Category: The Blog

Blog posts of what we’re thinkin bout

Return? How?

Colorado governor Jared Polis recently assembled a task force to develop the best possible plan for a return to in-person school. The task force includes brilliant folx I know, including Rebecca Holmes of the Colorado Education Initiative, my Colorado Education Association president Amie Baca-Ohlert, and Colorado Education Commissioner Katy Anthes, on whose teacher cabinet I will serve in my capacity as 2021 Colorado Teacher of the Year. The governor is visibly excited by the prospect of returning to in-person school, having declared on multiple platforms that students historically underserved will suffer more, academically speaking, than their White counterparts the longer in-person schooling is suspended.

But I’m left with a lot of questions. I am struggling to understand why, on November 24, 2020, when new COVID-19 cases are through the proverbial roof, that a conversation on a return-to-school is happening. I am combing the internet for ANYTHING that would suggest that returning to in-person school is the conversation we need to have at the moment.

I would like to be clear about something. I am not good at teaching remotely. I am struggling to be good at what made me Teacher of the Year: a commitment to relationships to support students growth and engagement, a willingness to sit with students for large chunks of time to guide them through difficult work, and a desire to connect with them in the classroom, the hallways, the cafeteria, so that they feel welcome and celebrated in our school. Schools are sacred places, and for me, school simply cannot be replicated online. This is not to ignore the amazing work done by our online educators who have supported students via internet platforms, it is simply not where I feel the most effective, and it certainly is not what I love about teaching. While I have been privileged enough to work from home, sleep a little later, and be there to support my own teenaged high school student who has the unfortunate fate of being quarantined with me 24-7, this kind of teaching is simply not sustainable for me.

However.

There are some variables that I fear are out of everyone’s control. No matter the plans, I have observed enough, and heard enough disaster stories to know that the best-laid plan for return to school…well, you know the rest.

The Virus and the Vaccine

Dr. Anthony Fauci made it very clear in the spring that we do not decide when it is safe to return to our pre-March 13 activities. The virus decides. Looking at the spike in cases that started in the fall feels like satire. Like, how is it possible that the number of positive cases just began to soar? Clearly, it has to do with more people spending time indoors with people who are not a part of their pandemic bubble, refusal to mask or socially distance, all of those things. I remember it being suggested on the FiveThirtyEight that since most protesters for Black Rights Matter were masked, and there were very few cases reported after those gatherings, so perhaps we could return to mostly normal activities if we mask?

Then the news came from Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca that vaccines were imminent. Never mind that Democracy Now! recently reported on significant concerns regarding Pfizer’s vaccine, the optimism began to flood from all quarters, public and private sectors. 

To its credit, most reputable media outlets seem to be telling us to hold our horses. There are major questions. On the amazing Politically Reactive podcast, W. Kamau Bell and Hari Kondabolu discussed the realities of a vaccine with renowned Baylor chemist Dr. Peter Hotez, who pointed out that a vaccine that is approved will be very tough to roll out as quickly as it may be needed. “I’ve never had to think about how we get one billion doses out, these numbers boggle the mind,” he said in the interview. He also pointed out, as many others have, that most of these vaccines need to be stored at minus-94 degrees. To paraphrase Hari, not exactly a thing you can store in the Walgreens next to the Arizona Iced Tea.

This got me thinking about the inefficiencies that await us even when there is a vaccine. Pfizer has stated that theirs could be rolled out in mid-December, but this, of course, does not mean that we will get vaccinated in mid-December. Then there is the question of who gets to be at the front of the line when it comes to a vaccine. There are obvious choices: elderly people, especially those in nursing homes, EMTs, frontline medical professionals, firefighters. But after that?

Vulnerable Populations

I teach in a school district that is around 71% Black and Latinx. I teach in a public middle/high school that has almost exactly the same racial breakdown. According to this study published in the Colorado Sun, Black and Latinx COVID-19 hospitalizations are significantly disproportionate to their population numbers.

