Hip-hop civics, as taught by Trump, ‘Hamilton’
Story of America’s past and present is inspiring, entertaining, and foretells the future
NEW YORK CITY ace matters, but it’s not all that matters. That’s the lesson of “Hamilton,” the Broadway musical that “everyone” is pulling strings to see. (My 17-year-old grandson and I lucked out.) “Hamilton” teaches a little history, using rap and music as the sugar to make the history go down. The musical doesn’t ignore slavery, the perpetual thorn in the weeds of the American narrative — it’s on stage at the beginning when Thomas Jefferson recalls that Alexander Hamilton saw slaves “slaughtered and carted away across the waves” — but it puts the evil of slavery into the bigger picture.
President Obama and the first lady, in a video prepared for the Tony Awards broadcast, introduced “Hamilton” as a civics lesson about the miracle that is America, where ideas can be debated with passion and conviction in a society and a culture of inclusiveness, diversity and opportunity.
That’s true enough, so far as the president’s words go, but off Broadway, where the rest of us live and history is not syncopated and told with hip-hop enthusiasm, civics lessons are often neither honored nor so neatly packaged. Such civics values are often hard
Rto find in the popular culture, or on the university campus where the young and their professors prefer to dig up dead white men so they can bury them again under a torrent of words about how the values of the Founding Fathers can’t speak to them. It’s ironic and perhaps hopeful that Lin-Manuel Miranda, the author of “Hamilton” and a second-generation Puerto Rican whose father came to the United States when he was 17, just as Alexander Hamilton was when he arrived here, portrays all those dead white male founders energetically and sympathetically as they argued aggressively over how to launch democracy in America. “Hamilton,” one might say, is the author’s own Miranda warning.
He’s so confident that the words of the Founders have contemporary significance that he put them in the mouths of men and women of different colors, extending universal appeal in a stifling politically correct culture that is so blinkered that the obvious is often difficult to see. “Hamilton” the musical, rising in form from the black ghettos of urban America, generates the unexpected message that the dead white man on the $10 bill is “a brother,” after all. Black slang as a unifier. Who knew?
The sugar that makes a little history go down is nevertheless fused with bitter herbs and a poison pill or two that slavery pumped into the nation’s bloodstream. But the play’s the thing, compelling and refreshing the common pride in the nation’s beginnings, told with aesthetic authority and a flourish uncommon in popular entertainment. It’s make-believe, syncopated and joyous, and it has real history to tell, too.
Richard Primus, professor of constitutional law at the University of Michigan, writes in Atlantic magazine how “Hamilton” aims to “let nonwhites feel ownership of the Founding, not by offering nonwhite historical figures with whom to identify but by creating conditions in which a black American today, as a black American today, can identify with Washington, or Hamilton, or even perhaps with Jefferson, villain though he be.” His point, beneath the ritual sneer at the author of the Declaration of Independence and foremost of the men who created America, is that in the current racial politics a rap musical can alter the way that Americans of all races think about identity.
He oversimplifies themes in “Hamilton,” citing polarizing images in contemporary America from the viewpoint of the white liberal, but he’s right to suggest that it was as hard to imagine a reality-TV star with no government experience becoming the presumptive Republican nominee for president as to expect a hip-hop opera about such a man as Alexander Hamilton to be a smash hit on Broadway. The two “phenomenons,” as the sportswriter might call them, arise in our midst at the same time for many reasons, not least how we get information about the world around us. We want to be entertained above all, and Donald Trump and Alexander Hamilton (in the imagination of Lin-Manuel Miranda) are great entertainers.
The historian’s intellectual analysis draws an academic thesis from pop culture, illustrating how politics and entertainment interact. In Donald Trump’s America, voters (and many who don’t usually vote) worry about runaway illegal immigration and radical Islamic terrorism. They can still be entertained by engaging theater and even enjoy the hopeful portrayal of an idealistic multiracial future as presented in “Hamilton.” But their fears are real and the creative musical is fanciful. How we pay attention to the first will determine how we enjoy the second. That’s the most crucial civics lesson of all. Suzanne Fields is a columnist for The Washington Times and is nationally syndicated.