Who tells the story?
That question was pondered in a recent column on these pages in reference to history, current events and the smash Broadway musical “Hamilton.” As an avid fan of the musical myself, there was a whole lot about that column that bothered me, including that someone was using a piece of art deliberately fictionalized and framed to retell history through the acting of people of color as a basis to make claims about only conservatives quoting the Constitution or the Federalist Papers.
While I wholeheartedly agree with the writer’s assessment that Hamilton is excellent and that it’s a good thing if it inspires people to learn more about history, I find it nonsensical that someone would try to use it as a platform in support of conservatism.
The author of that column made a statement about being saddened when those who quote the Constitution are described as conservatives. I can only assume this was some type of effort to claim only conservatives actually support the Constitution, which is also nonsensical. I’m not remotely conservative and I’ll happily quote both the Constitution and the Federalist Papers. The difference isn’t that only one side of the political spectrum supports or can quote these documents, but rather in which parts are most often emphasized or quoted and the circumstances surrounding those references.
That particular column, as well as the tumultuous times we’re living in, got me thinking about history and storytelling and how they’re inextricably linked to the present. Storytelling is an integral part of human culture. We rely on stories to frame our existence, our heritage and ourselves.
Here in Wyoming we have a whole lot of those stories — particularly the rugged cowboy that tamed the West on his own with nothing but his trusty horse, his gun and his own bare hands. That particular image is not just emblematic of Wyoming and the West, but has come to be symbolic of America itself — a country of hard-working individuals who created something remarkable out of nothing.
While there may be some truth to these claims, the unfortunate part is that much of what we believe to be true about Wyoming, America and ourselves is simply mythology.
Let’s start with the Founders. Yes, those men unquestionably wrote exceptional and groundbreaking documents to start America on its course. Their names – George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton, to name a few – are a permanent part of our legacy and the men are revered as great men.
The truth, however, is far more complicated and often contradictory. Jefferson wrote about all men being created equal while owning hundreds of slaves. Historians agree he fathered multiple children with his slave Sally Hemings, with her first pregnancy occurring when she was 14-15. Now, we call an adult man having sex with a teenager he has power and influence over rape.
Washington led colonial forces through the Revolutionary War, became our first president, set a precedent of voluntarily leaving office after two terms and warned us about the dangers of political parties. He also owned slaves and reportedly had a set of false teeth made from the teeth of slaves.
So much for equality.
Hamilton went to the Constitutional Convention and proposed a government headed by a president for life with the title passed on by birth as opposed to electing a short-term president. So much for the Founders unanimously supporting small government.
There’s been talk in recent months about Confederate statues and whether taking them down is erasing “our” heritage. The obvious question is, whose heritage? The heritage of predominantly white men who insisted Black people were an inferior race and should be owned as property and believed that so strongly they chose to leave the United States and start their own country? Read the constitutional documents of the Confederacy or any of the documents of secession from the individual states. They all referenced the institution of slavery as the reason for secession.
Vice President of the Confederacy Alexander Stephens made the issue quite clear when he said the “cornerstone” of their new country was that idea that “the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition” and that the Confederacy would be the first nation in the world built on “this great physical, philosophical and moral truth.”
Why would we keep up statues of men who fought under the banner of a foreign country for their right to own other people? We already have battlegrounds to commemorate the Civil War, and statues to memorialize racists who contributed literally nothing to U.S. history have no place in the public sphere and should be relegated to museums that focus on real history.
From my viewpoint, erasing history and heritage is, in fact, part of our history and heritage. The textbooks I read in school made mention of few BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) or women and were based almost entirely on the deeds of white men — textbooks that claimed the Founders were basically God-like and the Civil War was fought over states’ rights, both of which are gross inaccuracies.
The Western Cowboy is another such fabrication. Most folks in Wyoming routinely complain about government encroachment on individual liberties. Determined, strong individual white men settled the West on their own and we should keep it that way, right?
Up to one third of “cowboys” during the days of westward expansion were people of color. There were single women homesteaders. Railroads were built on the labor of immigrants. Farming in the arid West would have been impossible without government projects diverting water to areas lacking that natural resource. In fact, land ownership in the West was made possible due to huge government land deals that encouraged settlement — not to mention the government’s role in taming the “savages” and moving them to reservations as my history books claimed (because that sounds far nicer than committing mass genocide of American Indians.)
I’m sure this last bit has upset some folks and that’s OK. I am well versed in Wyoming’s proud cowboy traditions. People in our neck of the woods are hard-working, rugged folks carrying on time-honored traditions and a disappearing way of life. I don’t deny that. I do, however, refute the claim that their ancestors did it all on their own because it simply wouldn’t have been possible and wouldn’t have occurred as it did without the role of government.
We still carry on similar mythologies in all sorts of ways.
“If Wyoming just keeps its taxes low, people will move here.” When? I’ve lived here my entire life (rapidly approaching five decades), we’ve always had low taxes and people aren’t moving here. Middle-class people move for jobs, good schools, amenities, etc., that depend on government investment. Only rich people move based on low taxation. So Wyoming stagnates while surrounding states like Utah, Colorado and Idaho, all with higher tax burdens than Wyoming, have boomed. Similar myths involve Wyoming residents being overtaxed (we’re not), Wyoming having more state employees per capita than any other state (we don’t) and Wyoming being able to solve its budget woes simply by cutting wasteful spending (we can’t).
“Make America Great Again.” There are so many problems with that I don’t know where to start. First, if our current situation is anybody’s idea of great then I do not think that word means what you think it means. Beyond that, what time period is being referenced by the word “again?” When were we so great?
Even at times of tremendous economic growth and expansion, the country hasn’t worked for everybody. People of color, women, LGBTQ individuals and more have always been left behind and cast aside. The country has certainly never been great for all Americans. Ever.
From what I can ascertain, this long-gone “greatness” was some time post-WWII when segregation ruled, women knew their place and the economy grew for white men (and when, I should point out, taxation was higher and the country was investing heavily in infrastructure and public works projects that created jobs).
Even when the economy was supposedly flourishing pre-COVID, things couldn’t have been that great or it wouldn’t have completely collapsed in a couple of weeks. We still had millions of people living paycheck to paycheck, without accessible healthcare, facing discrimination and lack of equality every day, children living in poverty and going hungry. Perhaps we just have very different conceptions of greatness because I don’t think any of that qualifies.
This matters because the stories we choose tell ourselves and choose to believe provide our lens for understanding the world and our place in it. We all have them.
The trick is being able to recognize them and discern the difference between the truth and the story, particularly when the story is far more palatable.