Hamilton: A New Narrative
By Dr. Ramón Santos
In January 2015 a musical, based on the life of Alexander Hamilton, opened in New York’s Public Theatre to instant acclaim. A few months later it opened on Broadway, where it has been playing to sold out enthusiastic audiences for over three years now. The musical is the brainchild of Lin-Manuel Miranda, a first generation American of Puerto Rican heritage whose previous musical, In the Heights, had earned multiple Tonys. In the four years since its opening, much has been written about the theatrical and musical originality of Hamilton in its use of the rhythms of rap and hip-hop to tell its story, its intentional casting of actors of color or minorities to play the roles of the founding fathers and other figures of the revolutionary period, the cultural and political impact of its vision in the ongoing conversation concerning the character and composition of the United States at this particular juncture. In an interview in which Lin-Manuel talked about the genesis of the project he cited how in 2008, after the success of his first musical, he started reading during vacation Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton and as he read it, the “idea of hip-hop being the music of the Revolution appealed to me immensely. It felt right.” What “felt right” to Miranda as he began to tell the story of the life of Alexander Hamilton through poetry, dance and music, results in a unique theatrical experience that challenges us to look anew to our own history and the always fluid identity of the nation. The fact that Hamilton was an immigrant made him a particularly attractive subject for Miranda, the child of immigrants who, like the children of previous waves of immigrants did in the past as they joined the mainstream of American society and culture, continue to reshape and redefine the composition and identity of the nation.
Two questions frame the story of Hamilton as told by Lin- Manuel Miranda. The first one, the opening lines of the play, asks about the unlikely journey of an outsider who gets to occupy a place of honor in the national pantheon of the founding fathers:
“How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a
Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten
Spot in the Caribbean by Providence, impoverished, in squalor
Grow up to be a hero and a Scholar
The ten-dollar Founding Father without a Father…”
The Hamilton Miranda celebrates in not just the iconic figure of the ten-dollar bill, the force behind The Federalist Papers, the Secretary of the Treasury, the military hero, Washington’s “right-hand man,” but rather the “young, scrappy, and hungry” outsider, the immigrant who like many who have come after him continue to change and enrich the character of the nation. In our current battles about immigration, our debates about the composition and identity of the nation and who among those impoverished outsiders we can imagine becoming part of the “us” that is always in the process of being reconstituted, Miranda’s take on the significance of Hamilton, his immigrant roots and work ethics (“Immigrants: we get the job done,” he sings in unison with Lafayette, another immigrant), the suspicion about his status as an outsider expressed in the opening lines of the play that plagued him throughout his life, is a necessary corrective to the always present temptation to push to the margins all those “others” that our failure of imagination cannot envision as part of our narrowly defined “us.” That is why the decision to cast minorities to play the iconic figures of the founding of the nation, to have the founding fathers express themselves in the language and rhythms of groups that traditionally have lived at the margins of American society, those who have never being, as sung in one the memorable songs of the play, “in the room where it happens,” is not a mere gimmick, but a powerful affirmation and acknowledgement of, as Miranda says, “the way America looks today.” We need more stories like the ones Lin-Manuel Miranda has been telling, first In the Heights where he celebrated the immigrant experience of Latinos, and now in Hamilton where he continues to invite and challenge us to view ourselves and our history through a multi-accented, multicultural, multi-racially, multi-ethnic lens where we all have a voice in “the room where it happens.”
The play closes with another question: “who tells your story?” The question has profound and complex personal and political resonance. Human beings tell stories. Nations, tell stories. Stories not only shape us and define us, they also change us. These stories are the foundation of how we understand ourselves, one another, the world. Stories are important. Stories have consequences. They are, like all forms of artistic expression, our most meaningful access to the human in all of us. They are central to the formation of our identity, whether personal or collective, while at the same time serving as the means through which we can engage in concrete forms of individual and collective self-understandings and self-criticism affording us the possibility of becoming more human, more capable of empathy towards others, especially the most unfortunate among us, more tolerant, more inclusive, more just. As individuals and as communities we are always engaged in a conversation, sometimes bitter battles and disagreements, about stories. Our identity is expressed and articulated through the stories we tell one another. The answer to the question, who am I?, is a story, an always unfolding and incomplete story. Identity is appropriated, at least initially, through the stories we are told by those around us, in the home, in the school, in the community at large. That is why the question concerning who tells our story is so central to who we are and can be as individuals and as community. Viewed from the perspective of the dynamics of power, the question is about who gets to tell stories, who has the power to tell stories because in controlling the narrative, in privileging what is said, remembered, recorded, they get to define, at least publicly who we are. It is a commonplace that history is written by the winners. They define who gets to be part of the story, making us painfully aware of the anonymity of so many whose stories never get to be told because they are not important, because they don’t “count.” Our time is very sensitive to the need to multiply the stories we tell and allow to circulate, especially the stories of those who because of the historical silence about their lives have often been assumed as not been part of the story. Again, Miranda’s decision to have people who have traditionally being at the margins of power, those who have not being the protagonists of the story of the nation, be inserted at the very moment of the founding to play the roles and be the voice of those who “sat at the table where it happens,” is an inspired decision.
Nations, like human beings, are shaped and transformed by the stories they listen to. Our political battles are often more impacted by stories than by all the philosophical and theological lucubrations we muster to change people’s minds. The American philosopher Richard Rorty liked to point out the positive impact that the novels of Charles Dickens and Harriet Beecher Stowe had on the political battles about slavery and the rising inequality of a laissez faire capitalist system of the 19th century. Their stories about the indignity and inhumanity of the life of a slave, of the poor and marginal, especially children, triggered the political response that moved people to act in ways that reasoned arguments and justifications often fail to do. Beecher and Dickens, like many other story tellers before and since them, are effective in changing people’s minds because in giving us concrete, detailed descriptions of the lives of those we have difficulty in recognizing as “one of us,” those we typically don’t see because they dwell in the margins of our lives, they manage to show and demonstrate for us the common humanity we share with those we are prompt to see as “them,” as “others.” Stories make it possible for us to see our differences with the “others” in margins of our lives as morally insignificant, challenging us to imagine ourselves in their place.
In the current nationalist resurgence afflicting not only this nation, but many others; in our debates about immigration, about who we are as a nation, about who is part of the “us” of the nation, we need more stories that make present, concrete and real the humanity of the many “others” we want to keep in the margins of our lives. We need stories if we are to learn to see ourselves and the communities we belong to, not as a product of nature, as a static, essentialist given from some foundational moment that escapes the vicissitudes of history, but rather as a dynamic ever transforming reality shaped by human beings. That is why Miranda’s Hamilton is a welcome addition to the multiple ways stories continues to teach us and challenge us to enlarge our understanding and self-understanding as individuals and as a nation.