We are a story-telling species. But what story should We the People tell? To create a national narrative for the 21st century is an awesome challenge, perhaps an impossible one given our divisions today. While few countries in the world have had one continuous form of government for 250 years, we are at a point where even to celebrate that event is contentious and divisive.
The challenge to create a national narrative is too daunting for an individual historian.
What then can be done?
I suggest to start at the very beginning a very good place to start and to take it one step at a time. For history in the United States that means the local historian and historical society. The local historians have walked their communities, seen the sites, heard the stories, and kept the documents. The creation of a national narrative should begin small.
Every local historian and historical society should tell the story of their locality from Ice Age to Global Warming. Nature sets the stage and humans write the play while altering the stage. The local historian and historical societies are the ones best positioned to tell the story of their own communities.
However, local historians and historical societies typically are not trained to tell this story. Most likely they do not want to tell it either. There are risks involved. For example, as people celebrated the centennial of women’s suffrage, imagine finding out what your great-grandfather thought about it! Suppose you are a descendant of some one who did something disreputable! Regardless of one’s theological beliefs, in the world of history sins are inheritable. So it is understandable why people do not want to delve into the past and to let sleeping dogs lie.
To create a national narrative starting at the local level, people need help. The history infrastructure needs investment and training, the local historians and historical societies need guidance. New societies need to be created. The current system isn’t working as well as we need it to work.
To illustrate the process, consider the situation here. By state law every municipality in New York is required to have an historian. This mean every village, every town, every city, and every county is obligated under the law to have an historian. The law frequently is ignored including in this county. Even when municipalities comply, they often provide the historian with no or minimal resources. A municipal historian typically does not have a municipal mailing address, email address, business card or place to work except at home. Imagine if the chief of police was forced to operate under the same conditions. In addition, the municipal historian is not funded for the dues to join the state organization of municipal historians or to attend the annual conference. The state provides no guidelines on what the municipal historian actually is supposed to do based on the population of the community and the technologies of the 21st century.
Historical societies face similar problems. Although they are chartered by the State Education Department just as schools and libraries are, they are not treated the same way. The schools and libraries are public organizations with government employees and receive state funding. By contrast, historical societies are private although they may operate in a municipally-owned building. The people are dedicated, hard-working usually volunteers who love what they do but need help. The New-York Historical Society and the American Museum of Natural History are not the norm. Think of the municipal historian in your own community if you have one or the municipal historical society to get a better idea of the challenges involved.
We need a new model for the 21st century. We need leadership from the state and federal governments on what should be done, the training to do it, and the resources to do it effectively. Where are the jobs for the public historian graduates? Where are the circuit historians who could serve five small communities each week? Why should we have to reinvent the wheel every time there is a major anniversary?
The musical Hamilton famously asks who will tell the story? Who will train the teachers in the history of their community, their county, their city, and their state? Who will develop the curriculum, the professional development programs, the walking tours? Who will identify the local history signs that are needed? Who will weave the neighborhood, county, city, and state, narratives into one? We need a We the People Will Tell the Story Funding Act.
We are a storytelling species. That means history is important. The enrollments as history major majors may be in decline. The earning prospects for history majors may seem bleak. But the importance of history remains.
In one of his last acts as President, the outgoing President released his 1776 Commission report.
In one of his first acts as President, the incoming President disbanded that commission.
History is important. People know where they were when they learned about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. People know where they were when they learned that President John Kennedy had been assassinated. People know where they were when the learned the World Trade Towers had collapsed. Not only did people know where they were, they had similar reactions. These national events became part of the shared history for the generation that experienced them and the subsequent generations that remembered them.
The situation is drastically different with civil war events. These events from America’s three civil wars produced divided responses. People knew where they were when they found out about Lexington and Concord but they did not share the same response. People knew where they were when they found out about Fort Sumter but they did not share the same response. People know where they were when they found out the events of January 6, but they do not share the same response or even the same set of facts:
Was it an attempted insurrection instigated by the worst President in the history of the United States, or
Was it an attempt by antifa to undermine the greatest President in the history of the United States?
Historians debate who is the greatest and who is the worst President in American history. To the best of my knowledge, there has never been an instance where a single individual simultaneously was considered to be both the best and the worst presidents by approximately half the population for each. Perhaps the non-Presidential figure with a similar split in the American population is Robert E. Lee.
As a storytelling species, it is critical that we have shared stories to tell. Think of how much of family gatherings is dedicated to the telling of family stories that you have heard before as well as new ones. Think of how hard it is to have family gatherings today without and without Covid. In the current issue of Time, Charlotte Alter writes:
A democracy is only as strong as the faith of its participants. At the very least, that faith must be rooted in some sense of shared reality, a willingness to agree on to disagree according to the laws laid out in the Constitution.
