Fifteen Questions: Annette Gordon-Reed on Book Banning, Originalism, and ‘Hamilton’

The Harvard Law School professor Annette Gordon-Reed sat down with FM to talk about history and the law, book banning, and musicals.


Annette Gordon-Reed is the Carl M. Loeb University Professor at Harvard. She teaches at Harvard Law School and the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and is a Pulitzer Prize-winning author.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

FM: In your writing, you have taken issue with William Faulkner’s oft-quoted line, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” When does reckoning with history turn into an obsession with the past?

AGR: It’s a tough question. I would suppose it’s when you let thinking about the past hold you in place so that you don’t move forward. It’s hard to know when to draw that line. The idea is to think about what happened in the past but realize it was a different context. The people were different. The time was different. Understanding the legacies from the past, but not to let it hold you in place. You’ve got to move forward.

FM: Your most recent book, “On Juneteenth,” grappled with the history of your home state of Texas. Texas students learn about the state’s history in fourth and seventh grade. Given the chance, how would you revise their curriculum?

AGR: Well, I would be much more upfront about all of the people who existed in Texas before. It started out as a place with indigenous people. And then there were people from the Spanish Empire, people of African descent, Anglo-Americans — people who became Anglo-Americans.

I would also talk about the institution of slavery and how that helped make the place. A lot of people came there because they wanted to be a part of the cotton empire. I would imagine that history teaches that to a degree today, much more so than it did when I was a young person. But I would make sure that that understanding about the history of Texas was put forward, clearly.

FM: In 2022, Conroe Independent School District — the district you grew up in — named a new elementary school after you. What was your reaction to this?

AGR: They had been asking me about this for a couple of years beforehand, and I had declined, because I was sort of hesitant about naming things after people who are still alive. But my husband convinced me that my parents’ friends who were still living — my parents are no longer living, but some of their friends are still alive — would be very happy to see that take place. So I said, “sure.” And it was great. I went down for the opening. And I went back again later on for the first graduation. It just made me very proud.

FM: In the 2022-2023 school year, that same school district banned 59 books, more than any other in the Greater Houston area. Critics have noted that many of these banned books highlighted the stories of underrepresented communities. How do you feel about having an elementary school named after you in a district that some see as hostile to marginalized voices?

AGR: I grew up in that place, and I’ve always understood that it’s a tough place. It’s always been tough racially. There were lynchings in that area in the early 20th century, and I don’t expect it to have risen above all of the racial problems that were brought on by slavery and Jim Crow and segregation. So it doesn’t surprise me. It makes me sad, because I grew up at a time when going to the library in school and the public library was a liberating thing. I read widely. There were books that you sometimes had to get your parents’ permission to read — it was not a total free for all — but the idea of banning books just strikes me as really unfortunate.

FM: Is there anything about Conroe you miss while you’re in Cambridge?

AGR: I miss the small town feeling, the ease.

You miss childhood, and in missing childhood, I miss, obviously, my family, my parents, who are no longer living. But the main thing is, I miss the smallness of it. The relaxed part of it, I should say.

FM: You’re a professor in the Department of History and at the Law School. How do history and the law inform one another in your work?

AGR: Both of the disciplines require attention to the idea of evidence, and sources, and stories, and logic.

In our legal system, we rely on precedent, which requires you to look to the past to find answers to current day problems. So I think they work very, very well together as a discipline.

FM: You have written about Reconstruction as a pivotal moment in America’s timeline, and in 2021, you said that Jan.uary 6th “is going to be looked at as potentially a turning point in the country’s history.” How do you identify this nation’s critical moments, both after they have happened and as they are unfolding?

AGR: After they’ve happened, you go back and see what the response was: what was the fallout from the end of Reconstruction — or, the killing of Reconstruction is essentially what happened. It was Jim Crow. It was putting the country behind where it could have been if there had been a concerted effort to bring Black people into citizenship. If that had actually taken place, we wouldn’t have had some of the problems we’ve had over the years. So for the things in the past, you look at the fallout.

For things that are happening at the moment, you think about how people respond to it, what it says about the time we’re living in. The fact that so many Americans, not all Americans, but so many Americans chose to see that as a minor thing — the storming of the Capitol, the desecration of the Capitol — suggests that the country is at a really bad place in terms of the capacity to think about our institutions as belonging to all of us. The partisanship is so strong that people minimize something that I think 20 years ago would have been seen as unthinkable. So when something like that happens, you have to think about where are we headed, that there’s not a uniform response of revulsion at something like this.

