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Old Texas

All the old cotton towns of central Texas have the same forlorn look. Navasota, Bryan, Hearne, and Calvert sprawl across stretches of dry, sandy coastal plain. Like a memory trapped in its own fading consciousness, none of these places can hope to escape the weight of slave history, or the immutable force of the plantations that ruled here well after the end of the Civil War.

You can smell cotton bolls in the heat of late summer, and hear the creak of old wagons moving down rutted roads to the gin at Independence. Cotton growing takes a lot of water, and vast amounts of pesticide to keep the weevils off. The earth is salty and bitter, good for nothing else but cotton. Stunted trees line the immense fields following the wandering path of a creek or an irrigation ditch.

The courthouse dominates the center of town with its painted metal columns and intimidating halls lined with frosted-glass doors bearing the names of lawyers who inherited their jobs from their fathers and grandfathers. Everyone born here absorbs the past through their skin, the talk at dinner tables, the pervasive, toxic emotions of race that come with daily life. There might be a brief period of childhood in which one is innocent and open-minded, but that closes as one gets to Middle School and discovers the ruthless etiquette of the cafeteria and the playground, the strict limits of freedom imposed by those who guard the turf “for their own kind.” Society is limited to one’s own race. Whatever budding friendship may have begun on a scrap of farmland between blacks and whites dies away, almost painlessly.

As you enter Hearne on Highway 6, an old cotton railhead, diners and fast food joints line one side, and on the other, hulks of rusting tin warehouses throw their skimpy shade onto the railroad tracks. The cotton cars are not as abundant these days; now oil depots stand in their own black shadows of oil-soaked earth, with thick hoses hung in the air by pulleys and guy wires ready to load up oil cars strung together for half a mile. Oil for Dallas, Fort Worth, Tyler, “rose capital of the world,” Euless, Waxahachie, where a cyclotron was being built until Congress killed the funding.

You get the feeling there’s no energy left in these towns. No one has a new idea or a vision of the future. The feed store is here for good; so is the lumberyard, the car repair, the mom and pop grocery, the liquor store. Those who graduate from high school may have dreams of leaving but by the time such a choice presents itself, it’s usually too late. One gets married, starts a family, buys a house, goes into debt. It’s different for blacks, who grow up under the scrutiny of the sheriff’s deputies, and some find trouble early in their teen years. Their education is cut short by a stretch at a juvenile detention center, and if lucky, find a menial job somewhere and eke out a subsistence living. Black girls find work cleaning rooms at the two or three motels, or serving lunch at the diners. They don’t have much of a chance of succeeding; they see their own fathers and uncles loafing in front of the feed store, laboring for the railroad, or shining shoes at the barbershop.

When time stops, everything grows heavy and gathers dust. Nothing is outdated or discarded, merely placed on a shelf or in a filing cabinet. Everyone has a long memory and can cite events that were unimportant three generations before. The porch talk is still about the way things were. The musty air of certain dining rooms adds to the feeling of entrapment, a Proustian world of moldy subjectivity. The children are not grown until they can participate in those conversations about a certain obscure hero or a relation that bore some faint connection to a Civil War colonel.

Just at daybreak, the ranchers begin their day eating a southern breakfast of hot cakes and bacon, thin coffee, and talk over the day’s news. Their hats are on, their yoked shirts stretch over broad, muscular backs. One or two black farmers may be among them; they wear gimme caps with Cargill or Purina stitched on them. The barriers of black-white relations are lowered in such places. You need only go to the barbershop to find the adamant grip of apartheid as tight as ever – the same ranchers sprawl on metal chairs waiting for a trim while an elderly black man shines up boots at his stand in the corner.

In Bryan, where I lived for many years while I taught courses at Texas A&M, racial separation had not changed much in a hundred and fifty years. Blacks have a certain stoop-shouldered way of walking, as if their spirits were broken. Whites are tall and loud, and dominate the restaurants. A few Latinos have elbowed their way into the professional classes and dine at the local Mexican café. Back in the 1950s, a room next to the Episcopal church was reserved for whipping black men caught on the streets after the six o’clock curfew. It’s there now, painted, with a lowered ceiling and used for church socials.

The poorest black neighborhoods are concentrated in the lowlands at the north end of town, where the creeks rise quickly in the rainy season and flood the streets. Many of these oddly shaped houses were once slave quarters at the back of plantations dragged here when developers began to build tract houses after World War II. It’s a wonderland of home-made architecture, crazy stove pipes dangling from a window, painted stones, bottle trees, mangy dogs tied up to the fence post. The frail, skeletal bodies of old women can be seen lounging on broken porches; boys mill around in the muddy yards, and girls gather in bright dresses with nowhere to go. At night, you hear rap music in a bedroom, the hum of mosquitoes, the croak of frogs.

On higher ground, where whites have moved away, blacks take over and transform a sterile suburban culture of lawn sprinklers and humming compressors into a communal world of neighborhood parties, football week-ends out on the grass, with the TV propped up on a work table and a wash tub full of cold beer. The women cook and the kids romp around and knock over whatever is in the way, and no one seems to mind. But it all occurs as if on a blank page, while Anglos attend to their separate affairs.

The Latinos have their barrios and suburban fringes. Each year a festival is organized and hundreds show up, with mariachi bands, piñatas hung on trees, rides for the toddlers, food stalls crammed with pots of menudo, tortillas, bowls of guacamole. But Anglos are seldom seen there.

The past lives on in antique stores in Navasota to the south, Bryan, and Calvert to the north, where a 19th century way of life is enshrined in brass spittoons, boot pullers, Victorian settles, quilt hangers, old rifles, bed warmers, needlework shawls, faded parasols, the implements of an Anglo culture that once thrived on the slave economy. That world would be strangely familiar to South Africans, Indians during the Raj, any other colonial people who endured the European empires.

The modern world creeps inexorably toward this fossilized heart of the state, and replaces one shack or tumbled-down farmhouse with a blazing island of gas pumps and a convenience store. No one can quite figure out how to stop or slow down the ravages of the future; the streets are paved and widened, cop cars roam through the back streets looking for trouble, malls cast a pale glow into the night sky as a sign that the Old Texas is slowly burning to the ground. It’s not a future anyone would wish, with its box stores and all-night supermarkets. But it’s the only force yet that can overpower even the most resistant town. Wal-Mart dissolves everything in its path, and leaves behind vast parking lots and halogen floodlights. Even so, it will be another century before this sour, embittered part of Texas is finally gone.

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© 2014 by Paul Christensen