If buttercups buzz’d after the bee,
If boats were on land, churches on sea,
If ponies rode men and if grass ate the cows,
And cats should be chased into holes by the mouse,
If the mamas sold their babies
To the gypsies for half a crown;
If summer were spring and the other way round,
Then all the world would be upside down.
— “The World Turned Upside Down,” John Renfro Davis
History is a wave we are riding, hanging on tight in our dinghys and canoes, hoping amid rough seas not to be tossed overboard, eager in calmer waters to look ahead, to know when the next storm is coming.
A storm is a kind of convulsion, one of those attacks that comes and seizes the body and wrests it from the mind and says do this, now do that and I will release you when I am finished. Thunder approaches and the body twitches and lightning forks and we can only ride the shifting paroxysm.
If we are brave, we keep our eyes open. Even amid the storm we stare into its faraway unknowable parts and stare it down. You may take my body but I am watching and remembering and preparing and ready. But keeping our eyes open amid the storm of history, the convulsive storm of advancing years, the spasms of progress requires a bravery not everyone can muster.
For many, it is easier to squint or shut our eyes entirely and mutter our own mantras until, at last, we feel a breath of calm. But for those, when eyes widen again and blink furiously into the light of a new day, the world turned upside down is an unfamiliar and frightening place. They have stuck their courage to the sticking post and they remain back where they started, where things are expected and known – but this new, upside-down world has moved on and left them behind.
That is when the screaming starts.
History’s wave doesn’t wait for when we are ready. It may provide warning, but few of us are versed in the reading of those maps – and fewer of us have time to become cartographers of the oceans of change. But history does not care. It comes and it takes us and whether we are pitched fore or aft makes little difference.
Horrific things happened this weekend in Florida. A singer was shot following her concert. Then 50 people were shot in a club. The first reaction is: I will say what needs saying, I will offer the empty phrases because I have none of my own, I will close my eyes and ride out this storm because it is not my scow, it is not my kayak.
Yet it is.
Meanwhile, the band played on a thousand miles north, as the Tony Awards paid homage to the victims and a musical called Hamilton won 11 of the 16 nominations it had. Its creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda created a minor miracle with his latest stage success (let’s not forget how his In the Heights was a wonder of its own time): a perfect blending of a historical hero in Alexander Hamilton with the music of the late 20th Century and a cast of people whose race would have excluded them from participating in the actual historical events portrayed in the musical.
That night, another musical, The Color Purple helped the Tonys reach a historical milestone of its own – and because of what happened in Florida, that milestone could only end up as a closing sentence in a story I wrote about the Tonys the next day: Namely that for the first time, all four musical acting awards went to people of color. On Broadway – a place which until very recently was considered the whitest of all possible white entertainment, on a boulevard even referred to as “The Great White Way.”
These things may not seem related. They are, though: They are all part of the larger boat we are all in, the one whose stem is so far from its stern we cannot reach the end of it. It is the boat we are all floating in and the one which is convulsed in another storm for the history books.
— TODAY (@TODAYshow) June 13, 2016
Hamilton comes along at a surly time in American history. We are at a stage where we no longer trust our captains, where we believe everything below decks is made of barnacled, rotting wood. Where we have two people running for the highest office in the land – one Hamilton himself never achieved – one of whom will help steer the course for our country’s future as the world slowly turns upside down. And while we may have reasons not to trust either of them, only one is making a case for closing his eyes and holding on to that sticking post for dear life.
This is part of his appeal for some Americans. To many, the world has been upending for some time. The things that were familiar and the ways they once could live and the very definitions of the words they used to use have changed. In some ways this is simply the way of the world: Insistence on staying in place leads to stagnation, decay. Things cannot be as they always were, however much some may want them to be. History does not allow it. We can only go where the tides of history lead us and find a way to reshape the way we think of things and the way we accept the world.
To do otherwise is to open your eyes when the storm abates and find yourself still stuck, wondering where everyone went and why you are surrounded by mud and abandoned things. Why you yourself are an abandoned thing.
Meanwhile, as those who have become used to the world in its non-upside-down position realign our ways of thinking and behaving, there are those who have grown up as part of the change, who know little else but the bucking of the waves and the drag of the current and the sudden, awful washing overboard. They are prepared for the storm because they are made of storm-stuff and have always had their sea legs beneath them.
They are those behind Hamilton. They are they ones whose visit to find community in a Florida club made them targets. And the message they are sending is that they are the latest of history’s tsunamis: We are here and there are more of us than ever now and we are prepared. They know that there is a time to struggle and a time to ride with the journey and they know that truly, what those who insist on staying still want really won’t matter much longer – not exclusively. They know that it is time to widen all boats and make room for a world that’s larger and more colorful and more futuristic than we might ever have imagined.
They also know that those who choose to come on that journey are officially fine to be left behind. Relics and outdated, broken things only weigh down the journey for all.
In “Yorktown,” the song from Hamilton performed on Sunday’s Tony Awards, the cast sang some words from an English tune that (reportedly) was played when General Charles Cornwallis surrendered to General George Washington. They crib at least one line from that English tune, noting “the world turned upside down.” In the musical, it is a joyous, exultant fact, and hearing it sung as such it’s hard not to feel patriotic American heartstrings stir. We escaped the British rule. We won the day. We began the experiment. We began to build our own historical boats.
We are still on them, sailing into tomorrow, eyes open. Remember, the world is round. It is always, somewhere, upside-down.
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