Books

State of Contradictions

Lawrence Wright paints an intimate, nuanced portrait of Texas. If only he had been willing to look harder at its racial dynamics.

David Adickes' Sam Houston statue, as seen south of Huntsville, Texas, on May 4, 2004.
David Adickes’ Sam Houston statue, as seen south of Huntsville, Texas, on May 4, 2004.
Steve Ueckert/AP Photo/Houston Chronicle

Right off I-45—the interstate highway located entirely within the state of Texas—and about 65 miles north of Houston, there’s a large statue of the city’s namesake. To be precise, it’s massive, as most things in Texas tend to be: “The Tribute to Courage” looms 67 feet over the highway. Against the green monotony of the journey down to Houston, the white concrete statue looks decidedly alien. Still, the familiar profile of Sam Houston in his 19th-century statesman clothes and walking cane is surely a welcome sight to many road-weary travelers making the pilgrimage to what was once the state capital. On the plaque at Houston’s feet is a warning to Texan leaders to come: “Govern wisely, and as little as possible.”

Houston the politician, but also the city, embodies the paradox of Texas. You would be hard-pressed to find someone, beside Willie Nelson, more proudly claimed by Texans, yet the state was his chosen home rather than his native one. A protégé of fellow Tennessean Andrew Jackson, Houston served as governor of that state before a catastrophic romance led him to flee to Indian Country, where he found an indigenous wife and became a Cherokee citizen. According to Lawrence Wright’s new sprawling memoir-cum-guidebook God Save Texas: A Journey into the Soul of the Lone Star State, “like so many with shipwrecked ambitions, [Houston then] headed to the Mexican colony of Texas to make a new start,” where he soon found himself “leading a kind of rebel mob that called itself an army.” The moment that launched Sam Houston to Texan icon status came at the battle of San Jacinto where, in a classic David vs. Goliath moment, he managed to land a decisive victory against the better-equipped Mexican army. In 18 minutes, the founding mythology of Texas was forged.

In my mandatory Texas history class in seventh grade, I spent months learning about Houston’s victory over Antonio López de Santa Anna at San Jacinto, and about his two terms as president of the nascent Republic of Texas. I learned about the Alamo and watched that terrible 2004 rendition staring Dennis Quaid as Houston, one Wright deems Texas’ “creation myth.” I learned about the Battle of Gonzales and the “Come and take it” slogan that has become the motto of gun advocates across the country.

What I didn’t learn until college was that the Texas Revolution was largely fought over slavery. Or that Houston himself owned slaves, while simultaneously voting against the spread of the institution to new territories of the United States during his 13 years as senator. Or that, on the eve of Texas’ split from the Union, Houston implored his fellow Texans to ignore the “propagandists and demagogues [who] fanned the clamor for secession with deluded visions of victory.” As Wright notes, before he was evicted as governor, Houston, ever the populist, asked, “Are we ready to sell reality for a phantom?” With the affectionate and dry intimacy of a native, Wright’s God Save Texas deftly illustrates how that question has come to define Texas, and how that question will come to define America.

God Save Texas is a searing indictment of the cruel partisanship that is, along with oil, Texas’ main export. But it’s also a tender defense of the beauty of “a culture that is still raw, not fully formed … dangerous and magnificent in its potential.” It is both an apologia for the past and a roadmap for the future of the state—a roadmap that ranges as far and wide as the West Texas plains. Over the past few decades, Texas has grown at a staggering pace. The only state with more residents is California, but Texas’ population is expected to approach California and New York’s combined by 2050. The state’s gross domestic product is $1.6 trillion; if it were an independent country today, Wright says, its economy “would settle in around tenth, eclipsing Canada and Australia.” Between 2000 and 2016, job growth rose 31 percent in Houston and Dallas, three times higher than the rate in Los Angeles. Every decade, Texas gains more and more congressional seats and electoral votes, and it’s currently the nation’s largest red state. Throughout 14 chapters, Wright charts the complicated history of his state while also laying out a vision for how Texas will shape the future of the country—for better or worse.

Trump won the state by 9 percentage points and the electoral map mirrored that of the rest of the country: a sea of red with city-islands of blue. Yet more than half of the state’s population growth since 2010 can be attributed to Latinos, and despite the ultra-conservative legislating body, the state’s demographics suggest that Texas should be as reliably blue as California. Governor-hopeful Wendy Davis observed that “Texas is not a red state. It’s a nonvoting blue state.” The rest of the country—and especially the Democratic Party—has a lot to learn from Texas, but Wright notes that the lessons aren’t as negative as liberals assume. “One can’t be from Texas and fail to have encountered the liberal loathing for Texanness, even among people who have never visited the place,” he writes. “They detect an accent, a discordant political note, or a bit of a swagger, and outraged emotions begin to flow.”