What this means for me, as a teacher whose students come from every corner of the city is that (a) I am more likely to be in contact with a young person carrying the virus and (b) they are also more likely to be in contact with a person carrying the virus. I’ll take you through this. The overwhelming majority of my students come from households with the following characteristics: they do not have health insurance. Their parents are either essential workers, in the service industry, or working construction. Not jobs that may be done via Zoom, and certainly not jobs that will provide them with income in the event that they must quarantine. Often, these households are large. One of my students has eight siblings. Another has five. Another has four. The overwhelming majority of my students are NOT only children, and they live in small spaces. In addition, it is common for extended family, especially grandparents, to live with them.

What this means is that avoiding contact in the event of a positive test result is next to impossible. In addition, if a young person goes to school, and comes into contact with a person carrying the virus, the chances that that young person returns home and passes the virus to a vulnerable or compromised person in their household increase dramatically. And then the essential workers, the workers who must go to a job site to get paid, risk carrying the virus to their workplaces. This could all happen within a few days, and since COVID-19 symptoms take a while to show up, if at all, it’s even more difficult to ascertain the risk and reality of spread.

I want to be very clear about something: I am not worried about being sick myself. I am a healthy person. I take care of myself when I am sick. I mask. I isolate. I never see anyone outside of my three-person pandemic bubble. I have insurance. I can work from home. My pay has not been reduced.

I do NOT wish to spread it to my students and their communities. FACTUALLY my students’ communities are significantly more at risk than their affluent counterparts, especially those in private schools (as an aside, I am told that private schools have operated largely without incident all year. I am also told that they did ZERO collection of data or best practices to be shared across the education system). It isn’t about risk to me, or even my circle. It’s about whether those who do not have what I have could withstand this. As a friend of mine who had COVID-19 and still struggles with the after-effects told me, “you do NOT want COVID.” He was an uber-fit guy, a trail marathoner, a lifelong athlete.

Parents and Disclosure

As the producer and co-host of the podcast Too Dope Teachers and a Mic, I receive numerous stories from educators as to why they are apprehensive and terrified of a possible return to in-person classes in January. Leaders across the state seem to belief that they can simply will safe, in-person school to begin in a few weeks. Even DPS Board of Education member Jennifer Bacon blithely stated “when we return in January” during a press release that wasn’t even about the pandemic! They were addressing the departure of Superintendent Susana Cordova. Just saying it confidently with a smile will not, as my students would say, manifest in-person school.

I am told of parents who do not answer honestly on health screenings, who send their sick children to school, not out of any malice, but because they simply cannot miss work as a matter of survival. I want to specifically state that these families were already on shaky economic ground before the pandemic, and now, they are forced to talk themselves into sending children to school. Can we guarantee that parents who cannot afford childcare will be able to afford it in the event that their child is sick, or, heaven forbid, the parents become incapacited by illness? Are we able to address the myriad reasons that parents may make the difficult choice to send a sick child to school? And are we providing impactful and honest messaging about why it is important for kids to stay home if they are sick. Are able to say that COVID-19 doesn’t seem to be the same threat to children that it is to adults, but that we still don’t know enough about how the virus is transmitted? Are we able to say that we aren’t just worried about kids getting sick, but also transporting the virus home and spreading it before they themselves show symptoms? Are we able to say that we must keep communities safe, not just individuals?

In Schools: Honor System? 

My final question is whether teachers will be named as essential workers. As I stated before, I cannot fathom what our medical professionals on the front lines are facing daily. It is obvious that some individuals must be vaccinated first. But in a recent and unofficial communication that attempted to predict what groups would be considered early, teachers were not named as a high-priority group, despite the clamoring from certain quarters, not to mention the defeated and outgoing President of the United States. I was informed that we probably fit into x-y-z group, but not being named as a professional who will receive the vaccine as soon as possible is shocking to me, especially since in normal times, I see 150 young adults daily, and even during the pandemic, it would still be 25-50. My spouse taught in-person as an ECE teacher, and every day was a harrowing attempt to keep students distant, masked, not touching, and all of this has been priority over teaching content and academics.

