“I imagine death so much it feels more like a memory
When’s it gonna get me?
In my sleep? Seven feet ahead of me?
If I see it comin’ do I run or do I let it be?
Is it like a beat without a melody?
See, I never thought I’d live past twenty
Where I come from some get half as many…”
When I heard Lin-Manuel Miranda rap this verse towards the beginning of the first act of Hamilton a little over a month ago, I was transported back to an inner-city high school classroom six years earlier.
While Miranda went on to rap exquisitely and powerfully about the founding of the United States, and Moses and the Promised Land, my mind raced back to the sea of faces who stared back at me everyday for two years.
After graduating from college, I taught 11th and 12th grade U.S. history and government for two years at a tough school. One day, in the midst of discussing long-term dreams and goals, one of my male African American students politely interrupted, “Mr. Williams… we don’t need to hear about all this long-term goal stuff.”
“See, Mr. Williams, we could be dead by the time we’re 20 or 25. Nothing saying we’ll be alive past then. Or if we are, we might be in jail.”
This was a school haunted by the death of a classmate. One of my students was sitting in my classroom on Tuesday and was arrested for first-degree murder on Wednesday.
Death was always looming. It was always present. Given the harsh realities these students faced, it was understandable. But that didn’t make it any less heartbreaking.
Death loomed over Lin-Manuel Miranda’s last week playing the title role in his masterpiece of a musical, as police officers shot Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. Days later, five police officers were shot dead in Dallas while peacefully on patrol during a march protesting the deaths of Sterling and Castile.
In a week of chaos, bloodshed, heartbreak, anger, and dismay, what can a hip-hop Broadway phenomenon about our founding fathers teach us about putting one foot in front of the other, picking up the pieces, and striving towards a more perfect union?
Quite a lot, actually.
“Let me tell you what I wish I’d known
When I was young and dreamed of glory.
You have no control.
Who lives, who dies, who tells your story.”
Hip-hop has always been a bridge for me.
When I was in middle school in Memphis, Tennessee, most of my friends and classmates were black. That’s no surprise, in a city with Memphis’ racial breakdown. As a nerdy little white kid still waiting to hit puberty, I used Napster to learn all the hip-hop hits of the day and the past. It wasn’t for cultural appropriation or exploitation, but for education.
When I taught high school in Nashville, TN a decade later, the 11th and 12th-grade students were abuzz my first day on the job. Why? Because I told my students I was from Memphis. They assumed I went to private prep schools given that I had just graduated from Vanderbilt, but when I dismissively scoffed at them and told them I’d gone to public schools and been to a few Yo Gotti concerts in my day, the game was changed.
Hip-hop was a bridge for me once again.
The genius of what Lin-Manuel Miranda has done with Hamilton cannot be fully comprehended. To merely say it has built a bridge between hip-hop and minority communities to Broadway or that, in Miranda’s own words, it depicts “the story of America then, told by America now” is to undersell its genius and impact. While it does both of those things, it also does so much more.
And I saw its potential in my own classroom before it became a musical, when it was still the ideation of a concept album and a somewhat viral video.
I showed every single one of my classes from 2009 to 2011 the Lin-Manuel Miranda performance of the earliest version of “Alexander Hamilton” at the 2009 White House Poetry Jam. He talks about working on a hip-hop concept album about the life of someone who embodies hip-hop, Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton. “He was born a penniless orphan in St. Croix, of illegitimate birth, became George Washington’s right-hand man, became Treasury Secretary, caught beef with every other Founding Father, and all on the strength of his writing he embodies the word’s ability to make a difference.”
The Obamas and the audience laughed hesitantly, not quite realizing the genius they were getting to glimpse. In their defense, Miranda didn’t even realize what the future would hold.
From the start, my students were hooked. Here was a Puerto Rican man performing for our nation’s first black President about Alexander Hamilton, just another one of those dead men their teacher tried to get them to learn about.
But then they were all in on Alexander Hamilton. They wanted to learn more about him, his debates with Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Aaron Burr. They wanted to know more about the duel that resulted in his death and the deals that resulted in his and our nation’s legacy.
They wanted to watch the video again, so I began using it as an incentive for student performance, behaviorally and academically. I gave them opportunities to write their own raps about everyone from America’s earliest colonists to people in the news that day.
During this time, Miranda was still working on the earliest stages of what would become his Pulitzer Prize-winning, Grammy Award-winning, Tony Award-winning, MacArthur Genius grant-winning musical masterpiece. But to me and my students in Nashville, TN, he had already changed the game
He had already built a bridge. He had told our nation’s earliest tales in a way my students understood, not dumbing it down or altering it or pandering to them or insulting their intelligence.
He expected everyone who heard it to think about his or her nation’s history differently. But he did something else that I didn’t quite understand until I sat in the Richard Rodgers Theatre years later.
He intended to let Hamilton’s life and story force each of us to think about our own lives and legacies differently.
“And when you’re gone, who remembers your name?
Who keeps your flame?
Who tells your story?”
Miranda said that the verse I opened with (“I imagine death so much it feels more like a memory…”) took him the better part of a year to write.
“It’s the Rosetta Stone of Hamilton’s brain, and the first line of it is the most autobiographical thing I’ve ever written. It’s what I feel I have most in common with Hamilton. The ticking clock of mortality is loud in both our ears, and it sets us to work. In this verse he goes from nihilism to a list of what needs to be done to hope towards tomorrow, and he takes himself through one uninterrupted train of thought.”
Hamilton and Miranda’s telling of his story are obsessed with the idea of a legacy, as Hamilton sings late in the second act.
“Legacy. What is a legacy?
It’s planting seeds in a garden you never get to see
I wrote some notes at the beginning of a song someone will sing for me.
America, you great unfinished symphony,
You sent for me.
You let me make a difference.
A place where even orphan immigrants can leave their fingerprints and rise up.”
The true beauty of Hamilton: An American Musical is that it holds nothing back about its depiction of our nation’s imperfect founding fathers. But likes its subject and its creator, it refuses to succumb to cynicism or nihilism. It doesn’t provide easy answers but instead challenges everyone who encounters it with difficult questions about our very existence.
It pulls everyone in – no matter your race, ethnicity, religion, socioeconomic class, or political persuasion – and unites Americans around something in an era with historic levels of division and polarization. But more importantly, it pushes all of us out into the fallen, broken, heartbroken, unjust world, nation, and time in which we find ourselves.
It reminds us of the challenges that have been overcome before while driving us towards the work we still have ahead of us. Luckily, some of my students are now teachers themselves in schools and communities that need their leadership and life experiences. Many of those students who sat in my classroom are mothers, fathers, and spouses.
I still talk with them from time to time, and occasionally, one will ask me about that rap about Alexander Hamilton.