Hip Hop Hooray For “Hamilton” And History

2020 has been an awful year with a pandemic shutting down schools, businesses, and even Broadway. Not only has “The World Turned Upside Down,” but lives have been disrupted and lost. One amazingly positive thing has come out of the chaos though. Access to Broadway is now available to the common man–well, at least one who can afford a $6.99 monthly subscription to Disney+. Let’s give a big Hip Hop Hurray for the smash musical “Hamilton” which Disney+ is now streaming.

Timing, as they say (whoever “they” are) is everything. Just in time for the Fourth of July weekend, Disney+ began streaming a production about our country’s beginning and its Founding Fathers on July 3rd. “American history is entertaining?” you may ask incredulously. Yup. Watching “Hamilton” is bound to “Blow Us All Away” because it is nothing like we have ever seen before. Why is that? Because history is told in an innovative manner and presented to us an innovative way.

In case you have been living under a cultural rock, let’s bring you up to speed. “Hamilton” is a musical telling the story of Alexander Hamilton, a Founding Father of this country and the very first U.S. Secretary of the Treasury. Ho, hum, right? WRONG! How this story is told is what is mesmerizing. Non-white actors (black, Latino, and Asian) portray the Founding Fathers and tell history through the use of various musical genres such as hip hop. Only a creative genius such as Lin-Manuel Miranda who wrote the music and lyrics for “Hamilton” could have envisioned Founding Fathers and hip hop going together. But you’ll be more than “Satisfied,” with his product.

How on earth did Miranda get involved in such a project? It all started when he was on vacation in 2008 and read a biography about Alexander Hamilton written by Ron Chernow. Wow! Do artists take wild vacations or what?? Inspiration struck Miranda, and “Hamilton” was the result.Manuel’s creative baby premiered on January 20, 2015 and was still being performed on Broadway at the time the famed theater district was shuttered due to COVID-19. Broadway  lights will not “Burn” for “Hamilton” through the end of 2020.

The musical became both a critical success and a cultural phenomenon. It has won 11 Tony awards, including Best Musical, and a Pulitzer Prize for drama. The production spawned a best-selling album of musical selections from the show.

Clearly the musical was financially successful and critically acclaimed. How can it be said  the production is a cultural phenomenon? The answer lies in its impact on society. In 2015 the Department of the Treasury announced its plans to replace the image of Alexander Hamilton which appears on the $10 bill; in his place was to appear an undetermined woman from American history. Had he been alive, Hamilton may have felt “Helpless” to prevent his removal from the currency. Nevertheless, due to the enormous popularity of “Hamilton,” the Treasury’s plans were abandoned.

“Hamilton” is also a cultural phenomenon because it has served as a learning tool about American history. The musical’s popularity and the marketing of its songs made American youths and adults alike feel “I Know Him” when it came to Alexander Hamilton. Seeing the production resulted in citizens being more knowledgeable about American history and more likely to retain what they had learned. Who could forget the riveting way in which Hamilton met his death. SPOILER ALERT: He died as the result of a duel with rival and then Vice President of the United States Aaron Burr as dramatically depicted in the play. Well, you knew Hamilton was dead by now some 200+ years later, but you may not have known how he died.

Not only did “Hamilton” portray American history, but it made some history itself when it began streaming on Disney+ on July 3rd. Originally the musical was being turned into a film slated for release in theaters in October 2021. Disney outbid multiple competitors to secure the film rights for a whopping $75 million. Because of COVID-19, Disney changed the game plan. It opted to release the film over a year early streaming it on Disney+. That’s about the only thing we can thank COVID for.

The film is a live recording of the musical as it appeared on stage in the Richard Rodgers Theater on Broadway. The original cast, which included Lin-Manuel Miranda playing Hamilton, performed.  Because the film aired on Disney+, a couple of naughty four-letter words had to be removed. Disney+ will only allow films rated PG-13 maximum to stream on its channel. so bye bye two “F” words.

