This time of year can get alienating for some of us Americans. Much of American mythology finds a way to make being a patriot not for me.
I hate BBQ and corn on the cob and mayonnaise and fireworks. I don’t particularly look good in those shades of red, white and blue. Nashville-produced country music grates on my ear like fingernails on chalkboards. As a singer, I’m often offended at horrible renditions of the national anthem.
My love of country is not easily boxed into typical adoration or an acceptance of one’s country’s actions without also an acknowledgment of where it falls short. That’s just the kind of person I am.
I’m also uncomfortable with how we celebrate secessionists and proponents of slavery when what they both established continues to stand in direct opposition to the founding principles of our nation. I spent my elementary school years in Augusta, Georgia, where we were taught essentially that the South won the Civil War and when we weren’t taught that, we were taught that perhaps it was just the times and our Southern ancestors just didn’t know any better than to rob people of their humanity.
There’s a moment in the Richard Linklater film chronicling the 1970s in Texas where a hippie high school teacher sends her students out into the bicentennial summer with the words, “don’t forget what that celebration is about—a bunch of rich landowners not wanting to pay their taxes.” So there’s that too. I’m not a man, rich or a landowner. Where’s my celebration?
Somehow, our celebrations of democracy have been co-opted by these celebrations that are less than democratic in terms of inclusion. And why wouldn’t they be? They say history is always written by the winners — seems like that’s very much the case with the founding fathers. The southern Democratic Republicans got to write history and wrap it up in a tri-colored flag and mayonnaise.
Which is why I am very much a fan of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton: An American Musical.” It literally brought me the patriotism I had desired my whole life.
Not since Gore Vidal’s “Inventing a Nation” or his historical novel series “Narratives of Empire” has the American public gotten the opportunity to look at the nation with a new — or rather an old and perhaps truer than myth — historical lens.
Though I love the writings of Thomas Jefferson, his personal life and knowledge of the evils of slavery always set me in a quandary of whether to believe his sincerity. I tended to gravitate more toward Thomas Paine and the incorrigible philanderer Ben Franklin as men of note. George Washington himself presented a mixed bag for me.
But I remember Alexander Hamilton from way back. Ironically for the man said to be the most arrogant among them, he seemed to also be the most approachable, the most human — the most like us: not rich, not landowning, not from a family of note. Something so many more Americans could aspire to. How did he make it through this world? Not by a father’s money or land, but by an overwhelming confidence in his own abilities and his brain.
I’ll take that. THAT, I can relate to.
It must have just passed me by in school but I don’t remember knowing he was an immigrant of questionable birth until the historian Ron Chernow’s biography — which Miranda used as inspiration and accuracy for his musical.
“Hamilton: An American Musical” gets me. Makes me proud of both who I am and the collective experiment of democracy we call America. In the America created by Miranda, intellect and hard work is rewarded and respected. In Hamilton, the arguments of the day around slavery are at the forefront. The erasure of the founding fathers as real people and not gods is exposed in all their fumbling glory. They lead messy, messed up lives, like we do. Everything is complicated, like it is for all of us. It is an America more akin to the ones we lead.
Hamilton’s America doesn’t care about what to eat on the 4th of July. Nor does it demand country music (it is after all a hip hop musical with both Caribbean and Gilbert & Sullivan affectations) in order to be American.
If you don’t know much about the Tony award-sweeping musical of 2016, you should know that they went out of their way in casting to be inclusive. Washington and Jefferson are played by African-American actors. The Schuyler sister Eliza, who marries Hamilton, is played by an Asian-American actress. Puerto Rican-American actor Lin-Manuel Miranda plays Hamilton. So not only does the writing and music become an inclusive American experience, but the casting as well.
(Full disclosure — if the musical ever comes to town, I better be cast as Angelica Schuyler. Also, I have a copy of the “Federalist Papers” in my car.)
It’s the day after the 4th of July. Yesterday, I had a green salad and tried to stay out of the sun and away from fireworks as I do most years. More than likely, I ate tacos too. I listened and sang along with Hamilton in my car while attending various events for the newspaper. I’m bringing up two American citizens to question every living, breathing thing told to them by their government, their teachers, their parents. I am raising them to fight for their democracy on their own terms. I probably heard the “Star Spangled Banner” butchered badly and so I sang it correctly at the top of my lungs in my car.
Both Hamilton’s patriotism and my own reminds me of another attempt at the holiday and patriotism. Singer songwriter Dave Alvin wrote the lyrics to “4th of July,” a song performed by the Los Angeles punk band X on their fifth release “See How We Are.”
I always laugh a bit at the lyrics as my good friend Lucinda Ruiz lived in the neighborhood of the band when she was a kid. “On the stairs I smoke a cigarette alone/The Mexican kids are shooting fireworks below/Hey, baby, it’s the Fourth of July.” And that makes me feel like a bit of an insider patriot, too.