Ramblings Re: Hamilton, Founding Fathers Fandom, and Myth as a Framework(?)

As a self-professed fan of Hamilton and Lin-Manuel Miranda as well as conscious public historian, I feel obliged to love Hamilton in all its problematic essence. Reviewing it as a case study through this lens of myth, nostalgia, and memory, I’m less curious as a work of “escapist fiction” Allen presents than as a “liberal incremental piece of art” Noonan writes about.

I’m reminded this week of the talk by Rebecca Onion (1:04:55) and a subsequent article, in which she discussed on decontextutalized history on the internet. Onion, who spends a lot of time on the Internet focused on crap history and virality, used the article to discuss the emotional connections to history –  particularly the sexual, LGB nature of the founding father fandom on Tumblr.

Onion received a lot of flak from the fandom on which she writes, most notably this bit from publius-esquire:

Rebecca Onion: No amount of stealing my fanart and taking it out of contextualization, or making fun of LGBT+ people for writing queer historical fiction (which you never would have done had people been writing straight ships) will ever erase the fact that I’ve spent hundreds of hours reading dozens upon dozens of books, and know more on this subject than you ever will.

So, as we say in the serious academia world, eat me.

The fans, many of whom are quoted or referenced in the article, took  issue with Onion’s portrayal of their work as just fans. Many of these bloggers are active amateur historians or grad students in history; many were performing this type of fandom long before Hamilton ever came along. Many thought that Onion failed to mention that it was these complexities of the Founding Fathers and their contemporaries – not so much in Founders Chic fashion, but in the sense of reclaiming these narratives – that made their work important. And her framing of Hamilton and founding father fandom in relation to crap history made it difficult to view her taking this type of myth-making (or un-mythmaking) seriously.

Transitioning from Onion to Monteiro: I struggled with Monteiro’s piece ever since I first read it last spring – partly because its critiques are accurate. It’s fair to say that slavery doesn’t function actively within Hamilton; it’s fair to say that it actively erases the presence of people of color in Revolutionary America. I might even go further to say that the feminism the show has been associated with has also fallen short.

But I also think that Monteiro fails to recognize some aspects of the story – that critiquing the casting of Eliza Hamilton as “white-passing” and her Broadway stile fails to recognize that this is one particular cast and presentation of the story that has not been carried throughout the production; that the “colorblind casting” of Hamilton’s character actually choses to emphasize an aspect of Hamilton’s ethnicity and the early discrediting around his origins,  that the expanded Hamilton universe (most obviously, the mixtape) starts to unpack the question… Thinking of Miranda’s intentions with this story as a concept album rather than a Broadway performance, Monteiro’s criticisms of the show point more to the issue of medium in presentation rather than diving into the stories itself.

But linking Monteiro’s essay with The Atlantic’s re: the Supreme Court, I wonder if her final question is true. If we see Hamilton and the story of America’s founding as fundamental to understanding the politics and interpretations of the structures through which politics in this country operate, isn’t it entirely important that we understand these processes of myth making and reallocation of ownership of the republic? Doesn’t asking us to acknowledge Hamilton’s origin story as a Caribbean “immigrant” and to view his experience through this lens start to challenge the ways in which we look at race relations in this century? And could it be said that if founding father fandom has started using these histories as a way to raise awareness around these other types of histories, Even if we’re interested as historians in chipping away “at the exclusive past typified by the cult of the founders,” doesn’t Hamilton and the physical presence of people of color on the stage start to create a default experience of the ways in which we view history? Hamilton doesn’t try to celebrate the real histories of people and color, but it is showing ways in which we can challenge the faith in history that has been created in public environments.

I don’t feel qualified to answer these questions, or even to propose them – because, to be fair, I’m a) very conscious of the fact that I’m viewing Hamilton very much in the way Noonan does, and b) aware that I’m interested in very different questions re: Hamilton than Monteiro is. But in light of Glassberg’s interest in intermediaries and the dissemination of public histories over time, I’m thinking of Hamilton as a framework for tackling nostalgia, rather than it playing directly into the hands of American myth.

Moonlight: Public History Dream

What is the role of expert reviews and awards in determining the meaning of a film and how it is classified as historic? Even before the Oscars on Sunday, I was regularly thinking about the movie Moonlight and how it feels like nothing I’ve ever seen before, a dream that is simultaneously intimate and universal.

Some questions that are swirling around my brain with reference to Moonlight and our readings about public history are:

  • How could we apply Glassberg’s idea that the meanings of books, films, and displays can change “as audiences actively reinterpret what they see and hear by placing it in alternative contexts derived from their diverse social backgrounds” (10) to Moonlight?
  • What does it mean for me as a straight, white woman and the Oscar voters (a mostly white, male group) to celebrate Moonlight as a Best Film?
  • How have expert reviews and the various think pieces about Moonlight and its Oscar win affected my and others’ view of the film? How will these reviews be read in the future?

