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Things I love about “Stay Alive.” (It’s okay for me to write a list instead of an essay, right? This is my blog and I make the rules, right? Okay, whew.)

1. Eliza’s “Stay alive . . .,” later joined by Angelica and the women of the company, is a plea to Hamilton, but also the voice of every person who’s sent someone off to war, whispering “stay alive” to the person they love. And it’s a prayer for the revolutionary effort as a whole, which is not doing well.

2. The condensed and quite accurate account of the war at this point. In addition to concisely filling us in on how dire both the strategic and equipment circumstances are, in well under three minutes “Stay Alive” also takes us through one representative battle. It also tracks the three friends, whose role in the plot is not only tell us about Hamilton’s private life, but to give us a personal connection to the various aspects of the war: the southern battles with Laurens, espionage with Mulligan, leadership in key northern battles with Lafayette.

3. The tension built by the piano’s repeated four-note figure and the heartbeat that runs under most of the music. The stakes are very high.

4. The rhyme “Yeah. He’s not the choice I would have gone with / He shits the bed at the battle of Monmouth.” As Lawrence Block’s burglar/book lover Bernie Rhodenbarr says in The Burglar Who Liked to Quote Kipling, “Bad verse is when you can tell which line is there to rhyme with the other.” It had to have been “Monmouth” that Miranda needed a rhyme for, but it doesn’t sound like it. He makes great verse out of tough rhyming challenges like this all the time.

5. As is true throughout the play, singers refrain from punching up the rhyming words, so that it can take several times through before you hear that

The best thing he can do for the revolution
Is turn n’ go back to plantin’ tobacco in Mount Vernon

conceals a rhyme:

The best thing he can do for the revolution is turn n’
Go back to plantin’ tobacco in Mount Vernon

What’s even better than a clever rhyme? That’s right: a clever, subtle rhyme!

6. Washington is being the grownup again. Charles Lee didn’t just talk (write) smack about him; he was part of a serious campaign to get Congress to remove Washington from his post, dating from well before the Battle of Monmouth. (Honestly, the campaigners had a point, though Lee’s animus was personal; he’d always resented Washington’s promotion over him. If Washington renamed Fort Constitution Fort Lee in order to mollify him, it didn’t work.) Hamilton and Laurens, young and brash, rise to the bait, but Washington serenely focuses on the mission.

Washington: Don’t do a thing. History will prove him wrong
Hamilton: But, sir!
Washington: We have a war to fight, let’s move along.

Lacking Washington’s maturity, they ignore him. Now, when Hamilton says, “Laurens, do not throw away your shot,” do you think he is saying “Don’t duel”? Or “Aim to kill”? More on that in the next entry . . .

We’re at war. The battle’s intensity is felt in the BOOMs, the military snare drum, the chaos of voices erupting with “Rise up” and the “whoas” from “My Shot.” It’s the country’s shot. “Understand? It’s the only way to rise up,” says Hamilton.

The song introduces George Washington, not at the height of his success but at the verge of complete failure, which in this account isn’t blamed at all upon his leadership. I just read Lafayette in the (Somewhat) United States, by Sarah Vowell, and Washington screwed up plenty in the early years of the Revolutionary War; the many lost battles, including this one for New York, can’t be blamed entirely on the soldiers’ lack of discipline, equipment and experience. What Miranda chiefly wants us to know about Washington (and I know of no account that disputes this view) is that, simply put, he’s a grownup. A mentor to the hotheaded Hamilton, sure, and beyond that, someone who’s grounded in reality, keeps a check on his ego and insecurities–in other words, someone we’d want as the “father of our country.” His most glaring flaw is obviously known to the creators–Christopher Jackson, who portrays him, starkly says, “He owned people”–but other than a tiny hint later in the play, when “Black and white soldiers wonder alike if this really means freedom,” and Washington says, “Not. Yet,” Miranda gives us no reminder of it. His Washington is the wise, prudent father, the one who summons Hamilton and others to their better, more mature selves.