She is correct but there is no shared reality now. The differences are not simply people having different favorites for the Superbowl or whether baseball or football or basketball is the national sport. There is no agreement now on even what the score is of a given game, whether the players are legitimate, or if a game is real, meaning not digitally created.
The last serious well-known effort to create a national narrative for the 21st century today was by Jill Lepore, These Truths: A History of the United States (2018). By coincidence, today I received my hard copy of The American Historical Review (125/5 December 2020). Her book is the subject of the roundtable for this issue with four scholars commenting on it. Once I have read it, I will report on their comments on the success and/or failure of her book (previously I wrote about a roundtable on “Native American and Indigenous Studies: Another Culture Wars Episode.”
By coincidence, on the same day that I received the journal, I watched an online lecture presented by the American Philosophical Society on the book Past and Prologue: Politics and Memory in the American Revolution by Michael D. Hattem. The main theme of the talk was the absence of an historical memory in the new nation. By that I mean, the former British colonists had a long historical memory through their being British, a memory that extended to the French and Indian War. The British colonists were proud to support their side against the French and the Indians allied against them. They were proud to express their loyalty to King George III. And then they weren’t.
Now the new country was faced with the task of creating a shared national history for a country that was younger than their children. Hatten spoke about the transformation that occurred as people cut themselves off from their shared British history to create a new shared American history.
Christopher Columbus was part of that effort to create a shared history. The people in the colonies from Pilgrims to Puritans to Dutch to Quakers to Cavaliers plus others had not come to America at one time and for the same reasons. By the time Georgia became a colony, Virginia had “celebrated” its centennial. In this sense, all American citizens had Columbus in common. If he hadn’t done what he did, none of them would have been here. As a result, he was part of creating a shared national history that went back before 1776 and wasn’t British. Americans could observe a Columbus tricentennial in 1792, name the capital after him, and use Columbia as a non-British national symbol (and college name).
Another shared history-based form of identity was as God’s New Israel. It wasn’t mentioned in the talk and I don’t know if it is in Hattem’s book or not. A connection with an event three millennia ago certainly was one way to develop a non-British history. This identification was not a new one post-1776 but it was an example of how the United States crafted an identity for itself.
Finally, homage should be paid to the one individual above all others who provided Americans with a shared identity. Without George Washington holding the country together, no one knows if there even would have been a united country to hold together. Perhaps there would have been two.
THE UNSHARED HISTORY
At present, there are three major incompatible views about the American Revolution, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the creating of a shared national narrative. The three are:
1. Woke view: The New York Times 1619 – The documents are racist and the country is illegitimate based on white supremacy and social stratification. 1619 has been the subject of previous blogs but its story needs to be updated based on ongoing reactions to it.
2. Patriotic view: Hamilton, the Musical – A flawed but great start and an ongoing story as evidenced by the cast of the show. It also has been the subject of previous blogs.
3. Trumpican: 1776 Commission – They are divinely inspired documents especially through the Second Amendment.
Before turning to these three incompatible national narratives, I will start the challenge to craft a national narrative with the four, maybe five national myths that are regarded as historical by tens of millions of people. These myths are:
1. the myth of the empty land
2. the myth of stolen from Africa
3. the myth of no slavery in the North
4. the myth of the Lost Cause.
Now we have a new myth attempting to join these four longstanding ones:
5. the myth of the stolen election.
Whether or not this most recent myth has the power to be sustained cannot yet be determined. It is still being formed and is connected to the insurrection attempt instigated by the loser. The well-known saying that “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters” now has been proven true. That saying may become part of the myth and detached from its January 23, 2016, date. In the myth it will be easy to conflate these two January events.
Obviously, I have my work cut out for me if I am to go through this process. We do need a shared national narrative for the 21st century. For me, at least, at this point in time, the steps outlined here are a way towards creating one even though it won’t even matter if I succeed.
Hamilton, the musical is back. In some ways it never really went away. It continued to be performed to standing-room crowds throughout the land and globally (pre-Covid). Its curriculum courtesy of Gilder Lehrman is part of many schools. It remains a blockbuster. Now it is available in your very home and for a nominal price, at least compared to the Broadway prices. And you don’t even have to wait for months to see it.
In this way, the return of Hamilton seems a little like a time capsule from the distant past of 2015. The release gave me the incentive to reread some of the blogs I had written about Hamilton and about Miranda even before the musical. Reading those words can be painful today. It was a simpler moment of goodwill, good cheer, and good times. Like Brigadoon was to a jaded New Yorker.
Hamilton was the perfect musical for the Obama presidency. Hamilton delivered a message that the American Revolution belonged to all American citizens. That message might seem obvious but it wasn’t. It didn’t claim that America was perfect but that it was striving to be better, to become a more successful experiment to draw on a term from the Founding Fathers. Through its music and its casting, Hamilton reached out to people, especially students, who were studying the American Revolution in school but didn’t necessarily think it had anything to do with them. Now it did. Given the events of the past few weeks and the Mount Rushmore call to arms, it is hard to believe how optimistic people once were only a few years ago.
