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Black History Month, day 10

Whenever research digs up a racist attitude by someone from history who was formerly admired, we rehash the “that was a different time” argument and ask, sometimes rhetorically, whether we can rightly judge people of the past by today’s ethical standards.

I agree that it is important to assess people of the past in the context of their own times, as much as possible. Context is an inseperable part of meaning. Referring to one’s co-worker as a “Negro” today would strongly suggest racism; in 1965, it was the anti-racist term of choice.

However, sometimes we wrongly assume that the context was more different than our own than it actually was. We say “She was a person of her time,” as if to say that she would have had to have been an extremely unusual person to have held views at all like our own. We might even hint that a person’s hypocrisies, so evident to us, were invisible to him.

We can’t claim that about Thomas Jefferson and slavery, because Benjamin Banneker wrote him a letter in 1791, when Jefferson was Secretary of State, lamenting “that [he] should at the same time be found guilty of that most criminal act, which [he] professedly detested in others, with respect to [himself].” Banneker, you may know, was an astronomer and surveyor who helped set the boundaries of Washington, D.C. He was best known in his own time for the almanacs he created and published. He wrote to Jefferson the same year he completed the first almanac, and enclosed a copy–as a gift? As proof of his ability? In the flowery style of the time, he expressed his hope that as regarded the conviction that black people were inferior, Jefferson was “far less inflexible in sentiments of this nature, than many others”–and then, naturally, he quoted the Declaration of Independence.

[Y]our abhorrence [of slavery] was so excited, that you publicly held forth this true and invaluable doctrine, which is worthy to be recorded and remembered in all succeeding ages : “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, and that among these are, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Here was a time, in which your tender feelings for yourselves had engaged you thus to declare, you were then impressed with proper ideas of the great violation of liberty, and the free possession of those blessings, to which you were entitled by nature; but, Sir, how pitiable is it to reflect, that although you were so fully convinced of the benevolence of the Father of Mankind, and of his equal and impartial distribution of these rights and privileges, which he hath conferred upon them, that you should at the same time counteract his mercies, in detaining by fraud and violence so numerous a part of my brethren, under groaning captivity and cruel oppression.

As we know, Jefferson was unmoved. He neither changed his views nor freed the people he had enslaved. And to a friend, he snidely described Banneker’s eloquent letter as proof that he had “a mind of very common stature indeed.” Sadly, it was Jefferson’s mind that was too limited to accept influence, even that of Banneker’s modest manner and logical argument.

Benjamin Banneker’s 1791 letter to Thomas Jefferson

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Black History Month, day 9

One hundred years ago, citizens of Omaha; Chicago; Washington, D. C.; Longview, Texas; Elaine, Arkansas; and 15 other places around the United States were terrorized by beatings, arsons, and murders. Their attackers, mostly white men, were angry that black men were working. Literally. Unemployment was high, and if a white man couldn’t find a job, he had a scapegoat in his black neighbors. By the time that terrible summer ended, hundreds of African Americans had been murdered and thousands displaced.

Public domain. Reprinted from the Chicago Commission on Race Relations, The Negro in Chicago; a study of race relations and a race riot (1922)

I never learned about any of this in school or anywhere else when I was young. I heard about race riots, but they were about black anger and destruction: viewed sympathetically, at times, but also patronizingly (“Burning down their own neighborhoods!”). I did not know that race riots were ever instigated by white people until years after my graduation from high school and college.

It wasn’t unknown information. Even Woodrow Wilson, who was openly white supremacist, blamed the 1919 riots squarely on white mobs. But in the 65 years between then and my high school years, it disappeared from the history curriculum–if it was ever there.

Black History Month, day 5

I love this picture book of the song that came to be known as the “African American national anthem,” “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing.” The words by James Weldon Johnson are thoughtfully, sometimes devastatingly paired with linocuts by the great printmaker and sculptor, Elizabeth Catlett.

