George Washington, Race, Greatness, and Me (and You)

07hamilton-slide-ezxp-superjumbo

Members of the original Broadway cast of Hamilton (Chris Jackson as Washington, far right)

The other day I listened to an interview with Chris Jackson, who recently wrapped up his time playing George Washington in the musical Hamilton on Broadway. Robert and I were fortunate enough to see him in this role last month, and wow. Wow.

The depth of talent in New York is so deep that I have full confidence in Nicholas Christopher, the next Washington, but wow. Charisma for days.

Jackson was talking to Gene Demby of NPR’s Code Switch, a podcast about race and culture (and an indispensable one in my opinion). Demby asked Jackson about the experience of being an African-American man who is playing a slaveholder. Jackson has said in the past that he’s not interested in “reconciling” those parts of Washington’s character, and here’s part of how he explained that:

He owned people.
He owned people that looked like my father and that looked like me.

I’ve made a compromise with myself. I haven’t compromised my principles. But I told myself, “You have to portray somebody that was behind so many unlikely, breathtakingly genius ideas and who found a way to enact them.” But I’m not the guy to see him as a god. There’s always been a movement to deify [the Founders], and that has its place and is important in terms of educating the public on what we should strive for…

But to almost a person, they were under the mindset that someone who looked like me was not capable of pressing a thought, not capable of civilized behavior, or who had no aptitude for greatness.

And I’ll never make peace with that. But I don’t have to.

I’ve just been editing a section of my book in which I talk about improvisation as having a spirit of “And” rather than “But.” When we learn to improvise, we learn to receive whatever our partner offers onstage (Yes), and then to build on it (And). That doesn’t mean we go along passively with that offer, by the way. If they pull an improv gun on us, we don’t need to let ourselves get shot. But we at least need to agree that the thing they’re pointing at us is a gun, and not, say, a banana.

We have to agree on the reality before we can move forward. (Another post, perhaps, in this era of fake news.)

I hear Chris Jackson talking about approaching the Founders with a spirit of And rather than But.

Because here’s the problem with But. When we use But, we have to figure out which part of the statement is primary. Consider:

George Washington was a wise and discerning leader, but he owned slaves.
George Washington owned slaves, but he was a wise and discerning leader.

Each of these statements suggests a different starting point. Was he a great man, who oh-by-the-way had this terrible blind spot? Or was he at his core a racist, but despite this tragic flaw managed to lead our country with wisdom and strength?

A spirit of “And” means we don’t have to make that judgment, because ultimately we can’t. They are both part of who he was.

Zooming out a bit, in my reading about leadership, I’ve studied some polarity management (enough to be dangerous). My understanding of it is that most problems aren’t really solvable. Rather, it’s more important to manage the various competing concerns so they complement each other in a healthy, balanced way. We seem to have lost the ability to do that in the US, which is odd considering that, at least on the national level, we are basically a 50-50 country.

Yes, there are some ideals upon which we cannot budge an inch and still maintain our integrity. With a president-elect who is appointing white supremacists to his inner circle and talking of a registry of immigrants based on religion, I realize that “And” may sound like capitulation. I’m not willing to go along with actions which, I believe, compromise fundamental American values.

Still I wonder, is there any way to move past this zero-sum mentality in which our leaders (and we the people) seem to have gotten stuck? Are there any issues on which people can come together?

As one of my favorite Presidents, Josiah Bartlet, once said, “Every once in a while—every once in a while—there’s a day with an absolute right and an absolute wrong, but those days almost always include body counts. Other than that, there aren’t very many unnuanced moments in leading a country.” I’d like to see us find our way toward a bit more “And.”

Contradiction, polarity, “And,” whatever you want to call it–it’s been with us since the days of George Washington, patriot and slave-holder, slave-holder and patriot.

Happy Thanksgiving!

2 thoughts on “George Washington, Race, Greatness, and Me (and You)

  1. Nathan Williams

    This is wonderful, thank you. I’m wrestling with exactly the same question of how to sort out reality, and “and” may be my ticket.

    I imagine that and” shouldn’t require capitulating to the accuracy of the other person’s viewpoint. With the perspective of history, we can say things like “George Washington was…” In real-time, it seems that all we can say is, “I see…” or “you see…” I see X and you see Y. The mutual reality, whatever it is, has to account for both perspectives, even though one or both may be far from the mark.

    Also appreciate the turn to polarity management. I heard a wise presenter who said that the problem with US policy on Israel-Palestine is that we seem to think of it as a problem that can be solved, rather than an issue that can only be managed.

    Reply
    1. MaryAnn McKibben Dana Post author

      Thank you, that’s well said about capitulation. As I work on the “And” section of my book, I’m struggling with how to talk about the impact of protest and resistance movements, especially in terms of marginalized or oppressed populations. Saying “and” doesn’t mean going along with the powers that seek to oppress. So how does resistance fit into an overall framework of improv? Still working that out.

      Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *