Monumental Musings After Watching “Hamilton” and “Do the Right Thing” During the Pandemic

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Hamilton’s grave in Trinity Churchyard, New York City. Photo by author.

Pandemically holed up in Charlotte with family over the Fourth of July weekend, and not having the stomach for such usual holiday fare as Yankee Doodle Dandy, we watched both Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing and the filmed version of Hamilton: The Musical, at its premier on DisneyPlus. My wife and I had never seen the musical, and our daughter and her husband had not experienced Lee’s masterpiece.

It was something of a surreal experience to watch these two dramas during the national holiday celebrating Independence Day, when the delegates of the Continental Congress signed the Thomas Jefferson–penned Declaration. The desultory fireworks that had been going off for days seemed to speak to a dispirited exhaustion with the pandemic and the lack of any coherent federal response or leadership at that level and in many states, as well as with the ongoing police brutality directed at African-Americans.

Obviously, both the musical, which opened Off-Broadway at The Public Theater in 2015, and the film, from 1989, feel more pertinent than ever.

Hamilton expresses much of the righteous anger behind the founding of this nation, the break from a tyrant king (hilarious in the musical, not so much in real life, then or now) risked by determined, intellectual, and ambitious men who would sign that declaration stating that all men are created equal — men not used loosely, and the white ones, with property. Some of those men, including the writer, had property that included other human beings, while others, including Hamilton himself, were at least philosophically opposed to that inhumane practice but looked the other way or otherwise prevaricated on the matter in order to make something else they believed more immediately important happen, for themselves and for the founding of an independent nation.

With Do the Right Thing, set during one day, morning to morning, on one block of Stuyvesant Avenue in Brooklyn, we witness the outcome of this country not living up to the ideals in the Declaration and other high-minded words found in the Constitution and Bill of Rights — the sad history of keeping black Americans down and out, from the three-fifths compromise with the southern states to Jim Crow, from redlining to profiling and endless police brutality, from job discrimination to tireless efforts to this day to keep black citizens from voting. (Well, now, it has become all citizens, but that’s another story.)

Do the Right Thing was dedicated to the memories of six victims of police brutality and racial violence, but Lee has said it was prompted by the 1983 killing by transit police of graffiti artist Michael Stewart, who was 25. The horrific scene late in the film with Radio Raheem’s own encounter with the police leads viewers to consider a litany of more recent victims of that brutality and violence and what can only be described as unlawful executions on the part of what were once thought of as “officers of the peace”: Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Stephon Clark, Philando Castille, Alton Sterling, Eric Garner, George Floyd, Brionna Taylor, and on and on and on.

And what is Buggin’ Out’s growing unhappiness about Sal’s “Wall of Fame,” which has only Italian-Americans on display, but something akin to our questions about the appropriateness of certain public monuments? Buggin’ Out asserts that in a black neighborhood, with their dollars going to keeping the shop in business, there ought to be some black faces on that wall. Sal’s take, naturally, is that the pizzeria is his place, and Sal’s Pizzeria is, of course, not a democratic republic. But ours is supposed to be.

Before I go further with this, take note of the below, so you can make an educated decision to maybe bail out now:

What grandfatherly white man with x number of stents/he of conservative, liberal, and progressive bents/in his peculiar worldview/who weeps for his country and its younger crew/goin’ through many tissues/would dare weigh in/on such weighty issues?

Yeah, I’m the damned fool who wrote it.

I’ve never seen Hamilton the musical live, because I’m a snob. I had read the terrific (and dauntingly lengthy) 2004 Ron Chernow biography that inspired Miranda to begin to imagine, as he noted in a recent interview, who each of the main characters would be in terms of hip-hop artists. I had even thrilled to the performance by Miranda at the White House Evening of Poetry, Music, and the Spoken Word, in May 2009, when he performed his first song about Hamilton. At his introduction of “The Hamilton Mixtape” the audience, including the Obamas, titters a bit uncomfortably, perhaps expecting something a bit silly. But by the end of it everyone seems stunned by what they just witnessed and they rise to their feet.

I had been turned off by the idea of the musical becoming so wildly popular, by the sold-out shows and reports of steep prices being reaped by ticket scalpers. It seemed as if wealthy and upper middle class theatergoers were in for all the wrong reasons and that a certain obvious target audience could not afford to attend. On the other hand, I was very happy it existed because I heard from friends that many younger people knew the songs by heart — here was some kind of civics lesson in a country that had long ago turned its back on civics. But, still, I fancied myself rather above all the fuss.