Today, there is no doubt that times have changed. Imagine, if you will, if Hamilton had opened this year, what the reaction would have been. Think of the presidential and hope-to-be presidential seals of approval it received in 2015. Could such a thing have happened today? Did the former-New-Yorker-and-now-Floridian President ever express any interest in attending a performance just blocks away from his apartment, no ramp walking required? Instead, the current president would love to indict the previous president and his vice president for the ‘greatest political scandal in the history of the United States”; you know which one I mean. Today, the statues of some of the leading characters in Hamilton are being pulled to the ground. They are experiencing the fate of King George III in lower Manhattan on July 9, 1776, following the reading of the Declaration of Independence with its ideals of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
One of the innovations of the musical was its casting. The characters in the historical play were all white. By contrast the casting was not. This action was deliberate. It was a way to reach out to new audiences. It also may no longer be legal or at least it is not woke to racially miscast people. Multiple white actors have decided to no longer voice black or biracial cartoon characters. The decision was expressed as an example of countering the systemic racism that exists in the country in general and Hollywood in particular.
Jenny Slate said, “Black characters on an animated show should be played by black people.”
Kristen Bell said, “We profoundly regret that we might have contributed to anyone’s feeling of exclusion or erasure.”
These two actresses acknowledged that they had been the beneficiaries of white privilege.
“Creating a mixed race character with a white actress undermines the specificity of the mixed race and Black American experience,” wrote Kristen Bell.
Left unclear is whether only a mixed race person can perform as a mixed raced character or whether a black one can as well. For that matter, the casting of Shakespeare plays would change drastically if the new race-based casting guidelines were followed.
The implications for Hamilton are obvious. Just as a white person could not be cast in the role of Harriet Tubman or Frederick Douglass, so a black person cannot be cast in the role of George Washington or Thomas Jefferson. Under the old rules, Hamilton could get away with such racism in the name of inclusiveness. Those days are over. Under the new rules, Hamilton could not be cast today the way it was in 2015.
WHY WOULD BLACKS WANT TO PLAY SLAVEOWNERS ANYWAY
Back in the old days, it was an honor for a black actor to perform as George Washington, the father of his country. The actors even said so. Now the statues to slaveowning Washington and Thomas Jefferson are being torn down. The message of inclusivity has been replaced by the desire to purify America of the taint of its slaveowner founders. The musical celebrates people whom the Woke denigrate. The audience that eagerly embraced Hamilton only a few years ago now is admonished to confront the racism of the founders of this country.
WHAT DO YOU DO ABOUT WHITE WOMAN WHO WERE RACISTS?
Only a few years ago, there was a big push to increase the number of statues of women. Surveys were taken of the existing statues and the results showed were they were overwhelmingly male. The response was to commission additional statues to be sculpted that would be of women. But suppose the women turned out to be racists as suffragettes sometimes were. Now what?
Once upon a time, the Schuyler’s daughters were all the rave. They were witty, wonderful, and beautiful. Didn’t they make for good role models? If Kristen Bell and Jenny Slate were the beneficiaries of white privilege for performing as cartoon characters, what does that make the Schuyler daughters for an entire life of privilege? The statue of their father in Albany is coming down (see Schuyler Owned People: Should Schuylerville Change Its Name?). Shouldn’t their stature in the play be reduced as well? Shouldn’t they be cast with white women?
MESSAGE OF THE MUSICAL
The message of the musical is outdated. Neither the Woke nor the Trumpicans accept it. One side demands purity, the cleansing by America of its original sin. That means the Founding Fathers are not to be praised for declaring their independence, winning the American Revolution, and constituting We the People. Instead they are to be toppled as racist slaveowners. For the other side, that means the statues are to be revered and protected and the ideals they fought for were only meant for white people anyway. The Mount Rushmore speech and the toppling of the Founding Fathers statues show that this is not a “come let us reason together” situation. Instead it is every hyphen for itself.
Hamilton with all its historical shortcomings provides another way neither Woke nor Trumpican. In a book review on Historians on Hamilton: How a Blockbuster Musical Is Restaging America’s Past by Renee C. Romana and Claire Potter, eds., Brad Austin writes on H-FedHist:
Taken as a whole, [these essays] argue that while Miranda’s Hamilton is not as revolutionary…as many have suggested, it remains remarkably entertaining and presents an almost unique opportunity for historians to engage the public in meaningful conversations about the nation’s past and the nature of history itself.
Imagine if Miranda decided to revise the musical to account for some of the historical issues raised since 2015 and for the Woke approach to make 1619 the birthday of the country. It is not illegal to revise a musical or play. Every time one is revived on Broadway it happens anyway. Now the original author has an opportunity to do so for the post-Covid return to Broadway. But even if he does, Hamilton cannot heal the country. It’s still only a musical with a great message. To heal the country can only happen if one of the two national political parties decides it wants to heal it instead of dividing it….and says so.
