Thursday, August 11, 2016

"I Wished for a War" -- Hamilton the Musical and America's conflicted relationship with violence

"As a kid in the Caribbean I wished for a war
 I knew that I was poor
 I knew it was the only way to --
 Rise up" -- "Right Hand Man," from the Broadway musical Hamilton

I love the Hamilton soundtrack. I say this enthusiastically and unironically. I love Lin-Manuel Miranda's lyrics and his portrayal of the musical's mercurial namesake. I love the rhythms, the pace. I love that Miranda chose to write "a story about America then, told by America now," intentionally casting black and brown actors to play the white (and often overtly, slave-holding-ly racist) historical characters the show revolves around, messing with perceptions of race and subverting our USAmerican tendency to whitewash history.

I was listening to the soundtrack on a plane the other day, and -- this is literally true -- I had to put on a pair of sunglasses so my seatmates wouldn't be freaked out by me getting all weepy.

I love it.

And also. I'm fascinated by what my love of Hamilton -- and it ain't just me -- says about my conflicted relationship with violence. About this country's conflicted nation with violence.

"As I kid in the Caribbean I wished for a war," Miranda's Hamilton riffs in "Right Hand Man," a song which also features Christopher Jackson's George Washington pounding out: "Sh-boom goes the cannon, watch the blood and the shit spray."

(As an entirely unrelated aside, Jackson was at this year's commencement at my alma mater, Washington College, where he presented the George Washington Medal, the highest honor bestowed by the school. So that's cool.)

I cheer on the Hamilton cast as they make names for themselves in a violent uprising against the British monarchy.

And then I turn to news of state violence: another unarmed black person killed by police. Another bombing of civilians by this state's military or another's. Or of threats of violence: a presidential candidate suggesting that the "2nd Amendment people" could do something about his opponent -- "Who will rid me of this troublesome priest?" -- a comment that would be less scary if our national comfort with guns wasn't so deeply ensconced. Or the duty to honor violence: the supposedly liberal party in this country leaning on a narrative of national military strength and wearing connections to soldiers and veterans as a political badge.

Violence is woven into our national narrative. It's easier to believe African American and Latino actors as Founding Fathers then it would be to pretend they weren't men who knew how to kill people.

And yet, fear of violence perpetrated by the other, particularly by people of color, is also deeply woven into our (white) national consciousness. Guns in the home -- ostensibly to protect us from the tyranny of the state -- and in the hands of police officers -- representatives of the state -- we barely bat an eye at.

But burn a CVS or smash a car window in a protest, and you're considered too violent, too radical, a criminal. Certainly outside of the mainstream discourse.

We cheer on the black and brown actors in Hamilton, but the truth is, most of the folks loving the musical would be at least a bit uncomfortable with a group of black and brown people calling for the violent overthrow of the national government. Which is literally the plot of the entire first act.

The second act is all lead up to Leslie Odom, Jr.'s Aaron Burr shooting Miranda's Hamilton.

I've been reflecting on this as I have dug into the Movement for Black Lives recently released policy platform. (Yesterday, the organization I serve as board chair, Friends of Sabeel-North America, endorsed the platform).The platform has received criticism for its characterization of Israeli actions against Palestinians as "apartheid" and "genocide." Its call for reparations has, already, been dismissed out of hand as unrealistic, as too radical, too outside of mainstream discourse.

We are comfortable with the violence of our heroes. We are uncomfortable with demands for freedom, justice, economic equity. Those voices should be more patient, less angry, less radical.

"As a kid in the Caribbean I wished for a war," Alexander Hamilton raps.

"As a kid in Gaza I wished for a war."
"As a kid in Baltimore I wished for a war."

That musical might not get the same level of popular acclaim.

I am a person who believes, because of my faith and because of some of my experiences, in the power of nonviolence. And so I am fascinated by what my love of Hamilton has to say about me, about my inconsistencies, my prejudices. I am fascinated by what it has to say about our country.

I'm going to go and listen to the soundtrack again, now.

And, as ineffectual and silly as it seems, I'm going to keep wishing, and praying, for peace.

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