A Slate article published yesterday titled “Forget the Embarrassing Mix-Up. The Real Story Is Moonlight’s Historic Win” ends by stating, “By awarding Moonlight, at a time when both blackness and queerness are being directly challenged at the highest levels of power, the Oscars landed on the right side of history—both cinematic and otherwise.” I agree with this sentiment while also wondering how Moonlight will be contextualized in the future, especially as a movie that doesn’t overemphasize its themes of homophobia, poverty, or bullying but focuses on the intensely personal and the power of glances and small gestures.

On Public History and Gentrification

“Public historians can participate in the process of placemaking and contribute to local residents’ sense of place by adding a sense of location to local residents’ sense of emotional attachment, helping residents and visitors alike to see what ordinarily cannot be seen: both the memories attached to places and the larger social and economic processes that shaped how the places were made.”
– David Glassberg, “Public History and the Study of Memory”

If placemaking is one practical application of public history, could peacemaking be another? Conflict resolution is usually seen as antithetical to scholarship: the point is to contest, to critique, to problematize. But could methods of public history also be applied to promote understanding among people with divergent experiences and aims, even as we understand the divergence to be informed by historical inequalities of access to power?

Before going into praxis, let’s talk about a particular place: Boyle Heights. Boyle Heights is a neighborhood in Los Angeles that is experiencing gentrification as a result of relatively low rents and proximity to the Arts District/downtown Los Angeles.

To the discerning public humanist, reading “low rents” signals histories of institutionalized discrimination and economic subjugation, leading to the current situation; historical institutionalized racism in the form of redlining versus contemporary institutionalized racism in the form of speculative property investment that converts homes to condos, renovated “flips,” or gyms and other non-residential uses. Of course, this is a reductive summary. To begin to know the history of the neighborhood would require many rich and varied sources of information including oral histories, census data, videos, and maps.

Gentrification is ongoing. As Boyle Heights residents face the threat of displacement with rent increases, community activists have staged protests against recently arrived art galleries, resulting in the closure of one particularly contested art space. These conflicts, between residents and developers, between protesters and art institutions, are important and should be archived in a way that situates them in the history of the place and the people who have lived there.

In the fall of 2016, I presented an idea to our Methods of Public Humanities course of a digital public archive on the history of gentrification in Boyle Heights. This would serve the double function of preserving memory and visualizing knowledge in ways that could help facilitate understanding. After reading David Glassberg’s “Public History and the Study of Memory,” I am particularly inspired by the possibilities of applied public history. Glassberg wrote, “[Public historians] confront the problem of historical representation on a daily basis, immersed in a world in which the boundaries between knower and known, between subjectivity and objectivity, have long been collapsed.” (23)

Perhaps peacemaking is not an application of public history, but a potential outcome. We know that archives are not neutral; that privilege is embedded into the very structure of an archive. If this archive project were to be realized, the project’s leadership team needs to include Boyle Heights residents–otherwise, it risks perpetuating the same issue it seeks to understand. As Glassberg wrote, “In presenting history to the public, [public historians] soon discover that the public is presenting history back to them as well.” (23)

Works Cited

Glassberg, David. “Public History and the Study of Memory.” The Public Historian, vol. 18, no. 2, 1996, pp. 7–23., www.jstor.org/stable/3377910

Power Politics between History, Memory and the Nation

Pierre Nora coined the concept of Lieux de mémoire, or place of memory to designate those artifacts that where collective memory crystallizes and secretes itself in the 1980s. Nora’s project and concept, though initially created to analyze France and the French memory, helped stimulate a boom in the study of collective memory on an international scale. The French or the Lieux de mémoire model inspired reflection on national memory and discussions about its advisability of applying it to other places/countries, such as Germany, Italy, and Spain, to name just a few. In this introduction article “Between Memory and History,” Nora pointed out that French national history was a memory passed through the filter of history. Though his polarization of history and memory and his narrative of the demise of memory is often the target of criticism, his project and article helped readers rethink the play of memory and history, an interaction of two factors that results in their reciprocal overdetermination.

Silencing the Past by Trouillot is a study of history and power in the production of historical knowledge, and also a response to the debate over the nature of history being positivist or constructivist. Dismissing both views, Trouillot argues instead that history is a bundle of silences, pointing out that the past is silenced in the same process by which history is created. While emphasizing the function of power, Trouillot also suggests that the process can also be affected by explanation and change. 