“Oh, you ought to read the book!” I would say, brightly, but really grousing to myself.

You see, I also felt I had a personal history of sorts with Alexander Hamilton and his wife, Elizabeth. (Here’s another great chance for you to bail.)

When I moved to New York City to study acting at Circle in the Square, through New York University, in the late summer of 1981, I was lucky enough to meet and befriend some longtime New Yorkers, who, like nearly everyone I would meet there, originated from elsewhere. But my new friends — I’ll call them George and Judy (because those are their actual names) — had been in the city much longer than I had, and I was grateful when they took me under their wing.

One early tour they gave me was a look at Lower Manhattan, where the political business of the new United States of America was conducted until the Federalists capitulated to the Southern states and agreed to place the capital in Virginia. They walked me the short length of Wall Street (where slaves had once been traded); we visited the Trinity Church and its St. Paul’s Chapel just up Broadway; and we looked at that incredible Gothic skyscraper, the Woolworth Building (the work of Cass Gilbert, who, I would later learn, also designed the beautiful downtown library and the art museum in my hometown of St. Louis, as well as the United States Supreme Court Building).

At St. Paul’s, we would stand in awe by the pew used by President George Washington and family, but first, at Trinity, George and Judy showed much patience (proving themselves non-natives) as I carefully set the f-stops on my trusty Kalimar 1000 to take a black-and-white shot of the tombstone of Alexander Hamilton. That photo is still standing by my writing desk. Looking at it now, I feel a mix of emotions.

To the Memory of

Alexander Hamilton.

The Corporation of Trinity Church Has erected this

M O N U M E N T

In Testimony of their Respect

The Patriot of incorruptible Integrity,

The Soldier of approved Valour,

The Statesman of consummate Wisdom;

Whose Talents and Virtues will be admired

B Y

Grateful Posterity

Long after this MARBLE shall have mouldered into

DUST

He died July 12th 1804. Aged 47

I cannot recreate it here, but the spacing is a little odd; I’ve only now noticed that the descriptions of his various merits are not properly centered, which no doubt was standard practice in those times.

Are his accomplishments centered in our minds now?

Grateful Posterity.

A lump in my throat. For his history, the country’s, or mine? Well, all. (It doesn’t help that Bob Dylan’s mournful “I Contain Multitudes” from his terrific new album is playing softly as I write this.)

Beyond the ever-so-slight connection of visiting the grave and taking the photo which I keep by my desk, another I would learn of decades later, after reading the Chernow biography. Suddenly, annoyingly enthusiatic about Hamilton, I was having a playful running argument with a good friend, Liz (yes, another Elizabeth), who happens to be a direct descendant of Thomas Jefferson, over the relative merits of the two founding fathers.

In making a point about Hamilton in an email response with which I was preparing to tweak her with Hamilton’s staunch abolitionist views, as expressed in the biography, I pulled up Wikipedia to quickly looked up a date and a basic fact or two. I fell into reading a bit further (as I tend to do) in the entry, to the point where Eliza and family were forced, some 30 years after Hamilton’s untimely death, to finally sell the home he had designed and built on 35 acres in northern Manhattan, which he named “The Grange.” Friends had arranged a swap of sorts — a real estate developer would purchase The Grange and sell the surviving Hamiltons a less-expensive townhouse in Greenwich Village (New Yorkers, just run that phrase through your mind again) that he had recently built. The family — the then 76-year-old Eliza (she outlived her husband by half a century), her son Alexander Hamilton, Jr., his wife, and her daughter Eliza Hamilton Holly, with her husband, Sidney — relinquished the memories in Hamilton’s modest mansion and moved down.

There, in the Wikipedia entry, was a link to the townhouse in Greenwich Village, which I, naturally, clicked.

As I stared at the photo that popped up, I felt dumbfounded because — why did it look familiar?

It was (and is) a photo of 4 St. Mark’s Place, where I had lived for a couple of years while studying acting, due to interventions by George and Judy and a hastily arranged secret sublease. In that shabby but very spacious second-floor apartment, I had one day thought to repaint the dingy fireplace mantle but with a few scratches with a fingernail saw that underneath was marble. Child of the 1970s, I knew what to do: I walked straight to Kamenstein’s Hardware across the way on Third Avenue and purchased some Zip-Strip paint remover and a package of fine steel wool.

