Book Reviews Reviews

Review: Houston Bound – Culture and Color in a Jim Crow City by Tyina Steptoe

by Ahmed H. Sharma
“Employing vivid scholarship and strategic sources on race and ethnicity in Houston through sound, Steptoe successfully proves her vigor as an historian and scholar while simultaneously displaying her skills as a writer.”

Scholarship on the history of Houston, TX is grossly underwritten, despite an abundance of various cultures that inhabit the city, each with their own unique origin story. Tyina Steptoe’s Houston Bound, which examines musical “genres like the blues, jazz, orquesta, zydeco, and soul” in the Greater Houston area and how these styles altered racial subjectivities, beyond a source of entertainment, sets up a compelling narrative. Moreover, Houston Bound asserts why Houston, as a metropolitan city with a rich, albeit fully unexamined history, deserves scholarly recognition.

In an accessible and intriguing way, Steptoe addresses what other historians have lacked in their examination of how blackness and whiteness were defined in the Jim Crow era. Racial segregation during this time affected not just African Americans, but Mexican Americans as well as Creoles of Color (a multi-ethnic group consisting of French, African and Native American). Furthermore, by narrating the “racial subjectivity, spatial negotiations, and [how] cultural practices factored into race formations in the twentieth century migration [to] cities,” Steptoe identifies all three groups and provides the missing link.

According to Steptoe, numerous factors were key in making Houston the melting pot of various cultures at the turn of the 20th century. Ranging from “promises of higher wages in a rapidly industrializing city appealed to the people living in the rural area” to “the outbreak of the Mexican Revolution.” Notwithstanding, Houston was still “a Jim Crow city that legally defined their place in the racial hierarchy.” The influx of multi-ethnic immigrants however, sought to not only challenge these color boundaries, but also contest how they defined themselves in their own racial categories.

Steptoe constructs her assertion into three parts: the first, discusses the history of racial demarcation in various areas of Houston, known as wards, in the 1920s and 1930s. This geographical division was implemented to promote white supremacy, however “cultural practices and consumer economy would develop and become the basis for a host of interracial and interethnic relationships as new groups moved to Houston.” By assigning names for their neighborhoods such as “Frenchtown,” “Freedman’s Town,” or “Segundo Barrio,” migrants asserted how they perceived and solidified themselves in these racial spaces.

In the second part, Steptoe describes the racial hierarchies that were established based on physical characteristics, religious belief, or the inability to speak English. Certain creoles of color could therefore, “pass for white” and individuals of Mexican descent during this time, were categorized as white; much to the chagrin of other racial groups who fluently spoke English. Steptoe contends, “conversations about passing and skin color…surrounding the color line…was the simple fact that the fiction of ‘whiteness’ was ever more difficult to sustain in interwar Houston.”

Finally, the third part of Houston Bound, outlines the utilization of various musical influences that “fostered social ties between different groups, and led to the development of new articulations of race over time.” Though music had limited power, it nonetheless assisted in finding common ground for these various racial groups. Steptoe summarizes perfectly “at its core, Houston Bound is about the multiplicitous, ever-evolving nature of this thing we call race.”

Despite Houston Bound being Steptoe’s first book and an expanded version of her dissertation “Dixie West: Race, Migration and the Color Lines in Jim Crow Houston, 1915-1945”, she does something extraordinary. Employing vivid scholarship and strategic sources on race and ethnicity in Houston through sound, Steptoe successfully proves her vigor as an historian and scholar while simultaneously displaying her skills as a writer. Additionally, the inclusion of contemporary figures like Beyoncé, Chingo Bling in her epilogue illustrate how Houston continues to merge cultural expressions and make Houston Bound a timeless piece.

About the Writer: Ahmed Humble Sharma is an adjunct U.S. History Professor at Northwest Vista College in San Antonio and a Digital Journalist for San Antonio’s NBC and Fox affiliate. He is also a Staff Writer and Chair Member of the South Asian American Advisory for Mr. Sharma’s work on the legacy of African American Muslims in the Houston area has been published in the Houston Press and The Journal of South Texas, respectively. He also holds a Master’s in History from the University of Texas at San Antonio and a Bachelor’s in History from the University of Houston.  

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