Recently read: Burrough, Tomlinson, Stanford, “Forget the Alamo”

Bryan Burrough, Chris Tomlinson, Jason Stanford, Forget the Alamo: The Rise and Fall of an American Myth (Penguin Press, 2021). (Amazon; Bookshop)

A title like Forget the Alamo is bound to rile up a bunch of Texans but the book isn’t about forgetting the Alamo. It’s about rightly remembering what happened at the Alamo on March 6th, 1836, and how those events have been diversely remembered by different people. In other words, it’s a call to the normal work of historians. Historians are asked to reconstruct past events (which are gone now) in narrative form so that we can better understand how the past relates to the present. This process is always complicated; always messy…when done correctly.

A good history shouldn’t be a hagiography; a hagiography is a hagiography. But hagiographies can be extremely useful for culture building; for shared myth making. (Note: historians don’t use the word “myth” like “myth busters” but instead to speak of stories that provide some sense of “truth” in a given culture…sometimes based on actual, historical events, but not necessarily depending on the sort of accuracy demanded by modern historiography.) In Texas, students are often taught a hagiographical view of the Alamo. The “heroes” of the Alamo are sanitized. People like David Crockett, James Bowie, and William Travis are sanitized as freedom fighters protecting individual liberty and democratic principles. But reality is never this black-and-white. They wanted wealth; they wanted to protect the system of slavery that helped them accumulate that wealth. Those desires factored into their battle with Santa Anna as much their love of individual freedom did, if not more so. Therefore, the lives and careers of the fighters at the Alamo are more complicated than the mythologies and hagiographies suggests. This shouldn’t be controversial. This is what historians do. Historians re-present the past, stains and all.

A great example of this is the difference between the old 1960s movie, The Alamo, featuring John Wayne as Crockett, which has been very popular, and the 2004 box office flip, The Alamo, which doesn’t have the John Wayne heroics but instead presents Crockett (played excellently by Billie Bob Thornton!), Bowie, Travis, and adjacent figures like Sam Houston (played by Dennis Quaid), in their complexity. Last week, I watched the latter, and it’s actually a really good film but it’s not a hagiography. Bowie has problems with alcoholism and is a slave owner. Travis abandons his wife and children. Crockett is a washed up politician who falls way short of the contemporary (by this I mean his era) mythological figure “Davy Crockett,” who was nothing like the real man. For those who appreciate what good historiography offers us—that being a honest attempt to reconstruct the past, wrinkles and all—the 2004 film is far superior to the Marvel comics superhero version from 1960.

But that’s the problem isn’t it: we want our superheroes. We want our narratives and mythologies black-and-white. Unfortunately for many, this isn’t how things have worked, work, or will work. Humans will always be complicated. Your heroes will have faults. And Forget the Alamo reminds readers, especially Texans, that the people who fought at the Alamo were not gods—they were men.

Another thing this book does—and this is “problematic” because it challenges something near and dear to many Texans; something the Burrough, Tomlinson, and Stanford call “the Heroic Anglo Narrative”—is that it shows that the stories of the Alamo aren’t just about Texians/Americans; the stories aren’t just about American v. Mexico, Anglos v. Hispanics. Why? Because Tejanos were present. Their were non-Anglos who fought the Mexican army too, people like Juan Seguin (who has streets and a nearby city named after him but who is often ignored in favor of names like Crockett, Bowie, Travis, Houston, and Stephen F. Austin). This is important because one of the side effects of a sanitized re-construction of the events that took place at the Alamo is that Anglo children in Texas are often made to feel like they’re the descendants of the liberty-loving heroes while children of Hispanic heritage come away feeling like they were the “losers” and the villains. Chapter 21, “This Politically Incorrect Nonsense,” deals with this and shares anecdotes from Texans who faced backlash after their seventh-grade Texas history class or after a field trip to the Alamo. Removing the complexity from the events at the Alamo in an effort to create a “patriotic history” (as people like the current Governor of Texas would call it) does no such thing. What it does do is say that the events of the Alamo that features Native Americans, Tejanos, Blacks, etc. are secondary to the events that features whites. Healthy historiography can’t fall into the trap of ethnocentric hagiography; healthy historiography must try to tell the truth about the past based on the data available to us. This is what the authors of Forget the Alamo are trying to remind readers.

As a born-and-raised Californian, I find this controversy eye-opening. I’m not a Texan but I live in Texas and already, just yesterday, I saw the battle over how Texas self-remembers acted out as an event at a museum in Austin featuring the authors was canceled because of pressure from Texans who don’t like the premise of this book. (A premise, I surmise, that’s not actually based on reading the book, as online reactions to this book make very clear, but on fear of “cancel culture” or some other, similar worry.) I am proud to have been born-and-raised in California while simultaneously being horrified by what happen to Native Americans; by what happened to Californios (like Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo whose story parallels Seguin’s) after the arrival of the “Forty-niners”; by how Asian immigrants were treated for generations; etc. But I feel like becoming a better California meant recognizing and accepting the past (and ongoing work; an ongoing conversation) not censoring it, which is what some Texans appear determined to do when faced with the complexity of the history of this state. When people are hellbent on sanitizing the past—and canceling alternative/revisionary tellings in fear of being canceled (pre-emptive canceling?)—there must be a present, contemporary reason for doing so. Their must be something happening now that demands the mythologies, the hagiographies, take precedent over the complex and diverse histories, histories that demand a greater openness to pluralism, shared celebration and grief, and the hard work of asking what it means to walk forward, together into the future.

For this reason, while I’m not saying all historians will agree with everything presented in Forget the Alamo, and while I realize the provocative title may put many people on the defense before they give the book a chance, I will say that it’s an excellent book. The authors are honest. In my view, they don’t actually outright bury Crockett and company as some online commenters fear, but presents them honestly, in their context, as real humans and not as gods—real humans who are part of the story of Texas but who aren’t the only ones who are part of this story, a story that contains many voices who have been silenced for generations—voices of Tejanos, Mexicans, and enslaved African Americans who wanted the same freedom and the same autonomy that people like Crockett, Bowie, Travis, Houston, and Austin believed was due to them. It’s a book that interfaces the history of Texas with the greater narrative of an evolving Mexico—a Mexico that itself was very complicated, shifting between centralist and federalist factions; a Mexico where at the time Santa Anna was in control but by no means the universal embodiment of all that was Mexico. There’s nothing to fear in a well-written, well-researched history like Forget the Alamo; nothing to fear but fear itself.

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