The CDC has, time and again, affirmed that safe distance is six feet apart and masked. And yet, almost immediately, our school system (as well as others, I can imagine) started to tell educators and building leaders that, in effect, three feet is probably fine. Even our teachers, intelligent and educated professionals, have broken the rules, allowing students to eat together, play together, take off their masks, and have chosen to eat together, unmasked, despite unequivocal guidance from firms like the CDC and other medical professionals.

Conclusion

There is a lot to control for. As this body of intelligent people begins this challenging work, it is critical that they make a plan not just to re-open schools, but to anticipate every possible setback, every inefficiency, and center science. Anything less would be dishonest, and we already voted someone out who was dishonest about this reality that we face.

27.5 Miles and Runnin’

I attempted to run a marathon distance yesterday, and ended up accidentally running my first unofficial ultramarathon. Before the ultramarathoners who follow us come at me, I will refer you to the Google definition, which is any marathon that goes beyond 26.2 miles. So, like, when I ran Aspen Valley last year, and then ran an extra 0.53 miles (maybe I started my tracker early, maybe I didn’t, you may never know), that was 26.73 miles. An ultra.

I’m careful not to call this a marathon or an ultramarathon. Runners who have been doing this longer than I have are quick to point out that one should not use the term “marathon” if it is unofficial, not chipped, not on a carefully designed and measured course, and not with place finishings. I accept this, so I am calling my Run(s) for Justice unofficial marathon-distance runs.

As always, and as I had planned, I started early. Up at 4:45 AM to eat some oatmeal and drink some water, and get my gear together. As I was not participating in an established, official race, I had to take on some extra pieces, like ensuring that I had water, energy gel, Gatorade, even screenshots of my course with me. There would not be recovery stations at every mile, like when I ran the New York City Marathon in 2017; there would not even be the intermittent recovery stations that, though their locations were not predictable, they were there eventually, like at Aspen Valley in 2019, and there would not be the predictable routes or crowds of people, either suffering with me or cheering from the sidelines, like when I ran Colfax the same year. I was on my own.

Though I had been shaking with some weird combination of dread and anticipation since the night before, there was no starting horn (start guns are becoming increasingly rare in sanctioned races), no announcer to shout us out, no singer to sing the national anthem to make us listen to in silence. Just my spouse, who struggled to get up early, snapping pics of me and my Black Lives Matter flag, and my mom, who was my mobile recovery station. This pics were very flattering (I learned from my fifteen-year-old daughter that Golden Hour can be morning or evening), and I set off, nearly forgetting to start my tracker and put on my hat.

I started slowly, as was the plan. One cannot sprint into 26.2 miles, and one cannot run at top speed for that long. I had learned that if my plan works, which is to run multiple marathon-distance runs, I will need to be able to recover quickly for the next one. These runs come faster than what my mind and body are accustomed to, but for the first time in my running life, I needed to be able to keep going, take care of myself to the greatest extent possible, and come back as well as I can.

The first supporter outside of my family that I saw was my buddy Joe. He timed it perfectly, and we connected at an intersection just inside the first three miles. I got so excited that someone else was supporting me that I wanted to hug him, but settled for a light fist bump. Perhaps not the smartest thing during a pandemic; I hope that I didn’t pass anything to him. I’ve handled my business during this time to the best of my ability, but I know that I haven’t been perfect.

For the first 10 miles, it was overwhelmingly positive. People honked from their cars, raising their fists and cheering. Not a ton of folx, and that is definitely different from what I am used to in my experience running official races within the structure of racing. I reflected on how even though I have run in races that had some benefit to the community, mostly they used our registration fees for overhead and costs to run the race. The $100-200 per marathon probably didn’t entirely go to people in need, but allowed the organizations to do the work. Even though I was doing this solo and in relative anonymity (though at this writing the Facebook page has close to 200 likes), every penny raised for this effort has gone directly to organizations with no strings attached.

There were some minor challenges immediately. Things come up on runs of this distance, and one just needs to adjust. I had ordered this Black Lives Matter flag from the internet, and at the time, 3′ by 5′ didn’t seem like much, but it turns out that 3′ by 5′ is 3′ by 5′. It had little ring-encircled holes but there wasn’t an obvious way to put a flagpole into it. I also didn’t have a flagpole. I rooted around the garage and found a plastic broomstick with the broom part broken off. I had broken it trying to sweep my Gorilla workout mat, and the grip of the mat was such that it just snapped the broom. But between the stick, a couple of produce rubber bands, and the soft rubbery grip, it was working!

