Wednesday, July 23, 2008


(Susannah Dickinson)

On Saturday night of the Netroots Nation conference, a big crowd of us (because of Sara's brilliant idea) went to Threadgill's to eat and then attend the Austin Lounge Lizards concert in the beer garden outside the front door. We had an EXTREMELY good time, no holds barred.

Afterward, rather than have me (with my Chair Whisperer Lower Manhattanite) try to negotiate the obstacle-strewn streets of downtown Austin back to the Hilton in my power chair, Sara urged us to find out if the local cab service offered a van that would transport a big chair like mine. Yellow Cab said they had two in service, both of them currently in use but we were put in their queue. We then had a long wait outside the front door at Threadgill's, during which time an earnest young man on their staff checked in on our cab's status no less than three times and came to give us updates. Austin friendly...

The minivan, when it arrived, loaded my chair via a ramp into a lowered back well, a single slot with more protection and belting than I've experienced being transported in a chair. My four companions claimed seats in front of me. I was exhausted beyond speech, and facing another cab ride home, walking into my house unassisted, and retracing those steps in the morning after, at best, five hours' sleep. Even so, my mind was racing.

We got stuck in a construction zone for a while on 4th Street next to Brush Square, and directly outside my window was a historical marker indicating in the tree-filled park beyond was the home of Susanna Dickinson. I was flooded with emotion. I wanted to share this with my companions, but, first of all, the layout of the wheelchair van meant I'd have to shout forward to be heard. Second, if you are not a Texan of a certain age, how to explain the significance of Susanna Dickinson?

Susanna was inside the Alamo. She had gone inside the soon-to-be-surrounded mission with her husband Almeron Dickinson, who had joined a group of volunteers fighting for Texan independence from Mexico. She and her baby daughter were the only white survivors, and they were saved only by the direct intervention of General Juan Almonte. Other survivors include Enrique Esparza, eight-year-old son of Alamo defender Gregorio Esparza, and Joe (no other name known), slave of Colonel William Barrett Travis. The eyewitness accounts of Susanna, Joe and Enrique, the first two of whom were illiterate, gave us most of what we know about what happened inside the Alamo. For a complete list of survivors and accounts, see Survivors of the Alamo.

Susana hid in the chapel, where she was discovered by Almonte. As he escorted her to an audience with General Santa Anna, she was shot in the leg by a soldier because final mop-up was still going on. She was questioned extensively by Santa Anna, who offered to adopt her baby. I can only imagine her terror and confusion. Eventually, she was released with a note written by Santa Anna to be delivered to San Houston. Dickinson and a few companions retreated to Gonzales, where the families of other Alamo defenders were awaiting news. Dickinson was who had to inform them everyone else was dead, their bodies burned in a mass funeral pyre. With Santa Anna's army headed their way, Gonzales and its environs had to flee in what is known at the Runaway Scrape. It appears that Dickinson was not emotionally stable during this time, likely not able to process what she had just lived through, not to mention the loss of her husband whom she had genuinely loved.

Joe's last name seems to exist in no record. Most accounts seem to indicate he escaped to freedom, and presumably he was reluctant after that to draw attention to himself by asserting his claim as an Alamo survivor. But it is of course racism that also contributes to his lesser-known status as an Alamo informant. As a child growing up, I never heard reference to Joe, or to little Enrique Esparza. To admit that Mexican citizens fought alongside the "heroes" of the Alamo would have contradicted the white vs. brown association of the battle.

Susanna Dickinson was revered all her life as the Alamo Widow. However, she was repeatedly denied any sort of compensation or benefits by the Republic and later the State of Texas, with claims of financial hardship on the part of the Republic and the argument that if they gave her assistance, they'd have to help everyone else who suffered losses during the war. This might hold water if I did not have in my possession a grant of handsome reimbursement to my ancestor Brinkley Davis, a large landowner in Limestone County, Texas during the Texas revolution, for his contribution of "beeves" to the army. Brinkley needed the money far less than Susanna did.

In desperation, she went through a series of three marriages, to men who beat her and her daughter, were alcoholics, and divorced her when she became associated with a house of ill repute. Her fifth and final marriage turned out to be stable and happy. However, her daughter Angelina, another idolized Alamo survivor who was likewise denied financial assistance, died young from hemorrhage of the uterus while working as a prostitute.

This story reminds me of how George W. Bush consistently withholds meaningful aid to the institutions and groups to whom he pays the most patriotic lip-service. Indeed, his trashing of the National Guard and veterans in general is nothing short of pathological. In the Right's world, active duty and honor is for those too dumb and poor to know better. Survivors are not as admirable as those who die for the cause. And the families left behind are not our concern. I swear to god, I want this brought up every single time any talking head refers to the Republicans as the party of family values.

There we were, progressives and revolutionaries meeting for four days within hollering distance of the home of Susanna Dickinson. She could have told us worlds about the consequences of eliminationist rhetoric, about the reality of immigrants who steal territory from sovereign nations (which Texas did perpetrate upon Mexico, hence our projection and paranoia), about the status as property or shadow beings accorded women, children, and people of color.

A recent series on PBS has been The War of the World by Niall Ferguson. In the last episode, concerning the period after World War II when superpowers engaged in so-called Cold War, he pointed out that 20 million people died in battles during the Cold War which were not considered a real war. Overwhelmingly, these have been ethnic assaults, genocide in the name of nation-building, occurring at the edges of empire: A perfect description of Iraq now. And it applies equally well to Texas in the 1830s.

Sara Robinson and I, in a later discussion, agreed that we have to abandon the linearity of Left, Right, and Center. We need to completely reframe not just our/their rhetoric, but also the ways in which our brains envision what we are about, we here in this great electronic conversation about hope and change. Consider it as a spiral, a cochlear unwinding (or tightening) which we travel, always very close to one another no matter much we claim disagreement, and likewise separated from all the lessons of time by only a thin membrane. There is power and confidence in such a stance.

1 comment:

letsdance said...

I never fail to learn from you, Maggie. Bless you!