Reaction to the “Hamilton” film has been mixed. The public ate it up. “The Room Where It Happened” was people’s living room. Between July 3rd and July 5th, the Disney+ app was downloaded 458,996 times in the U.S. Clearly Americans were watching “Hamilton” in droves around Independence Day. 

Scholars, on the other hand, have pointed out various historical inaccuracies. Well, if they were going to tow the line of being historically accurate, a man of Puerto Rican descent wouldn’t have been playing Alexander Hamilton and a black man would not have been portraying Aaron Burr. But the diverse cast has given credence to the idea that “Hamilton” is a story about America then told by Americans now.

The “musical” has also taken flak for not more directly addressing slavery. Miranda himself has responded that this criticism is “valid.”  Although the topic is mentioned very early in the show, it was not a major theme. In Miranda’s defense, the show is 2 hours and 40 minutes long as it is. He simply can’t cram everything in that could possibly be touched upon. And, let’s not forget, “Hamilton” is a show, not a documentary. It was meant to entertain. Any learning imparted is an added benefit. 

No matter what criticism is lobbed at “Hamilton,” you have to give the show credit. It’s streaming has given Americans something fun to do from home and taken their focus, even if momentarily, off of COVID-19. It’s use of hip hop, the “music of revolution” according to Miranda, has revolutionized history telling. If you watch “Hamilton” once, I’m pretty sure “You’ll Be Back” and want to watch it again  In the meantime,  “What Comes Next” is that you can have some fun and pick out the nine song titles from the musical sprinkled through this post. 

Just WONDER-ing:

Have you seen “Hamilton?” If not, do you intend to watch it? If you’ve seen “Hamilton,” what history did you learn? Would you have been tempted to watch the show if it had been a drama instead of a musical? Were the non-Caucasian actors who played the Founding Fathers believable in those roles? How many songs from “Hamilton” could you find in this post?

 

 

 

Confederate Reminders To Be Gone With The Wind

The death of George Floyd at the hands, er knee, of the Minneapolis Police Department will forever change the landscape of our country. A literal change involves removal of reminders of the Confederacy. Protests against anti-black racism and police brutality have rekindled efforts to take down Confederate monuments and symbols across the U.S. These reminders of slavery in our country’s history will soon be gone with the wind.

The debate rages as to whether allowing these reminders of the Confederacy to remain promotes racism or simply reminds us of our heritage. According to James Grossman, the executive director of the American Historical Society, “The symbols sustain racist policy….” Many view Confederate flags and monuments as symbols of racism and oppression. But perhaps racism, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. Southerners might view Confederate items are part of their heritage while Northerners would not. Their perspectives are likely to be as different as those of author John Gray’s Mars (men) and Venus (women).

So how many monuments and symbols are we talking about? Reportedly there are approximately 1,700 Confederate monuments and symbols scattered about the nation. The Smithsonian indicates that 800 of the 1,700 are monuments. What a monumental amount!

Virginia is the state with the most Confederate monuments.  2019 data from the Southern Poverty Law Center indicates the Commonwealth is the site of 110 Confederate monuments. Thirteen of these monuments are located in Richmond, which served as the capital of the Confederate States. In fact, Richmond even has a Monument Avenue with five Confederate monuments there.

The epicenter (oooh! so glad to use this word NOT in connection with the pandemic) of the controversy about Confederate monuments is the six story high monument of Robert E. Lee in Richmond owned by the Commonwealth of Virginia. Six STORIES? Talk about a statue being larger than life….Robert E. Lee, of course, was the Confederacy’s top general. Protesters  have recently defaced this statue.

Virginia Governor Ralph Northam, a Democrat, has announced a a decision to remove General Lee’s statue. But–not so fast, Gov.! A Richmond City Circuit Judge on Monday issued a ten day injunction against removal of Lee’s likeness. Great–more drama. Well, at least this drama is in the courtroom and not out on the streets.