On Sunday, February 2, 2020, USA Today had a special supplement “1619: Searching for Answers.” This 12-page insert was far shorter than The New York Times magazine version last August. It also has received far less attention. Unlike The New York Times product, there was no attempt here to replace July 4, 1776, with 1619, as the birthday of the country. There has been no blowback by the history community either. There has been no rush-to-adoption by schools and no curriculum materials were prepared in conjunction with the supplement that I am aware of.
Nonetheless, the USA Today version is of far more importance to the health of the country for what it does do in contrast to the polemical assault by The New York Times. The USA Today 1619 supplement is one of hope, healing, and storytelling. Like Hamilton, it seeks to end the culture wars rather than to aggravate them.
The front page of the supplement is a picture of Wanda Tucker looking out to the ocean from a doorway at the National Slavery Museum in Morra Da Cruz, Brazil.
The above-the-fold picture on page 2 is again of Wanda Tucker. This time she is at the National Museum of Slavery at the outskirts of Luanda, Angola, on the opposite shore of the Atlantic. These two photographs mark the departure and arrival points for much of the Middle Passage. The byline for the article in Luanda. Right away, one notices a huge difference from The New York Times polemic which scarcely mentions Africa.
The article is about Wanda Tucker’s personal journey. It is entitled “The Long Road Home: Family Lore Sends her in Search of First Africans Taken to America.” She thinks that she is a descendant of Anthony and Isabella Tucker, two of the Angolans who arrived in 1619 and are listed in a 1625 census in the household of Captain William Tucker.
Interestingly, the article refers to the 400,000 people taken from Africa. Typically one reads about the 12,500,000 people. That number refers to the entire Middle Passage; the 400,000 refers to those taken to what becomes the United States. It is a far smaller number. The difference reflects the choices the presenter makes about the intended impact on the audience. The larger number is much more intimidating and powerful. It is over twice the number of the Holocaust.
Wanda Tucker’s 7000-mile journey began in the seventh grade when she read in a textbook on Virginia history with Robert E. Lee on the cover:
Slavery was in many ways a harsh and cruel system. But slavery made it possible for the Negroes to come to America and to make contacts with civilized life.
These words and the accompanying racism she experienced growing up eventually led her to Luanda. The article notes that “Angola is barely mentioned in most histories of the slave trade, but this was where it had begun.” I made this point in my blog on The New York Times version (The Battle between 1619 and 1776: The New York Times versus the History Community) where there is practically no mention of Angola whatsoever yet alone a visit there. One should note that the slave trade referred to should be identified with the Middle Passage and not all slave trade.
The article also notes the justification of slavery through the identification of Africans as descendants of Cain. This biblical citation is an important part of the history of slavery in America. Although the original story of Cain and Abel has nothing whatsoever to do with black Africans, the use of the story has had unintended consequences for them.
The article also mentions the foremost Angolan individual of the 1600s, Njinga. She was the queen of the Ndongo and Matamba kingdoms. She did resist Portugal during those years. She did demand to be treated as an equal ruler meaning not as a vassal. Not mentioned was she did become a Christian. She asked the Pope to recognize her kingdom as a Christian kingdom and he did. She build a stone church that became the largest building in the interior of Angola. She also was an ally of the Dutch against the Portuguese and she traded black African people for weapons. Her own culture did have human sacrifice and she did become part of the Imbangala who were cannibals who killed their young. And she was intensely ambitious. In a supplement of this nature, it is understandable why this part of her life was not mentioned. The truth of who she was as in individual human being makes her more of a Shakespearean figure (from the same time period) then she is as a symbol. In other words, Njinga should not become a designated African hero to be mentioned as Harriet Tubman often is in the United States as a symbol and not a person.
In any event, for Wanda Tucker, her 7000 mile journey on pages 2-3 of the supplement was a journey “home” to her African “family” where she could wrap her arms around a local black woman and dance.
The next article (page 4) is entitled “The Assignment: Follow a Family’s Search for Its Ancestry – The Result: I Found my Own History, too.” The author, Deborah Barfield Berry, was one of the reporters of the Wanda Tucker story. Once again the byline was Luanda, Angola.
It turns out by coincidence, Berry has a Tucker ancestor. The assignment made her wonder if she was connected to Wanda Tucker and therefore possibly to the 1619 Angolans. Berry accompanied Wanda Tucker and a cousin to the Tucker family cemetery in Virginia. She explored the oral traditions of her own family. She conducted genealogical research. As people in historical societies, libraries, and archives well know, genealogical research is one of the most frequent activities of visitors in person and online. While today such research typically is done by white people, there is a growing realization that it can be done by black people, too. This article is about the research by one such person.
