NDLC feelings, as Hamilton feelings

Well. So. Some administrators said some things today that I should probably try to write about so as to not internalize it unhealthily, but I feel so reluctant to do it that I wrote up this post that I’ve been procrastinating on instead.

This is the Hamilton post that none of you asked for, and you are getting anyway. For context, I wrote the original on my flight back from the National Diversity in Libraries Conference. And in many ways, this is actually my reflection on NDLC, but sometimes, when you feel vulnerable, it’s easier to speak through metaphors or analogies.

One of my favorite themes in Hamilton is the balance and tension between patience and impatience in collaborative enterprises, and if that sounds a little familiar to you, it might be because there was a #critlib chat on this topic in library/social justice work awhile ago. Among other things, the chat brought up the idea that “patience,” usually touted as a strategic strength, can also have the effect of doing little more than reinforcing the status quo. In Hamilton the character Alexander Hamilton embodies impatience, exhibiting a restless drive throughout much of the musical, and the character  Aaron Burr embodies patience, exhibiting an almost-military-seeming capacity to suppress action right up until he finds an advantageous moment. They display both the best and the worst of these respective approaches to career and life. Hamilton’s career rises incredibly quickly, and he persuades countless people over to his perspectives by sheer volume of passionate writing, writing that pours out of him “like he’s running out of time.” But he also makes enough enemies that he is shut out of the Presidency, and history shows us that the person that this character was based on has, until this century, been as effectively un-written from history as his political opponents could manage after his death. Burr, by contrast, has a philosophy of waiting things out. In his political career, he waits to see “which way the wind will blow,” and he reframes his inaction during critical moments from “standing still,” to “lying in wait.” He rises to power in his own way, becoming a Senator and rubbing shoulders with many future Presidents. But then again, he also gets shut out of the Presidency by Hamilton, who kinda irrefutably points out that Burr is all ambition with no substantive values. And history also shows us that the person this character is based on is generally two-dimensionalized, and he’s known mostly for that one little murderous crime of passion. (Did HIS dad argue that he shouldn’t be put in prison for a violent crime because moments of misjudgment shouldn’t be allowed to throw off the track of a seemingly bright career, I wonder?)

I see a similar balance and tension between patience and impatience in library work, in work in academia, and in social justice work. I was raised and taught to “wait for it”, to pick battles carefully (and thus, to doubt the significance of all potential battlegrounds), and to prioritize strategy over tactics. That said, I was probably extra-taught these things because I was an incredibly impatient kid; I almost didn’t learn to read because I thought that the early-reader books available when I was 6-7 were not worth my time, and it was faster and usually less of an insult to my intelligence to just talk to people. In a lot of ways, the tensions between choosing patience or impatience is actually choosing between my gut/nature and my education. When I think about whether to be blunt or diplomatic with my admin about problematic aspects of and problematic situations in my residency program, when I think about language to use with white allies, when I think about whether or not to call out laziness in some Asian American social justice work (I’m Asian American btw), when I think about establishing consensus in committee work, this is always my challenge. Do I wait for my moment at the risk of never acting, like Aaron Burr, or do I say my piece/do my action and to hell with the half-assed allies I lose, like Alexander Hamilton? For the moment, I’m experimenting with letting my Hamilton out a little more; I’m dealing with a very deeply entrenched status quo in my workplace, my profession, and my country, and generations before me have tried patience for long enough. And as a self-care measure, I’d really like to let myself have the opinions that I have, unapologetically, more often.

