A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
The Texas primary is held today. I know what’s coming. A lot of friends will ask, with the best of intentions, questions that begin, “John, you lived in Texas. Why is Texas so …?”
You can fill in that blank. Reactionary. Racist. Crude. Uncultured. And, yes, dumb.
Often, at this point, I channel Molly Ivins. “I dearly love the state of Texas, but I consider that a harmless perversion on my part, and discuss it only with consenting adults.”
I lived for a decade in and around Dallas, and, in fact, got my bachelor’s degree and my M. A. from Southern Methodist University. I also served in the army in west Texas. I love Texas. And I left Texas. Thus do I often find myself translating Texan to non-speakers, and, perhaps more importantly, translating Texas politics and culture to the befuddled.
Therefore, let us consider, for a moment, what my neighbors hear when they think Texan and Texas, and what I have to translate into indigenous Midwestern.
First lesson. Texas is the size of France. There is not one Texas. There is a north / south divide, an east / west divide, a rural / urban divide. But it’s not that simple. Texas should be viewed more like one of those Russian babushka dolls – there are Texases within Texases within Texases.
For example, you think to yourself, “How can Texas elect a Ted Cruz?” Then you think you have the answer. “Oh, yea, they also elected Bush – both of them.” Allow me to remind you that this is also the state that elected Barbara Jordan and Ann Richards. Lyndon Johnson, of course. Let us not forget Kinky Friedman, the self-described “Jewish cowboy”, who, during his unsuccessful bid for governor, asked, “How can you look at the Texas legislature, and still believe in intelligent design?” Also in the non-elected category there’s Ramsey Clark, Attorney General to Lyndon Johnson.
You remember George Bush said, “They misunderestimated me.” That’s true. It’s also true that Larry McMurtry won the Pulitzer Prize for Lonesome Dove. Naomi Shihab Nye, born in St. Louis but a long-time resident of San Antonio, has won the Pushcart Prize four times.
There is a tendancy to think of Texas as America’s Outback. Yet six of the nation’s largest cities are in Texas.
There is a tendancy to think of Texans as reactionary when it comes to immigration. Yet Texas has one of the largest Spanish speaking populations in the nation. Just about everyone has a Mexican sister-in-law.
There is a tendancy to view culture in Texas as gauche, as if all culture in Texas is defined by that fifty foot cowboy at the state fair. A brief tour of the Amon Carter museum in Fort Worth will offer works by Thomas Cole, Thomas Eakins, John Singer Sergent, Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz. The first and only time I touched a Tyndale Bible, the first time and only time I ever opened an original Diderot Encyclopédie, I was in the Amon Carter.
Texans don’t help their own cause by taking a perverse pride in a George Bush, who says stuff like, “Rarely is the question asked, Is our children learning?” Fortunately for its reputation, Texas is also the home of Baylor University, Rice University, the University Of Texas of course, and my aforementioned alma mater, SMU. That said, it’s hard not to take perverse pride in a governor like Ma Ferguson, who, when asked if Spanish should be taught in Texas schools, held up her Bible and said, “If the King’s English was good enough for Jesus Christ, it’s good enough for the children of Texas!”
There’s a tendancy to dismiss music from Texas as something twangy, harmonica, Jew’s harp, goat-ropers around a fire just after the round-up. At which point I remind my friends of Janis Joplin and Willie Nelson. Lest we limit our genres, Scott Joplin was born in Texas, as was Beyoncé, Sly Stone and Van Cliburn. ZZ Top is from Houston. Then there’s Selena, “The Queen of Tejano”. There are symphonies in every major city in Texas. The One O’Clock Lab Band, of North Texas State University, is one of the premier jazz ensembles.
I am not about to end this essay with some saccharine “Don’t Mess With Texas!.” I’ve messed with Texas all my adult life, and it never did me any harm. Besides, there’s nothing bad you can say about Texas that some Texan hasn’t already said with an actual Texas accent. When you knock Ted Cruz, consider Molly Ivins said years ago, “Next time I tell you someone from Texas should not be president of the United States, please pay attention.” Molly Ivins, good ole girl, graduate of Smith College and Columbia University.
Put simply, I am not writing a paean to Texas. I merely wish to remind my friends, my fellow Midwesterners and anyone else who cares to listen, that, in this election year, we at our peril stereotype a large, complex and diverse state. Think simply of the reaction you would get if you said, “All Blacks are like this” or “All Jews are like that.” Or, my dear neighbors, “All Missourians are hoosiers.”
I remember a weather report. Folks were sun tanning along the Gulf. There was a blizzard in the north. It was a mild, spring day in east Texas. There were tornadoes in west Texas. The weatherman concluded, “And that’s how big Texas is.” He didn’t add “ya’ll.”
Copyright 2016 John Samuel Tieman
The State Fair’s Big Tex: this version was destroyed in a fire in 2012 and was replaced, but many Texans prefer the older one.