A Modern Lens on Historical Myths

When dealing with the distant past, we deal in fragments.

Historical truth is a myth. That is to say, it is impossible to retain a record of everything that has happened on this planet that accurately depicts the perspectives of every person who has stepped foot on it. Nowadays, we have video, audio, and the Internet. We can digitally preserve voices and upload documentary footage. Yet even with more fleshed out primary sources, we debate perspective, interpretation, and truth. When dealing with the distant past, we deal in fragments. Paper, records, the written word. Historians spend their lives building coherent narratives out of the ephemera humans leave behind. They tell stories, as much as any theatre maker. The discipline of history, like the discipline of theatre, is a narrative one. The creative liberties taken in theatre are broader and more wide ranging, but in each field individuals work to process information and package it for public consumption in a narrative format. The medium varies — historians traffic in books and journals, while theatre makers create pieces of live performance.

Old Papers

The historical record is in many ways subjective, and is formed by the powerful. It is a narrative that asserts profound influence on our societal values, centuries on. Academics, intellectuals, theatre makers, and audience members alike are all active participants in building this narrative, and with it, creating the culture we see around us. As storytellers in the public sphere, do we have responsibilities? If so, what are those responsibilities? Are there moral or ethical imperatives relevant to creating and maintaining a modern, progressive society that curtail certain notions of artistic freedom? Or that supersede notions of historical accuracy?

The Hamilton Debates

Hamilton the Musical (Source: Public Theater)

Hamilton | Source: © Public Theater

In a recent article for The New York Times, Jennifer Schuessler succinctly outlines various debates concerning a certain Pulitzer Prize-winning Broadway musical and the rising backlash surrounding its representation of history. On one side are a handful of historians who lent their voices in opposition to the musical’s near universal acclaim, noting that the version of history in Hamilton lionizes the Founding Fathers at the expense of deeply considering the uglier aspects of their political, social, and racial beliefs. These historians caution against the consumption of the show and its soundtrack as a representative version of this history. Crucially, several of their critiques note that diverse casting cannot mask the fact that the show still glorifies the achievement of white men, shedding little to no light upon the contributions of people of color to the American Revolution.

Historian Ron Chernow, upon whose book the musical is based and who also served as the historical consultant for the show, responded to these criticisms saying that they “were based on ‘an enormous misunderstanding’ of the show.” He goes on to state that “casting black and Latino actors as the founders effectively writes nonwhite people into the story […] in ways that audiences have powerfully responded to.”

To many, the portrayal of a group of stuffy, old, patriarchal white men by an immensely talented group of actors of color is an artistic tool that sufficiently reclaims the foundational narratives of this country for the increasingly diverse United States of today.

Additionally, the presentation of this history through hip-hop and rap, musical styles created and championed by artists of color, is a way in which we as the audience are hearing voices of color in this material. By writing this music as a Hispanic artist using a predominantly African-American form, Lin-Manuel Miranda processes, interprets, repackages, and in many ways re-writes this history for a modern, diverse, and (ideally) multiethnic audience.

On the other hand, Chernow’s comments continue to gloss over the fact that the original source material remains devoid of voices of color. It bears repeating that no one work should be considered a representative depiction of the past, be it academic or artistic in nature. It should also be noted that none of the critiques contest Mr. Miranda’s freedom to choose the story he wishes to tell and express it as he sees fit, an expression that the critics recognize is skillful, creative, and complex. Nevertheless, the show’s popularity, particularly among younger generations, while heartening in many ways, from a different angle signifies that the history we are hoping to make “accessible” to students is still the history of dead white men. That is the history that has been sustained, canonized, and inherited by us as centrally important to the founding mythology of the United States of America.

What is Our History?

Imagined Communities by Benedict Anderson (Source: Verso Books)

Source: Verso Books

Comments on either side of this debate bear the echoes of a deeper struggle over American identity. Sovereign countries as we know them today are, as Benedict Anderson famously posited, imagined communities. In the words of Anderson, a nation “is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion […] regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, the nation is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship.” The astronomical popularity of Hamilton has given the piece a unique focus in the public eye, but the debate over the show’s underpinnings caught fire for more than just the specific subject matter. Indeed, both sides of the critique expose the ever-widening gap between the America we see, or hope to see, and the America that was.

When we speak of the United States of America, precisely what do we speak of? Whose history are we discussing?

The backlash against the “Founders Chic” approach to the early history of the United States, in which the so-called “Founding Fathers” are glorified and their flaws diminished, illuminates a deep sense of dissatisfaction among a growing number of academics and public intellectuals with the founding narratives of this country. As a society, we are still coming to terms with the fact that the prevailing narratives about American identity, especially the ones that dominate our educational system, are deeply biased. They are fundamentally exclusive of and downright oppressive toward anyone who was not a rich, white man. So what is this “horizontal comradeship,” or collective national story, in which we are all investing? What should it be?

John Trumbull's "The Declaration of Independence" (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

John Trumbull’s 1819 painting Declaration of Independence, which features some of the Founding Fathers | Source: Wikimedia Commons

What Stories do We Choose to Tell?

Myth making becomes a form of truth telling, and few of us have taken the time to deeply question those truths.

Whether it is experienced through an elementary school textbook or on a Broadway stage, the telling of a historical story in the present moment is a rebirth of that narrative. The material is redefined through the lens of the present, regardless of how rigorous the historical portrait is. This redefinition is processed through our contemporary sensibilities, reflecting our current cultural and societal norms. The lens of the present influences the storytelling process and product. As we consider the culture we aim to create around ourselves, perhaps it is more important that our narratives reflect the world that we wish to see, rather than the world that was. Lin-Manuel took it one step, but maybe we need to take it a couple steps farther.

Portraits from U.S. Bank Notes (Source: National Numismatic Collection, Smithsonian Institution)

Some of the white men featured on U.S. bank notes | Source: National Numismatic Collection, Smithsonian Institution

The notion that it was predominantly great, white men who directly shaped the America of today speaks volumes about our collective focus on power, individualism, and achievement, and our lasting legacies of gender, racial, sexual, and socioeconomic inequality. In one sense, there is the history that is “factually true” — wars fought, legislation signed, men on money. When we teach and examine those facts, we have to examine why those men were able to inhabit the positions they did — oppressive gender norms, slavery, pillaging of Native lands. The interpretation of the collective actions of the “Founding Fathers” is a mythology that we take part in creating and re-creating. Myth making becomes a form of truth telling, and few of us have taken the time to deeply question those truths.

Where does this begin? It begins with the continuous reexamination of the voices that we privilege in our classrooms, on our computer screens, and on our stages. It requires rigor in seeking out diverse source material. The heroes must be recast, or the ensemble broadened. New classics anointed. Those with resources, influence, and cultural clout must elevate the voices of the disenfranchised. It is simply not acceptable that the vast majority of the citizens of this country do not see themselves within the great American myth. If not, what is at all for? That is not to imply that historical facts should be thrown out, as we could all be helped by confronting and learning from the trajectory of the past. It is to say that we should reconsider what we deem to be worthy of recounting, remembering, and portraying. The foundation of this country amounts to more than the Declaration or the Constitution. Founding mothers, slaves, sisters, and soldiers did as much to shape the America that stands today as any founding father. Perhaps it is time for new founding myths.


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