Who needs legal sanction to bring down Confederate monuments? Not protesters apparently. On June 6th, protesters in Richmond pulled down a statue of General Williams Carter Wickham which stood in Monroe Park approximately one mile from where Lee’s monument stands (well, at least until the injunction is lifted.) A Confederate monument in Birmingham’s Linn Park had to be removed on June 1st after it was damaged during weekend protests.

Almost all Confederate monuments were built in the late 1800’s or the early 1900’s. The Robert E. Lee Monument in Richmond, for example, was unveiled way back in 1890. The other four Confederate monuments on Monument Avenue were erected in the early 1900’s. They are historical for the fact of having stood for so long if nothing else.

But the historical context in which the monuments were raised provides fodder for labeling them as symbols of racism. The Southern Poverty Law Center found there was a surge in Confederate monuments being put up in the early 1900’s when Jim Crow laws were being enacted. Another surge occurred in the 1950’s and 1960’s during the Civil Rights Movement. Coincidence? The SPLC thinks not.

And it’s not just monuments that are in protesters’ crosshairs. The Richmond NAACP is proposing a name change for a the Jefferson Davis Highway. Davis, for those of you who’ve forgotten your Civil War history, was the president of the Confederate States.

Then there are plaques. On Monday night the University of Alabama announced it will remove three plaques dedicated to Confederate soldiers who attended ‘Bama. The plaques are to be moved to a “more appropriate historical” location. Good thing those soldiers are deceased because I doubt they’d send any financial support to their alma mater after their plaques’ transfer.

Even the Pentagon is getting in on the “Let’s erase any trace of the Confederacy” movement. Under consideration is a name change for ten bases named after Confederate leaders. These sites include Fort Bragg, North Carolina, named after General Braxton Bragg a North Carolina native who commanded the Army of Mississippi, and Fort Benning, Georgia, named after Brig. Gen. Henry Benning, a Georgia politician and supporter of slavery. Benning was also a lawyer, but thankfully that profession isn’t what he’s being called on the carpet for (says this fellow lawyer).

The first boots on the Tear Them Down ground are the U.S. Marines. The few, the proud, and the brave may raise an American flag, but they are banned from displaying a Confederate battle flag. Army officials are also contemplating such a ban for their troops. Not to be left behind, the Navy announced Tuesday its staff is working on an order prohibiting Confederate battle flags in work areas, aircraft, and vessels “to preserve good order.”  Protest disorder has led to this move.

The oldest Confederate monument in Florida is located in my local area–at least for now. A Civil War memorial in DeFuniak Springs can be found on the grounds of the Walton County Courthouse. It recognizes local Confederate troops who died in the Civil War. First erected in 1871 at a local church, the monument was later moved for more prominent display at the courthouse in the county seat. Guess I was oblivious to the monument the many times I’ve been at the courthouse on business. 

Another Florida Confederate monument is already gone with the wind. Early Tuesday morning (yes, 4:00 a.m. is pretty early), workers removed a monument from Hemming Park in Jacksonville. The statue of the Jacksonville Light Infantry which had been in the park since 1898 came down just hours before a planned protest, to be led by Jags running back Leonard Fournette, outside city hall next to the park. What timing!

Removal of Confederate monuments and symbols will continue to be advocated for and opposed in the coming days. But like it or not and whether good, bad, or indifferent, the Confederacy is a historical fact. Taking down reminders of it won’t change history. Perhaps we shouldn’t try to erase history. Let’s try to learn from it and not repeat our past mistakes.

Just WONDER-ing:

Are there any Confederate monuments or symbols present in your local area? Should they come down? Why or why not? Will removing a statue change people’s thinking? If not, what will?

 

Pandemic Pandemonium–Just History Repeating Itself

Ecclesiastes 1:9 tells us there’s nothing new under the sun. And when this Bible verse says “nothing,” it means nothing. Not even pandemics. The world may currently be having an uncomfortable and scary confrontation with a “novel” coronavirus, but people having to deal with pandemics is a recurring story throughout the history of mankind.