Naturally, this being the 21st century, Berry also had her DNA tested. It did identify some links to the Congo and Southern Bantu but not directly to Angola. The Kingdom of Kongo where the Portuguese first arrived in 1482/3, is in modern Angola and the people were Bantu so perhaps Berry has a connection she didn’t note in the article. She also has links to England, Ireland, Wales, and Northwestern Europe, probably a reflection of America as a non-voluntary genetic melting pot.
Berry concludes her article with:
I spent 10 days on the road in Angola with a woman I didn’t know I was related to. By the end of that life-changing adventure, we had bonded like a family.
I called Wanda. “Hello, cousin,” I said.
This personal touch is precisely what The New York Times 1619 Project and shows precisely why the USA Today version offers a much hopeful vision of America.
Moving on, the family focus continues on page 5 with an above-the-fold photograph of the Tucker family. The article is entitled: “Founding Family Still Searching.” Berry is one of the co-reporters and byline is Hampton, Virginia. It is a reprint of an article from August 23, 2019, which I already had downloaded. Note the publication date around the time when the 400th anniversary actually occurred.
The article is about the Tucker cemetery mention above. It also is about the efforts of the Tucker family to research, document, and maintain the cemetery and in so doing, maintain the family over many generations.
One item of interest is the mention of the fact that Virginia in 1619 did not have a law either permitting or banning slavery. In my post on The New York Times 1619 Project, I faulted them for its all whites are alike approach. Northern Europe unlike the Mediterranean world had limited experience with slavery. It had not developed the legal mechanisms to account for it. Suddenly in 1619 in Virginia and 1626 in New Amsterdam, the English and Dutch did have to address it. In Virginia, a process began whereby slaves became property whereas in Africa slaves were people. The USA Today 1619 supplement is not meant to be a definitive history but elements of its storytelling can serve as a springboard for discussion should one want to use it in the classroom.
The next article, “Her Name and Story Reach Across Time: Angela Is a Symbol and a Touchstone for a People’s Heritage” is a reprint of an article from October 18, 2019, which I had downloaded when it was first published. This two-page article (pages 6-7) begins with an above-the-fold picture of Valerie Gray-Holmes portraying Angela in Jamestown. The article begins with what it means to her to portray this historically real person. Angela also appears in the 1625 census mentioned above, in the household of Captain William Pierce.
The article provides context to both slavery and racism of the time. This reporter uses the figure 360,000 for the number of Middle Passage blacks to America. It notes the efforts to recreate the world as it existed then through the work of the National Park Service, the Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation, and scholars like Linda Heywood and John Thornton. The latter spoke to our Westchester Society of the Archaeological Institute of America on November 9, 2003, at the Chappaqua Library. His abstract was:
Kingdom of Congo: Continuity and Change from Africa to America
While many Americans are familiar with the significant events of 1492 in Iberia and America, not many are aware of the key events of 1491. Prior to Columbus sailing west, the Portuguese had been sailing south along the western coast in Africa. In 1491 they successfully converted the Kongo kingdom to Christianity. This event had tremendous impact not only on the Kongolese culture but on the individual Africans who passed through that region before being brought to America. Only thanks to research at the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st, are we now able to reconstruct the pre-colonial culture and determine what did and did not survive the Middle Passage.
It was that lecture that made me realize that the Middle Passage involved kingdoms and not simply small isolated villages and that the people had become Catholic in Africa independent of the slave trade. Lately, I have been doing a lot of reading by these scholars in my own investigation of the landing in 1685 in the Town of Rye where I live of 9 Angolans, 8 of whom went on to help build Philipsburg Manor. My journey has a different perspective as I am seeking to learn about the history of my geographic community and not biological ancestors but it has drawn me to the same sources Valerie Gray-Holmes has pursued. I am pleased that USA Today included this African and Angolan material whereas New York Times 1619 Project did not. Despite all the hoopla about the latter, the USA Today version is a superior starting point for a curriculum about 1619.
In the next article, the focus shifts to the present (page 8): “Reparations Still Elusive: Nations Resist Atoning for Slavery, but some Universities Set Example.” This article reports on the current political situation in both the United States and various Caribbean island. As the title says, most of the reporting is on what various colleges and universities have done or are starting to do.
The scene shifts in the next article to Augustine, Florida. The article (page 9), “US Slavery Didn’t Start in Jamestown – Historian: Anniversary ‘robbing black history.’” It is a reprint of an article published December 17, 2019, which I already had downloaded. The article focuses on the Spanish in Florida beginning in 1565. In so doing, it indicates an issue in American history today. Scholars frequently use the term “Atlantic History” to suggest less of a focus on the 13 colonies that became the United States on July 4, 1776, and to recognize that these 13 were part of a larger world. It challenges people to look beyond these colonies. Florida was not part of the United States but it did become a state. Therefore, its history is part of American history just as what the Pilgrims did long before there was a United States was or for that matter what the various Indian peoples from sea to shining sea did. Again, it is easy to see how this article could be a springboard for discussion in a classroom setting.
