Who Tells Your Story?
To better understand the facts and fallacies of Hamilton, and why they matter to modern America, the Charleston Library Society is hosting professor Richard Bell of the University of Maryland for a lecture Thursday. Bell will discuss the cultural impact and the stories that inspired Hamilton.
“The play gets so many things right; I want to be clear about that,” Bell told the City Paper. “Miranda did a lot of research for this musical, and it shows.”
For examples, Bell cites large themes, like bitter partisan politics and the rampant egoism of the founding fathers, along with textbook historical facts, like the importance of the colonies’ alliance with the French to win independence from England.
“It’s not easy to build a new country — a new government — from scratch, and you get a sense of some of those difficulties from this Broadway musical, and that is no small feat,” he said.
Bell added that he really enjoys Hamilton, particularly because of its ability to spark conversations about the American Revolution. “If it’s provoking us to have conversations like this, about the role of non-white people and African Americans specifically in the American Revolution, and about who counts in American history, then that’s a wonderful thing,” he said.
What the play gets wrong, according to Bell, is its portrayal of the Revolution as good-versus-evil, Alexander Hamilton as a champion of the working class and immigrants, and how the show treats race and enslavement in 18th-century America.
Hamilton received some scrutiny for how it downplays slaveholding among the founding fathers. Ironically, despite people of color being the large majority of the cast, the play doesn’t feature any Black historical figures except for a brief mention of by Sally Hemmings. Historian Lyra D. Monteiro charged Hamilton with “trumpeting the deeds of wealthy white men, at the expense of everyone else” in a searing 2016 essay in The Public Historian. When Hamilton hit Disney+ last summer, as Black Lives Matter protesters marched streets nationwide, the criticisms were even louder.
While he didn’t want to divulge too much of his lecture, Bell said it was a “missed opportunity” not to dig deeper into the contributions of Black historical figures, such as Boston Massacre victim Crispus Attucks or Cato, an enslaved man who spied for his enslaver, Hercules Mulligan.
“One of the things that’s wonderful about Hamilton is to see so many talented actors of color in leading roles, which is a relatively rare thing for a major Broadway show,” Bell said. “But, most of them are playing white characters, elite gentlemen, many of whom owned slaves … You would not know that by watching the show. The only person who’s really stained with the sin of slavery is Thomas Jefferson.”
How history is recorded and told is another prevailing theme of Hamilton. George Washington openly reflects on his place in the historical narrative, while the jazzy earworm “The Room Where it Happens” toys with listeners by following a character uninvolved in a major plot point. One of Hamilton’s most popular tunes, “Satisfied,” portrays a story beat from Angelica Schuyler’s perspective, changing the way the audience sees her relationship with Hamilton.
Bell mentioned those moments help illustrate that “history is not etched in stone.”
“History is actually constructed knowledge, constructed by flesh-and-blood people at the time and more importantly after the fact,” he said. “Because it’s constructed by ordinary folk, it is full of holes, full of perspectives and points of view.”
Bell encouraged fans of Hamilton to read up on history for a better understanding of the American Revolution and the early United States. “My fear sometimes is that people only watch the show and then never think about it again,” he said. “I hope that when people watch the show, they want to go learn more.”
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