We see only glimpses of that in this song, for example when he advises, “Dying is easy, young man–living is harder,” but more is to be revealed. For now, it’s enough to hear the hero worship in Miranda’s voice when his Hamilton says of the general, “Here he comes.”

Like so many of the songs, this one is a marvel of succinctness. We’re introduced to the daunting military situation; Washington and how he’s viewed by his soldiers and himself; his frustration with his soldiers (“Are these the men with which I am to defend America?” is a direct quote); the disastrous battle for New York (“Watch the blood and the shit spray . . . we’re abandonin’ Kips Bay”); the strategic decisions under pressure:

Guns and horses giddyup
I decide to divvy up
My forces, they’re skittish as the British cut the city up
This close to giving up . . .

All of this sets the stage for Washington’s hiring Hamilton as an aide-de-camp. He was one of several, but it’s true that the two men had a special relationship that continued to the end of Washington’s life. It’s also true that Washington snubbed Burr, not in the same hour that he promoted Hamilton–that’s just for dramatic contrast and compactness–but in a battle around this time. (Wikipedia does not know why.)

I’m unable to decide whether Hamilton wants the job, and I enjoy the ambiguity. He didn’t want to be “secretary” to anyone else, even leaders as illustrious as Nathanael Greene and Henry Knox; does he feel differently toward the general? Or when Washington holds out the job offer and he says, sotto voce, “I am not throwing away my shot,” is he resisting being his glorified secretary? Arguing for the anti-aide-de-camp side is Hamilton’s continued chafing at his role. “Hamilton still wants to fight, not write,” Burr will say in the next song, and Hamilton himself will later say to the newly-promoted Burr, “I wish I had your command instead of manning George’s journal” (“The Story of Tonight [Reprise]”).

On the other hand, there’s that rapid list of ideas Hamilton produces for Washington, which could be interpreted as “here’s a few suggestions for you, now let me go on fighting,” but sounds more like a man interviewing for a job he eagerly desires:

I’ll write to Congress and tell ‘em we need supplies . . .
I’ll rise above my station, organize your information,
‘til we rise to the occasion of our new nation. Sir!

Judging from video I’ve seen of the performance, he’s proud when he gets it. But when I hear that final cannon blast, I wonder if Hamilton is also thinking, “Damn, I’m stuck with it now.” BOOM!

How will our lives appear to the people of future generations? How will our story be told? Hamilton repeatedly raises these questions. It’s a historical drama about history itself.

Of course Miranda fictionalizes when he has Hamilton meet all three of these friends at once. Maybe they didn’t ever all gather together, in a tavern or anywhere else. But when they sing,

Raise a glass to the four of us
Tomorrow there’ll be more of us,

the details of who and when are not the point. The song is about the seeds of change, the people who were on board the train when it began rolling so fast there was no stopping it. So they are confident that

when our children tell our story
They’ll tell the story of tonight.

The lines I ponder most are:

Raise a glass to freedom
Something they can never take away
No matter what they tell you.

Do you think it’s true? There are political prisoners all over the world, even here in the republic Laurens (the principal singer in this short song) and friends are hoping to found; people are locked away for life, sometimes in solitary confinement, for trying to use their freedom. But in the sense of “Gedanken sind frei,” thoughts are free, I guess it’s true. In which case, maybe that is the freedom Laurens and the others are toasting: the freedom of the mind, which can be surrendered but never taken.

I am in the midst of a week’s study leave. As usual, I didn’t really clear my desk before this “break from usual responsibilities,” much less write the reflection and eulogy I will need for Sunday, so it is far from a week of pure study. But I am managing to spend most of my time immersed in two topics.

One is death and grief. My first book of the week was Irvin Yalom’s Staring Into the Sun: Overcoming the Terror of Death. By pure chance, the reading for my women’s group was an excerpt on different ways of incorporating past losses into our lives, from On Living, a memoir by hospice chaplain Kerry Egan. Tuesday, I was browsing the natural history section of a bookstore and stumbled upon H is for Hawk, which thanks to a review, I knew was not only natural history but very much about the author’s process of mourning her father’s death. It is now on the pile. The next day, I was browsing the DVD section on a rare trip to San Francisco’s Main Library, and remembered that I’ve been looking for the first season of Six Feet Under for a while. They have it! I’ve watched two episodes, and the people who told me it’s a really good look at death and grief are right.