I have not been able to find out how these pairings came about. The song came first (Catlett was born 15 years after it premiered, and the prints were made in 1945-6, when she was 30-31 years old, which, by the way, blows my mind) but did she make the prints specifically to accompany this song? Or did she choose them out of her oeuvre almost 50 years later? Or did an editor choose them? I’m curious, though ultimately it doesn’t matter. The words illuminate the art as much as the art illuminates the words.

Johnson and his brother, J. Rosamond Johnson, wrote the lyrics and music, respectively, for a Lincoln celebration in Jacksonville, Florida, where it s sunny by an enormous chorus of children. Thirty-five years later he wrote:

Shortly afterwards my brother and I moved from Jacksonville to New York, and the song passed out of our minds. But the school children of Jacksonville kept singing it, they went off to other schools and sang it, they became teachers and taught it to other children. Within twenty years it was being sung over the South and in some other parts of the country. Today, the song, popularly known as the Negro National Hymn, is quite generally used.

The lines of this song repay me in elation, almost of exquisite anguish, whenever I hear them sung by Negro children.

Elation/exquisite anguish. The lines of Catlett’s prints express this paradoxical combination just as the Johnsons ‘ song does. A beautiful book. (The music for piano and voice is printed in the book as well.)

Once upon a time, the National Rifle Association was a leading voice for gun control legislation. Owners and sellers of guns had to register, all receipts had to be available to the police, and the president of the NRA testified to Congress, “I do not believe in the general promiscuous toting of guns. I think it should be sharply restricted and only under licenses.” The argument made by gun control supporters like me, that the Second Amendment was never intended to allow citizens unrestricted access to guns, would have put us right in step with the NRA leadership.

When the NRA Supported Gun Control, Time Magazine

That was in the 1920s and 30s. Many states imposed restrictions on the carrying of weapons, but California was one that did not.

But then the Black Panther Party, concerned about police brutality, started patrolling Oakland with these arms they were legally entitled to carry, and several members of the California state legislature proposed a ban on the open carrying of loaded weapons. The Black Panthers protested the bill by showing up at the Capitol Building in Sacramento, where it so happened that Governor Ronald Reagan was on the lawn. The sight of a couple dozen black people protesting and carrying guns made restrictions on guns very compelling to white Republicans and Democrats alike, the bill passed, and he signed it.

Governor Reagan told reporters that afternoon that he saw “no reason why on the street today a citizen should be carrying loaded weapons.” He called guns a “ridiculous way to solve problems that have to be solved among people of good will.” In a later press conference, Reagan said he didn’t “know of any sportsman who leaves his home with a gun to go out into the field to hunt or for target shooting who carries that gun loaded.” The Mulford Act, he said, “would work no hardship on the honest citizen.”

(The Secret History of Guns, Atlantic Magazine)

Between incidents like this, the reaction to the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and conservative U. S. Americans’ anxiety about young radicals, the trend toward gun control only strengthened in the 1960s. There was just one problem with gun restrictions as a solution: white people couldn’t carry guns either. And unpleasant things happened, like an NRA member’s waving a gun in response to a raid by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms in 1971; the ATF shot him, and the NRA responded angrily, likening the ATF to the Gestapo. It was a conundrum.

I don’t know if it was unconscious or a carefully thought-out plan, but around then, the NRA began to change its tactics. It would put its resources into weakening gun laws and rest its argument on the “need” for honest individuals to protect themselves, while promoting the idea that “the honest citizen” was white and the feared predator was black.

By the 2000s, the pattern was set. The NRA’s line was that any kind of restriction was a step onto the “slippery slope” that would end in fascism and the destruction not only of the Second Amendment, but freedom. If police did not respect gun ownership, it would be the beginning of the end.

. . . if the owner was white. If the owner was black, he must be intending violence, and his summary execution by police for the mere possession of a gun would meet with no demur from the NRA. As case after case hit the news of black people who were merely suspected of holding weapons’ being killed by police or self-appointed defenders of public safety, the NRA’s true agenda became clear: not to protect gun owners from an overreaching state, but to protect white people from the black bogeyman they feared.