But then my music started glitching out. I had a JBL bluetooth speaker in my Camelback, and it seems that it was positioned in such a way that the skip button kept being hit as I ran. I adjusted it once around Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard and Steele, but the music kept pausing and skipping randomly. Then, a couple of blocks before York, I realize that my phone, which was in my flip belt, was turned in, touching my skin, and with the lock screen activated, was skipping. I stopped. The broomstick still had the plastic loop to allow it to be hung from a hook, so I clipped my speaker to that loop. It dangled there a little, but was easy to ignore. I moved the phone into the Camelback, screen out, and the problem stopped immediately. Though I had a plan for this run, I also kept in mind that things never go entirely according to plan.

Running down Colfax was very different from running in the Park Hill area. People impacted by homelessness, drug and alcohol addiction, and mental health challenges made up most of the people I came into contact with. Some looked confused, most were focused on other things as I passed. One man drove past and yelled “F*ck that flag!” My mom wanted to respond, but I told her that it probably wasn’t a good idea. A person feeling aggressive enough to yell abuse at a runner might find it rational to escalate.

I continued running.

I arrived at my school, the Denver Center for International Studies, passing Denver West High School almost without noticing. My friend Brady, once my student teacher, then my colleague and closest friend at DCIS, had said he would be there with his family to meet me. You never know whether a person will actually make it to an appointed meeting place; he has a young son, but still, I was excited to see him. When I got within a half block of the school, I could hear cheering. Not only was Brady there with his wife, Alejandra, and their son, four of my former students were there as well. They had signs, gatorade, and oranges. They took pictures and were all smiles (I could tell, even though they were all wearing masks), and I wanted to stay and hang out. But I remembered that I had a run to finish.

This was the most difficult part of the run. It was the longest distance, the least populated, and even Google Maps didn’t have enough familiarity with the area to be helpful. There was broken glass in a number of spots, no sidewalk in others, and scarcely a soul to be seen. It was lonely and I wondered what the point of this was. But I kept moving. I wanted to get to Abraham Lincoln High School to see if anyone would meet me there.

My mom had made the decision to stay with me on her bike the entire way. I had told her she could just meet me at checkpoints, but a wiser person than I, she just did what she thought was right. I am grateful that she did, even if I hadn’t asked her to. Around the Home Depot, which gave money to the Tr*mp campaign, the road simply ended, despite what Google said. She rode ahead and returned, informing me that it was just railroad tracks, and that we were probably better off just heading back to Alameda, where we could catch the bike path. We probably added at least a mile to our journey, and I made a mental note to slow down, because there was a chance that I would need to run more than 26.2 miles.

In these situations, I had to maintain an affirming and honest inner-monologue. I am a proud and competitive person, who struggles with insecurities daily. I can run fast over long distances (fast for me, anyway). I ran the NYC Marathon in under four hours, I ran a 5K in 21:35, and ran the Turkey Trot at a 7:11 pace one year. I had to remind myself that this was different. I didn’t have the energy of the crowd or fellow runner to energize me. And now, because I didn’t know what I needed to know, I may need to be ready to do more than 26.2 miles.

At the bottom of Ruby Hill, I came across my second detractor. Speeding past in his blue sports car, he yelled “F*ck that flag, homie!” I gave him a thumbs-up. I expected some hostility, and my biggest fear is not to have someone attack me, so that isn’t so much what bothered me. I was actually more concerned that someone would try to hurt my mom. Now, she’s a tough lady, isn’t scared of anyone, but it would be hard for me to know that I got her into a situation where she got hurt. As for my own reaction to the man’s angry admonishment, I found myself weirdly unrattled. I just knew that I was out here, running with a purpose. I knew that people would experience misunderstanding or hostility, even though all I was doing was carrying a flag. In fact, I got the idea after I saw a shirtless man running with an American flag. I rolled my eyes, as nationalistic jingoism isn’t my thing, but then I just figured, maybe I’ll just wave a flag that represents my values.

