Alexander Hamilton is boffo at the box office. The heretofore unsung Founding Father best known for losing a duel is the subject of over two hours of song and dance in the new musical Hamilton. The Off-Broadway show is packing people in to rave reviews and reactions and is expected to move to Broadway this summer. Hamilton has become a bit of a phenomenon that has taken Manhattan by storm.
Hamilton also is of critical importance to health and future of this country. While that might seem like an over-the-top assertion, it isn’t.
To set the stage for my argument, I turn to a recent blog at Huffington Post by Louise Mirrer, president of the New-York Historical Society, entitled “The Case for ‘American’ American History”. She raises the question: “Is there still a place in our schools for an American American history?”
She acknowledges that the question might seem “odd.” The she cites the required classes in the California public schools: Native American history, African American history, Mexican American history, Asian American history, LGBT history, and disabilities history all as part of United States history.
Mirrer follows up on that example with her own experience as a Vice Chancellor in the CUNY system. In that position, she was involved in the hiring of faculty. According to her, the positions went to people with specialization in Asian- African-Latino-Native-Women’s history. The hyphenization of history has triumphed. There is no longer a place for the individual in history.
A review of the courses at a college or the papers presented at a history conference documents the validity of this claim. Individuals are passé. Mirrer reports the CUNY faculty arguing, “What could George Washington have to say to students who are new Americans.” Ironically, the impetus for Hamilton was the book Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow, a classic biography in the American tradition on the role of the individual in history which Puerto-Rican New Yorker Lin-Manuel Miranda read on his own outside of school. The rest, as they say, is theater history.
Before I continue, let me clarify how serious I think the stakes are. The demographics in America are changing. Projections frequently show the county becoming increasingly diverse. New York is projected to become a majority-minority state in 2031, the 11th to do so. The consequences of this shift have been raised before in Northern New York. Downstate areas have little interest in upstate history, as witnessed by the comparative lack of state support for the 250th Anniversary of the French and Indian War and the 200th Anniversary of the War of 1812. The Women’s Suffrage Centennial may garner more support downstate, but the prospects for historical memory in New York are grim.
France is facing this issue right now. In a recent article in the Boston Globe by Robert Zaretsky, “Can Teaching Patriotism Protect France?” addresses this very concern from a French perspective. Zaretsky cites French teachers reporting students who sympathized with the murderers. The Minister of Education announced a renewed strategy which would “transmit republican values.” According to the article, the French are leery of a hyphenated citizenry, which Louise Mirrer argues already prevails in many history departments and social studies curricula in America.
France wants its citizens to identify as French, so that French citizens do not define themselves in terms of their ethnic or religious identities. But how are the immigrant French citizens today supposed to identify with the Gauls, Charlemagne, and Napoleon? Why should they sing “La Marseillaise”? In other words, what is the French narrative story that can encompass the centuries old French traditions and include the newcomers? All things considered, it will be a challenge for France to convince immigrants they are French and that France’s stories are their stories.
What of America? What of New York? Right now New York City residents seem to share three things in common:
1. The weather – from Sandy to the current cold
2. Professional (not high school or college) sports teams – how about those Yankees?
But even the trauma of 9/11 is receding. It was 14 years ago and many Americans have a different view of 9/11 than the families of those who died or who were first responders. The state social studies curriculum now has been updated to include 9/11, but it will be interesting to see how students respond to that history in the classroom, especially if there are African-Asian-Latino-Disabled-Women’s versions which have to be presented.
So what can be done? We live in a world where Caucasians from Europe are white, Caucasians from Latin America are Hispanic, and Caucasians from Asia are Asians. In the name of diversity, the individual has been seemingly relegated to the dustbin of history. And then there is Hamilton, the hip hop musical by a Puerto Rican that honors the Caribbean immigrant dead white heterosexual man, who as author of the Federalist Papers and Secretary of the Treasury helped define the country in which we live. Hamilton can remind us that Americans define themselves as “We the People” in a country of e pluribus unum.