A new revolution

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By Donna Frischknecht Jackson

I’ve been obsessively counting the days this week till the debut of the “Hamilton” movie. I don’t live in Manhattan anymore, nor do I now live in an area with easy access to the arts of any kind. I am a resident of rural America, meaning any culture in my life takes a lot of planning and travel. Sure, there are museums and way, way, way off Broadway productions that do their best to light up small stages within driving distance, but the distance is a deterrent most of the time.

And so, when I heard “Hamilton” would be in front of my very eyes on my computer screen — no driving two hours or so — I jumped for joy. Broadway at its best and with a dose of 18th century history for this 18th century history lover.

 

Hamilton An American Musical on Broadway (2015) Daveed Diggs (Marquis de Lafayette/Thomas Jefferson), Okieriete Onaodowan (Hercules Mulligan/James Madison), Anthony Ramos (John Laurens/Philip Hamilton), and Lin-Manuel Miranda (Alexander Hamilton) CR: Joan Marcus


What more could I ask for than a show about Alexander Hamilton, one of the founding fathers of the country?

Funny that I asked that, because “Hamilton” gave me more than I was prepared for. As I counted down the days to the show, I discovered that “Hamilton” wasn’t just going to be a much-needed escape from my crazy world filled with deadlines and church duties. The production was going to open my eyes. It was going to get me thinking. It was going to make me want to jump up and cry out for a new revolution.

You see, as the media blitz leading to the July 3 movie release picked up speed, I took moments to stop my own writing and editing to listen to several Zoom interviews with cast members who, being men and women of color, were providing a startling and unique stage setting for white America’s history. George Washington, Aaron Burr, Eliza Hamilton, the list goes on — played by actors of color. I found it profound and I began feeling something stirring inside of me.

It was then I heard Daveed Diggs, who played Thomas Jefferson and Marquis de Lafayette, speak about his experience performing in “Hamilton.” He talked about how telling the story of the birth of this country has been an awakening leading many to realize that we are in another moment of awakening.

“A lot of people are feeling very passionate about not allowing business as usual to continue, in terms of how we govern ourselves, how we police ourselves, all of these things,” said Diggs in an interview. He continued to say, “I’ve been Black my whole life, so this feeling is not a new one to me. ‘Hamilton’ has an opportunity to help the conversation continue further…”

Maybe some of you remember the “Hamilton” controversy in 2016, when during the curtain call, the cast welcomed in-coming vice president, Mike Pence, with a message that was not mean spirited or condescending but stating a heart-felt fact. The actor who played Aaron Burr that night, Brandon Victor Dixon, said, “We truly hope this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and work on behalf of all of us. All of us. Again, we truly thank you truly for seeing this show, this wonderful American story told by a diverse group of men and women of different colors, creeds and orientations.”

If the opening shot at the Battle of Concord in 1775 was hailed as “the shot heard around the world” which started a revolution, perhaps that brutally honest welcome from Broadway’s Richard Rodgers Theatre was to be another proverbial shot?

That’s when I began pondering. If the patriots of the American Revolution were heavily influenced by a time in history known as the Enlightenment — a time where policies, new ideas, fresh possibilities were entertained, debated and, yes, fought for — then could it be we are entering a second enlightenment? A time to entertain, debate, forge ahead and even fight for new ideas and fresh possibilities so that truly Americans live up to the constitutional stance that “all men are created equal.” Riddle me this. Where has that equality been these last 233 years since that document was penned in 1787?

The Fourth of July holiday is upon us and I have not been feeling patriotic in quite some time. This was just going to be another day for me. No flag flying. No barbeques. No fireworks. But thanks to this production of “Hamilton,” I am feeling a new patriotism rising up, a new revolution underway with changes being called for and demanded of our society.

Before you argue with me, stop and think about it. A people once stood up and fought for their chance at “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” This holiday is not to sit contently with luxuries achieved because the harsh truth is there are still Americans who are fighting for those same luxurious many of us assume are our God-given rights. History is not some archaic lesson in which dates are simply memorized for the sake of memorization — and perhaps impressing friends with some trivia. History is a living lesson reminding us of the brave men and women who dared to think differently and stand up and challenge systems.