The next article raises an important question for history museums and municipalities (page 10): “Not all historic sites have harsh truths on display.” The above-the fold picture is of Terry Brown, the National Park Service superintendent standing before a sign at Fort Monroe, Virginia, about 1619. The article raises a national issue of “how to portray the harsh truths of the past.” Hamilton asks “Who will tell the story?” but the related question is “How will we tell the story?” The answer(s) America develops to 1619, 1776, and the Confederacy will determine whether or not we remain a single country that can celebrate our 250th anniversary in 2026 or whether we divide into our constituent parts and admit the experiment the Founding Fathers initiated has finally failed. Once again, it is easy to see how this article could be a springboard for discussion in a classroom setting.
In the final article (page 11), we come full circle. We are back with Wanda Tucker. This time her journey took her to the white Tuckers here in America. Pam Tucker had wondered about her own family history. When she read the article in USA Today later reprinted in this 1619 supplement, she learned about her Tucker past. USA Today arranged for Pam and Wanda Tucker to travel to Virginia. The article recounts Pam’s own investigation to her heritage and her meeting with the other Tucker family she never knew. The picture is of Pam and Wanda hugging. The narrative is of them holding hands.
The final page (page 12) is maps and charts. There is an above-the-fold map tracing the 5 steps of the voyage from Angola to Virginia. A chart breaks down the destinations of the estimated 359,106 [that’s a pretty exact number for an estimate!]. South Carolina looks like it received over half the Africans with Virginia about a third. These ratios suggests the importance of tobacco and rice. Another chart prepared with the support of The Smithsonian National Museum of African-American History and Culture shows a reduction from every 1000 Africans taken in the interior of Africa (by other Africans) to only 640 reach the coast alive and only 570 remaining alive before they even board the ship. Besides the 430 who die in Africa, another 90 die during transport leaving 480 of the original 1000 still alive when they reach America. Once again, it is easy to see how these graphics could be a springboard for discussion in a classroom setting.
As the reader of this blog can tell, I strongly prefer the USA Today version of 1619 to The New York Times version. In the musical Hamilton, the figure of George Washington is played by a black man. According to The New York Times, it is anathema for a Middle Passage descendant to perform in the role of a slave owner who was fighting to preserve slavocracy. Hamilton offers an alternative view. It sings to all Americans accepting July 4 as the birthday of their country no matter when they arrived in this country or how. This is the message Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg. USA Today tells a similar story. Whereas The New York Times points a finger at America (choose which one), USA Today offers hugs and holding hands. Whereas The New York Times seeks to aggravate the culture wars so the correct side wins, USA Today seeks for us to learn to live together. Whereas The New York Times seeks to divide America, USA Today seeks to heal a nation. It is unfortunate that The New York Times is the version that will be used in the classroom and USA Today is the version that will not be.
I attended the opening night of Hamilton on Broadway. It was easy. The tickets went for sale at 9:00. At one second after 9:00, I was on the website. The theater was empty. I had my choice of seats as none were taken. I could have bought as many as I wanted…and for as many performances as I wanted. If I had known better, I would have cashed in my IRA!
At the opening performance everyone was excited. The buzz was palpable. Ron Chernow was there looking somewhat shell-shocked that his book was a Broadway musical. Then the musical began. Suddenly something strange happened. A white guy appeared on stage. He was singing British pop not hip hop. He was King George III. The song he was singing was “You’ll Be Back.” He brought down the house. Apparently, it was the first song Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote for Hamilton and he did so on his honeymoon. Even though Jonathan Groff’s performance lasted a mere nine minutes per show, he received a nomination for the Tony Award for Best Featured Actor in a Musical.
The tone and much of the language for this song appears to come from an actual address King George III made to Parliament on October 27, 1775. In the address, as in the song, George uses the words “loyal” and “subject” several times, followed by a proclamation that he will use force to put a speedy end to the revolt in America. From the address:
They have raised troops, and are collecting a naval force; they have seized the public revenue, and assumed to themselves legislative, executive and judicial powers, which they already exercise in the most arbitrary manner, over the persons and property of their fellow-subjects: And altho’ many of these unhappy people may still retain their loyalty, and may be too wise not to see the fatal consequence of this usurpation, and wish to resist it, yet the torrent of violence has been strong enough to compel their acquiescence, till a sufficient force shall appear to support them.
King George III may yet prove right. As we approach the 250th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence from England, the desire for a monarchy, a life-long position where you are legally untouchable, looms large with the current president.
Let’s look at the record as Shepard Smith would have reported it.
But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce We the People under absolute Despotism, it is our right, it is our duty, to impeach such Government, and to provide new Constitutional and statutory guards for our future security.–Such has been the patient sufferance of We the People; and such is now the necessity which constrains us to impeach the current Government. The history of the present President of the United States of America is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over We the People. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.
