This week's culture conversation
"Hamilton," from two people who haven't seen it (WE KNOW, but bear with us ...)
Brandon: The past week has felt like a giant history lesson. Lots of people are reexamining the national narratives that they'd long accepted. One interesting vehicle for that conversation has been "Hamilton," which just hit Disney+. Have you seen it?
Leah: I think that I am one of the only people on the planet who has NOT seen it. Have you?
B: That makes two of us! I haven't seen it, either. I definitely know about it through, like, cultural osmosis. But I never made an effort to see it when it premiered back in 2015.
B: Right. I think that many people would say that "Hamilton" is still zooming in on history from a very specific perspective -- i.e., the perspective of the (White) Founding Fathers.
I think that it's fair to say that "Hamilton" was appealing to a different moment. As you pointed out, it's an artifact of the Obama era, when there was a feeling of hope about the direction the country was going in, and a sense that we could be honest about the past.
But this history is now being contested in a very different way. To watch "Hamilton" valorize the Founding Fathers, even as it tries to do so subversively, doesn't hit the same way when the Founding Fathers themselves are in question.
She's exactly right. While there are some people who are predictably interpreting this conversation as #CancelHamilton (lol), it's so much more complicated. The play itself has come to embody the process of unlearning.
L: Tracy Clayton has NEVER missed. I totally agree. I mean, this just shows how we're all (even POC!) learning and reengaging and unlearning and all that, ALL THE TIME. It's not simple enough to just read a book and think, "Well, that's it! I am now educated on everything about race!"
B+L: OK, obviously we could go on. With more time, we could get into 100 other things, like what the play says about immigration or how it comments on modern xenophobia. Alas, that's space we don't have, but it's something we are definitely thinking about, and maybe you are, too.
The historical context
James Baldwin on confronting the past
Confederate monuments, the cringeworthy names of popular sports teams, "Hamilton": In recent days, there's been lots of buzz about history -- about revisiting and even unlearning the glossy, incomplete versions of history that we've been taught.
No, it's not about propaganda or erasure. (Some on the right, including the President, would have you think that, though.) It's about being honest about the depths of America's racist past -- about which stories society has chosen to polish and elevate, and at whose expense.
This process of confronting the truth is hard and painful -- but vital. It's something that the writer James Baldwin crystallized from a Black perspective in 1965, during a historic televised debate against William F. Buckley Jr., an influential conservative intellectual.
"When I was growing up, I was taught in American history books that Africa had no history, and neither did I," Baldwin told the rapt audience at the University of Cambridge in England. "That I was a savage about whom the less said, the better, who had been saved by Europe and brought to America. And, of course, I believed it. I didn't have much choice. Those were the only books there were."
He continued. "It is only since the Second World War that there's been a counter-image in the world. ... This gave an American Negro for the first time a sense of himself beyond the savage or a clown. It has created, and will create, a great many conundrums."
Likewise, the ongoing protests feel so singular in part because they're fueled by a battle between, to borrow Baldwin's words, images and counter-images -- by a desire to be honest about the damaging racial narratives that America broadcasts.
But this time, it isn't just Black Americans who are doing the work of anti-racism. White Americans are joining the cause more vigorously than at any moment in recent memory.
Recommended for your eyes and ears
Around the office
"The country seems like a mess. Racial protests have rocked every major city. Unemployment has soared. And Americans can't even agree if they should wear face masks in the middle of a pandemic. But what some see as chaos, others see as an explosion of patriotism.
"They see it in the armies of Americans that took to the streets to protest racism. They see it in the companies that are taking unprecedented stands against racial and social injustice. Even the Americans who are wearing masks for the health of their neighbors -- they, too, are reasons to wave the flag. All of these different groups have declared their independence from symbols and ideas that they've decided no longer represent them."