FM: You’ve also written about the many ways in which Reconstruction failed. What do you think America would look like today if Reconstruction had not failed?

AGR: Well, if it hadn’t failed, and if Black people had been given the opportunity to compete equally and without obstacles, I think in the first place the wealth gap would have been different. The inequality that exists between Black people and white people economically would be lessened. Perhaps the health disparities would not be there as well.

A lot of the problems that we have today grew out of the fact that African Americans were impeded in their efforts to become part of America, to have the same opportunity. So I think we’d be better off — the country as a whole would be better off. You think of the issues about infant mortality, about maternal mortality — all those kinds of things that put America in a different category than European counterparts have to do with the racial disparities that exist in the country. And I think that those would be lessened.

FM: As a constitutional scholar and a historian of one of America’s most prominent Founding Fathers, what do you see as the value of originalism as a method of constitutional interpretation?

AGR: Some people think it gets you back to first principles. But beyond that, I have difficulty because I think it’s very hard to determine what those original views actually were. Different people had different ideas at the time and they weren’t sure themselves about what these things meant. Washington is asking people during his presidency, ‘Wwhat do we mean by this? What was that supposed to be?’ So if they didn’t have a clear idea about what the original ideas were, I think it’s almost impossible for us to discern that with any degree of certainty.

I get the idea of trying to bound the Constitution to limit it in some fashion. But as a historian, I think it’s not a very useful enterprise.

FM: What do you make of the musical “Hamilton” — in particular, its choice to cast people of color as America’s Founding Fathers?

AGR: I’ve seen Hamilton a number of times, I enjoyed it, I have the cast album, and so forth. I know all the songs.

It is an incredibly creative idea to cast people who are people of color in these roles, because that history is always portrayed as so white. And it wasn’t white. Even though we talked mainly about white Founding Fathers, there were other Black people, women, and other people who were involved in all of this. I thought it was wonderfully inventive. Turning Hamilton into a man of the people is a tough one, because he was exactly the opposite of that.

But it doesn’t have to be completely historically accurate. I think the main thing it’s done is it certainly got a lot of young people interested in history. I think we’re probably going to get some historians out of that.

FM: You have pushed back on the argument that Sally Hemings completely lacked agency in her relationship with Thomas Jefferson. Given that Hemings was enslaved by Jefferson, is there still value in framing her relationship with him in terms of choice?

AGR: That was the way her son described her decision to come back from Paris with Jefferson. Once she comes back to Virginia, she’s completely under his control. And so all of the strictures, all of the power that enslavers had over the enslaved, come into play.

I think there’s value in seeing her understanding of her life, and she portrays herself as someone who made a deal, and had the deal come to fruition: basically, that none of her children would remain in slavery and that slavery would pretty much be over in her line.

FM: How do you approach gaps in the archive?

AGR: I approach it in the writing by telling people there’s a gap.

You have to be honest about it. I don’t think that there’s much you can do, except to explain the gap and the significance of the gap and what we’re losing from that.

If it’s a true gap, then there’s nothing to be done, except to make the point to the reader.

FM: Would you ever turn to more speculative mediums — say, art or fiction — to address these absences?

AGR: I might at some point.

I’ve tried fiction before. And the critique of my fiction was that it sounded like essays. So I may be naturally an essay writer or a history writer, more than a fiction writer. But I think about it sometimes. People have approached me about doing that.

FM: Do you have a specific idea or concept that you’ve tried to explore through fiction before?

AGR: Being a lawyer — I wrote short stories and things about the law. I haven’t done any history.

FM: Some say history is linear, some say it’s cyclical, some say it’s a spiral. What do you take to be the shape of history?

AGR: Wow. An amorphous shape. It’s not linear. It's not necessarily cyclical. There are cycles, but it’s just too — it’s a mess.

It's difficult to pin down. I do think that American history has had some aspects of a cycle, in the sense that when there are advances in race relations very often there’s a backlash. It’s like two steps forward and one step back or two steps back. So that part of it is cyclical, but then it changes. It’s never exactly the same stuff. It’s surprising. History is contingent, and the contingencies are always going to be there. You just never know what’s gonna happen.

— Magazine Editor-at-Large Yasmeen A. Khan can be reached at Follow her on X at @yazzywriting.