The Philando Castile case made it clear that even a license for a weapon would not protect a black person who wished to exercise the right the NRA called absolutely fundamental to freedom. In 2016, near St. Paul, Minnesota, Castile was pulled over by police and asked for his driver’s license and registration, at which point he sensibly informed them that he had a gun and a license for it, so that they would not think he was reaching for it in attack. This is surely the correct and cautious thing for a gun owner to do when interacting with the police–if, in the NRA’s view, one should have to explain at all. One of the officers immediately fired four bullets into Castile, killing him; his girlfriend and her four-year-old daughter were in the back seat. The NRA responded with a silence that, under pressure, it finally broke to say “The reports from Minnesota are troubling and must be thoroughly investigated,” declining to comment further or even use the victim’s name.

Black people might want to arm themselves in self-defense, especially with killers like Gregory Bush and Dylann Roof gunning for them, but they have to consider the very real possibility that if they are so much as glimpsed carrying a weapon, the police will be called and they will be shot.

But to back up a few years. In the meantime, each mass shooting–now in the hundreds per year–had been met by the NRA’s claim that “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” And those of us who doubted this wisdom had pointed out that among its many flaws was the question of how police, called to a scene of mayhem, would know that the “good guy with a gun” was a good guy. Wouldn’t they be facing two armed people, with no way of knowing which was the instigator of the crime and which was trying to stop it? Those of us who, furthermore, had been paying attention to the disparity between the NRA’s responses, and police forces’ responses, to black and white gun ownership, thought we knew what the cops would do: if one of the people with a gun were black, they would assume he was the villain, not the hero.

So this week, the killing of security guard Jemel Roberson, taken for a murderer when he tried to stop a crime in the course of his job, was not a surprise. It was the inevitable outcome of the plan that has been unfolding for decades:

(1) arm as many white people as wish to be armed by loosening gun restrictions;

(2) tolerate the summary execution by police (or citizens) of black people who possess a weapon (or a wallet, or a white cellphone, or a hairbrush . . . )

(3) and voila, the Black Panther problem is solved. We now have two categories of US Americans: the “honest citizens” who can–should–go about armed, and the ones for whom bearing arms is certain proof that they are criminals. The armed whites and the disarmed, terrified blacks.

It took a generation for the NRA to solve their conundrum, but they have done it.

My wife and I are visiting Amsterdam, and today we went to the Dutch Resistance Museum. It’s really excellent, with very creative displays and lots of information delivered in easily-digested-yet-substantial bites. For us, it also provided a lot of lessons that are all too relevant to our situation in the United States today.

The first is that resistance is messy: morally messy. The actions people took to hurt the occupiers, such as a railroad strike, also hurt the people (hunger increased) and the resistance itself (since members depended on the trains for transport). Few moral choices were perfectly clear or afforded an option that resulted in entirely clean hands. Forcibly called up to work in Germany, men could either go, thus unwillingly helping the German war effort; refuse, and be shot or sent to concentration camps; or hide, endangering their families. Those who weighed the options and went to Germany were castigated by many compatriots afterwards–“Why didn’t you hide?”–but they had not necessarily chosen the worst of three bad options. And then there were the many civil servants and officials who faced the unenviable decision: do I stay in my position and try to intercede for my people, soften the effect of the Nazi takeover, or do I resist and, at best, be replaced by a member of the Dutch Nazi Party? Some were outright collaborators, but many others were simply trying to walk an impossibly thin wire.

It’s the nature of violent regimes to set up such impossible choices. Divide and conquer was a common and effective strategy of the Third Reich. In the Netherlands as elsewhere, they instituted Jewish councils that were charged with carrying out Nazi requirements. Even those leaders who did their best to mitigate the decrees were set up to be perceived as collaborators by their own people; that was one of the occupiers’ intentions.

