On Modern Retellings

By Savannah Finver

Photo of Lin Manuel Miranda in musical Hamilton

Given the explosive popularity of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway hit Hamilton, it appears that the United States has recently been preoccupied with questions regarding the history of its citizens of African heritage and the slave trade which brought so many of them to American soil. One of my favorite songs on the Hamilton soundtrack is “Cabinet Battle #1”in which Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson go head-to-head over states’ rights. During his portion of the rap battle, Hamilton mocks Jefferson by repeating one of his earlier lines: “’We plant seeds in the south. We create.’ Yeah, keep ranting. We know who’s really doing the planting.”

Though Miranda conducted a good deal of research for his project, he is clear that it is meant to be a “modern retelling,” one adapted for the stage and composed mostly in song. The project is meant to be a representation of history rather than a detailed account of how a given event actually occurred. In this format, Miranda utilizes the process of selective privileging—which I describe in an earlier post—to determine which events in Hamilton’s life he felt were the most important to include given Miranda’s interest in exploring racial tension in the U.S.

But what do we do with those sources, such as history books, that purport to be giving us “facts?” We often assume the narrative presented to us in these kinds of sources to be true, and we’re taught from a young age that we can “trust” them.

School textbook page titled How the Negroes Lived under Slavery

Consider the language in the image above, which shows a page from the textbook Virginia: History, Government, Geographyby Francis Butler Simkins (1957). The passage refers to slaves as “servants” and suggests that owners treated their slaves with kindness in order to win their “confidence and affection.” The passage also details a number of activities that slaves were “allowed” to participate in, making it seem like slavery had a small impact on slaves’ personal freedoms, especially freedom of worship. Even the image, showing a white man and a black man cordially shaking hands, seems to indicate a positive, respectful relationship between masters and slaves. How “complete” this narrative is, however, is up for debate, and Simkins gives no clear citation of his evidence for his assumptions on the page provided.

Sign presenting narrative of lynchings at memorial in Montgomery Alabama

The National Memorial for Peace and Justice and the Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration in Montgomery, Alabama, tell a very different tale than the textbook above. The Legacy Museum utilizes quotes, videos, and photographs to tell the stories of black families being torn apart during the slave trade and being sold off like cattle at auctions to the highest bidder, as well as how mass incarceration extends racial tensions in America to this day. The National Memorial for Peace and Justice focuses on the terrors of the lynchings of black Americans which took place throughout the American South up to as recently as 1950. The two work well together in exploring another side of race relations in the U.S.

Often, when we read textbooks or visit museums and memorials, we expect to be given the “truth” about our history, neatly prepared for us like the story in the picture sequencing worksheet I included in my last post. Yet, just as with the worksheet and in Hamilton, these sources are designed and created by individuals with interests. We must ask ourselves what details have been privileged and excluded in any presentation of any history and why. Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative—the organization responsible for the museum and memorial in Montgomery—has been consistently clear in his reasoning for creating the memorial and has stated that the memorial is designed to present “the truth” about treatment of black Americans following the abolition of slavery in the hopes that southern communities will begin to take responsibility for the lynchings, leading ultimately to a path of healing.

The purpose of this post is not to engage in a thorough examination of the evidence behind each retelling. Rather, it is to suggest that all presentations of history, regardless of their form, are motivated by the interests of the writer. Further, certain details are selected and presented to serve a purpose. Instead of asking ourselves whose version of the past is more or less accurate, we may choose to focus on how the details appearing in each account serve to advance particular worldviews. In other words, naturalizing a specific representation of historical events is never a neutral act. These accounts often tell us more about the author’s or creator’s social interests at the time than they do about what “actually happened” in the past they claim to represent.

 

Photo credits: Lin-Manuel Miranda in Hamilton Live in NY by Steve Jurvetson via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Textbook image via Richmond Times-Dispatch

Lynching memorial sign photo by Steven Ramey

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