What Comes Next?

hamposterThe popularity of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton: An American Musical is undeniable. It won a Grammy (Best Musical Theatre Album), will likely be nominated for (and win) multiple Tony Awards, and has been discussed by scholars and the popular press. It has been lauded and critiqued by scholars of history, theatre, and literature. But the popularity of Hamilton also raises a challenge for historians of Early America, especially those who do public or digital history:

To borrow from Miranda’s King George III: “what comes next?

How do we engage the people who are coming to this history through Hamilton? Having considered the gaps in the stories told by the show, how do we bring that history to people who are, in my anecdotal experience, eager to learn more? While offering further reading on the period or pointing people to existing programs are good places to start, I think we can do more.

To truly connect with the populations who are flocking to Hamilton: An American Musical, we need to look beyond the historical period and consider what makes the show popular. The music is strongly rooted in hip-hop, rap, and r&b, but there are also nods to classic broadway, even Gilbert and Sullivan; Miranda is speaking in a voice that is familiar and accessible to a wide range of people.

Moreover, audiences who have never set foot in the theatre (either the Public or the Richard Rogers) have been welcomed by Miranda and the show’s cast in various forms of online engagements. Miranda, who like his title character seems to work non-stop, frequently converses with fans on twitter and has joined tumblr where he reblogs and likes fans’ posts. When someone added the lyrics of the show to Rap Genius and the community started annotating, he expressed delight and even noted (again on twitter) when people guessed correctly about a riff or other fact. Members of the cast and crew have live-streamed events on SnapChat and Facebook.

Interactions between the cast and crew of Hamilton and its audience – its fandom – are conversational and egalitarian to a large extent. When the audience creates annotations, transformative works, YouTube videos, the official Hamilton community generally responds with praise or gratitude. The creators of Hamilton have embraced their fan community and recognized its voice as a valid participant in the expression of the show an experience, as a cultural moment.

The challenge as I see it for public/digital/early american historians who want to catch the wave of Hamilton’s popularity to expand the understanding of the show’s fans is to find ways to communicate which echo the accessible tone of the show and which convey a sense of shared experience where the non-expert is welcomed and celebrated. We should try to share our enthusiasm for the past with them, and welcome their enthusiasm or concerns in return, instead of imparting knowledge. Conversation, shared authority, a willingness to allow emotion to be part of the experience of history, are all useful tools as we try to convey the rich history of late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century America.

A note: I started drafting this post last week, before attending the 2016 Annual Meeting of the National Council on Public History, whose theme was “Challenging the Exclusive Past.” Every day of the conference brought me new possibilities for creating a more inclusive interpretation of the past, as well as the challenges which exist. It reiterated what I had been thinking about when I began writing this post: that we need to create an inclusive (public) history of the Revolutionary/Early National era, telling the stories of the wise range of peoples of many races, ethnicities, gender identities, and classes who lived through this period and including our publics as participants, not an audience, when we do so.

One tweet from the conference which I feel captures some of what I’ve been trying to say came from Lara Kelland, quoting Denise D. Meringolo “I wanted to let people tell their stories, but I didn’t want us to tell them what their lives mean.”

The dead may have no control who lives, who dies, who tells their story, but the living should have a say.

Teaching History to Captain America

I started thinking about this post in 2011, Captain America: The First Avenger came out. The movie came out the summer before I started my PhD program, and Clio Wired in particular made me think about how digital tools could make history education more accessible on the move.

It was a sort of thought experiment: how would you catch Captain America up on the years he missed, when he’s presumably constantly running around saving the world? Assuming S.H.I.E.L.D. would fill him in on the basic geopolitical and military information, how to do you get across the facts of the national and global social and cultural changes of the second half of the twentieth century in a way which is both relatively bite-size and captures the nuance of current historical interpretation?

At the time, I was inspired by the work of my colleague Richard Hardesty, whose project that semester looked at the intersection of baseball and civil rights activism in Baltimore (he probably would say this better). I wondered about the possibility of doing the major events of a decade built around baseball as a video, allowing for responses and remixes, all of which would be on YouTube or some other public platform.

Three years later, we have the second installment of the Captain’s story. One of the things which delighted me about Captain American: The Winter Soldier was Captain Roger’s list of “things to look up,” and moreover the fact that the film had different items depending on which the country of release. This choice by the directors and/or designers shows an awareness of the different important cultural moments for different nations. K-pop or the Beatles? The World Cup or the Superbowl?

What do you think? What would you put on that list for Cap? What podcasts or blogs would you tell him to check out?

 

Talk About Memory

I’ve posted before about the events of 9/11/2001, my experience(s) of it, and how my undergraduate studies emphasized another 11 September, in 1973 in Chile.

