Tag Archive: college

White Men Can’t Rap

It’s long been an adage that, aside from a few examples like Larry Bird, white men can’t jump to the heights of superstardom in basketball. In much the same way, aside from Eminem and just a few others, white men can’t rap.

Perhaps for this reason, most of the lead actors of the rap musical Hamilton are African-American. The lead actor, playing Alexander Hamilton in his prime, is the show’s creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda, a Hispanic man, and his understudy is Javier Munoz, but the vast majority of the cast is black. Standouts include Daveed Digg’s as Thomas Jefferson, and Christopher Jackson as George Washington. There’s an angry undertone to the rap rants that serve the story exceedingly well, particularly as the lyricist recreates the frustrations of the founding fathers as well as their strivings to create a better life for themselves.

The most interesting aspect of the colorblind casting is that, eventually, I stopped seeing the actor’s race, and truly believed that what he or she embodied was the spirit of the times, turbulent and tumultuous though they were. I felt transported to the Revolutionary War era, and it was eerie how the anger present in 1776 is still part of our national dialogue.

In typical rap style, not a word was wasted, and every utterance moved the story forward, tracing the meteoric rise of Alexander Hamilton to his abrupt fall from the national scene with the disclosure of a sexual indiscretions with a married woman, and his eventual death in a dual with future vice president Aaron Burr at the tender age of 47. History came alive again in a new and vibrant way.

Interestingly, King George is played with deft comedic touch by the white actor Jonathan Groff. He bumbles along from prognostication to wildly errant pronouncement in songs such as the rueful tune, “You’ll Be Back.”

In this way, the white man served as comic relief from the deadly seriousness of the antagonism between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton.

I was moved by this story in a way few stories have moved me before when I saw it just after it opened on Broadway, and I hope my friends get to see this important story in Chicago and with a national touring company. If high school students could only learn history this way, we would be far better off as a society.


The Light Behind Their Eyes

I just spent a wonderful afternoon with a former teacher, I don’t dare call her my “old” teacher (though 78, she’s hardly what I would call old–let’s face it, there are young old people and old old people). Regardless whether she is old or young or somewhere in-between, we reminisced about those mostly halcyon undergraduate college years I spent at a small liberal arts university in Minnesota. I worked for her as a writing lab tutor for three years, and I was the first student she hired who was a sophomore. Before that they had all been juniors and seniors, so I felt privileged to work under her tutelage for a full three years.

One time a tutor once asked her, our fearless Writing Lab Director, how she decided who to hire to work for her, and she answered, “I look for the light behind their eyes.”

Now obviously our parents have a great impact on who we are and who we become, and their importance can’t be underestimated, but I would state categorically, without reservation that it is teachers and mentors like her who do so much to put the light in our eyes in the first place. I was the first person who had ever come out to her as a gay man, and she taught me that it is okay to be who I am, that God doesn’t make mistakes (this was before that catchphrase was in vogue). Since then quite a few other young men have told her that they are gay, and she is always accepting. I guess people have a way of sensing when someone has a gentle, kind spirit. More than just a kind spirit, though, she is a guiding spirit, and a guiding force in so many young people’s lives.

Just because I was struggling with issues of sexual identity, however, didn’t excuse me from educational obligations, and I knew better than to test her, much less turn in a late paper! She taught me deadlines and responsibilities. She also taught me how to lead others. She may as well have invented the term, “kill ’em with kindness.”

She instilled in her tutors that they must be respectful of others’ work, but also work to help students discover ways to improve their own papers rather than having us simply correct their mistakes. She suggested (early and often) that we tutors pick out the more glaring shortcomings in the student papers before us, and engage in what she termed, Socratic Questioning. This meant we would ask “leading questions,” questions designed of course to get a student to think about her paper critically, but also to guide her in a specific direction. We might have had an agenda, but we needed to disguise it. In doing this, we ourselves learned to write as we taught others how to write. I’ve heard the best way to learn something is to teach it to others, and that is what we did.

Before I had her as my Writing Lab Director, I had her as a teacher for my Honors’ Symposium. I think, in fact, she would prefer the term teacher over professor. And as our teacher, she taught us what the other great teachers who had come before her had taught the generations, with special emphasis on Aristotle and Ethics. At St. John’s University and the College of St. Benedict, we learned to pick apart and consider what is the nature and origin of good and evil, what makes an ethical man, and what makes an opportunist. She never had a specifically Catholic agenda; she merely wanted us to make a decision, in a million little ways, to do our best to live a good life.

There’s a saying in Judaism that you are only truly dead when no one longer remembers you, and in this respect, certainly, Betty will live on for generations. Her impact has been that profound, and her lessons will most certainly be taught by her students to their friends, co-workers, children, and extended family, both orally and through example. The best way to live a good life is by example, and Betty, with quite grace, showed me “the good life.”

The Big Hush-Hush

Although I’m gay, I have been experiencing great, I repeat, great difficulty creating interesting fictional gay characters. Right now I’m working on a novel where my main character’s best friend, a gay white man named Dewey, is in a relationship with a black man named Prophet who was formerly married to a woman. It sounds just a tad bit like the storyline to a soap opera, don’t you agree? Therein lies my problem. Dewey and Prophet are supporting characters, not even part of the main storyline, but they’ve proven the most difficult to render realistically on the page. I’ve written many scenes between Althea and her husband, then ex-husband, but trying to find the right tone for Dewey and Prophet, striking the right balance in developing a plausible gay characters, has eluded me.

I’m learning that capturing the truth on the page can be difficult, rude, cumbersome even. I think I may unconsciously be afraid to offend my parents by what I write. They haven’t really read much of my work, but when I recently described the plot of my novel to my dad, he responded by asking whether I really needed a gay character at all.

It’s frustrating when heterosexual authors like John Irving, famous for The World According to Garp as well as his most recent novel In One Person, and recent phenom Chad Harbach (The Art of Fielding), have free rein in creating captivating characters who have a different sense of their sexual orientation whereas I’m stymied for writing about something too close to home, as if I were writing an autobiography instead of fiction.

It’s an interesting conundrum to be so inhibited because when I first came out of the closet, way back as an undergrad at the conservative Minnesota liberal arts school St. John’s University, one of my all-time favorite teachers Betty will assure you that I came out with a vengeance. What can I say? It was the late-80’s, frosted hair and ear rings were de rigeur for a certain subset. I won’t say that they were ever truly popular, at least not so in Minnesota, but it certainly made a man stand out.

As I’ve gotten older, however, I’ve learned to be more polite, to create less waves and avoid controversial topics. One example: my dad is convinced that global warming is a fallacy and the leftist leaning politicians propagate alarmist prognostications to advance their own careers. We don’t discuss Al Gore winning the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to prevent climate change. All my dad will say in regard to Gore is that those leftist Hollywood types made him their darling, and somehow won the prize on his behalf.

I truly hope I don’t have to wait for my father to die in order to write a publishable novel. I don’t want to spend so much energy worrying what other’s think about my abilities and talents. Charles Bukowski once famously said that when you get the shit kicked out of you over, and over, and over, you have a tendency to say what you think. I’m just not sure what it will take to get me to write my truth as well as live it.