Another effective strategy was the frog-in-the-pot approach. The Nazis didn’t lower the hammer right away. People were devastated by the invasion, but it soon appeared that life remained pretty normal, even for Jews. Bit by bit, more repressions were added: a registry system, labels on passports, requirements that schoolchildren learn a Nazi-approved curriculum . . . Different people drew the line in different places, and some just kept their heads down and put up with all of it; some, no doubt, were even sympathetic to the German aims. But again, those who genuinely opposed fascism and anti-Semitism were still that frog in the pot, noticing a growing discomfort and wondering when to say “too hot.”

Is this sounding familiar?

Those who resisted did not always agree on how to do it, when to do it, or how much was too much or not enough. In fact, the impression one gets from the museum’s displays is that internal conflict was at least as common as unity. For example, people criticized even the bravest actions for coming too late. One heroic act of resistance was planned in intricate detail and attempted three times before modest success and devastating punishment (execution, imprisonment, exile). The German occupation required everyone to have papers; for many, forgeries were the only option since genuine ones would be marked with a “J” and thus be a sentence of internment or death; the forgeries, naturally, did not match what the Registry Office held. So, going to the source, the conspirators plotted to blow up the Registry Office. In the end, they succeeded in starting a fire that destroyed 15% of the records. (Today, someone wanting to carry out equivalent sabotage would have to be a hacker.) There was much rejoicing, but since most Jews had already been deported, many people also pointed out that if the bombing had been carried out earlier, many more lives would have been saved.

If this kind of sniping doesn’t sound familiar, you can’t have read any liberal or leftist responses to the news over the past year and a half.

I wonder how people responded when it was not the liberals, nor the socialists–both pillars of Dutch life, according to the museum–who rushed to the defense of Dutch Jews, but the fringe, mistrusted Communists. I wonder if, when this defense of the Jews was seized by the Germans as a pretext for vicious crackdowns that shed some of the first blood of the occupation, there was a wave of recrimination: “If we’d just stayed quiet, those people would still be alive.” I don’t know, but there are hints in the displays that some at the time were uneasy with the Communist-Jewish alliance, and that the protests gave the regime the excuse it was waiting for. If so, we’ve heard those arguments more recently and closer to home.

Also familiar was the way that some people were treated as heroes while their partners in resistance were virtually ignored. For example, Gerrit van der Veen, one of the conspirators in the Registry Office bombing, has numerous streets named after him across the country, while another, who was gay, gets little recognition. See?: I have already forgotten his name, while van der Veen’s sticks because it’s a major street and a tram stop. We enact unfairness like this constantly, giving white women credit for #MeToo without acknowledging the black woman who initiated it, or allowing our prejudices to influence which resisters of Trumpism get more attention and praise. Then these injustices prevent our unifying to fight our common enemy: sexual harassment or the administration’s policies.

Even resisters were prejudiced and entitled. When Jews who survived the camps returned to Holland, many of their neighbors downplayed the Jews’ suffering, didn’t want to hear about it, or drew facile, false equivalents. A young girl who survived Bergen-Belsen heard all about the rationing of food and confiscation of bicycles that her neighbors endured, though they didn’t want to hear about the camp.

Do that failure to hear each others’ experience, and a defensiveness about others’ greater suffering, sound familiar?

Most Dutch, inheritors and upholders of a global empire, were slow to acknowledge their hypocrisy, and the people they colonized made deals that also sit uneasily on the conscience. Many Indonesians took up arms against Dutch and Dutch-East-Indian residents of Indonesia, some of whom had lived there for generations. The Indonesians wanted to be a free republic, and saw the Japanese fight against the Dutch as an opportunity to free themselves from colonial rule. So, despite Japan’s own imperialism and the repressiveness of the Japanese army, they joined forces with Japan to drive out the Dutch. Many Dutch East Indians and Dutch were bitter about this and didn’t understand for years, if ever, that the struggle for Indonesian independence was much like their own struggle against German occupation. Resistance to oppression created uncomfortable parallels and unsavory coalitions, then as now.

