“Who Tells Your Story?”: Historymaking in “Hamilton”

Lin-Manuel Miranda in the title role of the musical "Hamilton" at the Richard Rodgers Theatre in New York.

The Broadway smash hit Hamilton: An American Musical, a “hip-hopera” about the nation’s founding, is a bona fide phenomenon. Tickets are nearly impossible to come by, and celebrities flock to every performance. (President Obama has seen it twice.) The show and its composer and star, Lin-Manuel Miranda, are receiving recognition for fantastic performances, an energetic blend of musical theatre tradition and hip hop innovation, and the choice to cast people of color in the roles of the lily-white Founding Fathers.

But Hamilton is also being praised for its potential to teach its audience members, to get them excited about a period of history they may only remember from dry classroom lessons. Miranda based the musical on Ron Chernow’s 2004 biography of Alexander Hamilton, and the historian served as a consultant to the show. The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History recently partnered with the Rockefeller Foundation to provide discounted tickets for low-income New York City high school students and develop accompanying educational programming.

Hamilton is the latest in a long line of musicals based on historical events: 1776, Les Misérables, Evita, and the recently-opened Allegiance, about Japanese internment in the U.S. during World War II, among many others. So why has this particular show seemed to inspire its audiences, particularly those who are not otherwise musical theater fans, more than these other worthy musicals?

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Black History Month: A Failed History Project?

Black History Month will eventually be obsolete. That is what historian Carter G. Woodson hoped in 1926 when he and the Association for the Study of African American Life and History founded the celebration of Negro History Week. Woodson, dedicated to his education, in 1912 earned his doctorate in history from Harvard University and was sorely aware of a void in American history. By 1976, Negro Week became Black History Month and was officially recognized by then President Gerald Ford and the federal government during the nation’s bicentennial. Now it seems that Black History Month is becoming obsolete but not for the reason Woodson had hoped. The month designation is growing unnecessary because of indifference towards the increasingly hollow meaning and benign celebratory nature of the month.

“End Black History Month” yelled filmmaker Shukree Hassan Tilghman, on a crowded urban street in his documentary film More than a Month. People admittedly were confused or upset to see a black man expressing such a sentiment. Tilghman later stated that Black history should not be confined to a month but rather fully incorporated into American history; that is what Woodson had hoped for. Yet, we are not there. It is not uncommon to hear that Americans live in a “post-racial” society or that it is “reverse racism” to celebrate Black History Month. Some white Americans bemoan the month while declaring there should be a White History Month (perhaps they have not analyzed the historical treatment of non-white histories). If some Americans cannot even comprehend the purpose of Black History Month, how can we expect anyone (especially a non-Black “anyone”) to care or feel connected to the month?

Black History Month is perceived as a month about African Americans and for African Americans which is where it went all wrong. The month’s purpose was to provide an inclusive American history that recognized the struggles and triumphs of African Americans in a historically factual way. Undoubtedly, one of the goals was also to boost racial self-esteem for a group of Americans who had been told their whole lives that they ‘had no history’.

These days Black History Month largely revolves around the celebration of exceptional African Americans. This week a statue was unveiled in the Capitol of Rosa Parks and indeed she should be celebrated but there are more issues at hand. The majority of Americans could tell you what Rosa Parks did and probably why but anything past that has lost historical context. How institutional was segregation and why did it exist? How long did Jim Crow last? Wait, what is “Jim Crow” anyway? Those questions are not being openly discussed in the American public. The month has become congratulatory to the point that the essence of it is devoid of historical and sociological analysis.

The McDonald’s commercials saluting the Black community, specials on BET, and the sporadic vignettes on Black history greats in high school hallways are not cutting it. Black History Month cannot afford to focus only on its Dynamic Duo: Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks (with the optional third member of Frederick Douglas or Harriet Tubman). Our wider mainstream society should not be so afraid of the more controversial, aggressive, intellectual, or otherwise unique African American figures such as Nat Turner, Josephine Baker, Malcolm X, the Black Panthers, or Angela Davis, for example. Americans should also discuss those non-Black Americans who helped or challenged African Americans of the past. We cannot and should not take the complexity or unpleasantness out of historical figures. Harriet Tubman, for example, is known for helping other slaves escape slavery and many times she motivated followers with threats of violence; Tubman was no daisy. We as Americans should be asking insightful and helpful questions on a private and public level, locally and nationally about Black history and indeed about all racial/ethnic history.

Admittedly, the federal government has put forth honorable effort to discuss the issues of Black history and the newest development of the National Museum of African American History and Culture is a significant example. Those steps are important but we need more. Black History Month is about all Americans because the history connected to that group has touched other racial or ethnic groups in America. I would venture to say that Black History Month is almost as much about White Americans as it is about African Americans because so much of it is about race relations between the two. Black history is also important in understanding women’s history and civil rights movements in LGBTQ and other communities. Black history is not about “them”, it is about us. Do not let twenty-eight days be a barrier to discovering the richness, complexity, and contemporary relevancy of Black history (also known as American history).

Civility and Savagery in Django Unchained

This is one of two reviews of “Django Unchained” by Lakefront Historian bloggers. See also Courtney Baxter’s post on the film. 

In the wake of Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, Quentin Tarantino’s spaghetti western inspired take on antebellum American slavery Django Unchained risked misinterpretation of its tone and message. Throughout the film, however, Tarantino deftly strikes the right balance between genre bending playfulness and respect for the weighty subject matter. Like his last film Inglorious Bastards, Django Unchained is a revenge fantasy, empowering an oppressed group against powerful enemies. Taking on two of the darkest chapters in human history, the holocaust and racial slavery, while maintaining his slick sense of humor and film geek B-movie references seems a recipe doomed to trivialize and offend. Yet somehow Tarantino pulls it off.ImageImage

For the record, I have never been as enamored with his work as others. Prior to Inglorious Bastards, I respected his craftsmanship and flare for dialogue, but his movies always seemed hyper referential and lacking in authenticity. It is often difficult to tell where the film geek allusions and homages end and Quentin the auteur begins. His breakthrough film Pulp Fiction, while bursting with style, offered few genuine insights or emotional depth. The promise of this recent turn toward historical (or counter-historical) subject matter is that he has found a way to employ his talent for subverting genre as a means to analyze the process of historical memory. For better or for worse, the movies have become probably the most powerful medium for the transmission of historical knowledge. There have been plenty of films that have focused on the Civil War, but few have  engaged with the savagery of slavery in an immediate way. In Django Unchained Tarantino seems to be saying, “why not remember it this way?” But the key to the success of this approach is that he delivers a serious counter-narrative within the guise of a celebrated and seemingly benign genre, the spaghetti western.

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