It seems every year when this day rolls around I’m in a situation with new people and we all share the “where were you stories.” It’s a ritual, a bonding experience, and a conversational opening into topics like politics, college life, or the expression of shared memory. In some ways, reciting my experience of the events of that sunny Tuesday morning in September is as calming as any liturgy or mantra. (( On a side note, the fact that 9/11 is again a Tuesday, and sunny, is more commemorative for me than last year’s 10th anniversary. )) Sharing memories, the individual facets of a collective experience, isn’t new, nor do I expect that we’ll stop doing it in time.

A friend of mine who is a very talented historical research focused on genealogy posted today about her 9/11/01 memories, and I want to share a part of that post:

“The December after the attacks I sat at a Holiday Dinner with my mother’s family.  With us was the last few members of my grandmother’s generation.  My Great-aunt Bertie told us about Pearl Harbor.  She could remember exaclty where she was, what was playing on the radio, and what happened that day in December 1941.  She told us that this was our Pearl Harbor.  This event would define us as people and as a nation.”

11 November 1918. 7 December 1941. November 1989. 11 September 2001. Dates that generations and populations remember and commemorate in their own ways.

History in Unanticipated Places

Yesterday my priest started her sermon with a version of the origin of Labor Day. She focused on the life and work of George Pullman, particular those actions which contributed to the 1894 strike. The sermon was also rooted in the readings, particularly James 1:17-27. (( She likened Pullman to someone who has turned from the mirror and forgotten his face, forgotten that he and his workers were all Children of God. This was church, after all. )) But what interested me was the fact that Labor Day was established in law by President Cleveland so soon after the end of the strike.

Like most Americans, I would imagine, I had forgotten that National Holidays are formally established with an Act. This particular act started as S. 730 and H.R. 28. I was going to post the text here, but I’m having trouble tracking it down. Once I do, I’ll come back and put it in. I’m curious as to what the original wording was.

Old Haunts, New Views

This summer I’m working on a project which has to do with the history of the National Mall. It has been fun to learn more about a part of town with which I’m so familiar. Although I’m not a DC/Northern VA native, members of my family have lived in and around DC since the 1960s and we used to come visit at least once a year. I have fond memories of climbing on Uncle Beazley when he sat outside Natural History.

Today, despite the record-breaking heat, I ventured down to the Smithsonian Folklife Festival to see the AIDS Memorial Quilt. It was the first time I’ve been down to the Mall since starting work on the Mall history project. Knowing what had come before made the very familiar landscape of flat, dying grass and beige gravel paths interesting again.

I metroed to Archives/Navy Memorial (to avoid crowds at Smithsonian and to get coffee at the Starbucks in the gold-domed insurance building on 7th) which obviously put me out near the National Archives. Or, in my new thinking, the site which once housed Center Market, where generations of Washingtonians bought produce, meat, and groceries. And, apparently, played billiards.

Then I wandered down the Mall towards 14th, passing construction just across from the sculpture garden which is, I think, roughly where there used to be temporary government office buildings.

I tend to see history wherever I go. Today I had more information and the memory of the many photos I’ve seen over the last month, making the past more vivid and certain than usual. I may have been to the Mall hundreds of times, but today it felt new.

Historical Hypochondria

I have begun to wonder if historians, or at least history students, don’t suffer from a similar problem to that experienced by medical students. Medical students often start to self-diagnose with various ailments during the course of their studies, especially when confronted with list after list of symptoms. They find themselves ticking off symptoms and suddenly thinking they have this or that strange disorder. (( But never lupus ))

Sometimes as I am reading about historical groups or events, I find myself thinking “Gee, that’s awfully similar to X or Y.” Occasionally these are happy similarites, but often they are not. This semester I’m taking a course on the South since 1865, with an emphasis on race and gender, which means I’m reading accounts of voter suppression and white supremacists’ efforts to control the public lives of women, white and black.

Continue reading “Historical Hypochondria”

Heard on the radio

As I was running errands today, I had my radio tuned to the local NPR station, listening to This American Life. Today’s program was about the new Alabama immigration laws and how they have, in addition to whatever else, increased the racism experienced by/targeted at the Latino population.

An instance mention by the reporter involved a group of Hispanic kids at a peprally who were all sitting on the front bleachers. Their peers, the other students, started yelling “Mexicans to the back!” until the Hispanic kids moved.  I was shocked, and wondered if the kids yelling had any sense of the historical echo of their words, of the history of racial segregation in this country (codified and/or cultural).  Whether they are or they are not aware of the history, the act is unsettlingly reminiscent of an era which I hope we are not about to repeat.

