A Less Nationalist Verse about America’s Founding

This week I was feeling creative and decided to take a stab at creating a less glorified rap about the founding of our nation. Undoubtedly this is the first step in my creation of a smash-hit, Marxist musical entitled “Das Khorale.” All rights reserved.

Now here’s a different take about a popular myth

About a bunch of dudes now commonly seen as a monolith

Lawyers, merchants and one pretty good silversmith

You see they all wanted to make bank, get the cheddar

But their king needed dough too, he also wanted treasure

“I gotta lot colonies and I can’t just treat one better”

So these dudes they got pissed, started raising a rabble

Declaring independence, and other such prattle

Spoke highly of liberty and throwing off shackles

‘Course simultaneously they played down their own wealth

Built off the subjugation of a whole race and its health

And got the common man to risk his own damn self

You see these men perpetuated the same old paradigm

Poor, uneducated people believing their cause was damn fine

Showed up to the fight, put their lives on the line

Believing they were killing for good, doing something divine

Tragically, what these poor sods never realized

Was that despite the liberal ideas that were being theorized

In the nation they created, wealth disparities would be maximized

After a bit of gun play, the whole mess shook out

These rich white men stood victorious, and proceeded to shout

“This land is ours and we’re gonna ball out!”

But winning is cake and ruling ain’t easy

They tried out some articles, but the product was measly

And so that experiment lasted only briefly

But they made something more beefy, a constitution they called it

It wasn’t an easy process, with some trying to stall it

Insisted on amendments before they would install it

Even so, the document they forged was morally reprehensible

It ignored women and kept treating black folks as vendible

And just had many points that were quite indefensible

Now despite all its flaws this doc proved quite formative

And laid the basis for America, a nation superlative

With impacts on history that were most reverberative

Since then these men all have been canonized

Their images and stories revised and stylized

And in all, these days, they are quite hard to criticize

Still, some are more well liked or remembered than others

For example, Big Gee-Dub always polls with good numbers

And my inspiration for these rhymes has led to many Hamilton lovers

But our national myths gloss over a whole goddamn lot

And I hope to the powers that be that one day they do not

But I doubt I will see the day, when to our first graders we say:

“When Columbus landed, ninety percent of natives never even had a shot.”

An Imagined History

Photo: NASA Rocket Girls. The women “computers” pose for a group photo in 1953. (Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech) Read more: www.smithsonianmag.com

The way history is remembered is often shaped by how we desire to remember history. Myth and nostalgia can “produce” a history that makes us feel comfortable about ourselves and our actions – while shaping the “image” we want to project to the world.  This way of embracing history creates a safe distance from the truth that fuels denial and promotes miseducation.


some more super-important supplemental reading, not that anyone needs or wants it

Reading for this week, I couldn’t help wishing I had the foresight to suggest the classic Roland Barthes text, Myth Today (50149_Barthes_Myths), when we were creating the syllabus. I happened to have read it for another class this week and it paralleled so well with our content that I thought I’d summarize it here.

In this text (which I’m sure many of you are familiar with), Barthes analyzes what myth consists of in a contemporary context. The simple answer is that myth is a type of speech, subject to the same semiological distinctions between “form” (sign, word, image) and “meaning” where the a form by itself is arbitrary but becomes meaningful in social use. For Barthes, the form a myth takes can be anything – an advertisement, a magazine article, a movie, a book, an artifact – so long as it takes on the meaning of a certain reality for its audience. However, in order to qualify as “myth,” the meaning of this representation must go largely unquestioned. It must register as neutral, standard, normal, or default in some way. Think the deified Founding Fathers narrative and our weirdly unquestioned reliance on that super old, out of date, ultra vague text called the Constitution…

In this way, myth is a whole system of values, a way of seeing, and unfortunately, always instrumental. It is intended to simplify a concept beyond controversy, normalize something, or assert a dominant view. Of course, we saw this concept all over the reading this week, but most specifically in the remembrance of Memorial Day and Aaron Burr. Barthes’ famous example is an image of a saluting black child on the cover of a French magazine – illustrating diverse patriotism on the surface but normalizing French imperialism at the same time. Seeing the intentionality behind these supposedly standard representations obliterates the myth. However, because anything can become mythologized (given a meaning that conforms to a simplified dominant view), nothing is safe from being perceived in the framework of myth. Like those science museumgoers that remind their kids that evolution isn’t real, anything you produce will be subject to someone else’s reality.

Conversely, you cannot escape myth in your own viewpoint either, but you can look for it by being a critical consumer of social artifacts. Bathes tells you how but I’m sure you already have your own schema for doing this. However, in this pursuit I think Barthes makes an important distinction between myth and a lie. Myth hides nothing – it merely presents a version of reality. The relationship of myth to reality is more similar to a Freudian idea of repression – myth is the socially appropriate surface structure masking a potentially less attractive deeper structure. In other words, Hamilton may adjust the Founding Fathers myth to make room for minorities, but it doesn’t make the real Founding Father’s any less racist.

Collective Trauma: Remembering the Unforgettable and Unspeakable

In her article “The Long Civil Rights Movement and the Political Uses of the Past”, Jacquelyn Dowd Hall writes that remembrance is inextricably tied to forgetting  (1233). By picking out the details to remember, we implicitly choose what to remember and what to forget. And, she elaborates, that the generation of meaning attached to the memory is artificial and politically manipulated (1239). Those who have the political upper hand to interpret the collective narrative are the keepers of the historical memory.

While Dowd Hall addresses the theoretical and political aspect of memory and history, David Glassberg in “Public History and the Study of Memory” focuses on the practice of making-history and collective remembering. He attempts to tease out how different audiences, for example local communities and the nation as a whole, negotiate different versions of history.

Although Dowd Hall and Glassberg tackle the politics, players and give and take involved in the making of history and memories, I am wondering how historians would address remembering that which is too difficult to remember, yet cannot be forgotten. By that, I mean, how does a group, be it a nation, community, family, collectively remember and shape a narrative around a trauma? How can they create a coherent memory of that which is too painful to remember?  Can we ever properly remember and retell the history of slavery, the Holocaust? And, how do historians negotiate the memories of the victims vis-a-vis the memories of the perpetrators?