Alexander Hamilton died exactly two hundred and eleven years ago today, killed in a duel -- incredibly -- by the sitting Vice President, Aaron Burr. On the very same island where Hamilton drew his last breath, he has been brought back to life, this time on the Broadway stage. Furthermore, Lin-Manuel Miranda's musical Hamilton points the way toward our future as a people by looking back at our past in a revolutionary manner. As Miranda himself put it, he is "telling the story of someone who I don't think would expect it to be told in this way."
Not only is the play written by a Nuyorican whose ethnic background differs from that of the title character, the cast as a whole consists largely of black and Hispanic Americans playing Founding Fathers, i.e., the Americans most likely to come to mind when one thinks of the dead, white males that have long dominated our history. However, they are not simply black and brown faces speaking and acting in the same way elites of the late eighteenth century did. Miranda has given us characters, to cite one example, that include "a Thomas Jefferson who swaggers like the Time's Morris Day, sings like Cab Calloway and drawls like a Dirty South trap-rapper."
It is this integration that so interests me, because it represents where we as a country and as a people need to head. Strengthening our collective sense of ourselves as a single people -- diverse yet unified -- is crucial to our future. Of the various metaphors used to describe our national identity (e.g., melting pot, mosaic, salad), it is the metaphor of gumbo that strikes me as both the most accurate and the one for which a healthy society should aim.
In his take on the topic, President Obama explained: "[Gumbo]'s not a thin soup. It's got these big chunks of stuff in it. But those things are seasoning each other." His point, with which I agree, is that there is a common, shared culture, but there are also new ingredients always being added to it. Both interact with each other, as the new ingredients absorb the flavor of the soup while influencing it as well. What Miranda has done with Alexander Hamilton & Co. offers a perfect example of what Obama, on another occasion, called the "constant cross-pollination [that] is occurring ... Identities are scrambling, and then cohering in new ways."
Miranda's artistic creation would be impossible without empathy, which, to again quote the president, means the ability to "stand in somebody else's shoes and see through their eyes." We can see this empathy in the following comment: "When I encountered Alexander Hamilton I was immediately captivated," Miranda says. "He's an inspirational figure to me. And an aspirational one."
It's all too easy for Americans to divide ourselves into groups where we feel most comfortable. Anxiety about change -- all too often ginned up by those who can gain an advantage by doing so and who are too ruthless to care about the consequences -- only heightens that tendency. For example, when Dylann Roof thought in terms of "we," he was unable to think outside of a very narrow set of boundaries defined by race, culture, and ideology. He personifies the opposite of empathy.
On the other hand, imagine the impact of seeing a mostly black and brown cast tell the story, written by a Latino American, of the Founding Fathers -- through the medium of hip-hop yet which also, in the words of one reviewer, "encompass[es] R. & B., jazz, pop, Tin Pan Alley and the choral strains of contemporary Broadway." Talk about cross-pollination. Miranda's is an act of empathy in and of itself, and his work is likely to inspire more empathy among those who experience it.
The larger issue here isn't just learning American history. It's about whether and how Americans choose to identify with it. Although the American history taught in public schools today is far more inclusive than it was in the pre-Civil Rights era, that's an awfully low bar to clear. And there are still some in places like Texas and Colorado who want to go backwards, to whitewash today's curriculum. We must have a history that truly reflects the experiences of our people, from every background. That's the only kind of history that all Americans will be able to identify with, because it's a history in which they see themselves and their ancestors.
Furthermore, if people see their ancestral experience integrated -- not just mentioned in a checklist kind of way, but fully integrated into the larger narrative -- then they are far more likely to see that larger narrative of American history as something that speaks to them, even the parts that have nothing directly to do with their own ancestors. If and when that happens, then you've got a history that can act as a unifying force, that can help turn a population into a people. This quotation from Michael Lind captures perfectly what I'm getting at here, and describes the place we must strive to reach going forward:
Americans share common national ancestors, whatever their genetic ancestors. Even if our genetic grandparents came from Finland or Indonesia, as Americans, we are all descendants of George Washington -- and his slaves.
Along with the Founding Fathers, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt, I choose to identify Cesar Chavez and Harvey Milk, Sojourner Truth and Alice Paul as fundamentally important parts of my people's history. It doesn't matter to me that I don't look like them. As for my own identity -- other than being an American -- being Jewish matters a great deal, and I share that with virtually none of the major figures in American history.
Lin-Manuel Miranda has taken a similarly inclusive position. He refuses to be told that Alexander Hamilton doesn't belong to him. He and his castmates demonstrate to the hate-peddlers and the fear-mongers that they, and those who look, talk, sing and write like them, are just as American as anyone whose ancestors came across on the Mayflower or, in the case of Hamilton himself, any immigrant fresh off the boat.