Lin–-Manuel Miranda in 2008 as the young creator, composer behind the (then) new musical, "In the Heights."
Carolyn Cole—LA Times via Getty Images
By Ellen McGirt
Updated: January 17, 2018 3:45 PM ET

Sometimes, a good way to move forward is to look back.

I’ve been thinking about the cultural treasures of our strange new era, the people who have been shaping the broader conversation about race, inclusion and system change. What can we learn from their early work?

Writer, columnist and cultural critic Rebecca Carroll raised this issue herself on her Twitter feed. “I often wonder how my first bk (pubbed in 1994) wd be received today in this era of The Black Woman, black girl magic, and renaissance of black art. It is, in a sense, a book meant for this era,” she tweeted. She was referring to “I Know What The Red Clay Looks Like: The Voice and Vision of Black American Women Writers,” which I immediately bought.

Her poignant question offered a glimpse into the lonely early days of an artist finding their first audience, one part canary in an uncertain coal mine, two parts revolutionary in training.

The quest has taken me down some funny cultural rabbit holes.

Searching for the first trace of actor John Cho, who has literally become the poster child for Asian representation in Hollywood, took me almost to his first public performance. In 2000, Cho played a disaffected 20-something in My Tired Broke Ass Pontificating Slapstick Funk, a play by Korean American playwright Euijoon Kim. It was described by Variety as a “surly, profanity-driven sojourn through the lives of Generation X Korean-Americans.” While the reviews were mixed, it showed Cho’s early affinity for the conversation. I couldn’t find a copy of the play – or trace of the playwright — but Cho clearly looked ready for his close-up.

I was twenty minutes into Ava DuVernay’s first documentary, This is the Life, when I realized I’d been smiling the entire time. The film centers on an influential alternative hip-hop movement in 1990s Los Angeles, that was nurtured and nourished by a local health food store called The Good Life. It was like stumbling on an early letter from an epic first love. While resplendent on its own, DuVernay’s unique point of view is already evident, along with her need to shine a light on the people and movements who aim to set things right in the world.

The same is true of Ta-Nehisi Coates, whose first book was not the award-winning Between The World and Me, but The Beautiful Struggle: A Father Two Sons and An Unlikely Road to Manhood. Coates is the son of a complicated man: a Vietnam veteran, a Black Panther who carried a gun, a warrior for redemption in crack-afflicted Baltimore, and inspirational figure at Howard University, who had seven children with four different women. Coates, once a brilliant underachiever, used his first book to hone the craft of putting the lives of black folks into context. On the subject of black men and violence, he said in a 2008 interview: “People don’t humanize these folks. They’re numbers to them… This is why we have art. This is why people need to read novels. This is why people need to read history and great detailed journalism.”

It’s funny to think about Lin-Manuel Miranda, the Tony Award-winning truth-teller, paying rent by writing jingles and background music for political ads. His father ran a Democratic political consultancy, and his son’s tunes made their way into English and Spanish language ads for all sorts of New York folks, including Al Sharpton, Carl McCall, a former state comptroller and Eliot Spitzer, the former governor. While the music wasn’t inspiring, his deep understanding of politics, aspiration and the relationship between power and people, clearly left a mark. The money came in handy during pre-Broadway re-writes of In the Heights, a musical which he wrote and workshopped as a sophomore at Wesleyan. If you haven’t seen it, start with this performance at the 2008 Tony Awards.

Enjoying the earlier works of treasured makers reveals more than youthful genius. It shows the underpinnings of a personal conviction that helped them stay the course and succeed. It’s a blueprint for an unconventional life. By choosing their projects and battles carefully, they were able to build the foundations for both their later work and the bigger conversations they’d hoped to spark. To answer Carroll’s original question, I’d say that her early work was a gift to the time in which it appeared specifically because it was so necessary. It helped make her the treasure she became.

I suppose we could all use an unvarnished look back at our earlier selves to make sure the essence of who we once were is still alive in our current work. (Relax, I will not be sharing the dreadful black nationalist poetry I used to write in high school.)

But the exercise also served to remind me that the next Rebecca, John, Ava, Ta-Nehisi and Lin-Manuel are putting their work out in the world right now, and a little love from us could make all the difference. How will we respond when we find them?

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