“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” — William Faulkner
I would like to begin this rebuttal by asking what you mean by “clarity of purpose,” which you claim to be seeking with this essay. Are you talking about the song itself, and the purpose of it? Or are you merely, as you state, offering your thoughts on what it represents to you?
You go on to elucidate about the “powerful solidarity” and the “common identity” which this song — to you, at least — represents.
It’s interesting that you would only use your own perspective when speaking about “solidarity” and “common identity,” while willfully ignoring the Black Americans who have played and continue to play for Texas who are disturbed by this song. It is rather problematic that you claim it to be a “unifying modern practice” without actually bringing in any substantive outside perspective into your narrative.
Let’s begin with your nebulous and contradictory assertion that “absent context, our history and imperfections throughout, merely become a tool for an endless series of recriminations against the practices of men long dead.” This is not only facile, but it also undermines your later argument. The whole point of discussing the potential removal of “The Eyes of Texas” as the school’s alma mater or fans considering no longer singing it is that people have not understood the historical context in which it was created. The current moment is merely the beginning of a long-overdue discussion about it that you clearly demonstrate you’re not willing to undertake.
You go on to assume that your personal, specific narrative is more important than, and thus supersedes, any broader historical context. At the least, you seem to center it because it serves your rhetorical purposes, because it allows you to ignore critical aspects of this conversation.
I’d like to unpack this idea a little bit more before I move on to the equally-contradictory metaphors that you use to bookend your article.
History is not seeking “recriminations” against people who have been dead for a long time — it’s seeking to make sure we don’t carry forward the sins of our forebearers and enact them upon new generations. That much should be obvious. Personal narratives should not outweigh historical realities.
I’ll ignore the sentence fragment you threw in there for reasons I cannot begin to fathom.
Okay, to the metaphors: If the well is poisoned, it doesn’t matter whether or not we want to recognize that it is. The well is poisoned.
Also, where did you pull this notion that finding issue with a song that has an origin in explicitly racist iconography (the minstrel show you later mention and then gloss over, because “historical context” is less important than your personal narrative), is somehow attacking the notion of “progress”? That is a completely spurious allegation, and, from the perspective of someone who has no personal relationship with this particular song, comes out of nowhere. You do, however, go on to use it as the basis of your thesis. The rest of that sentence, well… your rhetorical flourishes do not serve you well in this instance.
Isn’t the Western idea of progress exactly “fleeing an original sin”? Aren’t we all trying to undo the terrible things that have happened in the past, lest they happen again in the future? Isn’t that the entire point of putting things into historical context — to be able to understand their origins, to make sure that we are able to move forward?
Perhaps that is presumptive, but I remain at quite a loss as to why you chose the words that you did, and this strange analogy of a “poisoned well.”
I’m going to jump to the end of your article, where you pull out a random quote from Heraclitus. This is an incredibly bizarre reference, and, once again, it undermines your main thesis.
If things are constantly changing, if the river is always flowing, then we need to be ready to give up on old ideas and old symbols that no longer represent what we have been told they represent. So, based on that idea, based on the analogy which you use at the end of your essay, you should be able to let go of your own personal associations with this song and recognize how uncomfortable it makes Black Americans. Instead, you turn the idea on its head, and say, “Well, we’ve moved on from the original racist connotations because I have a personal connection to this song that I think represents solidarity.”
If the well is, indeed, poisoned, then we need fresh water. Which is the entire point of Heraclitus’s statement — the river is ever-flowing, ever-changing, and we must understand the river at this point in time.
The Eyes of Texas is no longer the same waters in which you waded when you first heard it. In fact, I would venture to say that it was never the waters that you thought it was, and because you did not understand its origins when you gained a personal relationship with it does not change its origins or how it makes Black Americans feel when they hear it. That is the fundamental flaw in your entire thesis and it is the artifice around which you try to build a structure without foundation.
I originally had more to say about how your entire thesis is based around the personal experiences of an impressionable child being indoctrinated into the tribalism of competitive sports, but, you know, I’m going to move on to the ridiculous analogy you use as your centerpiece.
First, though, I cannot simply skip over the section where you talk about the “myth and legend” of Texas as some sort of sacred, shared communal experience, without recognizing that Texas was stolen from Mexico in what was essentially an illegal war perpetrated by one of the worst presidents in American history. Clearly you’re not interested in actually understanding the state of Texas in a historical context, because you would prefer to have that context absent — it doesn’t fit your thesis. The well is poisoned, and you’d rather ignore it than try to clean the water.