Near the Taco Bell between Jewell and Evans on Sheridan, a young man in glasses leaned out his window, pumping his fist, screaming WOOOOOOO! I’m pretty sure it was a dude we call “Messi” at the school, and it brought a smile.

My wife and daughter were at Lincoln High school waiting, and it was really nice to see them. They brought bananas, gave me more water, even gave me their own, made a little video for Instagram, and sent me on my way.

My mom, greatest race marshall/sherpa/cheerleader I could have asked for yesterday, encouraged me that “It’s all downhill from here,” and I found a little extra bounce.

I was losing energy quickly by mile 19, and was drinking more and more water than I had planned. This has definitely been my experience of running marathons, that as you near the finish line, you find yourself struggling more to keep pace. My goal in a marathon has always been simple: try not to be a person who needs to be carried off the course. Finish the race on your two feet, and finish strong. Slow running is still running. Slow miles are still miles.

I was reminded of my friend Shawne’s words before my first marathon. He warned me that “when you get to mile 21, remember that you’ve never seen that before, and it will be different.” And when the race erroneously placed me in the first corral, with the faster runners, I called him in a panic. “Bro, I ain’t a Wave 1 runner!” He calmly said to me “Yes, you are. You are in Wave 1, so you are a Wave 1 runner” That gave me peace and focus.

At this point, I had seen the other side of 20 miles. Seven or eight times to be exact. None of this was new. Just keep going. One foot in front of the other. If I worried too much about how I was going to do another 8.2 miles in this state, I would be doomed, consumed by exhaustion and worry. But if I just concerned myself with moving my feet, I would progress. I would reach my destination if I just kept moving.

Running along Broadway was smooth and flat. It was nice to be done with the hills that were behind me. A car passed me with a woman calling out “ALL LIVES MATTER,” and at this point I just smiled to myself. Shoot, I’ve run 24 miles, is there anything you are running for? A contrarian is imprisoned by disagreement and negativity; I thought of a line from Talib Kweli’s “New Leaders,” “You talk about what you don’t like, that’s clear, but what do you love?”

Passing through the Five Points area, it was definitely different from the neighborhood that I grew up in. There are murals commemorating the extensive Black History along Welton, as White residents pass by, barely noticing the murals, and somehow not noticing me and my giant flag, which I had managed to carry the entire race.

At Manual High School, my alma mater, there was one lone supporter. He had been there around the time that I had predicted but I was running way behind. “I had to go back to the house to get my daughter down for a nap, so I was worried that I missed you.” I nearly broke down, this dude had waited in his car as temperatures rose to give me support. The Manual parking lot was the official 26.2 miles, so he was technically at the finish line. He took some pics, wished me well, smiling the whole time, rockin his DCTA shirt.

I had asked my mom if she was doing okay physically. Kind of a silly question, she has made epic bike trips all over the country, across entire states for days at at time. She said “well, it’s hot, and I’ll know that I was out today, but I’m fine.” SIDE NOTE: she texted me two hours later to make suggestions for the next one.

I entered City Park a little after 11:00, about an hour behind schedule. I wasn’t even entirely sure where the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial was, but I just followed my mom on her bike. As I came around the bend, I saw my four former students gathered under the shade of a tree. Then I saw my daughter run across the road, phone in hand, to record my finish. And ahead, I saw my wife and stepdad, just in front of what is one of Denver’s most beautiful memorials, holding a ribbon between them. They had made a finish line. The ribbon had hearts all over it. I kicked up my pace for the last 500 feet and for the first time in my life, I got to break a finish line. I looked at my watch. 27.47 miles. A personal best for distance, as well as a personal best for slowness. But I got there.

I won’t be running another 26.2 today. I am resting and recovering. But I will be ready for the next one.