As I get ready to finally kick up my feet, pour myself a glass of Madeira — a sweet wine popular in 18th century America, which I thought would be appropriate for this occasion — and watch “Hamilton,” I find myself no longer praying for my rural internet to not buffer or freeze up while watching the show. I sip my wine and find myself praying that I myself don’t freeze up or beginning buffering as I play my part in the new America emerging.

Hey yo, I’m just like my country,
I’m young, scrappy, and hungry,
And I’m not throwing away my shot …
– Alexander Hamilton from the “Hamilton” movie

Standing Together

 

It was a timed honored tradition in the little rural village. Every Memorial Day the clergy would gather in front of the old courthouse that was now transformed into a community center. Stories from old timers spoke of how every once in awhile someone locked up imgres.jpgbehind the bars in the courthouse would break out and hide in the cornfields surrounding the building, as well as the cornfields surrounding the school. Perhaps that is why the courthouse was eventually moved out of the village and into a more populated area where cornfields didn’t exist.

Every Memorial Day clergy, including myself—an accidental country pastor—would gather in front of that courthouse. We would gather with the high school band. We would gather with the Boy Scouts. We would gather with families, young and old, who came out for this timed honored tradition. We would gather with the veterans still able to gather, to remember those who died in service to our country. We would gather, then march throughout the village to each war monument, where we would stop, say a prayer, lay a wreath in front of it and listen to the gun salute.

Our march would then continue to the Revolutionary War cemetery and then into cars we would go, heading up the road out of the village to the cemetery where many a Civil War soldier rested. Back into cars and off to our last stop—the cemetery just up the other road out of the village that belonged to the Catholic church. Father Condon, a staple in the village almost as time honored as the Memorial Day march itself, would be waiting there ready to deliver the last prayer of thanks and remembrance in his thick Irish brogue.

There on the outskirts of the village, with the first signs of corn breaking through the ground beyond the cemetery, with the views of rolling green hills and mountains, with the warm breeze blowing the scent of freshly mowed fields, I observed something that would forever change my view of Memorial Day.

I observed community at its best, taking time not to use Memorial Day as a kick-off to the unofficial start of summer, but staying true to the observance of those who gave their lives so that they could have life as they know it in their little rural village.

You see it didn’t matter what differences we had or who was having a spat with whom or who held a 30-plus year grudge against so-and-so. What mattered was for at least one morning in late May we were remembering not only the costly gift of freedom. We were once again renewing an unspoken vow to stand together in community.

As a pastor I just wasn’t there to pray. I was given the privilege to stand with the community by standing by the sides of those veterans who were tasked with the responsibility of laying the wreaths.

I will forever remember the startling feeling of honor that came over me the first time I took the gnarled hand of one veteran. I actually didn’t take his hand. It was more he had to reach out and grab mine to regain a step that wasn’t as steady as he thought it would be. I caught his hand and we continued to walk. With each step we took, I could feel his hand needing to hold on tighter to mine. Each faltering and hesitant step was caught and made more secure as I gripped tighter and leaned in closer and whispered, “I’m standing by you.” And with that reassurance, I noticed his back hunched over with age straightened just a bit and a smile of many thanks graced a face etched with golden and not so golden memories.

It was then I began my own time honored tradition of making sure each time I walked with a veteran to lay a wreath at a memorial, I would take their hand, lovingly squeeze it and remind them of something we would all love to be reminded of no matter what our age.

“I’m standing by you.”

That little rural village showed me the beauty of Memorial Day that I had never seen before nor ever since.  I saw a community putting aside all the things they had the freedom to do on a Monday off, so that they could stand together with those who stood up to the evils of war so many years before. I also saw future generations learning that even in times of peace, standing together should never end.

Who have you stood by today? Have you held the hand of someone who needs support to make their steps steady? Do you realize no matter where community might be—in a church, a civic group, a village, a town, a family, a school—it can only happen when we make the commitment to be there for one another and to stand together.