“Our school has become increasingly diverse over six decades, but we still sing the same song that was sung by an all-white student body” is what you’re actually saying in this paragraph. Interesting what meanings arise when you strip away unnecessary linguistic flourishes, thus exposing the foundation of the ideas theretofore hidden by a gaudy façade.
Regardless of what “union” you suspect is made forfeiture to your ghosts, those ghosts remain, and they are felt, every single day, by people who do not have the privilege to act as if we have overcome them. We have not. That fact should not be questionable.
If you want to exorcise the ghosts of the past, you do not do it by propping up symbols of that past by claiming that, because of your own narrative, they have lost their original, implicit meaning. You exorcise them by getting rid of them. You do it by boarding up the poisoned well, by finding new sources of water.
The river is not the same as the one in which you waded as a child, before the ghosts of our past were brought forward to us, unmasked, exposed for what they are and what they have long represented, regardless of your own personal interpretation, regardless of the imagined solidarity felt by white people using the language of tokenism in order to continue ignoring their own complacency and lack of understanding of the effects of their actions and the symbols which they prop up with their ill-construed privilege.
But, hey, at least you included an African proverb? I would’ve thrown in a quote from MLK, Jr. just for good measure.
I haven’t even gotten to your bizarre analogy of Imperial Japan, which is a centerpiece of your argument?
Really? I still don’t understand the logic of this at all.
I will not dispute the atrocities perpetrated by Imperial Japan upon the people of China, the people of Malaysia, of Singapore, of Indonesia, the Philippines, and elsewhere in the Pacific Theater. Suffice it to say that I know about the horrors inflicted by the forces of Emperor Hirohito.
I also know that the American Army Air Force left dead or homeless over eight million Japanese civilians before we dropped the bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima. I know that Allied forces, led by the decisions of the Harvard School of Business (including one Robert S. McNamara) had decided that bombing civilian centers was the only way to bring the Axis Powers to their knees (later statistical analysis would show that the bombings of civilian centers had no demonstrable effect on war-time efforts — history doesn’t always line up for us the way we want it to, does it?).
I know that we firebombed every industrial center in Japan, and that we utterly destroyed every last vestige of the “companies” you mention in your article.
Do you want to know why Americans don’t care about that?
First of all, because they have no interest in and no knowledge of what happened in Manchuria, in Bataan, in Borneo, Sumatra, or New Guinea. They do know about Pearl Harbor, and they have been taught about the righteous use of the atomic bombs — which, I daresay, ranks up there as one of the most despicable war crimes in modern history.
The other reason we don’t care is that we completely and totally rebuilt Japan, from scratch, in order to use their steel mills, in order to use their cheap labor, to prop up American industry. We used the companies that we had destroyed as a way to increase our own economic capacity. We allowed the old companies to keep their names so that the Japanese didn’t have to completely lose face, so that we could have American influence in the Pacific theater as we began our Cold War against Soviet Russia and Maoist China.
We used Japan as a proxy, as a giant military and industrial base, and the way we chose to do it was to allow them to keep the names of their old industries, so that they could have a sense of continuous identity, so that they could rebuild into a nation useful as a bulwark against the seemingly sinister advances of the Soviet threat.
We did the same thing in South Korea after the Korean War. Maybe you didn’t know that. History has a way of eliding in weird ways.
Context is important.
I do not understand why you would bring up that analogy as the centerpiece of your argument that we should ignore the formative history of a song with racist connotations. You speak from both sides of your mouth, and the words so formed stumble upon themselves, creating a jumbled din, a muddled sound, fueled by a feigned fury signifying nothing.
In the end, I’m disappointed that you didn’t bother to have a more nuanced response to this issue, which has real significance to many people associated with the University of Texas. Much more thought and care could have gone into the writing of your essay, and, as someone who has spent most of their life trying to understand the importance of language, history, and the symbols we use to control the thought-spaces in which we extrapolate ideas, I find your analysis to be woefully reductive and inherently contradictory. Do not use the elision of ideas to create the illusion of substance; do not hide behind the false facades of rhetorical flourishes.
I would entreat you to speak clearly, to stop ignoring the feelings of Black Americans made uncomfortable by the song, to stop centering your own experiences in this overdue conversation, and to keep an open mind.
Except about Texas A&M — they still suck.
Russell Eberts is the brother of Wescott and provided this guest column by request. Russell is a University of Washington graduate who works in the non-profit sector while continuing to study history and philosophy.