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Faculty Weigh in on History as Depicted in ‘Hamilton’

By Vedant Bahl and Archie J.W. Hall, Contributing Writers

While Harvard’s top administrators, from University President Drew G. Faust to Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana, have quoted Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hit musical “Hamilton,” Annette Gordon-Reed, a professor of history and law, has criticized the musical’s depiction of America’s founding narrative as historical truth.

In a blog post published on the National Council on Public History's website in April, Gordon-Reed critiqued the play’s presentation of the Revolutionary period. Though she said in an interview that she loved the musical and that it was a “brilliant” work of art, Gordon-Reed noted that Alexander Hamilton was not a “real abolitionist” but rather a “definite elitist, for the one percent.” She described the play’s representation of the historical figure as an attempt to make him palatable to a contemporary audience.

Despite the musical’s casting of black and other actors of color, its lack of black characters, Gordon-Reed said, presents the Revolutionary period as more “white” than it in fact was.

Gordon-Reed said she is fulfilling her duty as a historian in making a series of observations about the musical, but “would not change a line” of it. She said the national discussion about the production is productive, noting especially the upcoming documentary the “Making of Hamilton,” which she says treats the play as a “brilliant creation”, rather than historical truth.

While not necessarily disagreeing with Gordon-Reed, other faculty members emphasized other positive impacts the play has had on America’s perceptions of race and the country’s own history.

Music professor Carol J. Oja praised Miranda’s aesthetic choices, noting that amid a political climate marked by discrimination, “the brilliant young cast of Hamilton is busy writing immigrants and the reality of slavery into national narratives.”

Assistant professor of English Derek Miller said he agrees with many of Gordon-Reed’s criticisms, but warned that “no one should approach any text as the definitive truth about anything.”

“Asking a play to be all things all of the time leads to not just bad but to incoherent art,” Miller said. He noted that even reading Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton, on which the musical is based, would provide an incomplete picture of the period in American history it covers.

Miller said that the discussions of race inspired by “Hamilton” are important in a creative field traditionally dominated by white artists.

He pointed to the recent Broadway revival of “The Color Purple,” a musical that deals with the subject of race in America, as a similar example.

Hannah Farber, a visiting assistant professor at Boston College who studies early American history, said Miranda’s lyrics and music bring out the vitality of the ideals of the American Revolution

“You see the American Revolution as a set of ideas that are powerful, but cannot to retained by the people who claimed them,” she said.

Faculty members agree about the importance of discussing the musical, particularly the issues evoked in its lyrics, “who lives, who dies, who tells your story”.

Faust reminded the departing Class of 2016 last May that those question are not just for historians.

“Who will tell your story? You,” she said.

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