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My Texas Heritage

Johnston Tobey Texas Heritage

Hiring a lawyer is an important decision. It should involve knowing more than just what certificates a lawyer has on the wall.  Most of the people who know me well would say that one of the qualities which most defines me is my willingness to share my beliefs and my thoughts—and to hear yours too. This blog shares some of my beliefs about recent events in the news concerning Texas.

I am a Texan. Fourth generation. My kids are Texans. I actually left a family Christmas celebration in Oklahoma around midnight when my wife went into labor, to ensure this new child would be a Texan. I love being a Texan. I cannot imagine what it would be like to have to tell people I am from Oklahoma, or from Kansas, or from some other state that lacks the rich heritage of Texas.

I remember the story Gene Autry used to tell the creation of Texas. According to the story, God was working on Texas late in the day and gave the land one leveling swipe with his hand, planning to come back the next day and put in trees and valleys and rivers and all the things that made the land beautiful in other states. But to his dismay, by the next morning it had hardened into concrete and was as flat as a billiard table. God thought about the huge task of jack-hammering all this up and starting over, but then he was struck with inspiration. Instead of changing Texas, he decided to just make some people who liked it like that.

But I am not blind to the flaws in my state, historical and current. Although Texas is not a part of the South, it was a part of the Confederacy and it allowed my white ancestors to own slaves.  My ancestors were not rich enough to own any that I know about, but they could have.

Because of my Texas heritage, I understand both sides of this Confederate flag/statue issue. The South is different from the North. There really is a different culture in the South (and Texas) that is beautiful and worth preserving. The best writers in this country have come from the South. And the best guitar players have come from Texas. Although New Jersey has produced some great music (The Boss), no part of this country has produced the quality of musicians and music that has come from the South and Texas.

And we are loyal—really loyal!  If you had to pick someone to be with you in a fox hole, you could do a lot worse than picking someone from the South or Texas. Not only will he or she have your back under all circumstances, you will hear great stories while you’re waiting for the battle to start. And chances are pretty good they can also shoot straight!

But it is an undeniable fact that this rich culture of the South (and to a lesser extent, Texas) was built on and sustained by the economy of slavery. The ugliness of slavery cannot be exaggerated! There is nothing today’s Southerners can do about that. Contrary to what people in the North think, Southerners know about slavery in their history – they don’t like being reminded of it, but they know all about it. Southerners know the Civil War was over slavery, although there seems to be a lot of them who deny it. Southerners know they lost. Southerners know racism is still a problem.

But we resent the suggestion that racism exists only in the South. Yes, there are true racists in the South to this day—stupidity is incredibly persistent.  But we don’t have a monopoly on hate and stupidity. Martin Luther King is reported to have said that even after facing down Bull Connor, water hoses and snarling dogs in Alabama, he did not know real fear until he marched through the streets of South Boston.

So, if you are a Texan, how do you come to grips with the fact that Northerners often feel so superior to you on issues of race and culture?  Or make fun of you because you love country music, football, pickup trucks, and NASCAR? How do you hold on to a sense of dignity and worth and value when so much of your heritage has a foundation of utter, indefensible ugliness? The answer is, in large part, you live in denial, fantasy, and rationalization. Like saying that the Civil War was not over slavery when you know it was. Like focusing on the fact that you have a grandparent who did something nice for an African American once. Like telling yourself that whatever injustice and cruelty your ancestors perpetrated or tolerated, you are not them and you did not do it.  But these rationalizations are irrelevant to the real issues of today.

I wish South Carolinians would decide to take down the Confederate flag and all the monuments to men who killed their fellow Americans in an effort to try to preserve slavery. I wish Mississippi would change its flag. And I wish everyone else not from there would be quiet, so the good Southerners from these states could do the right thing as an expression of their own sensitivity to this issue—instead of as a response to pressure or criticism of their heritage and culture from others.  Instead of once again being perceived as having lost another cultural war to the North.

I wish everyone from the North would find a way to honor and value Southern culture without reminding us that it was built on slavery. I cannot imagine how hard that is for African-Americans, but I still wish for it.  I wish the South, like Germany, could do its repentance and rejoin the world without the constant reminder of this ugly stain. I wish the South would become the leader in the move to eliminate racism from our subconscious and from our culture, so that the implicit bias and racism of so many Northerners could be exposed and addressed—rather than being overshadowed by the more egregious history of blatant racism in the South.

I wish all of us could allow our fellow citizens to say the stupid shit we have come to believe without immediately attacking and ridiculing them. You see, stupid shit turns into fertilizer when it is exposed to fresh air and sunlight. I have been lucky that I have a few African-American friends whom I trusted enough to expose my stupid shit to.  It wasn’t easy for them, but they listened (even though they rolled their eyes), and then I got to listen to them and see things from their point of view.  Some of my shit is now fertilizing fruitful new ideas and attitudes.  Everyone should have this opportunity.

I wish I could play the blues. White people can’t play the blues (except for 3 notable Texans: Stevie Ray Vaughan, Mark Pollock, and Johnny Winter). Is that a racist statement? Maybe. Yet, I believe it. But what if I said “Black people can’t sing opera?” No, I don’t believe that at all.  I use that only as an example.  But if that was a blind spot for me in my understanding of all things race-related, shouldn’t I be able to say something that stupid without fear of losing my job or being castigated on the Internet as a racist.  Otherwise, I just hold the thought in. And it just sits there and sours and rankers and gets worse. We have got to be able to talk about this stuff without attacks and labels and today we can’t.

I look at Germany for an example of how the South can emerge from this shithole of defending our heritage by ignoring and distorting the past.  The South should have museums to slavery.  They should have tours of the ugly, like Germany has for the Holocaust.  Let people see it.  Own it.  Show us all that you know how bad it was.  Preserve the “White Only” water fountains and let people drink from them.  Let all of us feel what our ancestors thought was somehow okay.  We don’t need movies that show the extremes of bad behavior in the 1800’s as much as we need the actual reminders of the total denial of dignity that persisted into our lifetimes—at least into my lifetime. I have drunk from a “Whites Only” water fountain. I was 16 before African-American kids could to go to school with me. This is not the distant past—it is yesterday! But we have whitewashed over it and pretend it has no current effect because it is so hard to admit we allowed it. But all it takes is exposure and owning it for most of the sting to go away—or at least start to go away.

We all know that not every Confederate soldier fought to preserve slavery, just like not every Union soldier fought to eliminate it.  Some were just doing what young men have done for ever: responding to the commands of old men to go die for some cause. We ought to be able to stop honoring the old white men who caused so many Americans to die for the ugly cause of slavery without vilifying the entire South and Texas and every descendant of those young soldiers.

There is so much more I wish I could say.  I need understanding friends of all races, colors, shades, patinas, ethnicities. I promise to try to be a good friend in return.  I welcome anyone who has suggestions for me.  I need help still.  I want to be better.  I am a work in progress, even at this age.