You do know what a pandemic is, right? The WHO, Worldwide Health Organization and not the band, defines a pandemic as the worldwide spread of a new disease. And the disease must be infectious for it to constitute a pandemic. WHO declared the coronavirus to be a pandemic on March 11, 2020. Clearly coronavirus is infectious since we must practice social distancing, refrain from gathering in large groups, wear face masks, and constantly wash our hands.

As bad as coronavirus may be, it isn’t the worst pandemic to inflict the world. Ever heard of the Bubonic Plague, also known as The Black Death? That pandemic, which ravaged the world’s population with a mortality rate between 30% and 75%, is believed to be the deadliest one in history.

The total number of deaths from the Bubonic Plague is estimated to have been around 75 million, with 25-30 million of these deaths occurring in Europe.That’s a huge number of people to have been covered in black boils oozing blood and pus. Yuk!  Approximately one-third of the European population died during the Bubonic Plague, and it took  200 years after this pandemic for the European population to recover to its previous level.

Not only did The Black Death strike people, but animals were affected by the disease too. So many sheep died from the Bubonic Plague that there was a European wool shortage. That’s a BAA-d fix to be in!

Similar to the coronavirus, the Bubonic Plague is thought to have originated in Asia. It struck China, India, Persia, Syria, and Egypt in the early 1340’s. From there it traveled along the Silk Road to the Crimean Peninsula and then on to the Mediterranean basin aboard merchant ships.

The Bubonic Plague arrived in Europe in October 1347 when twelve ships from the Black Sea docked in Messina. Most of the sailors on the ships were dead, and those who were still alive were gravely ill. They suffered from buboes (hence the name Bubonic), painful lymph node swellings which probably made them wish they were dead if they weren’t yet.

Because of ship transportation and some unsanitary practices, The Black Death rapidly spread through the world. In a Crimean port, a literally DEADly weapon was utilized by the Mongol army who undertook a lengthy siege of the city of Kaffa. Numerous members of the ranks were suffering from the disease. Whey they succumbed to it, their fellow soldiers catapulted their corpses over the walls to infect the besieged city’s inhabitants. Even after death, these fighting men still served their country.

The Black Death finally ran its course in the early 1350’s. Nevertheless, the plague continued to strike Europe and beyond for the next 400 years. It reared its ugly head every 10-20 years.

Pandemics have also wreaked havoc in more modern times. Approximately one-third of the world’s population was infected during the Spanish flu pandemic in 1918-1920, and anywhere between 17 and 50 million people died. This pandemic, which occurred during World War I, got its name as a result of news censorship. In an effort to maintain wartime morale, reports about illness and deaths from the flu in the U.S., the U.K., France, and Germany were minimized; nevertheless, Spain was neutral, and reports of the epidemic’s effects in that country were widely publicized. As a result, the outbreak was  referred to as the Spanish flu since it mistakenly seemed Spain was the worst hit country. Perhaps fake news has a lengthy history as well as pandemics.

Two other types of flu led to pandemics during the last few decades. The Hong Kong flu of 1968-1969 resulted in around 1 million deaths worldwide, including approximately 34,000 here in the United States. Less deadly was the swine flu (H1N1/09) pandemic of 2009-2010. About half a million died worldwide from this flu with some 12,000 of those deaths occurring in the U.S. Happily, the number of deaths from each of these pandemics was far less than from The Black Death; the more recent pandemics’ names are also less frightening.

Numerous other pandemics have occurred during the history of mankind. Those outbreaks involved smallpox and tuberculosis, among other diseases. But regardless of the type of disease, the results were similar–widespread suffering and loss of life.

Right now the coronavirus pandemic is dominating the news, our thoughts, and people’s daily lives. Despite how novel the situation is to us, fighting a pandemic is nothing new. Mankind has been there and done that again and again.

Yes, the ongoing coronavirus pandemic has caused major disruptions in our world. The Summer Olympic Games, which were supposed to start in Tokyo on July 24th, have been postponed. The pandemic has also threatened everyone, not just the common man. Politicians, such as U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, and the heir to the British throne, 71 year old Prince Charles, have tested positive for coronavirus.