Over a couple of weeks, with that steel wool, toothpicks (my roommate Nick’s toothbrush? No!), I stripped that mantle back to its original lustre — which I now, decades later, comprehended was the mantle that Eliza and her family knew for the nine years they were in residence there. My bedroom, with 15-foot ceilings and inset wooden shutters, which was large enough for us to have raucously rehearsed a six-character play, “Dinner With Harry” (complete with a massive bear’s head I had purchased from a street vendor outside Cooper Union as a key prop), had likely been a bedroom for Eliza or one of the couples when they moved there in 1833. Most likely, for Eliza herself, since one would not put one’s aged mother on the higher floors. (It makes me smile now to think of how much of the Beatles and Squeeze and Randy Newman were played in that bedroom — latter-day British Invasion and arch songs about rednecks.)

That I had lived in the historic “Hamilton-Holly House” (also famous in a number of other ways regarding experimental theater, as it turns out, which is another weird connection for the University of Missouri theater folks that lived there after my time. For example, a Eugene Ionesco play had its U.S. premier there; I had acted in two Ionesco plays in college, The Bald Soprano [Mr. Martin] and Jack, or the Submission [Jack]) without a clue to that fact, I have to chalk up to callow youth. In my day, the house was known not for its history but for the punk fashion shop Trash and Vaudeville. The place, in fact, was something of a dump, with latter-day punks spiking the stoop at all hours, prostitutes in the hotel next door on one side and a bathhouse on the other. I believe I was instrumental in getting a functioning lock put on the stoop gate circa 1983. (Catching up with the history of the house, I read that it was emptied of tenants and sold for $10 million to an investment group in 2015. It was designated historic in 2016, and plans were made to restore it to some semblance of its original look.)

So, yes, I was harboring pretty precious feelings about Hamilton. And if I’m honest with myself, I still do. Which is a very long way to go in putting into personal context my reaction to the musical and to the controversy that has arisen about both the musical and some of the founding fathers. Call it an overwrought journalistic disclaimer.

What can I say? We all make our own myths, however flimsy.

After seeing the musical on television, I texted Liz back in St. Louis and simply wrote: “Okay. Now I get it.” The musical did a marvelous job of condensing what I had read in the biography and brought the various historical players back to life, injecting the necessary mythmaking of art into the lives of the founders with the hip-hop songs connecting those perilous days with our own now suddenly no less perilous times with — hey, look! — our very own wannabe tyrant king!

And Do the Right Thing, which we have seen at least five times over the years, still dazzled us as much as it ever did, perhaps more so. Because Lee’s film resembles a play, replete with various Greek choruses — the three men observing and commenting, the younger kids taking it all in, the radio DJ, Mister Señor Love Daddy, played by a young Samuel L. Jackson — it oddly felt like a good companion with the filmed musical Hamilton.

If you have read this far, you will no doubt be greatly relieved to learn that I did not have any faux connections with Spike Lee, though we both attended NYU around the same time. He funded his first film, She’s Gotta Have It, on credit cards, around the time I was heading home, a month married, with two cats in the back of a car that seemed unlikely to make it out of Manhattan, much less all the way to St. Louis.

Like re-reading great novels as the decades go by, I get different things from the film as I age. And at my now fairly advanced age, I can commiserate more with Sal (Danny Aiello), Da Mayor (Ossie Davis), and Mother Sister (Ruby Dee). (You can fill in “the late-great” for each of those actors.)

In this viewing, in Charlotte, I was taken by Da Mayor’s seersucker suit, which I realized (having thumbed through the entertaining The Southerner’s Handbook at our Airbnb rental) spoke of an unmentioned history for that character in the South. And why was Ossie Davis suddenly reminding me of Lawrence Olivier (something about the eyes)?

Another small thing I noticed, as if for the first time, was the young woman who, after the street boys berate Da Mayor, hangs back, regarding him, pulled by some small empathy no longer available to the young men. Lee holds on that moment, to nice effect, for a few beats.

But the crux of the film is police violence, and that could not be more pertinent today, whether it be perpetrated against black citizens exercising their right to drive a car or vote or stand up for themselves to question why they are being detained to, well, now any protester, who might be gassed (as in the Washington, D.C., protests) or shuffled into a van by unnamed federal “police” forces (as in Portland and New York City).

Apparently, Lee says only white people ask if his character did “the right thing” in throwing the trashcan through the window of Sal’s Pizzeria. I’ve always seen it as yet another nuanced thing — you can see Mookie both making his decision and not being happy with it. He resorts to a violent act. A young man has been executed in the street and the evidence of the crime has just been taken away by the police. He may be sure of his choice, but that doesn’t mean he’s happy about it. One can imagine a lot of the people protesting in the streets during a pandemic after the killing of George Floyd having similar mixed feelings. But they, the protesters, were doing the right thing.

