NOTE: I made some changes a few minutes after I originally posted this.
“Let’s hatch a PLOT blacker THAN the kettle CALL-in’ the POT!”
My four-year-old and six-year-old were so excited this week when they could both say this line in tempo without any mistakes. Ten minutes of one of them trying, and the other patiently correcting, and finally they had it. This morning my two-year-old mastered it as well. This wasn’t an assignment, but as a homeschooler it made me smile.
Like lots and lots of people, our family loves Hamilton. Beth fell in love with the album, and I took her to see the play in Des Moines as a Christmas present two years ago. Now the kids and I listen to the first hour (till the end of the Revolution) at least once a week, and it hasn’t gotten old. I won’t claim it’s in a league with Shakespeare, but I will say this: it’s great for homeschooling for a lot of the same reasons. Like Shakespeare, Hamilton has a great mixture of big ideas, poetic language, and a moving story.
If you wonder why so many people love the play, here’s a video of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s solo performance of the first song at the White House in 2009, before the musical was produced. He has a charisma and a passion that draw you into the story.
Two big disclaimers: First, much of the second act just isn’t appropriate for kids. And second, I bought the “clean” version of the album and then edited the audio files of the first act to get the version I’d be happy to hear coming from my kids’ mouths. I even took out a whole verse at one point, but audio editing is a hobby of mine, so it’s not for everyone. I did leave in Aaron Burr saying, “I’m the DAMN fool that SHOT him!”, because it’s such a key to the first song; I just tell my kids that word isn’t polite to repeat.
That said, I’ll hit some high points of why I love this for my kids.
1. Savoring Language
I don’t know much about hip hop, but clearly a strength of the genre is how it celebrates language, words and sounds. Consider Hamilton’s soliloquy about the coming American Revolution:
I know the action in the street is excitin’
But J****, between all the bleedin’ ’n fightin’
I’ve been readin’ ’n writin’
We need to handle our financial situation
Are we a nation of states? What’s the state of our nation?
I’m past patiently waitin’.
I’m passionately smashin’ every expectation
Every action’s an act of creation!
I’m laughin’ in the face of casualties and sorrow
For the first time, I’m thinkin’ past tomorrow
And I’m not throwin’ away my shot!
The language isn’t fancy, but if you read it aloud the cadences come out. In this passage, the rhyming climaxes in a barrage of P’s, S’s, SH’s, and A’s, in the three lines: I’m past patiently waitin’ / I’m passionately smashin’ every expectation / Every action’s an act of creation! If you listen to the audio track (“My Shot”), those lines are also set off by musical blasts. It’s smart, and also moving. Shakespeare often ends a speech with a pair of rhyming lines to mark the climax of the speech; Miranda does something similar by marking the climax of a song with fast-paced internal rhymes and assonance.
Here’s another I enjoy:
They’re battering down the Battery, check the damages
We gotta stop ’em and rob ’em of their advantages
Let’s take a stand with the stamina God has granted us
Hamilton won’t abandon ship, Yo–
Let’s steal their cannons—
Or try reading this out loud:
Burr, check what we got
Mister Lafayette, hard rock like Lancelot
I think your pants look hot
Laurens, I like you a lot
Let’s hatch a plot blacker than the kettle callin’ the pot
What are the odds the gods would put us all in one spot
Poppin’ a squat on conventional wisdom, like it or not
A bunch of revolutionary manumission abolitionists?
Give me a position, show me where the ammunition is!
To get a bit geeky, look at the tetrasyllabic metrical feet in the last two lines, which Miranda created by changing the emphasis in the word “revolutionary”: “a bunch of REV-o-lu-tio-NA-ry ma-nu-MIS-sion ab-o-LI-tion-ists [pause one beat], PUT me in po-SI-tion, show me WHERE the am-mu-NI-tion is!
From what I’ve read, there is debate about how much of an abolitionist Hamilton was, and “poppin’ a squat” is kind of embarrassing to say out loud. Not every parent will like the content of this play for kids, but mine have been hearing the gruesome versions of fairy tales for years, so we’re on that train already. Anyway, as a classical homeschooler, I want my kids hearing and reciting well-crafted language, and this is one fun way to do it. It’s also good mental exercise trying to get the words straight in your head so you can sing along. As my kids have found, it’s fun and satisfying to master a tricky line.
