OK, so, first, a few history student confessions: It used to be that when I thought of the birth of our nation, an image popped into my head of a bunch of slaveholding white guys in stockings and gray wigs constructing sentences with perhaps one too many “arts” and “thous,” and blowing one another up for the simple fact of too much testosterone and not enough inexpensive tea. It was history — or shall I say, his story — it wasn’t relevant, it wasn’t sexy, and really, it wasn’t even mine.
Then, through some perfect alignment in the stars of the universe, I found myself sitting last Tuesday night, May 22, under the lights of Atlanta’s Fox Theatre seeing the Broadway production of “Hamilton,” a musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda with a racially diverse cast that translates the story of America’s conception into rap.
I fell in love straight away with the story, with the music, with Hamilton. From King George III’s sparkling and slightly insane ballads about having to send battalions to prove his love to the colonists, to the rap Hamilton’s 9-year-old son spits for his father, to Jefferson and Hamilton’s rap battle over whether to support France’s revolution, “Hamilton” is fresher than a hot tic tac. I laughed. I felt inspired to go start a war somewhere. And by the end, let’s just say my allergies started kicking in and everything got a little blurry. Here was a tribe of people who looked like me and sounded like me claiming America’s story as their own and therefore claiming this country as their own, just like a “young, scrappy, and hungry” immigrant from the West Indies, the son of a “whore and a Scotsman,” took it as his own and dedicated his life to making it the beautiful place he hoped his children could grow up.
Yes, I said that Alexander Hamilton was an immigrant from the West Indies, an orphan who grew up in poverty. He came here as a 16-year old with nothing but the hope that “in New York, you can be a new man.” And he was an immigrant who won us the Battle of Yorktown, helped argue for the strong central government we have now, and founded our entire economic system. Hamilton is “never satisfied;” the man “does not stop.” He writes like he needs it to survive. Toward the end, his wife laments prophetically that he is like Icarus, flying too close to the sun.
In short, he’s a revolutionary in every way. I believe that Hamilton has this personality and this success not despite the fact that he is an immigrant, but because of it. When you are approaching a society from the outside, it is easier to see what is wrong with it and find a solution. Think, finding your way out of a maze from within it, versus going in after viewing the entire course from above. Miranda makes this explicit when at one point in the play, French military officer Lafayette proudly swerves to high-five Hamilton and says, “Immigrants: We get the job done.”
America has been a nation of immigrants from the very start. I mean, no wonder we are so strong and dynamic. But throughout history America has forgotten this fact over and over again. Of course, in Hamilton’s time, only white immigrants were allowed, which changed over time. In the 1840s, there were the Irish, who were subjected to the violence of mobs. In the 1920s, during a period of extremism toward anyone suspected of having ties to communism, the government arrested, brutalized, and deported thousands of immigrants. Then there was Japanese internment, and the post-9/11 Patriot Act. And then there was Donald Trump.
Immigrants built this nation from the ground up. But we have forgotten. Just recently, former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Michael Williams attempted to tour the state driving a “deportation bus” through Atlanta. Meanwhile, the lives of millions of young immigrant DREAMers hang in the balance. Children are being separated from their families by the minute. Simply because of racism and the need to blame someone for our many fears, we forget.
We must end this now. Hamilton didn’t have to be born here to take the fetus of America into his own determined hands. What if we gave every young immigrant the chance to, as the song goes, “rise up” and do something like that? What if, instead of rounding up these human beings like dogs and separating families, we gave them sanctuary and education and healthcare? What if the American Dream was really real and not just a fairy tale that we use to throw blame on the disadvantaged for not working hard enough to make something out of nothing?
I can’t predict the future, but I bet it would look something like “Hamilton.”