Helpless: My Complex Relationship with Hamilton

I ain’t even gonna lie. I love Hamilton. I have downloaded the Original Broadway Cast recording, the Hamilton Mixtape, and the entire instrumental accompaniment, just in case I want to perform the entire musical by myself in my house or on my way to work. I bought Ron Chernow’s book. And when I learned that my stepdad-in-law is a direct descendant of the “ten dollar founding father,” I flexed that HARD. And while my initial reason for getting on Disney+ was to watch The Mandalorian, I’m keeping it so I can watch Hamilton as many times as possible. I have a reputation for consuming something I like over and over again until I can’t stand it. As such, I have seen The Wire in its entirety at least eight times, my day comes to a halt when Remember the Titans comes on, and then there was that summer that my mom and I made gazpacho like every day. I’m sure there’s a word for this condition, but I haven’t learned it as of this writing.

Suffice it to say, when I like something, I like it to excess. It’s all I want to do. This was my experience with the Black Star album, as well as Illmatic and ELE albums. For this reason, I know the entire musical.

Over the next few paragraphs, I’m gonna lay out why I love Hamilton and why I hate Hamilton all at the same time. I’ll come to a conclusion of sorts by the time this is over.

Those of you who have known me for long enough know that I was a theater kid from 7th grade to my first year in college. I was serious about it. I was in rehearsals 4-5 days a week, along with playing sports and trying to keep some semblance of a GPA. I liked being onstage. I really liked the possibility of a stage kiss (not as many as I had hoped, if I’m being honest). I liked attention (still do). But more than anything, I loved the freedom to literally become someone else for a set period of time every day. To leave behind this awkward, skinny, thick-lipped, brown-skinned kid from the East Side and just be someone else for a while. When I acted in Grease, I could pretend to be a tough-guy love interest; acting Shakespeare I joined the ranks of classically trained legends who had done the same. And considering my profound identity issues, I needed to escape in order to survive.

In high school, we didn’t do very many shows that featured characters of color. There was Ain’t No Grave, a musical about Denver’s own Dr. Justina Ford, the first Black woman doctor in our state, who delivered over 7000 babies for free in Five Points, when I was in 9th grade, and then there was The Colored Museum, a satirical piece for which I served as student director under legendary stage king donnie l. betts, during my junior year. Otherwise, it was a lot of White shows with White characters. Of course, the Shakespearean shows we did every year offered some ways for actors of color to get roles, and I have to say that our theater department often took a colorblind approach to casting. In Brighton Beach Memoirs, a young Black woman played my aunt, and I don’t remember anyone being weirded out by it.

However, even though the stage saved me–and continues to save me, especially when I don’t have a good lesson plan, or my technology fails–on a subconscious level, I felt that there was no future for me in acting. Never mind that my favorite actors, rappers, and athletes had incredible performative qualities. Watching Tupac take on a persona that moved between the gangster and the conscious was a masterclass in character development, and the legendary lyricist Rakim writes in his memoirs that creating your rapper persona is almost as important as the lyrics you spit. But I never made the connection between that lived world of mine and the world that existed for me in the school drama club. I did have moments, though. What if we did Zoot Suit? (I was quickly reminded that we didn’t have Brown kids in the drama dept, besides me) What if we did A Soldier’s Play? In my mind and in my journals I would cast these shows with all my neighborhood friends. Those goofball dudes who made jokes, entertained each other; I was dying to see them all on stage. It never really materialized. I didn’t have an intellectual or well-articulated reason to get these kids on stage with me; I suppose on some level, I wanted to bring my worlds together. Why did I join drama? Mainly it was because as a Chicano growing up on the East Side, but not the Mexican side of the East Side, I didn’t really have a home where I belonged. All of my friends, classmates, and peers on the block were Black, and though they accepted me, welcomed me, let me be a part of the culture in some ways, especially rap and basketball, it never felt like me. Drama club was a place where I could be myself, or, failing that, I could be someone else. The sponsor of drama club, who we affectionately called CV, recruited me. That’s all it takes for some of us. Tell us you could see us in a play. Tell us when auditions are. Invite us to an audition workshop at lunch, since most of us have never done that before. See us.

