I am not throwing away my shot! I am not throwing away my shot! Hey, yo, I’m just like my country, I’m young, scrappy and hungry, and I’m not throwing away my shot! Lin-Manuel Miranda as Alexander Hamilton in “Hamilton”
He waved his miniature American flag as we walked through the crowds back toward the car. And he sang to no one in particular, or maybe to all of us, to the throngs of post-parade people filled with Fourth of July candy and the drumbeat of a uniquely American holiday: ” . . . just like my country, I’m young, scrappy and hungry, and I’m not throwing away my shot!” And it felt perfect to me, and profound, my just-turning-four-year-old grandson singing a song from the Broadway sensation, Hamilton, singing from his heart with utter sincerity and a strong dose of enthusiasm. Viren knows the whole soundtrack, almost every word of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s play about the amazing years of our country’s birth — it was his dad who ignited Viren’s interest, who first saw the cast perform on the Grammy Awards and was pulled in, to the talent of the actors, and the rhythm and the words and the story. And on car rides, that’s what Viren’s family has been listening to these past few months, and, now, it is what I switch on when I turn my car into gear. ” . . . just like my country, I’m young, scrappy and hungry, and I’m not throwing away my shot.”
I feel it when I listen to Hamilton — young, scrappy and hungry, filled with a youthful excitement, with the sense that change is in the air and that it is up to us to point it forward in a positive direction. I crank the volume way up as I rap and hip hop and sing along with the Broadway cast, as I find myself swept away in the incredible story, as I allow my car, a new brilliant blue car, to shake and vibrate and sing with its own youthful vigor. I love these characters, our country’s founding mothers and fathers. And why has it taken me so long to get to know them as people and to feel the power of the revolution that they set forth and the nation they birthed?
I know that I completed the required American history course in high school. I remember where I sat, near the back of the class next to my best friend. And I remember our teacher, an older man with jowls soon to retire who read each day from the book while my friend and I passed notes back and forth. And I remember the outfits I wore to class that year, and the boy who I thought I might love, and the way I would grab clumps of my long hair and examine the strands closely for split ends. I remember much from that high school time, even snippets from our nation’s history, like the muckrakers and Teddy Roosevelt and the Spanish American War. But I don’t remember much about the revolution. I don’t think I ever learned it. I certainly knew the date, 1776, and the Declaration of Independence, and Paul Revere’s cry to the people of New England that the British were coming. And I knew the names of the characters. In my mind, however, they weren’t real, just paper doll figures of old men and women in powdered wigs sketched out on a few pages of the text book that I had deemed boring. And the few facts I had gleaned were skewed. The war for independence was fought in the years after the the colonists declared their independence, not neat and tidily finished up on the Fourth of July in 1776 like I always had imagined. And the paper doll characters I had thought were old and gray-powdered, were young and scrappy and hungry, eager for something new, something never created before. They were real, flesh and blood and spirit, filled with youthful vigor and a strong sense of idealism. And now thanks to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s play, I am feeling their presence.
There’s Alexander Hamilton, the central figure in this play. Did my history book even mention that he was born on an island in the Caribbean, raised by a single mother who died when he was ten, left an orphan to fend for himself, a firsthand witness to the slave trade which he found abhorrent, that he read voraciously, was brilliant beyond brilliant, that the people of his island saw his promise, sent him to New York, to a new life? I don’t think so. I knew none of theses personal details before immersing myself in the songs of the play, that Alexander, only nineteen years old when the country declared its independence, was in the thick of it, that he was Washington’s righthand man, that he wrote and wrote and wrote, for Washington as secretary and as press secretary, for the revolution, for the newly-birthed country in the years following the revolution, that he was responsible for the majority of the Federalist Papers, and set up the treasury, that he had fire in his belly and passion in his heart and the burning desire to be in the thick of this turned-upside-down world, to make it into something new, a country inclusive and lasting, with an elasticity for expansion.
Before this Summer of Hamilton, I barely knew that Alexander’s face adorned our country’s ten dollar bill, and I wouldn’t have been able to say for sure that it was Hamilton that Aaron Burr shot in a duel, and I might have told you that Aaron Burr was a bad guy, a villain in the history book. I certainly didn’t know his human story, that he was complex and smart and decent too, and part of this same revolution, that it is heartbreaking how this story, the story of two brilliant and decent men, both politicians and midwives of our country, ended up exploding in a gentlemen’s duel; at least it is heartbreaking to me as I listen to this soundtrack. And that is what I want to tell you, that this play has broken my heart wide open. I now know these men and women, not just Hamilton and Burr, but the others as well, in a way that I did not before. I appreciate their role in the past, how they were a part of a grand and brave experiment, one formed with care and intelligence, set forth with the blazing energy of youth, and a sense of the big picture and the long-term.
And I also appreciate the founders’ role in this present moment, right now, in a summer of politics. I believe that Miranda has given to our country and to our world an incredible gift. He has brought these founders back to life again. In songs of rap and hip hop, in actors whose ancestors were the slaves that Hamilton so wanted to free, these revolutionaries on the Broadway stage and in the stage of history remind us that the foundation of this country is solid and the air we breathe free, not just for some, but for all, and that we can do better, and we can be braver and more open in our hearts and in our minds, and we, like our founders, can look forward and dare to create something new, something even more expansive. On some level, my four-year-old grandson knows this. And I do too.
It is The Summer of Hamilton where a granddaughter wears hats and rides a tricycle with her cousin and shines her bright smile and makes her big and bold and adorable presence known and a grandson plays with cousins and sings the songs of Hamilton and explores Superior’s rocks and a grandma rocks in a five mile running race and wins a medal in her age group! Let’s be young, scrappy and hungry!!!!!!!!!!!