(Cross-posted from http://inspeculation.blogspot.com.)
George Washington is one of our forebears, a Founding Father, an American ancestor. But he’s not my grandpa, or great-grandpa, or any number of greats. Probably not yours, either.
Neither is Ben Franklin, nor Thomas Jefferson, nor any of those guys. Even though we’re are not really related, we still consider Washington and the others as forebears, as our spiritual ancestors. They are our Founding Fathers. In some ineffable way, they belong to us, and we to them, even if we’re not related in any real way.
If you are American, by birth or choice, they belong to you, too.
That is why I believe the casting in Hamilton is so important, and so deeply affecting. Seeing Washington portrayed by an African American actor is striking, and stimulating to one’s imagination, as if we’ve opened a door we didn’t know was there. At one level, it is touching to see this potentially-divisive historical figure embraced by a black actor, as if his flaws and shortcomings with regard to race have been forgiven (whether or not that is the case). On another level, though, it opens up possibilities in one’s mind, of America as it could be, and as it could have been. Sure, Washington in real life was a white man, but he could have been a black man. (How?)
Like this: America is black. The United States is a black country. In every sense that America is white, it is black. So, of course, its founding fathers are, too. Or could have been.
America is also Asian and Hispanic. [Latinx, if you prefer.]
And Native American, of course, with even greater primacy.
When we hold up as our founders only the white men who signed the Declaration, or who led armies, it’s an unspoken but subconsciously-understood argument that the country was theirs, won by them and possessed by them, and that they passed it on to their white children. It’s a white man’s founding myth. So, for white Americans like me, it’s proof that we are the *real* Americans, the true inheritors of the nation. African Americans, then, are uncomfortably tacked on later as the step-children we never meant to have. Every other ethnicity is resentfully accepted into the family like unfortunates who are fed at the edge of a wedding feast–with self-congratulations for our charity and condescension, even as we wink and nod to one another in silent understanding: they’re not really part of it all, they aren’t the same, they aren’t really inheritors of America because they aren’t like the real Founding Fathers.
Well, I recall that I’m not actually related to them, either–so why am I privileged?
(Can I dispense with the race argument? If we go back enough generations, yes, we’ll have a common ancestor; but that’s true of all of us. Why should I feel more closely connected to a white man or woman with whom I share an ancestor some 30 generations ago than a black man or woman who shares with me an ancestor 100 generations ago? To me, that’s a meaningless distinction in degree. I’m sure racists will not find this argument persuasive, but I hope others will feel as I do…)
What matters more to me is that we share America. That is how we are alike, how we are connected. Fellow Americans–with the same forefathers.
One of my great-grandfathers, the only one I know about, was a soldier in the Civil War, in a New York state regiment. Not famous–just a soldier. I’m proud of who he was, though I never knew him. He was long gone when I was born.
What if he had fought for the South instead of the North? I’ve wondered that sometimes. Would that change me, or change who I am? Am I better or worse because of what my actual blood ancestors did?
I don’t think so. As far as I’m concerned, any man or woman who was part of America, for good or bad, was my ancestor, my forebear. My American family, I guess. All the white men and women of past centuries, even those who held slaves, are my American forebears, and I have to embrace them, but so are all those unnamed, unknown slaves. They were all part of the America we inherited, and they were all as much my ancestor as Washington or Lincoln or millions of other white people I’m not related to by blood. They also did their part; they built this country, too, literally and figuratively. Besides that, any Native American or Inuit of any tribe, whether they’ve left living descendants or not, is also my ancestor, one of my Founding Parents.
Nat Turner is one of my Founding Fathers. I can claim him as my American ancestor with the same pride, and with the same justification, as I could with any other historical American. I’m as related to him as I am related to John Adams or Ulysses Grant.
And Sacagawea, and Tecumseh, and Sitting Bull.
And millions of unknown and unnamed others who helped build America, men and women of every color and ethnicity. They are my forebears, and every other American’s. I claim them, and celebrate them, and feel pride in their accomplishments, with the same justification as I have for feeling any of that toward FDR, or JFK, or Mark Twain, or Ernest Hemingway. Not in a similar way, but in exactly, precisely the same way.
America is white and protestant. It’s also black and Baptist, and brown and Muslim, and English-speaking, and Spanish-speaking, and Hopi-speaking, and Urdu-speaking. It isn’t that America is becoming those things–it always has been all of that.
So Hamilton performed with POC is not a gimmick; it is the story of America with American actors. Those sad people who feel that “their” America is going away have it wrong–it never belonged to them; at least, not any more than it belonged to anyone else. No color defines the country. No language. No religion or lack of religion. If anything, it is our laws and ideals–especially as we slowly improve them–which tells us who we are. We were created equal. We have (should have) the same rights, and the same freedoms, and the same expectation of a happy life.
Humans are tribal, unfortunately. We usually cooperate with our tribe (however we define that) and too often deny the humanity of every other tribe. Humanity should be our tribe, I think (and I’m not the first to say that, I know), but maybe that’s too ambitious for America in 2018. But can we make America our tribe? Can we embrace our Native American Founding Parents? Can we recognize our African American Founding Parents? Can we hear our neighbor’s music as one more sound of America? Can we accept all of our varieties of American as precisely equal in “American-ness”?
Maybe it’s hard. Maybe it’s impossible for some. Maybe none of us can get all the way there. But I think the payoffs are worth the attempt. Besides doing the right thing, besides increasing justice and brotherhood and sisterhood, besides reducing and eliminating the lingering effects of privilege, and besides growing in compassion, who doesn’t love a big family?
Thank you, Lin Manuel Miranda, and Hamilton, for a beautiful tribute to America as it might be, for a vision of who we can be. Well done. May it open many hearts and minds.