What interest me most about this week’s reading is the power politics in creating and presenting history and memory. What are the relationships between history, memory and the nation? Taking into account what we have discussed in previous weeks about the public and museums, I wonder how historians and curators overcome their own limitations in representing the past? What role does moral responsibility play in the power struggle of the three? For national museums and private museums, what are their pros and cons in presenting history and the collective memory while not silencing some of the past?

Memory and History: It’s Complicated

This week’s readings address the complicated relationship between history and memory. Though they, “appear now in fundamental opposition” they are in reality, intrinsically linked. Nora writes, “the quest for memory is the search for one’s history” and you can’t have one without the other. If memory is used to find history then museums and archives are the lit flashlight used in the journey.

My background is in Southern history, a tangled web of memory, and history, and silences waiting to be given a voice. Trouillot writes about the agents, actors, and subjects that shape our understanding of history. Slaves who labored in cotton fields are agents in history, but the actors with power are the ones who shaped the narrative told. History, like memory, evolves to amplify stories smothered by earlier historians with power and an agenda to maintain that power.

As if memory and history don’t have a complex enough relationship, where does the public fit in? I worked at a plantation museum in Virginia whose institutional history excluded narratives about slavery. For years Monticello, like many house museums across the South, ignored the reality of plantation life in favor of a “Mt Rushmore” styled interpretation about Jefferson. He was exalted and guides avoiding talking about anything that would bring him off that pedestal. Over the years, as America more honestly remembers slavery the history interpreted at Monticello has changed as well. This weekend the Washington Post ran an article about restoration that includes interpreting a space that Sally Hemings lived in. The changes in interpretation at Monticello illustrate how quickly history evolves and is reconstructed to match present day values, but is it shaped by memory? What shapes the zeitgeist? Memory? History? Both? Though there are people frustrated by the recent progress in interpretation, their memory about the Founding Fathers as Gods among men once so amplified is now minimized. The inclusion of slavery and trauma narratives at Monticello opens up a once silenced history, in part because of the modern trauma/therapy paradigm that allows these conversations, and memories to be discussed in public.

Memory in History

What role does memory play in the creation of historical narratives?

While Michel-Rolph Trouillot does not directly address memory, it seems that the idealized memory of those in power is turned into our textbook history. After the Haitian Revolution, which seemed impossible to many in power, “planters, administrators, politicians, or ideologues found explanations that forced the rebellion back within their worldview, shoving the facts into the proper order of discourse” (Trouillot, 91). Their memory of events, largely influenced by their ideologies, could not conceive of the actual events and so the Haitian Revolution was largely silenced in the historical narrative.

In contrast, Pierre Nora describes a clear divide between history and memory, where memory “is life, borne by living societies” and history, as “an intellectual and secular productions, calls for analysis and criticism” (Nora, 8 – 9). Do the producers of history then have no memory of their own that influences their narratives? Trouillot would seem to indicate exactly the opposite, writing that “[t]he inability to step out of history in order to write or rewrite it applies to all actors and narrators” (Trouillot, 140). For Trouillot, good history must involve “someone’s past,” presumably with voices from those underrepresented in traditional narratives (Trouillot, 142). Is this closer to Nora’s idea of memory? Does adding new voices and new memories make a more truthful historical narrative?

As practitioners, should we try to separate memory from historical fact or is there a way we can highlight how they are woven together?

Fake News and Revisionist History

During this week’s readings, I found myself thinking a lot about so-called “fake news.” This terminology has always bothered me a little bit because it seems to me that “propaganda” would be just as apt. Why create a whole new term for something that already exists?

As I was reading Troulliot, I started to think more about the relationship between “fake news,” “revisionist history,” and “propaganda.” I’m still not sure if they are all, at their root, the same thing. My dilemma seems to have something to do with what Pierre Nora refers to as “the acceleration of history.”

Troulliot’s rejection of contructivism is rooted in his belief that history is not just one narrative among many due to the fact that it embraces special methodology and has a disproportionate moral impact on society. I would argue that the same is true (and possibly more so) of the news. My former roommate’s Journalism degree from BU seems to have taught him at least as much methodology as any of my friends that graduated with a History degree. Similarly, it is the case that the news media has a large moral impact as well.

Both the authors that we read for this week consider (to different degrees) the relationship of memory to history. However, given that the news media now is grappling with many of the same issues that historians have been for some time, the question seems to be more accurately characterized as that of epistemology to collective understanding, or something like that.

Selective Memory & History


Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson Above: Actors – Taraji P. Henson, Janelle Monáe and Octavia Spencer – Photo: AKM-GSI

In considering how power and difference shape an historical narrative – I believe selective memory plays a large role in how the two factors influence the documentation of history.
In Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History, Michel-Rolph Trouillot speaks of a “story within a story”- which I view as a “dominate” narrative (usually controlled by a majority) that dictates what is written and taught as history.  This narrative is selective, in my opinion, because it is formed of partial truths documenting an incomplete history.