The other area of immersion is African American history and fiction, a long-term remediation project to fill the gaps in my education and better equip myself to fight white supremacy. I’ve read Bud Not Buddy, a children’s chapter book by Christopher Paul Curtis. I’m also reading March by Geraldine Brooks, with the grain of salt I keep on hand for books about the black experience by white people, especially fiction, but so far, so good: it’s teaching me some things about the Civil War years that I didn’t know, and I’ve been nibbling at this book since December so I really want to finish it. Next up is Ida: A Sword Among Lions, an intimidatingly thick biography of Ida Wells by Paula Giddings–many thanks to Mariame Kaba for the recommendation.

On this grim anniversary, I’m moved to share one of the greatest war poems I know, which was inspired by Genesis 22 and the war that began one hundred years ago today, by most reckonings. The poet, Wilfred Owen, died in that war. He was 25.

“The Parable of the Old Man and the Young”

So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
and builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretchèd forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.

But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

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I’d been braced for Pete Seeger’s passing for years, but I was still very sad several weeks ago when the news came that he had died, at age 94. I was a little stunned when, within 24 hours, a stern warning came over social media from a colleague: if we sang too many Pete Seeger songs in church that Sunday, we’d be alienating Generation X and Millennial congregation members.

The author, who is just about my age, has since stepped back from that rigid recommendation, acknowledging that the 140-character limit of the format she’d chosen had cost her message some nuance. We all know how that is. (A warning to the Twitter generation?) But I was no longer concerned only with that one statement. The chorus of agreement that met it—mixed, to be sure, with many younger-than-Boomer voices protesting that they know and love Pete Seeger’s music—showed how badly these generational concerns can deepen the ruts we get into. We UUs clearly aren’t ready to move beyond our brother UU, Pete Seeger. On the contrary, we’d better run if we’re ever going to catch up with him.

I understand the exasperation with Baby Boomer domination of our culture, especially UU culture. I think the phenomenon is real, and I appreciate people’s reminding us that there are other generations, and not to get stuck in nostalgia for the boomers’ heyday, that is to say, the 1960s. And there are other people who have died in the last month who deserve our honor but don’t get much attention, such as Amiri Baraka and Chokwe Lumumba.

Still, not to lift up Pete Seeger’s work and life would be to cut off our nose to spite our face.

First of all, it’s important to remember that Seeger was not a boomer. He wasn’t even just a bit older than the boomers, like boomer icon Bob Dylan (born 1941). Seeger was born in 1919 and served in World War II. My colleague Dan Harper pointed out exactly why Seeger began playing the college circuit in middle age: because his thriving career as a performer and recording artist was throttled by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) when it blacklisted him for insisting on his, and his associates’, First Amendment right to the freedom of assembly.

Which brings us to another reason we need to memorialize Seeger. No U. S. citizen can understand their country without knowing about the Red Scare. If you don’t know much about HUAC, reading the transcript of Pete Seeger’s testimony is a good introduction.

Seeger was a die-hard union supporter, and we don’t pay much respect to the labor movement in Unitarian Universalism. My congregation has its old lefties of Seeger’s generation, bless their rabble-rousing souls, but on the whole, we UUs have settled into a comfortable liberalism. The demands of the labor movement—now as in the 40s and 50s when his Almanac Singers and (to a lesser extent) Weavers were singing its songs—aren’t liberal, but radical, and they’re not comfortable. They shake up the system. It needs shaking up. Remember working 9 to 5? Weren’t those the good old days? In this and so many other ways, working people are going backwards, and Pete Seeger was one who kept pushing against that tide.