And, so, the argument over Sal’s “Wall of Fame” leads us to our argument over monuments.

My humble take: first, pull down the traitors, by rope or by ballot — whether they be the generals of the Confederacy or the cowardly generals of our current Senate who enable a demagogue, the first this country has seen since Joe McCarthy’s red scare reign of terror — and McCarthy didn’t have the power of the presidency in his hands.

I also think the left should think long and hard before handing over more symbols of patriotism to the right. In the 1980s the right usurped the flag and destroyed much of its effect by making it ubiquitous (used in advertising, on bumper stickers, flying “hugely” over car lots). The right wing in this country claim they love and support the military, but objectively it seems a shallow love, one of words and few deeds (signs in front yards, say, but no increased funding for mental health care). And their unquestioning support for the police is clearly grounded in, well, other thoughts, conscious or not. Everyone supports the police; those with yard signs seem to proclaim they support the police — no matter what.

The right somehow wrested control of The Federalist Papers, though those articles were written to highlight the need for a strong and active federal government. And conservatives even claim they can read into the Constitution the very intent of the founders, though the founders clearly intended it to be a living document.

The left needs to re-embrace all the symbols of the country and imbue them with a renewed sense of hope and meaning and, yes, context. And new worthy monuments and memorials should appear — the history we celebrate should be as alive as the Constitution was intended to be.

As the late, great Texas journalist Molly Ivins put it: “I prefer someone who burns the flag and then wraps themselves up in the Constitution over someone who burns the Constitution and then wrap themselves up in the flag.”

Her epigram will now always brings me an image of Donald J. Trump I truly wish I did not have imprinted in my mind: A man who avoided service to his country (even as president) nearly humping the flag to playact his devotion. (As one of my most sagacious and articulate friends, Steve, is reduced to saying whenever this happens: “Ewww.”)

I would sooner rename Reagan National in Washington, D.C., than take down statues of any of the founding fathers — those men had the bravery to put their lives on the line and the fortitude to see it all the way through. Again, seriously flawed (if such a temperate phrase can be used for selling or owning slaves, breaking up families — no, of course it’s not enough). And yet they had great intellect and used it to provide tools that would benefit all people, if only eventually. And, unlike Reagan and those who followed him, they believed in the good that government can, and must, do.

The men who chose to serve the Confederacy were brave, yes, and they put their lives on the line for something they believed it. But that something was their economic system based on slavery. They were also traitors to the United States, responsible for a war that killed 600,000 Americans. Hamilton and his wife spoke out against slavery and joined an manumission group in New York City, which did not call for abolition but encouraged people to free their slaves. And yet, and yet. More recent research shows that Hamilton was closely linked with the slave trade throughout his life — from his first job with a firm in the Caribbean to marrying into the slaveholding Schuyler family, to likely having some “servants” of his own. Elizabeth managed his writings after his death, and handed them off to son Alexander Church Hamilton who did a lot of William Barr–style redacting with black ink. (There are good discussions of this on the website of the Schuyler Mansion and elsewhere.)

Washington apparently spoke privately about his discomfort with the institution and provided for the emancipation of most of his slaves in his will. He essentially repented while dead. Washington is said to have had a strong work ethic, and he expected a lot of work, of his slaves and hired hands, of his troops, and, later, of his government officials. He could show paternalistic kindness in nursing slaves back to good health and giving days off and even pay for extra work. A little time off (and maybe an extra blanket) would be “afforded” a mother after childbirth. (The descriptions of Washington’s occasional dollops of concern and care make one immediately think of corporate America.) As has been pointed out many times before, but likely not often enough, the roots of America’s savage capitalism (e.g., the endless fight against unions and against a livable minimum wage, health insurance tied to one’s job) lay in the profits garnered by slavery. Southern congressmembers and their lobbyists can taste it to this day.

Jefferson? Well, okay (sorry, Liz) he liked very nice vintages from Paris, he loved Monticello and the great university he founded — and he largely turned his back on the living conditions of those under his control. (Monticello may be “shrine enough,” as was argued recently by Lucian K. Truscott IV in the New York Times.)

While making him largely a charming character, Miranda gets in some jabs on Jefferson:

There’s a letter on my desk from the President

Haven’t even put my bags down yet

Sally be a lamb, darlin’, won’tcha open it?

