Renee Romano on ‘Hamilton’ and Historical Memory

August 6, 2018

Erin Ulrich ’18

Professor Renee Romano
Professor of History Renee Romano
Photo credit: Jennifer Manna

Professor Renee Romano discusses race, politics, and Broadway in the new book she coedited, Historians on Hamilton.

Hamilton captures the story of Alexander Hamilton’s life at the peak of America’s founding moment—a moment Renee Romano says was filled with “boldness and bravado.” Romano is the Robert S. Danforth Professor of History and professor of comparative American studies and Africana studies at Oberlin and is using her training as a professional historian to explore one of the country’s most renowned junctures in popular culture.

She first decided to create the book with her coeditor, Claire Potter of the New School, after running into teenagers on the street in rural Ohio singing show tunes from Hamilton. Historians on Hamilton not only captures the unprecedented popularity of the musical, which crosses party lines and age demographics, but also asks why it is that a show about American history—something often mundane to young people and polarizing between political parties—has become a household name.

“One of the things that’s been said about Hamilton is that if you go and this is all you see, you’re going to have a really misguided notion of American history. Our biggest hope for the book is that it allows fans of the show to have a better understanding and to dig deeper into its historical and social worth,” Romano says.

While she acknowledges that many critiques in the book point out the blatant historical misrepresentations in the musical—such as its portrayal of Alexander Hamilton as an anti-slavery immigrant—Romano says it is impossible to discount the interest in early American history Hamilton has ignited.

For instance, she recalls a moment when her coeditor went online to purchase a copy of the Federalist Papers only to discover that they were sold out on Amazon. Hamilton has piqued the interest of not only newfangled history junkies, but young people as well.  

Hamilton’s soundtrack is loaded with rap and hip-hop renditions of historical events, which Romano says valorizes young people’s own cultural forms.

“Communicating historical thinking skills through these different forms and genres appeals to young people and meets them where they’re at,” she says. “It’s a way to think about history as something that’s alive. History is interpretation that can be expressed in lots of different forms.”

The musical’s unparalleled popularity between typically polarized ideological and political lines speaks to its potential to be received in a multiplicity of ways, Romano says. “Hamilton is quickly becoming an uncontroversial staple in classrooms across the country…[it] appears to be open to multiple, even conflicting readings, by people with quite different political perspectives,” she writes in her chapter in the book titled “Hamilton: A New American Civic Myth.”

However, Romano acknowledges that several essays in the book take issue with the musical sensation. In her interview with host Dan Polletta on Ideastream’s The Sound of Applause, she says that several authors in the book are critical of the musical’s representation of the country’s founders as played by actors of color, especially since the play features virtually no actual historical characters of color. “Some of the authors in the book take offense at the idea that this musical might be asking young people of color to take pride in an American narrative in which they actually have no actual part—it’s not representing their history.”

Yet, Romano finds the now famous question the musical asks, “Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?” powerful because of its potential to subvert the lens through which America’s founding story has typically been told—the narrative lens of white men. She says that civic myths have historically been used to perpetuate the notion that America is “a white man’s country.” Yet, Hamilton’s cast tells this story in a different way in which people of color take center stage in the musical’s telling of America’s founding—literally.  

“For me, I look at Hamilton as a kind of civic myth, a foundational story that’s not necessarily about the historical accuracy,” she says. “What Hamilton is doing is offering a sense of ownership over these mythic origin stories, which are really powerful to people of color and requiring that whites accept people of color as tellers of the nation’s origin story."

“I see that as promoting or presenting a challenge to a very basic link of whiteness and citizenship that was present at the founding and has been part of this country for all of its history.”

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