Everyday History

I’ve met a number of people for whom history is apparently something in the classroom or textbook, a dry (possibly dusty) academic subject. I don’t blame them for thinking these things, any more than I would blame people who likewise relegate chemistry, physics, math or literature to the school building. But just as we encounter chemistry in cooking, physics on the highway, math in our budgets and literature on the shelves of a local library, history is always present.

I’ve had two encounters in the past two days with everyday sorts of history, and I wanted to share them.

One

Yesterday morning I went to my parent’s church and was engaged in conversation by an older woman who sat herself down next to me. Learning that I am a PhD student in history, she proceeded to tell me how she loves reading history and finding things out. Her personal interest is in the history of regional groups in the US.

She said to me “of course, the more you learn the more confusing it is,” (roughly paraphrased) which I thought was such a wonderful expression of how studying history can sometimes feel like travelling down Alice’s rabbit hole, or wandering into Ariadne’s labyrinth without benefit of a ball of string.

She also mentioned that she grew up in south-east Washington, DC. Recently she’d been coming back from National Harbor with her daughter and they’d driven around the neighborhood looking for a Dairy Queen. They ended up in front of her grandmother’s house. Not only did she tell her daughter about her memories of that house, she went home and dug out a picture of her grandmother on its steps, tracked down the woman how now owns the house, and sent her a copy of the picture. Apparently the current owner is the third generation of her own family to live in that house, and she loved having a picture of its first owner just after it was built.

Two

Today Patrick Murray-John retweeted a link to a blog essay written by a person of color who went to the Occupy Wall Street movement to see what it was about and ended up getting involved. The essay discusses the demographics of the people in the movement and the people organizing the movement. It’s worth a read.  I was particularly caught by this passage, near the end:

And this is the thing: that there in that circle, on that street-corner we did a crash course on racism, white privilege, structural racism, oppression. We did a course on history and the declaration of independence and colonialism and slavery. It was hard. It was real. It hurt. But people listened. We had to fight for it.

When you live rolled up in history all the time, it’s easy to forget that some people don’t see it unless they’re made to.  I don’t want to say that all history is political, or that it should be, but it’s worth keeping in mind that some people are doing the politics without understanding the historical context.  That just giving a student dates and names may not offer them the resources they need to know why riffing on race and the Declaration of Independence might be problematic.

There is chemistry in cooking, there is math in my checkbook, and there is history in the everyday.

What you save

I declared my undergraduate major in History on the first day of classes of my sophomore year of college, September 2001.

A handful of days later, what might have been an ordinary Tuesday became a historic event. I knew it was going to be what children in the next generation would ask me about, saying “Do you remember” and “Where were you?”

A few months ago, in preparation for a move from Charlottesville, where I was working as a historian, to Northern Virginia, where I am now again a history student, I went through the box of papers I’d saved from college. In the box was a letter-sized plastic envelope with documentation about the immediate aftermath of that September.

Until I came across it, I’d forgotten completely about collecting these things. It made sense then, as now, to try and gather an archive of my experience, of the experience of my college friends and community. The envelope has a copy of the student newspaper and the daily broadside from campus, the cover of a New Yorker magazine, emails and a poem I wrote, and some other items. I remembered selecting things to save, making sure to get copies of things, even though I knew that the college library was probably doing the same thing. It didn’t matter if they were. I was saving these not for the next year, or even 10 years out, but 30 or 40.

I looked over everything carefully, then put it all back in the plastic envelope and promised myself I’d get archival storage once I finished moving.

Living with Hurricanes at the Louisiana State Museum

what remains of a piano damaged by Hurricane Katrina
Fats Domino's piano

Last month I was in New Orleans for a joyful family occasion, and I had the chance to see a new exhibit at the Presbytere building of the Louisiana State Museum titled Living With Hurricanes: Katrina and Beyond. I was intrigued by the exhibit to see how a museum in the heart of an affected area remembered and interpreted a major natural and human disaster. I was also drawn because Katrina had a direct impact on my family.

The joyful family occasion was my sister and her husband’s graduation from medical school. My sister moved to New Orleans for med school at the beginning of August 2005. Less than a month later, she was thousands of miles from her barely-unpacked house, with two cats, a car, and no idea when she’d be able to get back into the city. I viewed the events of Katrina and Rita through a familial lens; this exhibit was a chance to look at it from a different angle.

Overall, I found the exhibit compelling, informative, and I think designed in a way so that every visitor would come away having learned something. Information was presented in a number of ways, providing all sorts of ways for a visitor to connect to the story. The exhibit also seemed like it would not be too traumatic for someone who had experienced the storm to visit.

Continue reading “Living with Hurricanes at the Louisiana State Museum”