Founding Fathers–A Reflection on Hamilton

(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.

Not related to any of these people…

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.

That’s Great-grandpa, with the beard. Mom’s dad is just behind him…

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 Frederick Douglass. And Sojourner Truth.

And Sacagawea, and Tecumseh, and Sitting Bull.

Dignity sculpture in South Dakota

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?

The 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.

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The Wisdom to Know the Difference

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And if you’re in a giving mood, how about a coupla bucks for gas…

Okay, let’s see how this works:

Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change… How do you know you can’t change it?

That’s what the wisdom’s for.

Maybe “wisdom” is just an excuse for giving up too soon. Ever think of that? Ha!

wise-man
Sometimes, giving up IS wisdom…

Mind. Blown.

Okay, I get it. There are some unchangeable things. Especially stuff in the past.

DOCTOR WHO
Present and past is a big ball of wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey stuff. That’s just science.

Except for a few Dr. Who-type scenarios, you can’t change the past, and you’ve just gotta learn to accept it. What’s done is done, and all that. It’s all over but the shouting. Katie bar the door. The generous-lunged professional female singer has performed the final aria.

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Everything I know about opera. And Vikings. And rabbits, come to that.

Live with the outcome. Accept that you cannot change it. Your team lost? Bummer. Hey, wanna watch Supernatural?

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Come on, Al McCoy. Tell us what’s happening. I need a shazam or two.

I remember when I was like that, sort of. Through most of the 90s, I lived and breathed Phoenix Suns. The best possible thing available on TV was a Suns game. Watching it live, as it happened, commercial breaks and all. Charles Barkley. Dan Majerle. KJ. And since they were good back then, they usually ended the night on a good note. Suns win. Suns win. The next morning, my whole reason for opening the newspaper was to read the recap and enjoy the win again.

But even if it was a loss, I would read the paper to find like-minded souls to commiserate with. It didn’t wipe me out if they lost. I knew they’d bounce back, and I was like all chill and stuff.

chill-dog
No worries, dude! They’ll win the next one. Or two or three.

Until that got harder and harder. A loss would put me in a funk. I took it badly, and it got worse all the time.

My solution? Stop watching the NBA. And then all sports, completely. (And Grey’s Anatomy, and other shows that deal too much in tragedy. Yes, I know it’s all fake. Shut up. I still can’t watch it.)

Ignorance is bliss. Avoid seeing it. I can’t feel bad about a game I am paying no attention to.

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Go, squadron.

I couldn’t/still can’t bear the tension involved in watching the back-and-forth of basketball, football, baseball. Unless I don’t care who wins. And why would I watch if I don’t care?

(I envy those fans who care but don’t really really care. Know what I mean?)

But maybe that’s cheating–trying to find serenity that way. Avoiding the issue. Not by actually accepting difficult things, but instead by putting my fingers in my ears and chanting, “La la la la la!!! I can’t hear you!!!” I suspect I’m not the only one using this strategy, however. (I’m looking at you, climate change deniers.)

fingers-in-ears
“La la la… snow means there’s no climate change… la la la…”

But what about things that haven’t happened yet? Stuff waiting to happen? Anxiety is mostly about things on the horizon, things yet to be, pain waiting to hurt. How much of that do we have to accept as inevitable?

train
The future. Coming at ya.

Like in politics–a vile, reprehensible, crude bigot won a very important election. And now he wants to do horrible things that hurt a lot of people. Wisdom, whaddaya say? Isn’t accepting this what sheep do? Isn’t this how they control us? Teach us to go to our happy place while men without conscience steal and corrupt and destroy?

Same thing in our individual lives–how much of the shit coming down the track do we have to accept?

The courage to change the things I can…

If the door is closed, and wisdom says it’s probably locked, doesn’t courage say, “Try it anyway”? Give it a rattle. Maybe it’ll open.

locked-door
Could be Narnia back there. You don’t know.

I’m up for trying a few doors, seeing what opens. What did Janis Joplin say? “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose…” So is courage, I think. And at my age, courage also looks a lot like doing something stupid.

I’m okay with that. What have I got to lose?

Nobody answer. Seriously.

Go that way, really fast…

Look around you. Do things look sort of normal, but not quite right? Does it seem like the world is pretty close to what you thought it was and what it was gonna be back when you were a kid, but still different and wrong in too many ways?

Cuz I have a theory: I’m pretty sure we’re living in Bizarro world.

bizzaro-world
Warning–cell reception gets iffy in the corners.

