On the Move?
Writer-at-large Don Graham on writing about the Confederate statues at the University of Texas at Austin.
texasmonthly.com: Who’s calling for the University of Texas at Austin to rid itself of the statues in question?
Don Graham: I don’t know. It’s just that from time to time, there’s a story in the press that the administration has received complaints about the statues. The number of complaints and the identity of those complaining are never cited.
texasmonthly.com: What compelled you to write this piece? Considering the issue has been ongoing for some time, why now?
DG: The main reason was that I had never really looked at the statues before. I had never read the inscriptions or gone into the backgrounds of their origins, and then there was this proposal to move them and replace them with presumably more suitable figures. That story, in the Alcalde, is what prompted me to write the piece.
texasmonthly.com: A professor of the famous UT course Life and Literature of the Southwest, which originated with J. Frank Dobie, you’ve written several books covering Texas, including a recent anthology titled Literary Austin. How have your areas of interest prepared you to write this piece?
DG: Well, I’ve been on the campus for a long time and I’ve read a good deal about UT, but there are always things to learn. For example, I teach in Parlin Hall, but it wasn’t until I put together the materials for Literary Austin that I had ever read anything about Hanson Tufts Parlin, for whom the building is named. Also a recent collection of essays on UT, The Texas Book, edited by Richard Holland, is very useful and stimulating in thinking about the historicity of the place where I work.
texasmonthly.com: How do you respond to Gary Bledsoe’s remarks regarding the statues’ overall symbolism?
DG: Gary Bledsoe’s insistence that the statues say that slavery was okay is, I believe, an oversimplification of local history. Slavery was not okay, and everybody knows that today, except for fringe nuts, like the Holocaust deniers.
texasmonthly.com: Besides memorializing Martin Luther King Jr. and soon Barbara Jordan, has the university taken other positive steps to address the Southern problem?
DG: There’s a Heman Sweatt conference held every year; that would be another step. There may be others that I am not aware of.
texasmonthly.com: On the topic of replacement statues, you suggest the late Américo Paredes, a Mexican American author and UT professor of English and anthropology. What are your criteria for naming him?
DG: One thing that often gets overlooked at UT is the faculty, and I thought that in all this excitement about nominating new figures for new statues, the least we could do is have a faculty member represented. Without the faculty, I presume there would be no university, but I might be wrong. At any rate, Paredes was a pioneering scholar of Mexican American culture and a distinguished writer as well.
texasmonthly.com: Because “cherry-picking of the historical record makes everybody vulnerable,” will there ever be a public figure whom everyone agrees merits memorializing?