and indirectly related to events far away with the official military beginning of the Civil War.

Rhetoric and History and history mater.  

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