In the musical 1776, an utterly fantastic romp through the writing and adoption of the Declaration of Independence, there is a moment when John Adams has become discouraged about the progress of his cause, and looks to his wife, Abigail, present only through letters and their mutual imagination, for reassurance and support. She reminds him of what he once told her about commitment, and this prompts him to sing one of the most exciting songs ever about his doubts and hope and struggle, which includes the following lines:
For I have crossed the Rubicon,
Let the bridge be burned behind me,
Come what may, come what may,
Bear in mind that he, in every version I have heard, shouts commitment at the top of his lungs. It is extremely exciting and makes me want to commit to lots of things immediately!
Well, I can’t really do it justice. But the point is that this song is one of my favorites, because of its incredible passion and intensity, and because it takes place at a point when John Adams has no idea what is going to happen to his dream of independence—and at a point when we, in the audience, have just been reminded of the dramatic failure and moral bankruptcy of much of what The United States of America have claimed and at times wished to stand for, courtesy of a starkly disturbing song about the slave trade.
Now, I am not trying to form a new country at the moment, but I do understand the feeling. This summer I have been (with a rather spectacular lack of success) to make United States history comprehensible and interesting to a seventh grader. This has led me to learn a bit more about it myself, in a variety of ways, but especially with A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn. His express purpose in the book is to lend his historian’s bias (which he acknowledges frankly is impossible to avoid) to those who have often been silenced, obscured, or obliterated.One of my strongest reactions to this and other similar readings has been deep recognition. Like the feeling that a deep bass drum makes inside your stomach. Boom. So that’s why things are this way. It’s not a random quirk of my experience, or an unusual personal failing, that I have known and associated mostly with people of my own race and similar (or higher) economic status. The simmer of anger inside that boils over whenever I hear about the privations of extremely rich people in this economic crisis, or when politicians give long orations about the needs of the middle class as though the poor do not exist or are simply to be ignored as forever deprived and deprivable, is not sourceless. The feeling that things are wrong, that they are not what I was told—it turns out all of this has basis and source in historical experience.
But, like John Adams in the musical, I have doubts and fears about how to proceed. Everywhere, I encounter exhortations to see—it is one of the only things I have actually felt on my heart as a holy command, and, not incidentally, is a favorite theme of my dad—but as I begin to see, I do not always like the view. Especially of myself. I am currently rather insulated, you see. I am afraid of having too little money, because I don’t want to suffer, and I am afraid of having too much, because I don’t know how to use it ethically. I am afraid of really fighting for racial and economic justice because I know my own racism and classism will be starkly exposed. Others will see me, in my broken condition.
I’m just telling you—I don’t have an answer for all this. But I feel poised on the edge of something, and I’m kinda hoping that I’m about to tip over. I’m praying for COMMITMENT, and I’m scared as hell of what it will do to me. I think maybe some of you might feel the same, so… consider this an invitation. If you wanna hold hands and jump, here’s mine—
Rebecca Fullan has loved 1776 since 5th grade, and thinks it is infinitely productive and curative of political pomp to watch historical heroes sing and dance about sexual combustibility and playing the violin. She also thinks Rebecca Curtin will concur.