Academic journal article The Western Journal of Black Studies

Spatial Injustice, Texas-Style: Why 'Bigmama Didn't Shop at Woolworth's.'

Academic journal article The Western Journal of Black Studies

Spatial Injustice, Texas-Style: Why 'Bigmama Didn't Shop at Woolworth's.'

Article excerpt

Introduction

Place and memory are, it seems, inevitably intertwined. Memory appears to be a personal thing ... But memory is also social. Some memories are allowed to fade--are not given any kind of support. Other memories are promoted as standing for this and that. One of the primary ways in which memories are constituted is through the production of spaces.

Tim Creswell, Place

In a memorable scene in John Sayles's terrific film Lone Star (1996), a racially diverse group of residents from the border town Frontera debate in the 1980s how to teach Texas history to school children. To some, Texas history is embodied in one place: "Remember the Alamo." Yet, to borrow Cresswell's words, the Alamo stands "for this and that," and others contest its meaning. Throughout the film Sayles plays with the trope of "the Alamo" to reveal a far more complex history than is represented in dozens of popular culture texts, in which swarthy Mexican peons battle outnumbered Euroamericans with democratic ideals. The legends ignore that the battle was fought, largely, because slaveholders increasingly migrated, with their black slaves, into the Mexican borderlands province of Texas in the 1820s, causing Mexico, which completely outlawed slavery after its own war of independence ended in 1821, to attempt to extend that prohibition into Texas. Despite the loss at the Alamo, Texas became a republic and then a slave state with an increasingly large black population, whose history is still under-explored.

In her memoir, Bigmama Didn't Shop at Woolworth's, set in the 1950s and '60s, Sunny Nash remembers not the Alamo but her segregated black neighborhood, Candy Hill, circumscribed by Bryan, Texas, home to Texas A & M, demonstrating Creswell's argument that memory is "constituted through the production of spaces." Offering a sophisticated, contextualized spatial analysis, embedded in history, in which she locates routes to emancipation, Nash makes concrete Adrienne Rich's assertion that we must all "understand how a place on the map is also a place in history" (Rich, 1985, p. 8). She provides the kind of case study from which Edward Soja might have drawn many of his conclusions for his influential Seeking Spatial Justice, published in 2010, in debt to earlier work by Edward Said and David Harvey. The Woolworth's where Nash's grandmother does not shop, is in Bryan, where blacks are unwelcome in restaurants, restrooms, hotels, and dressing rooms, where political decisions about access to public services and infrastructures are made. Bigmama Didn't Shop at Woolworth's is a particularly valuable text because, as Tom Pilkington suggests, "contributions to [Texas] literature by African Americans have been surprisingly sparse" despite their centrality to the state's establishment (1998, p. 166). Nash "remembers" Texas historical spaces previously obscured by mythology. As a character trying to sell souvenirs in the shape of the Alamo says in Lone Star, "nobody buys [that] stuff anymore."

In Seeking Spatial Justice, Soja argues that "space [which he uses interchangeably with 'geography'] is actively involved in generating and sustaining inequality, injustice, economic exploitation, racism, sexism, and other forms of oppression and discrimination" (2010, p. 4). Decrying how her segregated Candy Hill school had to make do with "recycled schoolbooks" from the significantly named Stephen F. Austin school in Bryan, picked "out of the trash," Sunny shows her grandmother Bigmama her "worn sixth-grade geography book," in which several pages "were tom" and a "couple of pages were missing altogether" (Nash, 1996, p. 97). (I will refer to the character within the memoir as Sunny, to the author as Nash.)

Until Bigmama Didn't Shop at Woolworth s, in Texas literary history Candy Hill's geography is one of those missing pages. Nash's memory and her memoir are shaped by geography. She opens with a description of Candy Hill, establishing convoluted and messy spatial injustices as her major subject: "Despite the imagery suggested by the name Candy Hill, in the 1950s there was little that was sweet or playful about the maze of unpaved roads, narrow trails, and mosquito-infested drainage ditches that led to and from the neighborhood's rows of mostly shotgun houses with outdoor toilets" (Nash, 1996, p. …

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