Stay with me here. This is a real thing. (Deep breath… Ready?)

Here’s the deal: something happened. The universe got changed without us noticing.

I think it was around the time that President Al Gore ended the war on scripted television… or when Randy Johnson left the Lakers to attempt a baseball career… or when Star Trek entered its unprecedented 35th season with Captain Spock at the helm of the U.S.S. Indifference.

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Shit! We got the bearded Spock. Wrong universe. Turn around. Turn around!

Like all people who are full of crap but think they know something about science, I believe in multiple universes. All of these universes are similar and related, but the differences are significant.

It’s like this: you’re moving along nicely on the original timeline of the Happy Happy Joy Joy universe, and then somebody, somewhere, somehow, makes us take a turn. Something occurs that is so sinister, so heinous, so unprecedented that the line between the real universe and the bizarro universe gets… blurred.

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The face of evil…

From the perspective of its citizens, the Happy Happy Joy Joy universe just keeps moving along on its own lovely trajectory, with expanding justice, healthy, green forests, and tasteful furniture.

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Ask yourself–in what universe does this movie get made?

Meanwhile, the newly-created bizarro universe, infested with sharks and actor’s sons–the Douchenado Universe–well, it’s now moving us a different direction, though only a few are aware that things are not as they should be. Happiness plummets. Joy is curtailed. We are not living the life we were intended to. And we’re not sure what happened to us.

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This is not my beautiful house…

Our happiness got broke. Mine’s broke.

I’ve sometimes wondered if there isn’t a potential perfect plan for our individual lives, where we all live the Best Possible Life while we inhabit the Best Possible Universe. The life we were meant to discover. You know, we make the right friends, and go to the right college, and study the right subject, and get the right job, and move to the right city, and live the right life…

pleasantville_2
Sounds super pleasant

In this Panglossian world, this Pleasant Universe, we each make the right decision at every fork in the road, and we jointly maximize our individual potential, and we all create the greatest possible happiness.

pleasantville_reese_witherspoon_cherry
It’s all fun and games until somebody discovers sexy time…

The problem with the Pleasant universe is that anyone can ruin it: by flaunting one subtle-and-not-at-all-meant-to-be-innuendo red cherry, by careless driving, or by writing deadly earworms that destroy your peace forever.

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“Karma karma karma karma ka….”

In an imperfect world, the kind of world we’ve got, where all the possible futures keep getting shaken up like the Snowglobe of Fate, I don’t think there is a best, most perfect life. Your inner Tony Robbins tells you that you create your own fate, that you can chart your own course, but conditions change second by second, and you went off-course two wars and four congresses ago. The economy crashes; the zika virus mutates; kids won’t stop dabbing.

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Our national nightmare continues.

What if you do all the right things but the world around you fights back? What if somebody grabs the metaphorical steering wheel out of your metaphorical hands? Does anybody ask to be born in a war zone? You can’t dodge a bomb, Mr. Tony Robbins.

And even if you escape war and tragedy, you can’t guarantee you will achieve the life you intended. The world changes without warning. Ask the last guy to build a new Blockbuster Video.

blockbuster
“Buy a Blockbuster, they said. It’s a sure thing, they said…”

Potholes abound; you’re gonna hit some. You make your way the best you can, making the best decisions you are capable of, day by day, moment by moment–but it’s always based on incomplete information and the faulty software in our heads.

Brain says, “Little Debbies will make you happy,” and you believe Brain. But Brain has bad software, and Brain doesn’t know everything. “Buy as much house as you can afford–prices will never drop!” the smart people say. Ha ha. Funny story about that.

little-debbie-swiss-roll-box
They taste like love feels…

So, here we are, in the Douchenado Universe, where nothing is as Pleasant it should be; where you can get blown up, or run over, or repossessed; where yesterday’s wisdom is today’s big mistake; where doing the best you can is better than not trying, but where being lucky is better than both. What do you do? With the Happy Happy Joy Joy universe now forever closed to us, receding at the speed of regret, what do you do to rediscover that Pleasant life you suspect you were supposed to live? How do we make it come true right here in bizarro world?

I guess the best advice I’ve heard since 1985 is what Charles de Mar told Lane Meyer:

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“Go that way, really fast. If something gets in your way… turn.”

It’s Bizarro World, and we’re all just doing the best we can. So, keep going that way really fast. If something gets in your way… turn.

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