The praise for the cultural phenomenon that is Broadway’s Hamilton just keeps coming. It was announced today that the show’s creator Lin-Manuel Miranda has won the Pulitzer Prize for drama. As someone that has always admired Alexander Hamilton, it makes me very happy that this show has done so much for the reputation of this important Founding Father. Heck, I really do think that the musical is what has apparently saved Hamilton’s place on our currency, and rightfully gotten Jackson booted off.
And while we are on the importance of pop cultural depictions of history: I have obviously posted a lot lately about WGN’s Underground, because I think historians need to take it seriously and embrace and promote it. Pop cultural representations of history matter because they shape people’s perceptions to a larger degree than any classroom lecture or scholarly monograph (for good and bad). So please excuse me for once again posting a piece about the show, but I found this one today on Yahoo interesting because of the comments from some of the actors and producers. Particularly, I think actress Jurnee Smolett-Bell (Rosalee on the show) is correct when she says that we need to “tell the story of the people who revolted, those who were revolutionaries.” But it worries me that the comment seems to suggest that those that did not run away were less heroic, because as I have argued elsewhere, the enslaved were powerful and resilient survivors. But then Smolett-Bell goes on to say something that gets at the heart of a larger issue. I’m not a fan of what I call “victim history,” and much prefer to present US history as the story of its diverse peoples overcoming major obstacles (that were, and continue to be, mostly put in place by our own failings and in the interest of powerful elites. And yes, often our trajectory of progress goes considerably backwards). Thus, I try to teach what I call “obstacle history.” In the interview, Smolett-Bell says something that perfectly encapsulates why I think we need to teach history this way and why it is important to do so: “If we come from such strength and such courage, and those people that we come from were able to achieve what they achieved in spite of the great obstacles they were up against, I have absolutely no excuse in my life, and anything that is wrong with our country and our community we have to take responsibility for and take it into our own hands and fix it.” Of course nothing is as simple as that, but I think she’s more right than wrong.