So I finally got around to (really) watching Hamilton on Disney+. I had attempted to watch it when it premiered on the streaming service…but with 3 active toddlers running around, I couldn’t give it the attention that it needed and at the end felt underwhelmed.
Well this weekend, I was able to watch it without the distractions. Now I was thoroughly impressed. The previous weekend I had finished up Bridgerton (which I’m not sure I will write about or not), which had already oriented my mind towards seeing brown folks in a period piece. But there is a unique presentation in a theatre production that can’t be reproduced elsewhere. The element of time constraints and visual incompleteness allows the audience to interject their own philosophies and life experience into the production.
And that definitely happened with me.
When I was in the 4th grade, we had to do a history report/presentation on a historical figure. We set a day to go to the library and do research (it was the 1980s, so no internet – just the card catalogue and a box of notecards!). I selected some books and somehow stumbled across Dolly Madison. True, she didn’t accomplish any great historical milestones. I just came across a book on her (or maybe it was her husband, who knows) and decided that she seemed cool. When we had to give our selected subjects to our teacher, a 30-something White woman. When I showed her my selection I distinctly remember her pulling me to the side and sitting down with me. She suggested that I pick someone else — and verbally rattled off Sojourner Truth or Harriet Tubman. In my 9 year old mind, I knew what this was. I was a Black girl, and since the project entailed us also giving a little presentation as the historical person, I should be picking a Black woman from history as my subject. But I felt that was wrong. So I stuck to my guns and refused to change my subject. From that moment on, I felt quite awkward and unsure in not only that project; but at how I was seen as a student in her class for the rest of that year (I always got good grades – but me and that teacher had several other run-ins as well – and ultimately I think she saw me as a ‘difficult’ student).
I don’t recount this story to hint that I am some sort of trendsetter or something. Instead I think it is a signal at how broken the pedagogy of history is in American schools. Perhaps every history class should begin with the following quote:
While there is some value in knowing the finer particulars in how historical figures looked and certainly the social and economic conditions in which they lived, the larger and more applicable part of their legacy is their philosophies and ideals and how they have carried on to the point to where we are still talking about them today.
Now I understand that the goals of pride movements is to ‘know your history & where you come from’. You definitely want to give disenfranchised people a sense that they come from greatness as well. But ultimately it is not good to compartmentalize wisdom. If you have no interest in the tenacity of Sitting Bull or the bravery of Harriet Tubman, simply because they are ‘not your people’, then shame on you.
This is Our Country Too
I can’t even begin to describe what it is like – growing up Black in this country; particularly, growing up Black well after most of the legal racism has been removed from the books, but tons of the systemic racism remain. We are taught about America’s greatness — but by large, that ‘greatness’ is defined by White men. But great civilizations come and go. Great ideas and systems on the other hand are more permeable.
Take the Bible for example. A text which has its origins in Jewish and Greek societies. It was totally co-opted by the Europeans who inserted themselves into its narrative and as its primary stewards. So why is this same act so brash when people of color do it? Even if you don’t agree with it, shouldn’t we have that same freedom?
For better or for worse, White men accomplished some amazing things in American history. But they did so, because there were no barriers to stop them. This does not take away from their greatness. But it should be made clear that humans who are not White men have the same, or even a greater, capacity for greatness. They just need the opportunity and the system that will support this greatness.
The truth is — well, we aren’t there yet. We are getting there, but we still have a long way to go.
Working Within A Flawed System
I am also appreciative that I watched this after seeing the 40-Year Old Version, which gave an interesting perspective on the more sordid side of theatre. That is its target demographic. Liberal, upper-class, and overwhelmingly White. So this segment of society goes to see Hamilton, and they feel so progressive….so open-minded….so respectful of our plight. But then a good portion of these people will go home and writhe their hands in worry about the rankings of their public schools; the crime statistics in the proximity of their cul-de-sacs; and sit by silently at charges of police brutality in their local areas. So then Hamilton is just reduced to being a White liberal indulgence in entertainment. The point and message is largely missed. And that is that Black and Brown people have the same rights to freedom, liberty and the pursuit of happiness as you do. In fact, we are actually more responsible for your current state of living than you think. Because guess what? We never had the same platform from which to tell our story.