Colonial Williamsburg has pubbed a new book documenting the experiences and thoughts of black interpreters at CW. What is it like to consciously and willingly portray, five days a week, an African-American in the time of slavery? I can’t imagine the tightrope.
But encountering slavery in any manifestation can be awkward for black or white audiences.
Black guests are sometimes uncomfortable confronting what some consider a humiliating aspect of the past that should be forgotten, not memorialized. “Many people,” said Greg James, “don’t want to be reminded of people beaten, lashed, and currycombed… But would history be true without it?” …
Any person might judge the performance as too harsh a portrayal, or too understated. One minute an interpreter might be viewed as minimizing the cruelty of slavery; the next minute he or she might be viewed as exaggerating it.
Author and CW archaeologist Ywone Edwards-Ingram will lead a discussion of the book, The Art and Soul of African American Interpretation, at CW later today, followed by a signing.
I’m always intrigued by individual reactions to early American history and how, through a mix of celebration and criticism, we each make our separate peace with it, especially the awful parts. How do we integrate history into our worldviews? Which parts do we emphasize, which parts do we blur? So I’d much rather read Edwards-Ingram’s book than, say, another screed from an obnoxious academic telling us how we should feel about history:
Since the turn of the millennium, historians have lambasted the phenomenon of Founders Chic as a fundamental distortion of history. Placing the roles of specific, prominent individuals at the heart of sweeping narratives of the founding era meant that popular histories exaggerated the importance of individuals, at the expense of understanding the contribution of less-celebrated Americans or the role of broader societal and historical processes. Yet much of the reception of Hamilton, the hottest ticket on Broadway, seems to suggest that hagiography is acceptable, so long as it’s done to a catchy song-and-dance routine. It’s as if the only problem with Joseph Ellis, David McCullough and Ron Chernow is that they didn’t write to a hip-hop soundtrack.
I’m not sure when I initially became aware of Hamilton but my first reaction was, It’s like The Wiz but for early America! Mrs. Kuhl and I, both being history buffs living 60 miles outside of Manhattan, agreed to go see it, only to be stymied by the then $600 tickets (they’re now going for $1,000). At this point we’ll probably have to wait for the movie but my feelings for Hamilton haven’t changed. In either case, black artists took something that is white as hell — The Wizard of Oz, the years of the early Republic — and interpreted it through their own experiences. It’s an ownership of something that, in its original version, conspicuously excluded people like them. It’s their separate peace.
But to academics like Ken Owen at The Junto, there’s a right way and a wrong way to interpreting Hamilton, and liking the play is definitely wrong:
… Hamilton appears to use history more as a comfort blanket than as a serious means to enhance popular understanding of the American Revolution. That is something I find particularly concerning, because Hamilton (and its race-conscious casting) has often been held up as an example of how to modernize Broadway, or how to shift popular discussion of the American Revolution in a more progressive direction. At almost every turn, however, the historical philosophies underpinning Hamilton prioritize the Founders Chic model. … Insofar as it does raise progressive questions, it does so in only the most muted way—and in a way that allows a casual observer to retreat to the same comforting, comfortable narratives they would find on the shelves of a Barnes and Noble.
Meow! There you have it: “progressive direction,” “progressive questions.” For all his complaints preceding this graf, Kitty Owen’s real grudge is that Hamilton doesn’t fulfill his political ends. To the academic left (which, let’s face it, is all of academia outside an MBA program), the correct perspective toward art is a Soviet one where singing and dancing is permissible as long as the rest is social realism. Later in the comments, when a reader notes that as art Hamilton encourages viewers to ask questions about history, Owens replies, “Are they getting people to ask the right questions, though?” The dummies in the mezzanine can’t be trusted to arrive at their own conclusions, Owens believes; the proper responses are the ones dictated by snobs like him.
Still, Owens’s opinions aren’t nearly as stupid as Lyra Monteiro’s, who whined that regardless of Lin-Manuel Miranda and the casting, “It’s still white history.” This is the same cretinism that would segregate black history to 28 days a year. Black and brown Americans own Alexander Hamilton just as much as I own Martin Luther King, Jr. because all of us live today in a world molded in part by those men. There’s no black history, there’s no white history — there’s only American history and how we as Americans individually come to terms with it.
Lest this post devolve into complete fist-shaking, Owens says one thing I do agree with, which is, “it is dishonest of [popular] authors to pretend that their work isn’t reliant on a broader community of [academic] scholars.” He’s right. I don’t hate academics; in fact, I’m thankful to them. I just wish many of them would drop their egotistical claims to being the sole proprietors of our stories.