Our frontier heritage and white privilege

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 154 views 

An academic approach to heritage begins with the understanding that “heritage” is not equivalent to history or historical facts. Rather, heritage is an appropriation of the past that is used for present-day purposes.

It is from this vantage point that I research Fort Smith’s use of its frontier history to promote the present day tourist trade. It turns out that what is often popularly said and widely repeated about Fort Smith’s frontier past does not square with historical facts when put in context.

The veracity of tourist tropes such as the military fort being put here in 1817 to “keep the peace between the Indians,” or that Judge Parker took civilization to the so-called Five Civilized Tribes, or that “Miss Laura’s girls had it pretty good,” quickly become suspect upon closer examination. The same holds true for stories told about Bass Reeves and Belle Starr. What is interesting to me as an anthropologist is the disconnection between heritage narratives and historical context. Why are they so different from one another and what does that difference tell us about the present?

It is my contention that the way in which stories of Bass Reeves are told today reveals more to us about contemporary notions of race than it does about the nineteenth century Reeves. I believe Reeves truly led an exceptional life and is worthy of recognition and the monument on Garrison Avenue. An African American man born into slavery, who led a full career as a lawman in the nineteenth century – and lived into his 70s, is a remarkable American story that should be known and commemorated. Early research on Reeves written by Daniel Littlefield and Nudie Williams portrays a complex character in a difficult situation. However, more recent publications on Reeves, namely by or inspired by Art Burton have leaned heavily toward hyperbole, are prone to aggrandizement, and subsequently construct a mythical portrait of an “Invincible Marshal.”

These stories of Reeves include claims that he was an illiterate lawman who served over 3,000 arrest warrants, some now claim up to 4,000, and that he was the basis for the super-hero figure of the Lone Ranger. Even the prominent African American sociologist, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. has reinforced this narrative. Amazing as the life of Bass Reeves truly was, I am here to say there is simply no historical grounds for these mythic claims. But, what is most interesting to me here as a social anthropologist is: why do these stories resonate? 

The claim that Reeves served over 3,000 writs is now ubiquitous. You can see it in writing on Garrison Avenue at the Bass Reeves monument and on the wall of Garrison Pointe convenience store, and in virtually every published piece on Reeves. However, this figure has not been confirmed by historical research, but rather stems from a 1901 article that claimed that Reeves said he served 3,000 writs, which has never been documented. Estimates grounded in known arrest patterns fall short of that figure.

Art Burton created the idea that Reeves was the basis for the Lone Ranger in his 2006 book “Black Gun, Silver Star.” Burton prefaced his remarks by calling this a “tenuous” connection. Since then the story has been told so many times, without caveat, that it has become a social fact. The derivation of the Lone Ranger story more likely stems from Zane Grey’s 1916 novel “Lone Star Ranger,” which was dedicated to Captain John Hughes, a real-life Texas Ranger. The popular 1920 film portrayal of Zorro by Douglas Fairbanks proved the public had an appetite for such a heroic figure. So, it is no surprise that a more Americanized version, the Lone Ranger, was born shortly after.

I contend that the popular Reeves narrative plays with the historical facts to make his story more palatable for a predominantly white audience. In contrast, I posit that Reeves was at least functionally literate, and that he was passing as illiterate as a way of negotiating his status as an African American in a highly racialized and racist environment. Insisting that he was illiterate in today’s narrative heightens the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps,” “if you just work hard enough you can accomplish anything,” narratives, and fundamentally negates the significant obstacles to being successful that are created by the institutionalized racism faced by Reeves and other African Americans, then and now.

A clue as to why the narrative about Reeves is told this way comes from his 1910 Muskogee Phoenix obituary: “Black-skinned, illiterate, offspring of slaves whose ancestors were savages, this old man’s life stands white and pure alongside some of our [corrupt] present-day officials… Bass Reeves would not have served under such a regime. Black though he was he was too white for that.”

Too white? He was black enough to be stripped of his deputy position in 1907 when Oklahoma became a state and enacted its first law segregating whites from blacks.

Insisting Reeves was an illiterate writ-serving lawman creates a symbolic figure of whiteness, a role-model of subservience to the white power structure. It ensures us that he is not-quite-white, in the same way that “civilized tribes” deprives Indian Nations of full inclusion. I suggest Reeves is presented this way because he has to be – to make him less threatening. African American advocates for promoting the Reeves narrative in particular, know all too well that they must continue to negotiate his identity in a palatable manner today, just as Reeves did by passing for illiterate when he was alive.

Coincidentally, I began my research on Fort Smith’s cultural heritage tourism when from August through November of 2009, there appeared a series of newspaper articles in The City Wire, the Times Record, and the Lincoln Echo regarding former City Director Bill Maddox’s “one master” comment that he pointed at Director of Sanitation, Baridi Nkokheli during a city board meeting. Maddox enflamed the situation in subsequent weeks leading to a sustained and highly racialized public discourse. I do not bring up this incident to rehash its details, but to point out a contradiction in Fort Smith, a racial paradox in the city that I observed at the time.

While the “one master” debacle played out, Nkokheli portrayed Reeves at public events to promote the fundraising campaign for the Reeves monument. I attended several of those events and was struck by the irony that so long as Nkokheli donned his Bass Reeves attire, he was veiled from the racist discourse happening at the time and admired by the largely all-white crowds. The puzzling question became: how could the people of Fort Smith hold these two very different perspectives toward Nkokheli/Reeves at the same time? It took me several years to process this question and contextualize it within the local and national discourses on race.

While ultimately taking a stand against Maddox’s comments, The Times Record and The City Wire echoed sentiments of Henry Grady’s rebranding campaign of the “New South.” The Times Record said, “Right now Fort Smith doesn’t look like the model city we need to be marketing if we want sustained economic development.” The City Wire noted, “If we don’t have a solid public position against such lapses in judgment, we risk losing the types of creative and entrepreneurial minds that come from all categories of humans.” I argue that in the collective way in which Fort Smith talks about race, from the way Bass Reeves is remembered in tourist discourses, to how Nkokheli was treated by the public at large over the 10 weeks this event played out, is a subtle manifestation of white privilege.

Most people are unaware of white privilege and when called on it react with accusations of, “don’t lay your white-guilt trip on me,” or “stop with your political correctness,” but, white privilege is neither. Hard as I may work, for example, I know that my life has been relatively easy – simply because I am white. If one small thing about me were different, my skin color, my life would be radically different, and far more difficult – that is white privilege.

It turns out that Mr. Nkokheli and I have a few things in common: both of our fathers served in the Air Force, and both married and began a family in the late 1950s. In other words, we were born into very similar social conditions all but for one thing, skin color. That one difference led to Nkokheli’s family story being that his father was murdered by his fellow LAPD police officers on Nov. 25, 1963; my father has led a full life. When Nkokheli performs as Reeves he resurrects two African American lawmen. Indeed, both Sgt. Henry Wesley Kellough and U. S. Deputy Marshal Bass Reeves should be remembered for their public service and sacrifices performed under very challenging circumstances.

Exaggerating claims of Reeves’ career may sell books, movie ideas, and lure predominantly white tourists to Fort Smith, but it does not do justice to the African American experience, to the injustices of the past, or of the present. Furthermore, we must remember the popular Reeves narrative is told alongside the tropes of the military fort “keeping the peace between the Indians” and Judge Parker “taking civilization to the civilized tribes.”

Taken as a whole, these narratives fundamentally legitimate the spoils of manifest destiny – one of the greatest grants of white privilege in American history.