He has disparaged the first President of the United States because he did not name anything after himself the way the great kings of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia had.
He has asserted that Article II gives him the authority and power to do whatever he wants.
He has asserted that as President he cannot even be investigated yet alone indicted, tried, or convicted.
He has asserted that as President he and he alone can decide what checks and balances are to be adhered to.
He has asserted that as President he and he alone can decide what subpoenas to obey and what legislative requests to follow.
He has asserted that as President he and he alone can decide if an impeachment inquiry is valid.
He has asserted that as President that he cannot be guilty of obstruction since everybody who works for him or who is directly connected to him or by six degrees of separation is connected to him is covered by executive privilege and not subject to Congressional subpoenas.
He has asserted that whistle-blowers are traitors and should be treated as spies who should be executed.
In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A President whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.
We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of the Country, solemnly publish and declare, That We the People are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent People; that We are Absolved from all Allegiance to this President, and that all political connection between We the People and Donald Trump, is and ought to be totally dissolved. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.
Not exactly. On a recent Erin Burnett show, Kim Wehle, author of How to Read the Constitution and Why, expressed the view that Americans should be familiar with the Constitution. We are not a monarchy. She was correct to point out that was true in 1776 but that does not mean it is true in 2019. Maybe Hamilton’s King George III was right after all and we do want a king…or at least many Americans do.
A judge found the behavior of the current President to be “repugnant” and at odds with the Constitution – but where were the lawyers to tell their client the President that it was repugnant and in gross violation of the Constitution?
A judge regurgitated the Fox talking points in legalese in a 2-1 defeat of the President – but suppose there were more Trump-appointed judges on the bench were called upon to rule in such cases, who would win then?
Trump-appointed judges still have cases to adjudicate – how will they rule on ‘L’etat c’est moi’ cases?
Suppose ‘L’etat c’est moi’ cases reach the Supreme Court – how will the Court rule?
Already people speculate on how the Supreme Court judges might rule. It is taken for granted that the Trump-appointed judges will rule in favor of their leader. It is taken for granted that the Republican-appointed judges also will rule on behalf of THE DONALD…except maybe for the Chief Justice in an otherwise tie. It may well be that the continued existence of the United States as a Constitutional country depends on the continued existence of RBG.
King George III demanded loyalty. So does THE DONALD. King George III demanded loyalty to him as an individual. So does THE DONALD. As we begin the celebration of the 250th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, we have the opportunity not only to remember what happened but to relive it. We know there are many LOYALISTS. We have just seen them in Minnesota and Louisiana. They are united. They are passionate. They are committed. They are dedicated. And just maybe they will demonstrate that Hamilton’s King George III was right.
In 2000, Mel Gibson released The Patriot. On one level, one could view the movie as another stirring action story in the tradition of Braveheart. If the characters in the movie weren’t exactly historical that was OK; it was set in a real war with real locations and the good guys won. The movie wasn’t intended to be “the true story” of some specific individual or individuals, so relax and enjoy the entertainment.
There were certain caveats which rendered the escapism troublesome. Certainly the British didn’t fare too well as human beings. They were more in the tradition of Romans or Nazis in the Gibson universe. More troubling perhaps was Gibson’s presentism. Presentism refers to the retrojection of cultural values of the present into the past. It is the judgmental equivalent of having Washington use satellite imagery to locate the British troops or having Elliot Ness read Al Capone his rights. Typically, presentism is used to cast negative judgment against people in the past, to knock them off their pedestal, to take them down a notch, to make the judge, jury, and executioner of reputations in the present superior to the targeted person in history. It is not such much about setting the record straight as it is in being morally superior and self-righteous. There is no “walk a mile in someone’s shoes” or sensitivity in presentism.
Gibson used presentism in a different sense. Instead of retrojecting politically correct values to condemn someone in the past, he retrojected the values to create a community living in accordance with them. Gibson’s secret hideaway for fugitives from the British was a kumbaya community of people living in harmony with each other regardless of race or gender. Except for the fact that there was a war going on out there somewhere in the real world, Gibson’s “Gilligan’s Island” exemplified life as it should be lived in an idyllic setting. As one might expect, Gibson was taken to task for this artificial reality he created in the American and southern past.
Artists, unlike honest biographers, have choices to make about what to include or exclude in an artistic creation. After all, everything can’t be included. In the commencement address last spring at the University of Pennsylvania, Lin-Manuel Miranda discussed the power of stories to shape our lives and expressed the realization that story-telling is an act of pruning the truth, not representing it in its entirety. Miranda said:
Every story you choose to tell by necessity omits others from the larger narrative. One could write five totally different musicals from Hamilton’s eventful, singular American life … For every detail I chose to dramatize, there are 10 I left out. I include King George at the expense of Ben Franklin. I dramatize Angelica Schuyler’s intelligence and heart at the expense of Benedict Arnold’s betrayal. James Madison and Hamilton were friends, and political allies-but their personal and political fallout falls right on our act break, during intermission. (The Pennsylvania Gazette July/August 2016, 15)
Miranda’s Hamilton in one striking inclusion and one striking omission demonstrates that Mel Gibson is alive and well in the portrayal of the American Revolution. In his commencement address, Miranda referred to one of the defining stories this presidential election year.
