While in New York recently, it was difficult to avoid the acclaim heaped on the hit Broadway musical Hamilton, a hip-hop, rap musical chronicling the life of one of our founding fathers Alexander Hamilton. The musical is based upon the book written by Ron Chernow about Hamilton's amazing life, from bastard to one of the most influential leaders in this nation's history, father of the United States Coast Guard, founder of our financial system, and one of the leading promoters of our Constitution.
Attending the show would have cost me $1,000 (good for the playwright), so I instead bought the book on which the show is based.
The book describes the humble and difficult start of Hamilton's life, but what struck me as the most painful part of those early chapters were the descriptions of slave life, if you could call it that. Slave death was more fitting. Hamilton was born and raised in the West Indies, a place where slaves vastly outnumbered their owners. The book describes the slave conditions vividly. A human being owned to work for a human being, without a shred of humanity. Not one bit. Branded like cattle. Trotted through towns naked and shackled. Shipped from Africa in conditions so insane that you could smell the ships miles offshore.
After reading that description, I was compelled to pause and salute my ability to breathe with no owner.
As a result of a DNA test that I completed recently, I know that my ancestors were slaves. Of course, intellectually, I knew this before the test, but I harbored some secret and inexplicable notion that somehow my family had escaped. Not so; I am 35 percent Irish/British - slave master blood circulating through my veins, mixed in with mostly west African genealogy.
What sickens me the most when I read these slavery stories or see movies or art harkening to that hell is how certain I am that I would have rather killed myself than live that kind of life. I enjoy life with every ounce of my spirit, but the thought that my soul would be beaten to work as a burdened beast would have driven me mad; I would simply have needed to leave this Earth by my own hand. I do not think I would have been one of those amazing slaves that you read about in history that suffered the indignities that my ancestors did with otherworldly inner strength. Maybe I am selling myself short, but the gag reflex that I had that caused me to turn my face from the pages made me reflect.
Why this historical truth about these United States hit me so profoundly that day is strangely tied to a recent op-ed by New York Times columnist David Brooks and his description of the current Presidential campaign. Brooks detailed the cowardly way that some have made the political conversation to be about exclusion and segregation; as if the `good old days' were indeed good for all.
What's more, this crude political discourse seems at such odds with our art, our talent as a collective. Hamilton is but one example. Yes, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences made a collective fool of itself by failing to recognize deserving diverse talent, which hopefully it will never do again. But despite the lack of recognition, the high art and beauty of our nation was built by people who have artistic genius in every class, race, color and creed. (Chris Rock killed it, by the way.)
Hopefully, our political discourse will bend to the exquisiteness of the phrase 'We the people.' Hopefully, we can quiet those who want to exploit the fears of people whose folks didn't arrive here in chains and show more respect for those whose ancestors did. Maybe we can salute the ingenuity of Hamilton writer actor and musician Lin-Manuel Miranda and believe that the replication of his vision can free us all.
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