- A Polyphonic SouthTyina L. Steptoe on Houston's Racial and Sonic Fluidity
Lightnin' Hopkins rooted his music in Texas geography. Songs like "Rainy Day in Houston," "I Was Standing on 75 Highway," "Houston Bound," and "I Was Down on Dowling Street," a song about Houston's Third Ward where Hopkins often played, give a sense of place to his particular take on the blues. Knowing he is from the state of Texas, or even from the city of Houston, is sometimes not enough. You need to know the Third Ward. That same attention to place informs the essential new work by historian Tyina L. Steptoe, who borrows one of Hopkins's titles for her own. And that kind of interplay between sonic expression and geographic specificity characterizes the methodologies that drive this fascinating book. With a chronological focus spanning the 1920s through the 1960s, Steptoe interrogates Houston's ever-evolving categories of racial subjectivities by considering the historical sounds produced within the city's physical and cultural geographies. This valuable addition to the historiography builds on the literature of race, ethnicity, and migration as well as the growing scholarship on the musical construction of race. Weaving together oral history interviews (some conducted by the author), census data, high school yearbooks, and especially musical recordings, Steptoe amasses a creative source base to tell intimate stories within the broader history of what is today the fourth most populous city in the United States.
The use of musical sources also allows Steptoe to make her most important intervention. In Houston Bound, musical expressions do not simply reflect the city's racial diversity. Music is the cultural tool with which race is made and remade. As the legal regime of Jim Crow sought to reduce the city's diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds into the repressive binary of black and white, music offered the counterevidence to white supremacy's overly simplistic renderings. In short, the history of [End Page 200] Houston's music is the history of complex racial formations and migration patterns. Steptoe wants us to hear that complexity in order to better understand the intersection of race and locality in the South and the way that history impacted U.S. culture over the twentieth century.
Free black Texans began migrating to Houston from the surrounding plantation areas quickly after emancipation, establishing pockets of black economic and cultural autonomy. Thanks to economic opportunities in the city, environmental disasters along the Mississippi River, and increased violence in Mexico, Houston emerged as the destination city for an increasingly diverse set of migrants in the first three decades of the twentieth century. By the 1930s, Cajuns and Creoles of color from southwestern Louisiana, Tejanos from south Texas, and Mexicans from south of the Rio Grande joined black Texans in Houston. Ironically, the binary logic of segregation meant that phenotypically light-skinned Creole children went to school with black Texans while ethnic Mexicans went to white schools, although often attending separate classes. Such color distinctions perpetually complicated Jim Crow's racial divisions. African Americans of all phenotypes wrestled with the politics of passing and colorism in a segregated city while the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) pushed Mexican identity as an ethnicity rather than a racial distinction in order to claim the privileges of whiteness. Steptoe demonstrates the role of sound in racial constructions here through the example of Inez Prejean, a Creole woman, whose French accent and light skin tone allowed her to pass both sonically and visually as something other than black.
Steptoe introduces music slowly in her narrative, dropping in details about the work songs of black laborers, the corridos sung by Mexican migrants, and the Creole "la-la" music that arrived in Houston as each successive wave of migrants settled into their respective spaces throughout the city. But segregation could not uphold a musical color line, and these sonic traditions blended with each other in Houston's social and religious spaces. In the 1930s and 1940s, African American and...