Hip-hop civics, as taught by Trump, ‘Hamil­ton’

Story of Amer­ica’s past and present is in­spir­ing, en­ter­tain­ing, and fore­tells the fu­ture

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary - By Suzanne Fields

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.

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