And there was the passionate support of the Dutch royal family, which had fled to England, which might seem an odd rallying cry for a pro-democratic movement but also inspired and unified the people; and the almost comically bourgeois forms of resistance, such as the woman who, when compelled by the Nazi officers to darn their socks, claimed ignorance and sewed them shut. Gasp!–but, laughably minor though it seems, it got her into trouble.

It seems as if we have been here before. Here’s the thing to remember, then: the Dutch resisters were victorious. They needed the Allies to liberate the country, ultimately, but they hung in there through starvation and repression and outright murder, until they won and the Nazis lost. This, even though their resistance movement was filled with infighting and compromise and sniping.

Maybe that’s just what successful resistance looks like. Maybe even when your efforts are messy and you get a hundred things wrong, it can be enough. Maybe we should stop worrying about being such a flawed, frustrating resistance movement, and just keep on keeping on. They also serve who only sabotage the officers’ socks. And if enough serve in enough ways, we will win.

Today’s political misconception is the one about enslaved African-Americans being counted as three-fifths of a person in the United States constitution. It’s true; it was spelled out in Article 1 until repealed by the 14th Amendment after the Civil War. But the assertion that an African-American amounts to only 60% of a white person is only part of this law.

The complete meaning is worse than that. Much worse.

The question the delegates were wrestling with was: Since states are represented in the House of Representatives based on their population, how do enslaved people count toward that representation? The abolitionists’ answer was “They don’t,” which was logical, since slaves were not treated as human beings under the law and certainly weren’t permitted to vote, themselves. Why should their owners get more representation based on that enslavement? The southern answer, illogically but expediently, was “The same as free people.” A family of ten that owned 90 slaves would therefore have the representation in Congress due 100 people. (Of course, it was not the individual or family, but the state as a whole that got the representation.)

Slave states wouldn’t ratify the Constitution without getting to count slaves toward their Congressional representation, and two slave states were needed to reach the nine out of 13 needed for ratification. After much wrangling, the delegates reached the Three-Fifths Compromise.

It would be bad enough if the article meant what it is often misunderstood to mean: that each free person is 100% of a citizen and each enslaved person is 60% of a citizen. But in fact, enslaved people didn’t count at all, except in order to benefit those who enslaved them. (Important aside: Indians were explicitly placed outside the count entirely; I don’t know to what extent that was a recognition that they were citizens of their own nations living among the citizens of the U.S., and to what extent it was an assertion that they were personae non gratae, though I can hazard a guess. Free blacks were counted the same as whites, but their numbers in the slave states were negligible at the time.) Slaveowners among the delegates had the chutzpah to argue that “blacks ought to stand on an equality with whites” (Charles Pinckney, SC), although they certainly weren’t arguing for racial equality in any other context. Not to put too fine a point on it, they wanted to count pieces of their property towards their representation, exploiting the fact that that property resembled a human being, though in their view “it” was not.

The Three-Fifths Compromised enshrined one of the most despicable facts of the U.S. slavery system: enslaved people were regarded as people when it benefited the enslavers, livestock when it didn’t. Thus, on the one hand, an enslaved woman had no rights her owner was bound to respect, as if she were a cow or sheep. On the other hand, the owner could have sex with her, something that would have been both taboo and illegal for him to do with non-human property, and their offspring would be considered human children (and, of course, the owner’s property). Likewise, bounty hunters and hunters of runaway slaves delighted in the opportunity to have prey that were so intelligent. Human escapees offered them a challenge that deer, bears, and wild pigs did not. But like the animals, they could be caught, tortured and killed with impunity.

The three-fifths rule was another means by which white supremacist governments had things both ways. People who were enslaved could not vote, nor had any rights that distinguished them from livestock, but whereas having more sheep did not entitle a state to more representation, having human livestock did. Every person brought from abroad to the auction block in New Orleans or Richmond gave Louisiana or Virginia that much more power to maintain that enslavement. Each enslaved woman who, raped by an owner, gave birth to a child, was by compulsion strengthening the chains holding them all.

That’s what’s meant by “three-fifths of a person.”

Next post: Donald Trump, Jr.’s meeting about “adoption”

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 own 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.

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