‘Hamilton’ the musical and the seductive danger of nostalgia

In our last newsletter of the year, we take some time to ask some big questions about 2020. Who lives, who dies, who tells our story?

But first, here’s your COVID-19 vaccine week in review, in Haiku.

Happiness is a 
slow jab; a syringe of hope 
served cold offered to

all. What does it mean
to save the entire world?
One jab, two jabs for

parties and dances
and all of the holidays,
sitting at tables

eating and making
merry. Happiness will be
laughing together

grieving together,
being together. What will
we do with this chance?

Stay safe while making your merry this holiday season. We see and appreciate all of you. RaceAhead will return on January 5, 2021. Let’s do the most with the chances we’ve got, together.

Ellen McGirt

Let's not throw away our shot

So, here’s a funny pandemic confession: I can’t get the music from Hamilton out of my head. I mean, I really can’t.

It’s been a constant running personal soundtrack since I saw the film version after it was made available on Disney+ last summer and I cannot precisely say why. Of course, the show is groundbreaking and the performances were extraordinary. Show creator Lin-Manuel Miranda is a genius on many levels, not the least of which was using the power of hip hop to interpret the chattiest and most prolific of the early colonists. The word-density is both dazzling and fitting.

And yes, it was truly a thing to see people of color together on a Broadway stage, the stars not only of the show, but of American history. Hamilton’s relentless ego. Jefferson’s simpering pettiness. Burr's entitled rage. Angelica Schuyler’s cynical machinations. George Washington’s noble graces. Eliza Schuyler's heart and soul. And Peggy! Miranda along with Daveed Diggs, Lesley Odom, Jr., Renée Elise Goldsberry, Christopher Jackson, Phillipa Soo, and Jasmine Cephas Jones not only delivered the musical "case" for diversity, but raised the bar to new heights. I was mesmerized. It hit my bruised pandemic brain like a bolt from the blue. They gave me the first truly worry-free and happy moments since mid-March. I was, for two hours, out of my own head.

Now they are in it, all the time.

Dumped from a Zoom call? “What’d I miss?” I sing out as I hastily dial back in. Need me to do another take for a podcast? “One last time….?” I ask. Someone annoys me? “You are the worst, sir,” I mutter to myself. Waiting for U.S. election results? “The world turned upside down,” was on auto-play.

It’s not a perfect show, I get that. Sure, the only women with speaking/singing parts were all in love with sweet Alex, but hey! Evidently, he really was that hot. Who knew?

But history, while happening, is also complicated. And that’s where the song really got stuck in my head.

Hamilton: An American Musical, based on historian Ron Chernow’s biography, glossed over a few stubborn facts about the Founding Fathers, namely that almost all owned slaves, had no qualms about murderous violence directed at Indigenous people, and Hamilton himself—far from being a pro-immigrant liberal—was an elitist who was not a fan of multi-cultural democracy.

Hamilton and his squad were not “poppin' a squat on conventional wisdom / like it or not / bunch of revolutionary manumission abolitionists,” a lyric that drove historians wild. In fact, Hamilton threw away his shot to take a stand on abolition early and often. The critiques that followed the wide release of the musical prompted some real debate and a short-lived “cancel Hamilton” thing. Why launch a show about enslavers and erase, yet again, the voices of the enslaved? In a delightful twist, it started to feel like I'd joined the world’s biggest colonial history study group.

The work paid off. Earlier this year, Jessie Serfilippi, a part-time interpreter at the Schuyler Mansion State Historic Site, in Albany, NY, set the record straight in a new paper called 'As Odious and Immoral a Thing’: Alexander Hamilton’s Hidden History as an Enslaver.

“Not only did Alexander Hamilton enslave people, but his involvement in the institution of slavery was essential to his identity, both personally and professionally,” the self-taught historian writes, launching herself to her own unexpected stardom. (It’s a must read.)

To their enormous credit, Miranda and many cast members joined the study group and thoughtfully responded about the choices made in the creation of the show, and their own views on history and equity. More on that here and here, if you’ve got the time. 

But for me, the unexpected gift of the never-ending soundtrack was not entertainment, but empathy. And that has served me well as I reflect on the year we've had and think about what lies ahead.

I noticed that I’d come to enjoy, even as a fleeting flirtation, thinking about the early ambitions of the people who invented the country of my birth. I felt some kind of way as I looked for the noble intent behind the principles, as if somehow those early embers, carefully tended, could re-blaze. For the first time, I felt a (brief) attachment to our foundational myth, and an understanding of why it is persistently appealing to white people: It’s a backwards-looking mirror, showing an image of our better selves. 

But mirrors are liars and nostalgia is a seductive beast. We ask too much of the founding fathers; they are not who we imagine they were or need them to be. We shouldn’t need them at all. The world is ours to turn upside down, and our divided nation needs a different story to heal. Maybe we can begin by telling the unvarnished truth about the year we just lived through and the years of chronic myth-making that led up to it.

We will never be satisfied until we do.

Luckily for me, the soundtrack started to dissipate last month. It's not all the way gone, but it's quieter now. I’m clearly a ruminating sort of writer, so maybe the music had finally delivered its necessary lesson. Hard to say. The musical is still a safe place for me to land, though, the performances bring me peace as a reliable reminder that we are capable of great things.

And by that, I mean art. Hopefully one day soon, it will mean politics.

To the great relief of my family, I’ve stopped with the King George impressions. And I can unreservedly celebrate Christopher Jackson’s version of George Washington—with his nobility and perfect pitch—while continuing to hold Washington’s legacy at a clear-eyed distance. 

Sure, it would be nice, it would be so nice, to have Washington actually on our side. 

If only he had not been cruel. If only his “beautiful” song for the country wasn’t based on plunder, sung past the teeth of people who were enslaved, ripped from their mouths for his comfort.


raceAhead is edited by Aric Jenkins.

Today's mood board

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, now streaming on Netflix, looks to be an excellent watch for the holidays. It features Chadwick Boseman in his final on-screen performance.

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