Coates, Hamilton and the Prophetic Imagination
(AKA, thesis idea, free to a good home) If you have spent any engaging with me about the things I am crazy into at present, you may have found yourself subject to a barrage of enthuasiasm for (1) the writing of Ta-Nehisi Coates (a fairly long-running phenomenon in my world), (2) the musical Hamilton, which crashed in to my life in October and won’t let me go, and (3) Walter Brueggemann’s writing on prophecy and the prophetic imagination.
And over the past couple of weeks I have been musing on the way that these three things all come together, and I think this. I think that you could argue that Ta-Nehisi Coates’ writing in his self-described ‘blue period’ and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s writing in Hamilton together have the potential to be the two parts of Brueggemann’s prophetic imagination for America on race.
It goes like this.
Brueggemann talks about the twin function of the prophetic voice:
Firstly, it needs to crack open the dominant narrative of a culture or society to expose the truths that it supresses and express the pain of those who suffer becaue of this suppression. It needs to help people to break out of the hopelessness and despair that convince them that nothing can or will change.
Secondly , it needs to offer hope of a new, better future, and express the things that the supressed yearn to see in that future.
This is how it works, according to Brueggemann:
‘The task of prophetic ministry is to nurture, nourish and evolve a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us.’ … [in Christian terms] ‘It consists of offering an alternative perception of reality and in letting people see their own history in the light of God’s freedom and his will for justice… Prophetic witness is a mind-set. It is a countercultural consciousness of how the community of faith sees all things.’
I think we have Coates, in a number of his essays and in his great book Between the World and Me, splitting open the narrative of racial progress in America and expressing the pain of the legacy of racism and of the tendency to downplay the continuing reality of racism.
I think that a writer wedded to “hope” is ultimately divorced from “truth.” – ‘Hope and the Historian’
And I think we have Miranda, putting his vision of a future America on stage in an account of America’s origins, where the only white anglo-saxon lead is the King of England. Hamilton is a could-be-should-be picture of what America, if you read its foundational rhetoric dead straight, could and should have always been.
Coates is bleak about the way things are - and Miranda is dreaming - without being naive - about the way things could be.
Brueggemann also writes about the importance of being creative to the prophetic voice - of art and poetry, and of language, with the prophet speaking expressing both despair and hope in the language of their own community. Which is exactly what Coates and Miranda do in their writing and composition. Their work is both very very good, and incredibly powerful in the way that it does this - and it is striking a chord.
This is my idea, and I present it here for someone to take and run with, because even if I had the time, knowledge, or capacity to write the book of this, I don’t think it would be mine to write. Just please let me know if you do - I’d love to read it.