Hip-hop History

1453816741bg_300x415-hamiltonNot an empty seat in the house, and many of them were filled with kids—tweens and teens of both sexes. It could have been a screening of Marvel’s latest installment in the Captain America or X-Men series, but it wasn’t. It was “Hamilton,” Lin Manuel-Miranda’s story about the life of Alexander Hamilton set to hip-hop music.

Reviews by the dozens have been written about “Hamilton.” It’s been called a “game changer,” “vibrantly democratic,” audaciously ambitious,” and, my personal favorite, “a story about a revolution that is itself a revolution.” It’s all of those things and more. If you aren’t one of the two million people who’ve already viewed it, here’s a clip from a performance at the White House that gives you a taste of what it’s all about.

As this amazing production unfolded on the stage, it was not the theatergoer in me who was spellbound, but the history teacher. This, I thought, this could save history in the classroom, could help us find compelling new ways to tell the stories that form the foundation of who we are as a people, as a nation. The music itself obviously drew the kids in, but the story is told so well through the lyrics that they will remember more than the catchy tunes.

From a teacher’s standpoint, Miranda succeeds in doing what most of us struggle with: he breathes life into Hamilton, Washington, Jefferson, Burr and all the others who fought to free the colonies from the British, and then fought each other about how best to unite those colonies into a nation. Again, music opens the door, but what keeps the audience enthralled is Miranda’s ability to show us people—real people—with flaws and failings not unlike our own. Hamilton cheated on his beloved wife (creating the nation’s first sex scandal), threw a tantrum when Washington wouldn’t give him a combat assignment, and was so driven that he often neglected his family. Miranda gives us that Hamilton, as well as the young genius who envisioned the nation’s entire financial and economic system, and the father who became almost unhinged when his son died in a dual.

“Hamilton” is a story with everything—love, death, sex, war, greed, you name it—told in way that pulls you in and refuses to let go. It’s a historical tour de force that feels like it has arrived just in the nick of time because our knowledge about the American story has reached an all time low. A 2008 study by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, which surveyed more than 2,500 adults, found that only half of those surveyed could name the three branches of government. In 2014, a report from the National Assessment of Educational Progress indicated that only 18 percent of eighth graders were proficient or above in U.S. History and only 23 percent in Civics.

This profound lack of knowledge about the basics of our history and government isn’t merely a deficit of memory about dates and dead people, it threatens the common frame of reference that makes us Americans and not merely a conglomeration of tribes sharing space on this continent. As John Dewey wrote in 1916: “Knowledge of the past is the key to understanding the present.” He goes on: “The lives of great men, of heroes and leaders, make concrete and vital historic episodes otherwise abstract and incomprehensible.” As the curtain came down on “Hamilton,” I pictured John Dewey cheering and whistling with everyone else, for surely the lives of great men were never more “concrete and vital” than on the stage that night.

Miranda’s story of “The ten-dollar Founding Father without a father” is based on Ron Chernow’s 2004 biography of Alexander Hamilton. Chernow’s book was made possible by the remarkable work of Harold C. Syrett and his team at Columbia University Press who, between 1961 and 1987, edited and published twenty-seven volumes of Hamilton’s personal and political papers. Yes, that’s twenty-seven volumes, many of them containing material never before mined for historical content and context. Chernow’s book is almost as compelling as Miranda’s musical version, which is saying a great deal.

A final thought. “Hamilton” ends with a number that asks a profoundly philosophical question about history itself. The song is called “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story?” and it draws on the fact that Alexander Hamilton was just forty-nine years old when Aaron Burr shot and killed him. Many of Hamilton’s contemporaries—Burr, Madison, Jefferson—disliked him intensely while he was alive, and after his death they ignored his considerable achievements and vilified his name. They told his story, in other words, and they left out the best parts. Lin-Manuel Miranda doesn’t gloss over the negatives about Hamilton, but he shines a spotlight on this remarkable man and in doing so, restores him to his rightful place in the pantheon of the Founding Fathers.

You can find the original cast recording of “Hamilton” here, and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s story about how the musical evolved here. Look for Chernow’s Hamilton biography at your local library or on Amazon.