I’m writing this post on November 5, the day before midterm elections, 2018, and writing with my heart in my mouth. Tomorrow, as I’m speaking to instructors and students at the University of Central Florida, our country will be making momentous decisions, from coast to coast, about the kind of citizens we want to be, about the kind of leaders we want to elect, about the kind of country we want our children and grandchildren to live in, and about the kind of language, discourse, and argumentative strategies we want our leaders, and our citizens, to adopt. To say I’m nervous doesn’t begin to describe this state of anxiety.
So tonight I am thinking of other times, other places, and specifically about the early days of this much-hoped-for democracy. I’ve had occasion to do so because this weekend I met my grandnieces, now 14 and 11, in New York for a weekend of theater. I had seen Hamilton when it first arrived on Broadway but not since; the girls had not seen it BUT know every single word of every song in the show, complete with accents and hip-hop beats. They were beside themselves with excitement as we walked the ten blocks or so from our hotel to the theater and waited in line to take our seats. The moment Aaron Burr stepped forward to sing
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?
they were mouthing the words along with him, and they stayed on the edges of their seats through the entire three-hour show. And what do they think the show is about? They are pretty well up on the history, I was very glad to know; they have Miranda’s Hamilton book and read the essays in it along with his annotations of some of the key lines. Along with the rest of the crowd, they cheered when they heard
There would have been nothin’ left to do
For someone less astute
He woulda been dead or destitute
Without a cent of restitution
Started workin', clerkin' for his late mother's landlord
Tradin’ sugar cane and rum and all the things he can’t afford
Scammin' for every book he can get his hands on
Plannin' for the future see him now as he stands on (ooh)
The bow of a ship headed for a new land
In New York you can be a new man
(and a new woman too, they said). And later they stood and cheered when they heard “Immigrants: we get the job done!”
So they know some of this very complex history of our early democracy, and they understand that they too are immigrants, that all Americans except for indigenous people are immigrants. And Hamilton has helped them understand this concept and apply it to their own lives—and to the arguments swirling around them and all of us.
Whatever happens tomorrow, I will be glad to have seen Hamilton again and to have had a chance to talk with young people about what they see in this play, what they hear in its lyrics and view in its moving choreography. And to have thought about what immigrants have brought to this country, and will continue to bring if we allow them to. We could do a lot worse right before this election than to listen to—and really hear—Miranda’s lyrics. When I meet instructors and students at UCF tomorrow, I’m going to ask how many have seen Hamilton or listened to the soundtrack—and hope that a sea of hands goes up.
Image Credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Alexander_Hamilton_portrait_by_John_Trumbull_1806.jpg (Public Domain)