But the death toll from the coronavirus to date pales in comparison to past pandemics. As of March 25, 2020, there were 20,912 deaths. While any loss of life due to disease is tragic, this number of fatalities is nowhere close to past pandemics such as The Black Plague and the Spanish flu. History is repeating itself with widespread disease, but current numbers of lives lost are lower than in the past.

Since history is a required school subject, there must be something to be gained from studying it. What history teaches us about pandemics is that humans are resilient. Bad things come their way, but humans take a licking and still keep on ticking as a race. Let’s not let the pandemic get us down. Based on past experience, most of us will survive and the human race will continue in existence. It will be around to see that next pandemic which will invariably occur at some future point. Why? Because if we’ve learned anything, it’s that history repeats itself.

Just WONDER-ing:

Were you aware of the magnitude of deaths in past pandemics? In light of those death tolls, do you still view the current coronavirus pandemic in the same way? What, if anything, should be done to prevent future pandemics?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Heave Ho To Ho Hum History

Raise your hand if you found reading history texts in school to be, well, ho hum.  Something about all those dates, the size of armies, the number of casualties, etc. just makes me want to nod off.  Why count sheep when you can count battleships?  The problem is that the presentation of history was basically just the facts–the dry facts.  That battle strategy to capture our minds needs to be given the heave ho.  Learning history can be quite fun if the presentation is more creative.

Staring at statistics on the page of a textbook or having statistics spouted off at you from the front of a classroom is about as fun as watching paint dry. Does the learning process have to be as dead as the war casualties in the military conflicts they are trying to teach about in a history course?  Why not combine learning and enjoyment?

Visual learners will take in far more from a seeing history come to life before their eyes.  Why I’ll bet I learned more about the evacuation of Dunkirk from seeing the movie “Dunkirk” last weekend than I ever learned from sitting in a classroom being lectured to about the event.  And I am more likely to actually remember what I learned because what I digested was tied to an enjoyable experience and not a boring situation to simply endure.

Obviously, it is not feasible to show an epic motion picture during every history class.  But pictures, models, and other visual tools would certainly liven up the process.  The goal is not to entertain but to enhance the learning process.  Aren’t you far more likely to remember the details of a pleasant experience?

Even if it is merely words that are used to convey the historical information, the presentation could be made more palatable by providing something beyond the usual (yawn) statistics and figures.  Let’s give this suggestion a try in the context of the evacuation of Dunkirk, an event with air, land and sea components.

Up in the air were RAF Spitfires.  The Spitfire was a single-seat fighter plane used by the Royal Air Force during World War II.  And the manufacturer was spitting out Spitfires; this plane was produced more than any other British aircraft during WWII.  Just how did the Spitfire get its name?  Blame it on a girl.  The boss of the plane’s designer named it after his daughter; she happened to have a fiery personality and was called the “little spitfire.”

Down on the ground were wide sandy beaches full of British and French troops who needed to be evacuated from Dunkirk, a city in northern France. Dunkirk is the English version of the place name.  Dunquerque, the French name, derives from West Flemish words that together mean “church in the dunes.”  Churchill referred to the Miracle of Dunkirk where about 338,000 troops were evacuated.  It was a miracle of deliverance–a fitting event for a place meaning a church in the dunes.

Out in the sea were lots of small boats.  Approximately 700 private ships utilized in the rescue effort were called the “Little Ships of Dunkirk.”  Ships used in war bring to mind destroyers, carriers and battleships–all BIG ships. But the “Little Ships of Dunkirk” included speedboats, car ferries, and even 26 yachts.

Aren’t these historical facts pretty interesting?  They are to me.  Not only are they interesting, but they give me a 3-D vision of what happened–one that I will indeed remember.  Let’s give the old heave ho to the ho hum one dimensional presentation of dull facts and give some life to history.  The participants in long ago events may be dead, but us learning about these events does not require us to be bored to death.