I recently saw the film Hidden Figures[1] about the African-American “computers” for NASA.  I walked away from the film wondering how such a story was not included in my early education of NASA and the U.S. space program.  Without these brilliant women, John Glen would not have successfully orbited the earth or safely returned home.  Yet, the contributions of Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson (and others) were basically “unremembered” in American history. I felt the same about the lesser-known story of a group of heroic enslaved Americans escaping to freedom from Cape Florida to the Bahamas in the 1820’s.[2]  In a mass flight, using 27 sloops and canoes, Bahamian natives helped 300 enslaved people escape enslavement and  settle on the island of Andros.

If I had been aware of the NASA “computers” and the Florida escape, these bold stories would have broadened my understanding of our early space program and American slave resistance.  However, works like Trouillot remind me that many “stories” (such as those noted) form a narrative – and all must be documented if I want to understand a complete history.

Narrative in the Public Humanities

For today’s post I am going to focus on Jacquelyn Dowd Hall’s article, “The Long Civil Rights Movement and the Political Uses of the Past” because I think it effectively highlights some major issues in the construction and use of historical narratives in public humanities and public history. While clear narratives can be an attractive way to package history, the process is rife with potential problems, and a failure to address these issues has very real stakes. The article focuses on how narratives about the civil rights movement have been distorted or simplified for various political and social purposes by politicians, historians, the media, and the ‘public’ who consume these narratives. Hall covers a lot of ground and a lot of potential pitfalls in producing history in general, but it seems especially relevant to history meant for public consumption. While Hall focuses on history manipulated by politicians, these issues are easily applicable to historians and producers of the public humanities who will have their own biases, backgrounds, and goals for their research and cultural production.

Inappropriate periodization, lack of historicization, a predilection for history with clear dichotomies and sharply delineated sides and goals that pass over the contradictions, intersectionalities and the grey areas that make up what Hall terms ‘hard’ history are just some of the issues at hand. It is also important to note that both the producers and consumers of these narratives are at fault in Hall’s telling. While she discusses politicians in think tanks purposefully manipulating narratives to suit their goals she also discusses a white public that is eager to accept narratives that support their preferred visions of themselves, their country, and their history.

What I found most compelling about Hall’s article is the sense of the stakes for these sorts of incomplete or outright incorrect histories. Hall argues that simplified narratives—ones that may serve a political service, that erase intersectionality, that focus on clearly defined players and timelines, and mostly especially those that offer a sense of closure—fracture the connection of the present to the past and give us an incomplete or incorrect perspective of the present. This, in turn, prevents us from addressing issues of inequality and injustice adequately in the present. Hall’s article is an effective rallying call for a telling of history that is both ‘true and effective,’ and to fight against ahistorical, anecdotal perceptions of the world today.

Whitewashing Civil Rights through Silencing and Misremembering

I found Silencing the Past really captivating and couldn’t help but think about how relevant it is today. As I was reading, one history that came to mind is the story of Martin Luther King Jr, a figure who is almost universally celebrated and whose birthday is a national holiday.
In chapter 2, Troulliot writes, “Inequalities experienced by the actors [of history] lead to uneven historical power in the inscriptions of traces.  Sources build upon these traces in turn privilege some events over the others, not always the ones privileged by the actors.”
What does it mean when the history is documented and archived but then misrepresented? Comments like “Martin Luther King would be ashamed of Black Lives Matter” seem to be silences in fact retrieval (the misremembering and deliberate omission of facts) and also a silence in the retrospective significance, as the “corpus” (aka stock story) of Martin Luther King, has largely been whitewashed.
As I continued on to Pierre Nora’s Between History and Memory, I was initially skeptical about Nora’s promotion of memory over history but in my preparation for my presentation, I thought about conversations I’ve had with family members about the way legacies and histories get warped.  “Oh now everybody claims to love Muhammad Ali–“, my mom once told me over the phone days after Ali passed away. “You know, when I was younger white people hated Ali. Hated that he was Muslim. Hated that he refused to fight in Vietnam. Now 40 years later, everyone loves him– and they have the nerve to claim that he transcended race!” It is with this recollection that I discovered the true power of memory.  My mom wasn’t taught about Muhammad Ali–, unlike me, she was there during the 1960s and 1970s. She remembers– and she knows the truth.
Muhammad Ali speaks at a Nation of Islam meeting in 1974.

Nora writes, “Memory is blind to all but the group it binds” but “History… belongs to everyone and to no one, whence its claim to universal authority.”  MLK and Ali embody this difference. In the memories of the people they sought to liberate, they belong to Black people. In the corpus of History they now belong to everyone.