2. Character and Growth
The play starts with a strong moral theme of fortitude. Miranda doesn’t pretend that just anyone could have become Alexander Hamilton, but he does emphasize the hard work and toughness it took Hamilton to get where he got:
The Ten dollar
founding father without a father
got a lot farther
by working a lot harder
by being a lot smarter
by being a self-starter…
Started workin’, clerkin’ for his late mother’s landlord
Tradin’ sugar cane and rum and other things he can’t afford
Scannin’ for every book he can get his hands on
Plannin’ for the future, see him now as he stands on
The bow of a ship headed for a new land
In New York you can be a new man
In New York you can be a new man
My wife Beth loved this play in part because Hamilton got where he got by hard work, and by the power of ideas. It paid off when he had the good fortune to cross paths with George Washington, and be “seated at the right hand of the father,” as Miranda puts.
Every day when we do school, what are we actually doing? Hamilton gives the kids one piece of an answer: study hard, learn about ideas, and be ready for your shot if it comes along. Why do we school classically? In part because it opens the doors to big ideas, and if one of my kids wants to run all the way with something they find there, they may get the chance to go out, put in the work, and try to become a leader in that field.
3. Historical Pegs
I’m sure Hamilton distorts history, like every work of art does. But I love that the play says something, because that will give us the chance to engage it critically when the time is right.
When my kids are older, there are lots of great conversation starters here: (1) What parts of our nation’s founding does Miranda miss because of the angle he takes? (2) Does the picture of the founders as “immigrants” hold true, or is the play pushing too hard to make a modern political statement? (3) Does the play let George Washington off the hook too easily as a slave holder? (4) Does the portrayal of Hamilton’s affair play into a misogynist stereotype of “woman as temptress” and man as simply “not strong enough to say no”? (5) How do we sort through the complicated social question of an American-born Latino artist using a Black form of music to put on a play that casts mostly actors of color buts especially appeals to white audiences?
Those questions will come later, but already my daughter can recite one critical question raised about American history by the character Angelica Schulyer:
I’ve been reading Common Sense by Thomas Paine
Some may say that I’m intense or I’m insane
You want a revolution? I want a revelation!
So, listen to my declaration:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal”
And when I meet Thomas Jefferson
I’m a’ compel him to include women in the sequel, work!
There are plenty of more mundane history lessons as well. For example, Hamilton tells how Washington won the war by attacking and retreating until he wore the down the British, and how the war turned in the colonists’ favor when the French joined in. It also gives a surprisingly detailed lesson on the practice of dueling, and talks about marriage practices for wealthy young women. And finally, it sticks names such as Hamilton, George Washington, Lafayette, Aaron Burr, and King George in the “fun” part of my kids’ brains alongside Batman, Han Solo, and Harry Potter. That’s a plus.
4. Diversity is Smart
The linguist Steven Pinker once made a great point, that a kid who can switch back and forth between proper English and other dialects or styles of grammar is actually better at language than the kid who always speaks proper English. If you doubt this, just read Shakespeare, or Charles Dickens, or Mark Twain, or Toni Morrison. Excellent language takes lots of different forms, and just as sure as you can find terrible prose with perfect grammar, you can find excellent compositions that use less “proper” grammar. Hamilton is one.
Along with different styles of grammar and language, the play also has different styles of music. When George Washington calls Hamilton in before the battle of Yorktown, the song is in a more traditional show-tune style, and Miranda also includes a delightful satire of a love song, sung by King George to the colonies:
You’ll be back
Soon you’ll see
You’ll remember you belong to me
You’ll be back
Time will tell
You’ll remember that I served you well
Oceans rise, empires fall
We have seen each other through it all
And when push comes to shove
I will send a fully armed battalion to remind you of my love
This variety in style, language, and grammar, not to mention sophisticated allusions to other works and sayings, is great for the growing mind.
I don’t know if Hamilton will become known as a “great work,” and in fact I don’t even know if it would count as good hip hop to those who know the genre. I’m sure people have argued whether Miranda appropriated black culture to sell to white audiences, who might end up thinking it “belongs” to us. My bias says to enjoy the music as it is, and discuss the cultural issues with my kids as they get older.
But cultural questions are only one angle to come from; the other angle is that Miranda has used hip hop excellently, and I don’t think he’s done it cynically. I love how he uses spoken verse to tell a big story on a big stage. As I help my kids learn to swim in the ocean of art and literature we have around us these days, I’m betting this one will remain part of our life.