Like millions of viewers, I was captivated by Hamilton recently.
I should specify that I was captivated by the story of Alexander Hamilton when I saw the musical play in its limited run on a streaming service. The play reanimates the drama that has been shellacked with the gloss of history that seems to make the United States of America a preordained destiny.
One of messages of the play is that Hamilton used his talent for storytelling to help craft the United States. Hamilton’s writing propelled him out of poverty, and into the American Revolution, after which his words built federalism and the financial system.
Another takeaway is that Lin-Manuel Miranda is conserving the idea of America through his talent for storytelling. Through Miranda’s prodigious talent to perform, write music and extract the themes of meaning from a greater narrative that resonate with people, he showed the audience the actual person encased in the amber of history.
I witnessed the power of Miranda’s talent last year when I saw an Alexander Hamilton exhibit at the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia.
In an interactive section at the end of the exhibit, a father was photographing his teenage daughter as she wore a tri-cornered hat and sang “Alexander Hamilton” in the way it is sung at the beginning of Miranda’s play. We were in the same tour group and she had been enthusiastic throughout the visit. She was far from the only young person enjoying the exhibit.
How often do you think that an American teenager, boy or girl, yells “Yay!” when Dad suggests, “Hey, kids, let’s go to the Museum of the American Revolution!”?
That is the power of Miranda’s alignment with his talent. Through it, we can see that we have our own talents that we can use to make a difference.
Listen To The Stories
Generations are learning about the essence and audacity of the American experiment from a Puerto Rican from Manhattan telling the story of an immigrant from the West Indies. The perspectives and artistic dialects from many cultures have made America special from its beginning.
The only way American ideals pass from generation to generation is through a fresh perspective to keep those values relevant.
In Managing Editor Susan Rupe’s main feature, we learn the stories of people trying to change the narrative for life insurance and financial services. From people such as Barbara Turner, CEO of Ohio National, we learn the hardship of being the only Black person, and probably also the only woman, in the room.
I recall that earlier in my career, when I worked with people of color I thought of them in the same way as I would other colleagues, and evaluated their contributions rather than their race or ethnicity.
It was only later, when I heard stories expressing what Blacks and other minorities endured from their perspectives that I understood that their sense of being “other” is always present in the room.
The stories allowed me to see life through their eyes.
We Feast On Diversity
After all, isn’t the story of America what all the fighting is about? The struggle over statues is an argument about our story and who is telling it. Monuments themselves are attempts to tell a version of the story. Alexander Hamilton was only a name in stone or a picture on our money to most people, until Miranda showed Americans who he was and what he meant to this nation.
National identity is the story we tell ourselves or allow our ears to hear. The richness of America is as evident as the choice of restaurants in our major cities (well, pre-COVID). Where else do you find that?
In most countries, visitors encounter a cuisine that identifies that culture. But what is the identifiable feature of American food? Variety — the spice of life.
Little of the cuisine in this country can be called “all-American.” If you are thinking of fried chicken, that was apparently a product of Scottish frying techniques and African spices. It is all a buffet of cultures.
There is also not much you can point to and say, “That is not American.” Even right- and left-wing extremism are strands in the national fabric.
Only one thing is reliably American, and that is ingenuity. This is the country that takes the pieces of other cultures and makes magic that dazzles the world.
In particular, our music and movies enthrall billions of people. Our stories tell who we are and where the future is.
A recurring line in Hamilton is “Look around, look around at how lucky we are to be alive right now.” It is difficult to see how they would have thought that in revolutionary times.
New York City was occupied for much of a war in which the rebels were far from certain to win. In fact, a good number of colonists were happy with the status quo, and historians estimate that only a third of Americans favored independence.
But it was a historic time, with many currents of world history churning in our bays. New ideas from France and Britain mixed with Roman traditions to forge something that reflected the best of those influences and create the American story.
Here we are again in a confusing time that we know is important. We just don’t know yet what the outcome will be and what significance will arise from it.
That will be the job of the storytellers.