Another trend Seeger’s example helps us buck is that of receiving (consuming), rather than making, music. His concerts were always participatory and he never missed a chance to remind us that we are born to be music makers. He once said,

Once upon a time, wasn’t singing a part of everyday life as much as talking, physical exercise, and religion? Our distant ancestors, wherever they were in this world, sang while pounding grain, paddling canoes, or walking long journeys. Can we begin to make our lives once more all of a piece? Finding the right songs and singing them over and over is a way to start. And when one person taps out a beat, while another leads into the melody, or when three people discover a harmony they never knew existed, or a crowd joins in on a chorus as though to raise the ceiling a few feet higher, then they also know there is hope for the world.

I mostly listen to music; my guitar languishes in a closet and my fingers have lost their calluses, and I rarely gather with friends to make music, except in church. I want to change that. He’s a gentle prophet nudging us to make that change.

The most chilling comments in the wake of Seeger’s death were the ones dismissing music of 25, 50, and 75 years ago as ancient history. One way that Unitarian Universalists are totally mainstream, completely in the sway of U. S. American culture, is in our disdain for the past. We revel in our refusal to look back, as if focusing on the future is the secret to being progressive. I don’t buy it. I still think that those who will not learn from history are condemned to repeat it. We’re repeating it now, as those who have been thrown into poverty by others’ mismanagement of the economy are reviled as lazy spongers, as were those of Seeger’s childhood, the Bonus Army. We’re fighting battles that labor organizers of two generations ago thought they had won for us (workplace fatalities, for example, have plateaued after years of welcome decline). We’re struggling to keep our rivers clean—Seeger worked with the Clearwater efforts on the Hudson for almost 50 years—and maybe if we want to prevent poisonous spills such as we’ve seen in West Virginia and North Carolina in the past couple of months, we should look to the environmental strategies of 50 years ago, instead of trying to start from scratch every time. Maybe we give up so easily because we don’t know that we stand in a long heritage of struggle for true progress. As another UU singer, Utah Phillips, said, “The long memory is the most radical idea in this country” (Thanks, Dan Schatz, for that timely quote.)

Pete Seeger never stopped raising his voice, even decades after he insisted that he couldn’t sing anymore. It was never about the quality of his voice anyway—it was about heart and commitment. We still need them, and when I find someone who devoted himself to making a better world long after most people retire or give into cynicism, I’m really happy for his example. So as soon as the news of his death came, I scheduled a Pete Seeger Memorial Singalong Celebration, and we’ll be raising our voices tomorrow, March 8, at 6 p.m. at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto.

Black History Month, day 28

I’ve tried to make many of these entries positive, so as not to suggest that African-American history has been nothing but sorrow. The genius of black poets, leaders, artists, composers, dancers, writers, and organizers is the heritage of African-Americans and other Americans–for that matter, of all of humanity.

Still, there are tragic passages of history I have wanted to include. First, they’re part of our history and think we can learn who we are by learning our country’s history, just as we learn it by knowing our family’s story and our own. Second, they also tell us about the tremendous courage, creativity, and perseverance of African-Americans. It gives me hope for the human spirit even as it makes me feel sick at how cruel and ignorant we can be. And third, they counteract the racism, and internalized racism, that says African-Americans must be near the bottom of the social structure because of some fault within themselves or their culture.

One of the phenomena I didn’t know about until a few years ago is the sundown town: a town where black people were prevented by official policy, enforcement by police or unchecked vigilantes, restrictive covenants, and the like from “allowing the sun to set on them”–in other words, they could pass through, spend money, even work (usually as laborers or domestics) there, but not live there. (There have also been towns that were “sundown” to Jews, Chinese, Native Americans, Mexicans, and others. San Jose, California, now home to more people of Vietnamese descent than anywhere outside of Vietnam, used to exclude Asians.) I touched on this a bit early in the month in my entry about the Green Book. The national expert on it is James Loewen, whose book, Sundown Towns, is a fascinating read; you can also read about sundown towns on his website, and look up towns you know.