That liberal loathing is in part born out of an unwillingness to acknowledge that Texas is not the red-state caricature it’s made out to be; it’s in as much a state of contradiction as America overall. It’s a place of boom or bust. Houston is the largest American city to elect (and re-elect) an openly lesbian mayor; it settles 25 of every 1,000 United Nation refugees. But it’s also a low-tax haven with a crippled safety net that makes the state extraordinarily cruel to under-resourced people. And it is, in Wright’s words, a “macho state,” one that can be fairly blamed for fostering “a sort of loathing of compassion, as manifested in our schools, our prisons, our mental health facilities and our lack of concern for the environment.”

Wright is at his strongest when excavating a specific Texas mythos that exemplifies and reconciles these contradictions. As with his previous books The Looming Tower and Going Clear, he has a great talent for at once characterizing broad systemic forces and making them intensely personal. In God Save Texas, his most compelling chapters feel less like a testament to his reportage than to his skills as a cultural analyst and as an autobiographer. “Far West, Far Out” and “The High Lonesome” are lovely ruminations on the existential loneliness of the plains of West Texas and the art that that emptiness produces—it’s impossible to read without a yearning for wide-open space lodging itself in your ribcage.

“Culture, Explained” lays out Wright’s theory of cultural development, which he breaks down into three levels. A fledgling society, closed off from the bigger world, might start at the first level, which Wright describes as a “primitive template.” Level One Texas is the Texas most outsiders know, the cowboys and Tex-Mex and nasal twangs. A culture arrives at Level Two, a “stage of sophisticated imports,” once it turns its eyes toward other societies to see what they have to offer; as an example, Wright points to the architectural sameness of Austin’s downtown office buildings. Level Three is the point at which a society turns back inward and returns to its cultural roots “with knowledge, self-confidence, and occasionally forgiveness” while also picking and choosing the best of other cultures. Examples of transcendental Level Three cultural works that Wright gives includes Beyoncé’s Lemonade and Alvin Ailey’s Revelations—two black Texans who, upon fleeing the state, found that its culture still permeated their art.

And this, regrettably, is where Wright falters. The fact that two of his examples of transcendental culture are imbued with blackness seems to escape his notice—as does his state’s rejection of that blackness. Between his moments of sharp and intimate clarity, there is a parallel blindness around race. There is no doubt that Wright knows Texas, but what is also clear is that he knows a specific Texas, a specific America. God Save Texas treats the contradictions of life as a Texan of color—the prospering immigrant communities of Houston contrasted against the racial inequality that defines the Dallas metroplex, the rampant xenophobia in a state that relies so heavily on cheap migrant labor—as incidental to the state, rather than as the result of deeply held prejudice that is as integral to the state’s founding credo as “cowboy individualism.”

That same individualism creates what Wright considers tolerance in places like Dallas, but is really just exceptionalism. The individualism that is central to Texas’ mythos allowed white people I grew up with to simultaneously consider me a friend while dehumanizing black people as whole. In one of my last years in Texas, I sat in a biology class taught by a teacher who had written me a letter of recommendation for my college applications. We were reviewing for AP/IB exams when the subject of genetic diseases came up. I asked him why African Americans were statistically more likely to be born with sickle cell anemia. He replied, “Karma.” The prospect that blackness apparently deserved karmic retribution didn’t apply to me because, to him, I was different. And to be honest, at the time, the statement didn’t faze me. After six years in the state, I was inured to the particularities of Texan racism. Divergence from whiteness was tolerable as long as I simultaneously diverged from whatever stereotypes they held of me. I was different, I was assured over and over. What I was different from was largely left unsaid.

Wright passingly acknowledges that a lot of the fear that animates Texas’ ever-rightward shift is predicated on two ideas: that undeserving black and brown people will live lavishly off of hardworking white folks’ tax dollars, and that the white evangelical stranglehold on Texas politics will disappear as the state continues to diversify. Yet he rarely does it in his own voice, relying repeatedly on people like Texas Tribune founder Evan Smith or Texas state Rep. Garnet Coleman to excavate the truth of the state: almost every animating issue in Texas politics can be squarely traced back to race. Over and over again, I found myself getting frustrated at Wright’s inability—or unwillingness—to analyze race and the ways in which it so clearly defines Texas’ future. And it’s unfortunate that this is where he stumbles. The culture that Wright describes—the maligned root of so much of American culture overall—is one that black people know all too well.