The musical Hamilton has taken the nation—and MDC—by storm. Hamilton’s writer, Lin-Manuel Miranda, won a MacArthur “genius grant” last fall and Hamilton artists performed the musical’s opening, “Alexander Hamilton,” at this year’s Grammy Awards. Miranda’s lyrics have infiltrated MDC’s offices, with sayings like “I’m not throwing away my shot” or “Why do you write like you’re running out of time” coming up in random conversations. I’m actually surprised that we’re just getting around to writing about the musical on the State of the South blog.
Maybe the reason Hamilton resonates with me and so many of my MDC colleagues is because deep down it’s a story about mobility. Alexander Hamilton was raised by his single mother in the West Indies. His mother died young, leaving Hamilton to live with a cousin who then died, leaving Hamilton orphaned again. The musical’s opening describes what happened next:
Then a hurricane came, and devastation reigned
Our man saw his future drip, dripping down the drain
Put a pencil to his temple, connected it to his brain,
And he wrote his first refrain, a testament to his pain
Well, the word got around, they said, “This kid is insane, man”
Took up a collection just to send him to the mainland
“Get your education, don’t forget from whence you came, and
The world is gonna know your name.
In Ron Chernow’s book, Alexander Hamilton, he discusses how often Hamilton depended on that financial support from his homeland during his early years in America. This community support led Hamilton to King’s College (now Columbia University) and eventually to President George Washington. Hamilton served as Washington’s “right-hand man” during the Revolutionary War and throughout his presidency as secretary of the treasury.
These same themes of community and mobility came up last week in a conversation between President Obama and Misty Copeland, the first African American female principal dancer with the prestigious American Ballet Theatre. They talked about race and success; during the conversation, President Obama talked about when he realized that he’d “arrived” and his relationship with his community:
Obama: I don’t know how it felt for you, but certainly for me, you know probably I burst out onto the national scene with the Democratic Convention speech of 2004. And that was the first time that I had a big national audience. And everybody responded really favorably. And so I got a lot of attention and interviews and magazine pieces and all this stuff. And I still remember telling Michelle and my closest friends, I said I’m not any smarter today than I was last week, right. In some ways, when you struggle for a while, and you’ve had the ability of being an ordinary person and you’ve gone shopping, changed diapers and tried to figure out how to pay the bills and so forth, so that you’re not some overnight success. Then handling some of these issues ends up being easier because you have a better sense of perspective. You don’t sense somehow that this is because I’m just so special, or because I’m so much smarter than that other person. Because in fact you’ve known those other people who are talented and smart and capable. In some ways you got a break, you were lucky. And that, for me at least, keeps me grounded because it reminds me that, you know, for all the blessings and privileges and responsibilities that I’ve gotten, I’m just representing a huge cross-section of people who are talented and capable and supported me getting to where I came from. So that takes a little bit of the edge off. And more importantly, it means that your friends don’t start looking at you and thinking oh, you’re acting kind of like you’re all that, right? And it’s good to have friends who will do that for you. If you start acting weird, they’re like —
Copeland: Check you.
Obama: Yeah. It’s like what, suddenly you’re some prima ballerina? Please. I remember when—and they’ll remind you of some story. Okay. That’s helpful.
Community support comes in different ways: it can be financial like it was for Alexander Hamilton or to keep you humble like it is for President Obama. The role of a strong community encouraging its youth and young adults cannot be overstated. I know the role my community played in my upbringing. Everyone in my small hometown were my “aunts and uncles,” providing both the financial support and the humility lessons Hamilton and Obama received.
As MDC works to build infrastructures of opportunity in communities throughout the South, we encourage you to think about your role in supporting youth and young adults. Take a moment to look around: I’m sure your community is full of “young, scrappy, and hungry” youth who are not throwing away their shot at success.