Surprise: they will mostly be outside the South. He began his research in his home state of Illinois, and eventually confirmed 456 sundown towns there; in Mississippi he has confirmed only a handful. The phenomenon of white Americans creating white-only towns (sometimes by violently expelling the towns’ black residents) took hold around the end of Reconstruction and was most widespread from 1890-1940. It declined, but didn’t end, then; at the time of his research a few years ago, some towns were still effectively closed to certain groups, usually black people. At its peak, Loewen surmises that “probably a majority of all incorporated places kept out African-Americans” (2).

Headline from Appleton, WI, a town whose historian has done some constructive work to acknowledge its past. I guess when your most famous son is Joe McCarthy, you'd be pretty foolish to hide your head in the sand.

Levittown, the famous planned community that began in New York and was also established in three other states, is widely credited with establishing suburbia and the American middle class. It made home ownership available to blue-collar families. Which blue-collar families? White ones. Black people were not allowed to buy houses there. Repeat this pattern all over suburbia and you start to understand why African-Americans have found it so hard to gain a foothold in the middle class.

For the ambitious and history-minded, Loewen provides a guide to determining whether a given town is, or used to be, sundown. If you enjoy researching genealogy or local history, this is a great project, and Loewen will post your results.

Why bother, especially if the town’s status changed two generations ago? Because the reputation lives on, if not among the people who have always been allowed to live there, then among the excluded populations, with the result that they continue to feel excluded. Without ever being told straight out that people like me (Jews) used to be forbidden to live in Darien, CT, I knew it was a town I didn’t want to drive through, much less live in. I would feel very different about it if the town formally acknowledged its history and apologized for the injustices of the past; until it does so, the impression it gives is that it is content to continue to ride the coattails of ancestral anti-Semitism. Likewise, if a town I live in used to exclude African-Americans, I’d want it to explicitly declare that those days were over and all were welcome, so that it didn’t continue to maintain a de facto exclusion by its reputation.

Black History Month, day 23

Who am I kidding. This letter is for everyone: for those who were meant to perish and for those whose innocence is indicted here because it is the “innocence” of those who do not wish to see.

My father and my sweetie both spoke this week of the importance of James Baldwin to them, naming him when I asked people for their favorite African American writers. Now I’ve gotten to a passage in Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow quoting from The Fire Next Time, a book I haven’t read since American Lit, in 11th grade. Baldwin is writing to his nephew.

This is the crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen, and for which neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive them, that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it . . . .  It is their innocence which constitutes the crime . . . . This innocent country set you down in a ghetto in which, in fact, it intended that you that you should perish. The limits of your ambition were, thus, expected to be set forever. You were born into a society which spelled out with brutal clarity, and in as many ways as possible, that you were a worthless human being, You were expected to aspire to excellence: you were expected to make peace with mediocrity . . . . You have, and many of us have, defeated this intention; and, by a terrible law, a terrible paradox, those innocents who believed that your imprisonment made them safe are losing their grasp on reality. But these men are your brothers –your lost younger brothers. And if the word integration means anything, this is what it means: that we,  with love, shall force our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it. For this is your home, my friend, do not be driven from it; great men have done great things here, and will again, and we can make America what it must become. It will be hard, but you come from sturdy peasant stock, men who picked cotton and dammed rivers and built railroads, and, in the teeth of the most terrifying odds, achieved an unassailable and monumental dignity. You come from a long line of great poets since Homer. One of them said, The very time I thought I was lost, My dungeon shook and my chains  fell  off . . . . We cannot be free until they are free. God bless you and, Godspeed. (The Fire Next Time, 5-10)

He wrote that fifty years ago. It’s a drop in the ocean of anti-African bigotry going back before the transatlantic slave trade, but fifty years still seems like a long time to keep our eyes on the prize. A long time to hold on.

