A few weeks ago I was in such deep despair about our presidential election, I took to my bed and soothed my aching heart with a dose of West Wing. I binged until I felt better about our country. I marveled at its prescient episodes that foretold the selection of a Supreme Court justice, the fight for gay rights and government shut downs. There will never be another show like the West Wing. So good at exposing the sausage-making that is governing, yet it rarely sunk to Frank Underwood’s cynicism or gave way to the silly melodrama of B6–13. But I digress…
The following week, I attended a Town Hall reading that featured my friend Don Glickstein. Don is a man of many talents, and an invaluable resource when it comes to local politics. He is also a historian, the author of a 432-page tomb on what happened in the months and years following the revolutionary war, After Yorktown.
Fast forward to the following weekend, when I managed to score tickets to Hamilton, and caught the Saturday evening performance with my cousins from Brooklyn. It was a night to remember.
Life’s events have a way of converging, methodically linking all of my experiences into a moment or two of clarity. Probably happens to you, too. Anyway, all of this — the election, After Yorktown, West Wing, Hamilton — got me to thinking about patriotism.
Hamilton is everything. From the moment Alvie (you remember him from House, the painter guy House met in the asylum) joins Aaron Burr and the other insurgents on stage, my heart settled somewhere in my upper throat, and it’s still kinda there:
How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a
Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a
Forgotten spot in the Caribbean by providence
Impoverished, in squalor
Grow up to be a hero and a scholar?
I was primed for this breathtaking moment. Everyone saw the Grammys. I’d heard all the hype. But I wasn’t prepared for it to go uphill from there. I wasn’t prepared to get so wrapped up in all of this history, to learn something new, to feel something new.
Hamilton is so good, you could easily dance to the jazz, hip hop, blues, latin and carribean and pop-inspired music, enjoy the drama and miss the point. (In addition to the history lesson, there is a love story — this is Broadway after all. Hamilton’s sister-in-law was apparently a piece of work. Don Glickstein paid homage to her during his talk — everyone loved Angelica.)
So here is what happens after a couple of hours of watching people of color fight for our rights to party, get things done in the back room, and engage in congressional election muckraking. You start to believe — to know — that this history is also my history. I never felt that before. In school, I didn’t trust the history books to tell the full story (slavery was covered in 2–3 pages, complete with a cartoonish drawing of a slave woman, always in a bonnet); when the 3/5ths ish is there, crossed out, but there, it’s hard to get worked up over this country’s ideals. I always held American history at arms’ length, because, emotionally, I just couldn’t buy into it.
But along comes Hamilton. To remind me that I, me, my people were there. To remind me that the founders were immigrants. (Imperialist, murderous, thieving immigrants to be more accurate. Hamilton doesn’t get into this, though). To remind me that history isn’t complete at the first telling.
Alvie, you sly, genius devil, you covered me in a cloak of patriotism. It was like the end of Spike Lee’s X, when all those people shout “I am Malcolm X” but waaaay less cringe-worthy. I am this country’s history.
It is too simplistic to dismiss Hamilton as a classic poor boy makes good, bootstrapper, come-up story about founding fathers. (Hamilton does end up dead at the end.) I think the musical reached for more. As the mainly white, mainly affluent audience sat mesmerized, Hamilton sneakily attempted to undo the white-washing of American history.
It is an ambitious, admirable undertaking. Deserving of the accolades, the Grammys, the Tonys, to be sure. I am hopeful that Hamilton’s popularity compels us to re-tell American history absent the hero-worship reverence, absent the bias that all but erases women and people of color.
Hamilton reminds me of the wisdom of creating a Federal Reserve System to secure debt in lieu of relying on slave labor to fund the growth of a burgeoning country. That women were there. That the struggle for independence had many facets, and that America continues to struggle with its ideal self and its live stream.
Most importantly, Lin-Manuel Miranda reminds us that history can be retold. That there is not one history. There are many. Just as Don Glickstein reminds us that the revolutionary war didn’t end at Yorktown. There were debts to be paid, there were thousands of displaced ex-slave soldiers starving in the streets, there was a country divided, and there were other revolutions to inspire.
As it begins its tour, and embeds itself in the American psyche, this musical, a musical, might provide us with the opportunity to confront our history with renewed inclusiveness and frankness. Perhaps it is just what we need to arouse the patriotism necessary to defeat the anti-American ideals that have infiltrated this election cycle. The genius of Hamilton, perhaps, can be found in the last number:
History has its eyes on me
let me tell you what I’d wish I’d known
when I was young and dreamed of glory
you have no control
who lives who dies
who tells your story