English department tackles history, literature and race through the lens of “Hamilton”

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By Nia Henderson

The sophomore-level English course “American literature and culture before 1800,” taught by Professor Hale, usually focuses on historical themes or literature; however, this year it has been altered to be from the perspective of Alexander Hamilton’s life and experiences, partly due to the cultural impact of the Broadway musical “Hamilton.”

The class first examines “Hamilton,” written by LinManuel Miranda. “We use the musical as a jumping off point, as a sort of touchstone for connecting Hamilton’s era — especially the revolutionary war period and emergence of the U.S. as a nation — to our own,” Professor Hale said. As the course progresses, they begin to evaluate other text from the time period which is roughly 1750-1805.

Professor Hale said, “we consider the historical materials during Hamilton’s time period, including his letters and political writing, alongside other key texts of the same period.” This includes private letters, political texts, novels, poetry and other texts written by Hamilton and other historical figures. Through reading a large variety of literature, students are able to develop a deeper understanding of the values, conflicts and challenges of the word Hamilton lived in.

In addition to the array of text, they ponder Miranda’s musical and what it can tell us about where we are today. “How it reimagines the story of our nation’s founding through people of color and through contemporary musical forms, and whether those choices might be seen as progressive today even as they risk obscuring the white supremacy that was absolutely fundamental to Hamilton’s era and to the construction of the U.S.,” Hale said.

When Professor Hale first heard about “Hamilton” she purchased the album and was instantly hooked. She said, “my daughter and I listened to it for a solid six months, and could (and still can) recite the entire show.” She believed that she could use the popularity of Alexander Hamilton and the musical to draw students to a time period that can be unpopular and unfamiliar.

She began working on this course in spring 2016 with Katy Curtis, Humanities Liaison Librarian and fellow “Hamil-fan” who assisted in creating new assignments for this course. “Without her enthusiasm, her skill at finding and compiling primary resources, and her ideas for some of the more creative assignments, the class wouldn’t exist,” Hale said.

This class fulfills a standard English major requirement and assignments in the class range from close readings of primary sources to creative assignments. “Later in the class, after we talk a bit about what the musical does and doesn’t accomplish in its representation of the historical figures, events and issues, students write or rewrite the lyrics for a musical number that might be added to the existing show. It’s their chance to fill in some of the gaps with their expanded understanding of the actual events,” Hale said.

Hale believes that understanding the era is more important than learning just about Hamilton as an individual. She believes that with this knowledge students are able to develop a richer understanding of the men who founded our country and articulated the values of justice and liberty for all, but also become aware that their actions clearly illustrate that these values were for a specific class of white men. “That contradiction is still at the center of our national experience,” Hale said.

She finds the musical important in many ways. “I think it represents the possibility of imagining, retrospectively, a world in which being American isn’t subconsciously associated with whiteness — an association whose toxic impact we are currently experiencing in a resurgence of white nationalism and nativism,” Professor Hale said. Although she believes that the musical is capable of spurring activism and positive representation of people of color is important, it leaves out realities of the time such as inequality and slavery. She says, “at a moment when politicians are actively working against immigrants and immigration, the way Miranda emphasizes Hamilton’s status as an impoverished immigrant who became central to our history can do important cultural work. But the musical by itself can’t possibly build a society and nation that are truly just and equitable, which is what must happen.”

Overall, students seem to enjoy the class. “I think students are much more sophisticated about the way the musical intersects with contemporary questions about race, immigration and the promise of liberty and justice that remains unmet in this nation,” Hale said.

This class has been a learning experience for the students as well as professor Hale. She said, “I’ve been reminded that students are terrific at sussing out hypocrisy and grandstanding by political figures, and that today’s students have very high ethical expectations of their leaders — which are seldom met. It’s also been gratifying to have yet another arena in which to see how central issues of social justice and equity are to Puget Sound students; they are astute judges of character across hundreds of years. I’m still hoping to get a couple of old-school rap and hip-hop fans in the class so that we can do more with Miranda’s very conscious incorporation of those genres in his musical.”

Professor Hale and Katy Curtis put a lot of work into creating this class. Hale said, “as long as students are interested in all things Hamilton, I will continue to offer it. I will be on sabbatical next academic year, though, so it will likely show up again in the English department offerings for 2018-19. And I encourage students

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