(CNN)For this week, we dive into the "Hamilton" conversation, revisit James Baldwin's famous debate at Cambridge and look at how we might think differently about the Fourth of July.
'Hamilton' didn't age that well. And that's OK.
This week's culture conversation: "Hamilton," from two people who haven't seen it (WE KNOW, but bear with us ... )
Brandon: The past week has felt like a giant history lesson. Lots of people are reexamining the national narratives that they'd long accepted.
One interesting vehicle for this conversation has been "Hamilton," which just hit Disney+. Have you seen it?
Leah: I think that I am one of the only people on the planet who has NOT seen it. Have you?
B: That makes two of us! I haven't seen it, either. I definitely know about it through, like, cultural osmosis. But I never really felt moved to see it when it premiered in 2015.
L: Yeah, I remember that so many people back then hailed it as cutting edge -- this idea of a supposed race-blind casting of Alexander Hamilton's life. Barack Obama famously said that it was the only thing he and Dick Cheney agreed on, something they both loved. But I also remember the critiques about how it doesn't address Hamilton's history with enslaved people or his treatment of Native Americans. Which, yikes -- pretty major things to leave out. Even with race-blind casting, who does that version of history serve?
B: Right. Many people would probably agree that "Hamilton" is still zooming in on history from a very specific perspective -- i.e., from the perspective of the (White) Founding Fathers.
I think that it's fair to say that "Hamilton" was appealing to a distinct moment. As you pointed out, it's an artifact of the Obama era, when there was a feeling of hope about the direction the country was going in, and a sense that we could radically reframe the past.
But this history is now being interrogated in a very different way. To watch "Hamilton" essentially valorize one of the Founding Fathers, even as it tries to do so subversively, doesn't hit the same way when the Founding Fathers, broadly, are under scrutiny.
L: Exactly! These days, the discussion the play raises doesn't feel particularly relevant in the way it set out to be. But: Did you see Lin-Manuel Miranda's response to some of the criticism the play/movie has received?
B: I did -- and I thought that he handled it extremely well. He said that he agrees with the writer and podcast host Tracy Clayton, who tweeted that "hamilton the play and the movie were given to us in two different worlds & our willingness to interrogate things in this way feels like a clear sign of change."
She's exactly right. While there are some people who are predictably interpreting this conversation as #CancelHamilton (lol), it's much more complicated. The play itself has come to embody the process of unlearning.
L: Tracy Clayton has NEVER missed. I totally agree. I mean, this just shows how we're all (even POC!) learning and reengaging and unlearning and all that, ALL THE TIME. It's not as simple as reading a book and thinking, "Well, that's it! I am now educated on everything about race!"
B+L: OK, obviously, we could go on. With more time, we could get into 100 other things, like what the play says about immigration and how it comments on present-day xenophobia. Alas, that's space we don't have. But it's something we're definitely thinking about, and maybe you are, too.
James Baldwin on confronting the past
Confederate monuments, the cringeworthy names of popular sports teams, "Hamilton": In recent days, there's been lots of buzz about history -- about revisiting and even unlearning the glossy, incomplete versions of history that we've been taught.
No, revisiting or unlearning doesn't equal propaganda or erasure. (Some on the right, including the President, would have you think that, though.) It's about being honest about the depths of America's racist past -- about which stories society has chosen to polish and elevate, and at whose expense.
This process of confronting the truth is hard and painful -- but vital. It's something that the writer James Baldwin crystallized from a Black perspective in 1965, during a historic televised debate against William F. Buckley Jr., an influential conservative intellectual.
"When I was growing up, I was taught in American history books that Africa had no history, and neither did I," Baldwin told the rapt audience at the University of Cambridge in England. "That I was a savage about whom the less said, the better, who had been saved by Europe and brought to America. And, of course, I believed it. I didn't have much choice. Those were the only books there were."
He continued. "It is only since the Second World War that there's been a counter-image in the world. ... This gave an American Negro for the first time a sense of himself beyond the savage or a clown. It has created, and will create, a great many conundrums."
Likewise, the ongoing protests feel so singular in part because they're fueled by a battle between, to borrow Baldwin's words, images and counter-images -- by a desire to be honest about the damaging racial narratives that America broadcasts.
But this time, it isn't just Black Americans who are doing the work of anti-racism. White Americans are joining the cause more vigorously than at any moment in recent memory.
The fact that White Americans are joining the cause now more than ever speaks to a key question: Why now? It's a question that NPR's Code Switch podcast tries to answer in an episode titled "Why Now, White People?" as anti-racism reading lists are shared across the internet. The conclusion the hosts come to may make you uncomfortable -- but that's a good thing.
As many begin to dive into those anti-racism books they ordered, beginning a process of "unlearning" or "checking their privilege," the tendency to think that reading a book will absolve racism is enticing. But as Momtaza Mehri reminds us in her piece for The Guardian, "Anti-racism requires so much more than 'checking your privilege.' " The process of unlearning goes far beyond mere self-reflection -- it requires active persistence.
In a society that repeatedly touts Islamophobic sentiments -- particularly at those who wear the hijab -- The New York Times' "I Am Here to Prove You Wrong" chronicles Miss Muslimah USA, a Muslim beauty pageant. The history of beauty pageants is, of course, fraught. But this piece illustrates how Muslim women are creating room for themselves in a space they've historically been denied, while also challenging non-Muslim readers to question their own assumptions about beauty.
Given the country's uneven legacy of freedom, Black Americans have long struggled with commemorating the Fourth of July. CNN's John Blake wrote about the holiday from a fresh perspective -- one that's both honest and hopeful:
He writes: "The country seems like a mess. Racial protests have rocked every major city. Unemployment has soared. And Americans can't even agree if they should wear face masks in the middle of a pandemic. But what some see as chaos, others see as an explosion of patriotism.
"They see it in the armies of Americans that took to the streets to protest racism. They see it in the companies that are taking unprecedented stands against racial and social injustice. Even the Americans who are wearing masks for the health of their neighbors -- they, too, are reasons to wave the flag. All of these different groups have declared their independence from symbols and ideas that they've decided no longer represent them."