I went so far as to fly to Chicago in the fall of 1993 to audition for the Theater School at DePaul University. I prepared a monologue, from the David Rabe play Streamers. And before and after the audition, I wandered the streets of Chicago’s Loop district, awash in the fantasy of what this life could be. The Steppenwolf Theater started here, where the likes of Joe Mantegna, William H. Macy, and Gary Sinise got their starts. Glengarry Glen Ross takes place here, the play, eventually adapted to a hyper-masculine film by Chicago’s own David Mamet, is all things Chicago. I remembered a quote from Hollywood legend Michael Douglas: “I love Chicago. New York is hype, LA is fake, but Chicago? Chicago is work.” I got into DePaul. 

Then I got scared off. So few roles in film and on stage. So many fears of not being able to support myself–my dad didn’t come here from Mexico so that I could fail. My mom didn’t toil with multiple jobs, some of them revealing humanity’s worst failures and tendencies, grinding her way to a college degree, so that I could be swallowed up by a ruthless profession. And besides, what roles were really out there for me? What I want you to understand is that no one talked me out of this. Because of a lack of representation in the arts, I talked myself out of this. That world did not appear to understand or need me. I bailed. I cited a lack of financial aid as my reason (okay, I’m mostly glad I wasn’t saddled with a suffocating amount of student debt), but really, I just needed a reason to quit, give in to the blaringly loud message that I would hit a critical glass ceiling sooner, rather than later.

Hamilton would have saved my acting life. What if Hamilton had been released in 1993? At the height of hip hop’s golden age, when I needed it the most? If you have watched it, the music is catchy, Daveed Diggs, Renee Elise Goldsberry, and Okieriete Onaodowan can spit, the slang is seamlessly woven into the history of the United States, touching on important issues like slavery and patriarchy (okay, not in a way that satisfies me) and most of all, sending the important message that the United States should be everyone. I am definitely not one for jingoistic nationalist declarations, but the line “Ay yo I’m just like my country/I’m young, scrappy, and hungry” might be the first time I thought I could see myself as an American. seventeen-year -old me would have seen this show and immediately set about brainstorming other shows to put people of color on stage in powerful ways. And honestly, it is hard NOT to imagine George Washington as the broad-shouldered and charismatic Christopher Jackson. To be able to see that people of color could be cast in a Broadway smash that allowed them to be themselves would have absolutely been a game-changer for me.

Now. 

OK, most importantly, let’s get this out of the way: THERE IS NOT NEARLY ENOUGH BREAKDANCING. This is offensive. Borderline unforgivable. 

Moving on.

The more I consumed the musical and talked about it in every aspect of my life, singing the songs with my daughter in the car, the more some uncomfortable realities emerged. The first was the cost. Originally, the show was pretty accessible. Tickets as low as $70. But as it grew in popularity, the market kicked in, and was nearly impossible to see the play for less than $1000 a pop. While it is true that Lin-Manuel Miranda and the producers of the show did multiple screenings for students from low-income areas, it remained a bourgeoise recreational activity for people with money, most of then White. When we finally saw an abridged version of the show in Chicago in 2018, it set us back enough that we had to spend the next couple of months recovering financially. And hearing all the White folx around me excitedly talk about “I saw Hamilton, you should really see it!!” was just upsetting. How dare you! You don’t even like musicals, hip hop, or history! Pearls before swine, I would grumble.

The second aspect of Hamilton that enrages me is the erasure of the original people of North America. This, obviously, is not unique to this play, but considering that Miranda is viewed as one of the “wokest” artists in the industry, this erasure is impossible to stomach. As detailed in the 500 Nations documentary series, Native American people have been a part of the history of this place long before it was called the United States of America. When Ben Franklin traveled among the Haudennossaunee (who we more often call the ‘Iroquois’) in 1754, he was so taken by an innovative system of governance and representation that he wrote the Albany Plan of Union, arguing that the Six Nations had figured out the complicated matter of governing free people. And when the Revolutionary War broke out, the Six Nations Confederacy found itself in the crossfire of what historian Alvin Josephy calls “a cauldron of war” in their own homelands. Emissaries from the British and colonists’ sides pressure the Six Nations to take a side in the war. When spokesmen of the Six Nations declared that they would remain neutral, George Washington authorized the “total destruction and devastation” of the Iroquois settlements across upstate New York so “that country may not merely be overrun but destroyed.” He was given the nickname Conotocaurius, or “town destroyer.” Before long, the Six Nations were plunged into a war which would bring them no positive outcome, whoever the victor. Joseph Brant, the chief of the Mohawk, felt that Indian life under the British would be more tolerable than it would be under the colonists, and so sided with the crown.

