Rise Up! 'Hamilton' and Teaching for Social Justice

I am writing this now as my New York University undergrads are taking their Social Movements final. They are flipping through blue book pages to answer an essay question about the role of media and pop culture in social change. And, as usual, "Hamilton" is the soundtrack playing in my head.
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I am writing this now as my New York University undergrads are taking their Social Movements final. They are flipping through blue book pages to answer an essay question about the role of media and pop culture in social change. And, as usual, "Hamilton" is the soundtrack playing in my head.

In classrooms across the country, "Hamilton" has ignited a fascination with a period of U.S. history that was previously unlikely to interest - let alone energize - most students, inspiring conversations about the broad range of people who get to call this American founding narrative our own. There has been much well-deserved attention to the wonderful fact that the show has begun to open its doors to 20,000 New York City 11th graders, most from schools that serve low-income students, through a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation in partnership with the show's producers.

As the mom of a 6th grade #Hamilfan (and I modestly take full credit for her fandom!), I have experienced the educational inspiration of "Hamilton" firsthand. My daughter cannot wait to get to the American history year in her middle school Social Studies sequence, when she can learn more about the people who inhabit her iPhone. For their birthdays, she and her friends decorate their lockers with printed photos of Alexander Hamilton - the actual Hamilton! For my daughter and her theater friends, the actual Hamilton has become the locker decoration that Ralph Macchio and Michael Jackson were for their parents. Along with all of her wearable "Hamilton" fangirl gear, one of my daughter's prized possessions is an Alexander Hamilton - again, the actual Treasury Secretary! - bobblehead. She feels emotionally connected to Hamilton, his gang of friends and rivals, and their story of revolution and nation-building because of this incredible show. This is educationally invaluable.

As my spring semester ends, I particularly want to celebrate "Hamilton" for the ways I've used it to teach about social change and social justice with my NYU students. When I fell in love with "Hamilton" last summer, I quickly figured out how to bring it into my cultural theory class. I ended the fall semester class by playing "My Shot," and I talked with the students about what I think is one of the main social justice themes of the play, told through the rivalry and frenemyship between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton: the pace and manner in which social change can and should happen and the personal and political consequences of these approaches to change. Here, "young, scrappy and hungry" Hamilton keeps bumping against cautious and opportunistic Burr's willingness to "wait for it." I hoped the students would connect with those soaring words: "Rise up! When you're living on your knees, you rise up. Tell your brother that he's gotta rise up. Tell your sister that she's gotta rise up."

This semester, it is "History Has Its Eyes on You" that I am playing on repeat. My Social Movements class started in January by reading radical historian Howard Zinn's words on the importance of finding hope in history, and we continued with a unit on the civil rights movement and Black Power. On the first day of class, I played "History Has Its Eyes on You," and we talked about why those who are interested in social change should be committed to learning from history and acting as if history matters. After a semester of studying racial justice, feminist, and LGBTQ movements, I ended the class by again playing this amazing song. It helped me articulate to students that I hoped they would find the thing they were passionate about and that they would go out into the world and act on that thing, act as if history is watching. As Christopher Jackson, playing George Washington, sings: "I know that we can win. I know that greatness lies in you. But remember from here on in, history has its eyes on you." Our class had just finished a unit on Black Lives Matter, in which we talked a lot about presidential politics, and I mentioned that every single person in this seminar of 20 NYU college students had the right to vote because our forbears had laid their lives on the line for it. Even something as simple as choosing to vote or to sit out the 2016 presidential election attracts the watchful and judging eyes of history.

And there is something else I want my students to take away, in this semester when we have lost Prince and have celebrated the 20th anniversary of the Broadway debut of "Rent": the reminder that art is, at its best, by and for the beautifully weird, by and for the outsiders, by and for those who push or completely defy boundaries; the reminder that those on the margins always - no matter what else - have their minds and their creations. They build communities around their words and their music and their art, and these communities need them, are transformed by them, and are inspired by them to make change. Prince embodied and exuberantly celebrated the complexities of gender and race. "Rent" revered "La Vie Boheme" and art's ability to turn a community of outsiders into "an us for once, instead of a them." And "Hamilton"? The show is not only about writing as a way to survive or escape (or for "deliverance" and "revolution," as Lin-Manuel Miranda sings in "Hurricane," one of my favorite songs). For me, Miranda's casting of actors of color in all of the show's leads is not just about opening up ownership of the American story. Given the casting and the modern idiom of hip hop, it is easy, as well, to read this as a story of modern revolution and both the love it cultivates and the cost it extracts.

#Ham4SocialChange is what my students are learning this year, for their couple of college credits. I'm so grateful for this show and all it has given me as a teacher.

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