NDLC was absolutely rife with discussions that revolved around the patience/impatience balance and tension. There were a lot of folks having vigorous discussions about the issues behind diversity-in-the-workplace initiatives, and a lot of folks talking in-depth about their public-facing work and its short- and long-term ramifications. Sometimes, the talks and discussions delved deep, and sometimes, they were kinda like inspiration porn. In the deep-delving conversations, there was a sense that we all wanted to get out and do all the things NOW. In the inspiration-yay talks, there was sometimes a sense that some folks in the room were impatient to delve deep, but reined in because too many people still needed to talk about basic stuff like the general importance of critical information literacy. Sometimes, there were amazing talks given by POC and LGBTQ that got jaw-dropping questions/comments from the audience that were either full-on white/cis/het fragility or else  demands to be spoon-fed the ingredients to assuage their white/cis/het guilt (“Tell me what to say/do! Teach me about your oppression!”). One person actually asked a presenting resident librarian, “So you mentioned code-switching to conform to norms of professionalism; that sounds hard, what can we do to help you stop having to do it?” I  almost said, “Try not to be a douchebag” aloud from my place in the audience, but I chose patience instead. Sometimes, the informal conversations were folks of marginalized backgrounds sharing safe space, holding space for each other, expressing sympathy for impatience. Sometimes the informal conversations involved a lot of emotional labor to try to meet other people where they were, over and over, and that took up a lot more of my capacity for patience than I thought it would.

But I said this was a post about Hamilton, so let’s go back to that. Like so many things in my life, I loved Hamilton unreservedly for awhile, and, after some thought, I now think of it as a bit of a problematic fave. (Is there any such thing as a non-problematic fave, really?) It feeds pieces of me that have starved for longer than I have existed. But then, there are other pieces of me that instinctively reach up to be fed when I listen to it, and remain empty. Like, the white-taught feminist part of me (“There are so many [women] to deflower?” Is that supposed to be funny? Is that really ever just a joke?). The intersectional feminist part of me (Will there *ever* be a sympathetic WoC character who isn’t forced into the “strong/tough/withstands it all” WoC stereotype or the “magic lady bits” WoC stereotype?). Even the piece of me that loves the central aspect of the show (placing people of color in central roles of known history as a way to frame our present realities) sorta comes up a little short. Lyra Monteiro made an interesting point that the casting of Black people as Founding Fathers has an effect of actually erasing Black people’s narratives of the time period; in suspending disbelief regarding the race of the Founding Fathers, the audience sees a stage full of Black people and may not realize that there are actually no Black characters in the story (except Sally Hemings, yikes), even though there were definitely Black people in the real-life version.  Hamilton also has fans who sometimes come up with ideas that I find… difficult to identify with. For example, I love Star Wars, but I feel that the Star Wars parody of Hamilton’s opening number with a white cast kind of reads like denial of white privilege, particularly as applies to separating white privilege vs. socioeconomic privilege (“Luke the son of Anakin,” poor desert farmer, as Alexander Hamilton). Similarly, I love the weeping angels from Doctor Who, but I don’t particularly find the meme paralleling what they do and what Aaron Burr does very diverting, when Aaron Burr is singing to us about is a central conflict in human experience, whereas the weeping angels seem to have their power mostly to allow the Doctor Who directors to experiment with a camera-as-invisible-participant conceit.

NDLC gave me some of those feelings also. The mere fact that it existed, that it happened feeds a piece of my professional core that has been extremely underfed for some time. It was so amazing to be at a library conference where at least half of the attendees were people of color, the code of conduct appeared in the front of the program rather than the back, and there were codes in place to facilitate respecting individual privacy privileges in  photos of the event. There were also some pieces of my professional self that remained unfed at NDLC. For example, I went to more than one talk about multilingual collections in academic libraries as a service for international and ESL students, something I’ve had some hangups about ever since I was asked to select Chinese-language electronic resources way back when. The talks didn’t cover measures to ensure that those collections really constituted language justice, or about supplementing those collections with research services. It really bugs me when librarians prate about “serving” international students with materials in non-English languages, when we don’t know that it is necessarily international students we are reaching, and we don’t teach about how to find those sources and cite them in English-language research. And, as is normal, there were also some folks at the conference whose ideas I found difficult to swallow. No, you are not trapping me into giving examples on this one. All told, I’m glad in my guts that I got to go to NDLC, and if any person who may not wholly get it asks, all I will say is that it was amazing. You, my readers, I hope, understand that it was a little more complicated than that, and that it will all take a long time to process. I met a lot of truly amazing people. And I feel I can congratulate myself for having successfully navigated a very social conference despite some of ye olde depression symptoms having been on the rise for about 3 weeks.


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