In a year when politicians traffic in anti-immigrant rhetoric, there is also a Broadway musical reminding us that a broke, orphan immigrant from the West Indies built our financial system. A story that reminds us that since the beginning of the great unfinished symphony that is our American experiment, time and time again immigrants get the job done. (The Pennsylvania Gazette July/August 2016, 15)
Miranda is to be praised for reminding us that America from the start has been an unfinished experiment and that the journey continues. That expression is part of why Hamilton is the great sign that the journey will continue to be a successful one, that the work that still needs to be done, will be done. But he can be faulted for going overboard on Hamilton the pro-immigrant person based on politically correct values in the present. In the musical, the line “immigrants get the job done” generates the loudest applause. There is no doubting its theatrical effectiveness in New York City in 2015-2016 and beyond. There also is no doubting it is an example of Mel Gibson kumbaya.
In the musical, Hamilton and Lafayette high-five each other as they exclaim this thought. Technically, of course, Lafayette, was not an immigrant but a visitor. The musical does not specifically identify him as an immigrant but it is easy to infer that he is if one didn’t already know better. Immigration during the war wasn’t a big issue. There was more concern about Loyalist Brits returning and participating in the American political entity than about non-British immigration. It would be decades before immigration would become an issue with the arrival of America’s first “Moslems,” the Catholics who pledged loyalty to a foreign master and who were going to infiltrate and take over the country. Do you know how matter Catholics there are on the Supreme Court today? And as Republicans!? One may raise legitimate issues about how welcoming Federalist Protestant Hamilton would have been of the arrival of multitudes of riff raff. But not in the musical Miranda chose to write.
Similarly there is a race problem. Hamilton was not a slave owner and he did join John Jay’s manumission society. On the other hand, he did marry into a slave-owning family. Just recently, there was ceremony at Schuyler Flatts in Colonie, just north of Albany, of the remains of 14 of the Schuyler slaves. They were first discovered during a construction project in 2005 and then analyzed by the New York State Museum in 2010. I tried to go there as part of Teacherhostel/Historyhostel, but was informed by the New York State archaeologist that there was nothing to see at Schuyler Flatts. It just was flat piece of land. Now there are artistically-created burial coffins for these people. So while Hamilton casts some of the Schuyler daughters as black it does not address the slaves those daughters owned through their father. Not an easy subject for Miranda’ musical but an essential one for a biography by a historian.
Gibson’s presentism continues on in the AMC series Turn, another American Revolution story with 21st century values. I refer here not to John Graves Simcoe, the future founder of York, now named Toronto. In the TV series he is cast in the Darth Vader role as a “ruthless attack dog” according to the website. I am referring to Anna Strong, the older married woman with children who is transformed into a sexy tavern wench lusted for by men on both sides of the conflict. But at the Turn panel discussion at the New-York Historical Society last spring, the audience was informed that the character’s position would take a turn for the better in season three. She would be transformed this time into an active participant in the spy ring who travelled about and contributed to the decisions made. Her travels take her to John André’s black servant, Abigail, a former slave in the Strong household. The scenes involving Anna, Abigail, and her son are dangerously reminiscent of Gibson’s kumbaya community in The Patriot. One might wonder if the enhanced role for the lead female figure was due to some new discovery or scholarship but that would be foolish. The decision, of course, was a marketing one to provide a character to appeal to the desired demographic. If changing this bewitching female into a witch would help ratings then that might be considered too except The Legend of Sleepy Hollow already has that niche covered for the American Revolution.
Overall, it is good that there is such interest in the birth of the country. After all, we never were a country of one ethnicity or religion. That demographic diversity is part of the reason why we have continued to exist even as the number of ethnicities (Palatines-Irish-Italian-Indian) and religions (Methodist, Catholic, Jewish, Moslem) continues to grow. We are better as a country if we continually return to the story of our birth as country to make the story relevant to We the People today. Take a look at the story of the Exodus and see how many times Moses climbs up and down the mountain and all the activities at the mountain and you see examples of Exodus Midrash, the Jewish tradition of retelling the story of the foundation of the people, a tradition which continues today both in the different Passover ceremonies which are held and the different Exodus movies which are made. Mixed multitudes and diverse demographics become one in the ideas that constitute or covenant them as a single people. To stop telling the story of that birth is to die as a people, to cease to exist as a culture. But there are limits. The presentisms of Mel Gibson, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and AMC are not the first time the story of the American Revolution was retold and won’t be the last. In fact, part of the story of America, is the recognition that we are telling and retelling the story of our birth again and again.