The year’s not half over, but the musical question of 2016 has to be “Who tells your story?” You don’t need a theater critic to work out the symbolism of the song sung at the close of the Broadway blockbuster “Hamilton” by the mostly black and Latino cast. The American story is always being revised and retold by those who are the latest version of America.
The poet Adrienne Rich once noted that when a teacher or historian describes a world that doesn’t include you it is “as if you looked into a mirror and saw nothing.” It takes “strength of soul,” she wrote, to stand up and demand to be seen and heard. The Founding Fathers – the white male Revolutionaries of 1776 – risked lives, fortunes, and sacred honor to create a new nation. But the first version of their nation was a landowning, slave-owning patriarchy. African-Americans, women, native Americans, even poor whites could scarcely see themselves in that mirror. Successive waves of immigrants were disposable labor. People whose beliefs and orientations did not conform to those of the majority were ignored if not persecuted.
Decade by decade, though, the nation has become more inclusive as once-marginalized Americans have learned to work the levers of democracy. The surnames, genders, complexions, identities, orientations, and beliefs of today’s America might be unrecognizable to the authors of America 1.0, but freedom is as valuable to a 21st-century rap impresario as it was to an 18th-century Revolutionary in knee-britches.
Diversity and inclusion are projects that will never be completed. But as the United States shifts from majority white to majority minority – and as people with identities and interests that once were forced underground demand to be seen and heard – diversity and inclusion become not just good ideas but the core challenges of the American experience. If whites, blacks, Muslims, gays, Christian conservatives, and 10,000 other groups and 319 million people can work out how to live together, that would be a powerful example to a world of 7 billion rived by ethnic, religious, tribal, and ideological rivalries.
Now, for generations, people, communities, companies, and organizations have worked at supporting diversity, if for no other reason than self-interest. That’s changing. In a Monitor cover story (click here), Lee Lawrence focuses on colleges at the forefront of efforts to go beyond diversity and foster inclusiveness, to ensure that minorities are fully and robustly incorporated into a learning community and that community is altered as a result.
That is never a painless process. There is a long road ahead. But a long road has been traveled. A century and a half ago, Walt Whitman celebrated his version of America: “Of every hue and caste am I, of every rank and religion...,” he wrote, “I resist any thing better than my own diversity.” Imagine what he would have made of the “Hamilton” hip-hop retelling of the life and times of a Founding Father.
Well, he probably would have understood: He would have heard America singing.