Culture  /  First Person

Who Tells America's Story? 'Hamilton,' Hip-Hop, and Me

How the hit musical allows those who have been left out of the story to claim the narrative of America as their own.
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My first traceable ancestor enters the historical record already in chains. Somewhere in South Carolina, sometime around 1790, an unnamed African slave gave birth to my grandmother’s grandfather’s grandfather, Newman Ingram. Meanwhile, Alexander Hamilton and the Founding Fathers were defining what freedom was going to mean in these newly United States, writing an intentionally white narrative that very deliberately erased and excluded people of color. From the beginning, mainstream American history was a carefully-defined white space where Newman Ingram and, by extension, I did not belong. Even in the post-Civil Rights era, when I came of age, black history was taught in periodic asides, as if making it clear that Black History and American History were not the same thing. African-American history was an alternate American story, the narrative of a people in the shadow of Independence fighting for a place in a narrative never meant to include them.

The first history books I acquired outside school were a series of illustrated booklets celebrating famous Black inventors, educators, innovators, and explorers. The Black American narrative?—?that ongoing struggle?—?was, I learned, the story of a series of exceptional Black people whose names didn’t make it into American history textbooks: Jean Baptiste Point du SableMadam C. J. WalkerGarrett MorganBessie Blount GriffinMatthew Henson, and dozens more. It was like stumbling on a secret Black history of America. What I learned of the early United States I learned through studying their lives. Their stories were collated into a parallel American narrative in which racial progress?—?that is, freedom?—?was driven by greater and greater Black achievement. Invariably, these famous Black people became so important that they were allowed provisional entry into white spaces; by proximity, they brought Black Americans closer to emancipation.