Certainly, all stories cannot be told in one musical and who knows, maybe a musical about the American Revolution from the Native American perspective, with music and lyrics by Tribe Called Red is coming together as we speak, but it is so typical of cinema and stage to eliminate Indigenous Americans from the story when it gets too long, or too complicated. 

Finally, there is the sanitizing of the institution of slavery. Both Miranda and Chernow overstate Hamilton’s antislavery position and John Laurens, the only character who places enslaved people at the center of any freedom movement, is portrayed as something of an unbalanced fanatic, both in the musical itself and the book that was published later. There are tongue-in-cheek references to slavery, like Thomas Jefferson’s request that Sally Hemmings “be a doll” and open a letter for him, or Hamilton’s diss at the first cabinet meeting “we know who’s really doing the planting,” but there is a real lack of visibility of Black soldiers or the real role that slavery played in the American Revolution. I know I shouldn’t cite a meme as sound historical evidence, but give me a break, this is a blog post. The meme shows John Trumbull’s  iconic painting of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, noting that a red dot indicated which of the founders owned enslaved people, and like everyone in the room has a dot. The invisible and coy way in which Miranda discusses slavery is made worse when you look at this “colorblind” cast. The idea of Black and Brown actors playing slaveowners is…I dunno, gross! The thought that the sassy Daveed Diggs or the regal Christopher Jackson went home, offstage, and assaulted Black women, presided over the whippings of Black bodies that got out of line is imagery that none of us needs right now, and in order to full stan for the musical, you have to be able to turn off that realization.

So yo, here is the deal. Hamilton does everything that art is supposed to. It puts a story in front of us. It tells us a story in ways that are both expected and surprising. It crosses linguistic boundaries of space and time. It re-imagines what the so-called Founders looked like, and forces us to reckon with how we might move past whitewashed (literally) versions of history. Hamilton screams at the crestfallen seventeen year old inside of me that HELL YES YOU CAN PLAY ALEXANDER HAMILTON, WHO CARES WHAT YOU LOOK LIKE?? Miranda, who is four years younger than me and a million years more successful, decided to follow a vision of a story that he found impossible to set aside. He created a thing, and saw that thing come to life. It is important that not all of us detractors are radical progressives or leftists. Conservatives hate this version of the show. They don’t appreciate how the Founders are mocked and how the establishment of the United States can be portrayed in such a cavalier way. Some have caled it disrespectful. Others call it dangerous revisionism that is going to further erode our national memory. Some just think Hamilton was a prick, and unworthy of a whole musical.

So at the end of the day, Hamilton is exactly what art is supposed to be. It is from a place of deep knowledge and study. It is the result of an immutable dream that lived in the heart of the artist, if you watch interviews with Miranda, he himself struggles to explain why this story, which this format, why this staging. It’s because true artistic vision is ephemeral, wonderfully spiritual and ambiguous, and the artist often does not feel that they are creating alone, that there are muses acting through us to make something new. I will never become a “Hamilton-is-the-greatest-thing-ever-created-onstage-period” guy, and I will sit in my critiques and keep them. However, I will also still see parallels between the life of Hamilton and my own, I will still remind myself that cishetero men are trash every time I hear Phillippa Soo sing “Burn” and I will still always want a squad like the one that included Lafayette, Hercules Mulligan, and John Laurens. I will also be suspicious of the Aaron Burrs.As a friend flatly stated about Hamilton, “more than one thing can be true” regarding this phenomenon that sprung from the pen of a Puerto Rican kid from NYC. Hamilton cannot be seen as the apex of BIPOC art. It is a critical step. What happens, the next creation, next is up to us.