Continued Conversations and Philosophizing: “What is Texas History?”

Articulating various responses to “What is Texas History” with my students continues to fascinate me, as does teaching and learning more and more Texas History, and I wanted to share a few things in particular that have been on my mind.

In my Mexican American History I class (stay with me!), we were recently reading about pre-contact Native Americans who, according to the book, lived in “Mexico,” “Texas,” “New Mexico,” and “California.” We talked about the possible problems and limitations of this since contemporary boundaries between Mexico and the United States and various states of the two nations have almost absolutely zero meaning to pre-contact, pre-colonized peoples. Continuing with this line of thinking, a variety of thoughts occur. One, for only a tiny bit of history has “Texas” had any kind of meaning or even existed. Likewise, Native American groups we arbitrarily classify as being part of “Texas History” are unfairly lumped with Modern mores and ideologies of which have zero meaning to them.

Instead of calling it Texas History, perhaps we should call it Southwestern History or something more regional or thematic. This would avoid the quasi ahistorical practice of using today’s geopolitical practices for past peoples. And this might help escape the consequence of everyone having the shape of Texas “tattooed” in their consciousness. Such regional history classes have problems too since covering the entire World or Western World or Eastern World in one or two semesters is even more impossible. But, then too, isn’t every class World History??

Questions about the boundaries of Texas History (or other topics) are also interesting for what they include and don’t include. I still basically stand by by previous definition of Texas History: Something qualifies as Texas History if it is in, from, about, or has influence in Texas. But, I have additional thoughts and a few potential reservations.

For example, by this definition, in a way there is no difference between Texas History and World History, as everything across the world and across time and place has influence in Texas.

On the other hand, this is partly its power: Notions of Texas Exceptionalism quickly fade away with a slightly world-based context. 

At the same time, however, consider a review of the 1945 film Mildred Pierce published in a Dallas, Texas, newspaper. This would fall under the umbrella of Texas History. But, clearly, such a review would be highly unlikely to be unique or significant to the political/cultural area of Texas or have any kind of unique or significant influence. Essentially the same review could have been written by the same person, especially if he/she moved around a lot, in any number of states. On the other hand, if that person grew up in Texas, their ideas would for sure be shaped by the educational system in Texas. Questions like this also partly launch us into discussions of history vs. History. What parts of the past do we remember and find valuable, and why?

Additionally, given the dynamics of Modernism and capitalism and en masse monopolies, conceptualizations of “Texas History” or “Mississippi History” do not have the power they once did. Between the flood of highways, traffic, McDonalds, Subways, Walgreens, and countless other texts, most big (and small!) cities and towns are more and more often almost identical and indistinguishable. How much–on a broad historical level–is different between the big cities of today?: Would we notice if say Dallas and Houston switched places? or if Austin and Oklahoma City switched? And then we have to ask if this is even really that new of an occurrence…for example, there weren’t that many differences–on a broad historical level–between various of the larger cities during the time of Colonial British North America. Or, too, Texas being a state with enslavement connects it very closely with other southern states. This makes “comparative” history have importance but, as I’ve written about before, comparative history as its own set of ethical concerns

With Wal-Marts everywhere, how many things are unique in 2015 to Texas in the kind of systemic, institutional ways that make the kind of “Big H” History that is really important? Even something like oil is not fully unique to Texas. Texas and its notions of exceptionalism and its mythology of “cowboys and Indians” might be one of the most unique things! 

Technology also greatly reduces regional differences as humans modify natural and create artificial environments every day. Whereas in prior eras geography really affected and changed life in given areas, now days we modify the environment. Such modification comes in the form of air-conditioning and the ability to create or obliterate hills and lakes, for example. We have to remember whereas in prior nations regions had great significance in terms of the groups that formed in such region, such is not the case today. This becomes even more noticeable with a state like Texas and its tremendous environmental diversity and tremendous size.

Part of it boils down to that nothing happens in a vacuum and context, context, context is important.