Black History Month, day 22

What I want to write about for today is how Haiti went from a brutally oppressive slave plantation to an independent nation, but what I mostly know about Haiti is how little I know. I just find it intriguing, for several reasons: how widespread the revolt was, a real grassroots movement. How they defeated England, Spain, and Napoleon, for heaven’s sake. How the successful revolt by slaves got the attention of US Americans: definitely that of northern abolitionists and southern newspapers, who commented on it, and surely that of enslaved people as well. The question of whether the Haitian revolutionaries were inspired by the US war of independence (seems likely enough), in which case there is an elegant circling-round, with our revolution partially inspiring theirs, then theirs in turn inspiring our “next revolution,” the Civil War. The interesting personalities of the leaders, such as Toussaint L’Ouverture and Boukman Dutty (I’m finding myself wanting to read a biography of each, and I almost never read biographies). How complex the racial and class relationships were, with a caste of black landowners, maybe even an aristocracy, such as never existed in the antebellum US South. How after the Haitians established a free republic, they waged a war to free the slaves of the Dominican Republic. How, nevertheless, their leaders were not agreed on whether to sustain a democracy or set up new autocracies.

If there were any sense of fair play in world politics, everyone would keep their hands of Haiti–a country that had overcome so much, the only one where slaves reasserted their rights and took over to the point of establishing a new republic, should be hailed and helped by all democracies from then on. (I know, naive. I also have this idea that people who survive cancer should all live to old age and never die of something as ridiculous as a car accident.) Obviously it doesn’t work like that, and not only because Haiti’s leaders vacillated between democracy and dictatorship. The US, far from seeing Haiti as a sister in freedom, invaded in 1915 and set up a puppet government, just one of many cases of the US invading a Caribbean or Latin American country at the behest of corporations. Of course, then-president Wilson was such a white supremacist that, far from rejoicing to see a former slave state gain freedom and equality, he probably found it galling. Again, if black people could run a country, what did that say about his harsh judgment about “governments sustained by the votes of ignorant negroes” after the Civil War? (Read his chapter on Reconstruction in his History of the American People, volume IX, if you can stand it.) We’ve meddled in Haiti ever since.

Black History Month, day 14

I knew that terrible conditions continued to oppress black Americans after Emancipation, of course. I knew that lynchings and the unequal application of the law kept a boot on their necks. I knew, for that matter, that slavery is still going strong around the world. But I didn’t know half the stuff documented in Slavery By Another Name, aired yesterday and available for viewing here now.

If you want to place someone beneath the notice of the public, declare them a criminal–it will give you lots of leeway for abusing them without anyone being willing to intervene. If they haven’t done anything illegal, make new laws that criminalize things they are already doing. The former slaveholding states would tolerate neither the equality of black people with white nor the loss of all that free labor. And so the law against vagrancy–the inability to prove that one has a job–was “dredged up from legal obscurity” and used to sweep black men into prison. (Once again, in our own wave of high unemployment, we have political leaders  proposing penalties for being poor: Judson Phillips, president of the Tea Party Nation, recently spoke approvingly of the 18th century law against voting if one did not own real estate. Last November would have been my first election! And actual prison sentences for debt are on the rise, according to this article in the Wall Street Journal, and despite federal debtors’ prisons’ having been abolished 180 years ago.)  Defendants were required to pay for the expenses the state incurred in convicting them. If they couldn’t pay the fees to ” the sheriff, the deputy, the court clerk, the witnesses,” they were in debt and had to work it off–again, laws created in order to manufacture criminals, i.e., slave laborers.  Furthermore, contract laws were in place to penalize anyone attempting to leave a job before an advance had been worked off”–another form of thinly-veiled enslavement, practiced frequently today in countries such as India and the United States.

I wrote 1865-1945 because the author of the book Slavery By Another Name, Douglas A. Blackmon–another journalist with the Wall Street Journal–focuses on the scope of 80 years. It seems to me that this practice is far from over, but that’s for an upcoming post.

For today, please be aware that there are more slaves in the world today than there were in the entire 400 years of the African slave trade. Chocolate and flowers are industries with a lot of slave labor. If you want to give a Valentine to children in West Africa and women in South America, buy the chocolate or flowers that profit their ethical bosses, not the exploiters. Look for the fair trade symbol. One World Flowers is a good option for roses, and your local natural foods store probably carries non-slave-produced chocolate brands, such as Divine, Tcho, Theo, and Equal Exchange. (Whole Paycheck is not my favorite food store, but they are a good source for fair trade chocolate.)

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