Yes, seriously flawed, even by the standards of his day. Still, he penned the deathless words that announced our independence and that guided the founding of a young nation. And, unlike Hamilton, he wanted the levers of democracy to extend beyond just the reach of a ruling elite. Pull down his statue and turn his painting to the wall, if you will, but you will still grapple with the brilliant concepts he burnished with his quill.

All the founders seriously questioned slavery as an institution after hundreds of years of it being ruthlessly enforced by Europeans to plunder new lands and create untold riches. As Jill Lepore writes in her excellent These Truths: A History of the United States: “the wealth of the Americas flowed to Europe by the forced labor of Africans.” But the founders wanted union more than anything else, and they needed the southern states to ratify the Constitution. Maintaining the union or ending slavery would, of course, be a dilemma Lincoln would also grapple with. And we deal with the legacy to this day in the fight over the Confederacy and the withholding of voting rights.

What can one say of such men? Dylan keeps creeping into this piece. Riffing on Whitman, he sings: I’m a man of contradictions, I’m a man of many moods./I contain multitudes.

Is there anyone out there saying the same about such men as Lindsey Graham or Rand Paul or Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio or Jim Jordan or Matt Gaetz or a slew of Republican governors who have all the depth one might expect from aging frat boys and who have proved it time and again during this pandemic? (Not that they would want it from the likes of me, but I would without hesitation give a “multitudes” nod to Mitt Romney or any of the conservative folks working brilliantly for The Lincoln Project or, say, The Bulwark blog. Some experience of suffering is necessary for any one to develop any level of depth.)

So, remove from their pedestals the con-artists, the racists. Lose those who work against the betterment of this country and its citizens, not the architects of something that has been, and can be again, truly exceptional in the world.

And bring on the monuments to women and the Native Americans. Are we tired yet of white men dominating everything? I know I am. Recently passing through Knoxville, Tennessee (yes, named for a white man, Revolutionary General and Secretary of War Henry Knox who had his own dicey history with Native Americans — See? I can’t get through a sentence without another one intruding), my wife and I saw a striking monument in Market Square to suffragettes. I sent photos of the Tennessee Woman Suffrage Memorial to our daughters. More of that, please.

Though Eliza Schuyler Hamilton came from the family that owned the most slaves in all of New York State, she did, along with her husband, speak out against the system. And in 1806, along with Isabella Graham, and Johanna Bethune, she started the first orphanage in New York City, the Orphan Asylum Society, and stayed involved with it into her nineties. Perhaps the fact that it is still operating is monument enough? Or maybe she and her compatriots should get their own monument for service to their city. Perhaps that monument will be a plaque on the front of 4 St. Mark’s Place.

Certainly, the Edmund Pettus Bridge, which is named for a man who was a brigadier general in the Confederate army, head of the KKK in Alabama, and a senator, should be renamed for civil rights icon John Lewis, a true American hero.

For me, the takeaway feeling of viewing both productions — after allowing the experiences to settle — was something like the character Radio Raheem’s memorable “Right Hand/Left Hand” street soliloquy in Do the Right Thing. In an arresting scene, the late-actor Bill Nunn speaks directly to the camera (though he is actually answering a question posed by Mookie, the character Lee plays) about the perpetual battle between love and hate, good and evil, one in which hate seems to most often have the upper hand.

And we have reason to hope — because of those protesters flooding the streets, their own non-violent actions, and their speaking out against those who took advantage of the protests. In Radio Raheem’s solioquy, love may be on the ropes, it may be taking a beating, it may even be down, but (“Hold the presses!”) it is never out. Here comes love. And that love is represented as a fist fighting just as hard as hate — no, harder — I think is brilliant and true. As John Lewis wrote, “You must be able and prepared to give until you cannot give any more.”

And yet, here’s more hope — all those young people who memorized the lyrics to Hamilton are hitting the streets and becoming involved. What Miranda wrote for the founders applies for all eras:

You will come of age with our young nation/We’ll bleed and fight for you, we’ll make it right for you/If we lay a strong enough foundation/We’ll pass it on to you, we’ll give the world to you/And you’ll blow us all away.

So, young people, those of you who are getting quite political but who tend to not show up at the polls, this November, no more throwin’ away your shot. You know, do the right thing.

Written by

Kirk Swearingen is a poet and an independent journalist. His work has appeared in Salon and The American Journal of Poetry.

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