Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story

I love Hamilton. I love it so much that I refused to listen to the soundtrack for months because I knew that I would love it too much and it would be a Problem. And it is. But here’s the thing about me: I’m like the subject of that Onion article “Graduate Student Deconstructs Takeout Menu,” and if I love something, you can bet that I’m going to deconstruct it. Even if I don’t want to. And Hamilton is no exception to that.

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Cast of Hamilton. Left to right: Daveed Diggs (Marquis de Lafayette/Thomas Jefferson), Okieriete Onaodowan (Hercules Mulligan/James Madison), Christopher
Jackson (George Washington), Leslie Odom, Jr. (Aaron Burr), Jasmine Cephas Jones (Peggy Schuyler/Maria Reynolds), Renée Elise Goldsberry (Angelica Schuyler Church),
Phillipa Soo (Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton), and Anthony Ramos (John Laurens/Philip Hamilton). Photograph by Annie Leibovitz, as seen in the July 2015 issue of Vogue.

Hamilton: an American Musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda is a fascinating and contradictory piece of theater. It takes a foundational American myth starring white men, and re-centers it on people of color while, at the same time, unquestioningly perpetuating that same myth while erasing women and slaves from the narrative. And that is powerful, because Hamilton, by virtue of its immense popularity and growing cultural status, is a space of memory construction.

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Lin-Manuel Miranda (Alexander Hamilton) and Jonathan Groff (King George III). Photograph by Annie Leibovitz, as seen in the July 2015 issue of Vogue.

Memory is an entity constructed by screenwriters, directors, journalists, the executives who control broadcast media, museum professionals, the politicians who set history curricula, the corporate bodies who decide what will be on standardized tests, novelists, Texas school boards, tv writers, and yes, playwrights and composers. History is the discipline which—through the science of reading, understanding, and questioning sources and the mastery of one or more historical fields—seeks to determine what happened, why it happened, how various groups interacted with the thing that happened, how the thing impacted groups, etc.

The institutions and individuals with the power to shape memory have very little interest in actual history; actual history is too complicated and too damning to fit neatly into a desirable, marketable narrative. And the characters of Hamilton, funnily enough, seem to be all too aware of that reality.

Aaron Burr laments that he will be remembered as a villain (there is an entire genre of sci-fi/historical fiction featuring Burr doing stuff like raising Aztec deities, stealing the Constitution from parallel worlds, and I think there’s something involving Napoleon and aliens but I refuse to research that one further without a drink in hand); Alexander Hamilton frets over his legacy; George Washington understands that he is at the mercy of memory; and one of Eliza’s recurring musical themes is centered on the concept of narrative.

In “That Would be Enough,” Eliza sings “oh let me be a part of the narrative/in the story they will write someday;” in “Burn” she sings “I’m erasing myself from the narrative/let future historians wonder how Eliza reacted.” Perhaps my favorite part is Eliza’s finale solo in “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story.” She sings “I put myself back in the narrative/…I interview every soldier who fought by your side/I try to make sense of your thousands of pages of writings/…I rely on Angelica/While she’s alive/We tell your story/…I raise funds in D.C. for the Washington Monument/…I speak out against slavery.” In all of these songs, and especially the finale solo, she is singing about her determination to exert her own agency over how she is remembered.

That solo (begins at :41), while it does, of course, have a strong narrative purpose, speaks to the long history of female labor performed to commemorate the actions and careers of American men. Whether it be raising funds for monuments, providing medical care to soldiers, starting historical societies, protesting for the rights of the men in their lives, or taking oral histories, American women have long been instrumental shaping American collective memory; the irony is that their labor is left out of that memory. In Eliza’s solo, this labor is re-centered.

This history of forgotten female labor isn’t the only larger historiographic reality Hamilton speaks to.

In Writing History in the Global Era, historian Lynn Hunt writes:

Historians have only recently discovered globalization. Their neglect of the topic hardly makes them unique, however, as interest in globalization, as shown by the increasing use of the word in titles of books, dates only to the 1990s. It hardly appears at all in titles before the late 1980s, but a sharp increase occurs during the 1990s and continues into the 2000s.

Before globalization became a force in historians’ interpretation of early American history, it was much more the trend to portray the New Nation as an isolated country hanging off the eastern coast of the New World.

Indeed, Hunt continues:

Historians of the early United States…always drew attention to the links between American and British history, but now they also link the United States to the Caribbean islands with their slave economies and to the role of the French, Spanish, and Dutch, who also colonized parts of the North American mainland.

Hamilton takes place in a highly globalized world, reflecting both the twenty-first century international environment and contemporary historiographic trends. From the very beginning, we see the links between the North American colonies and the Caribbean colonies as Hamilton travels from St. Croix to New York. Angelica makes regular trips between London and New York. Lafayette jumps on a ship to France in the middle of the Revolution to acquire guns and ships—and other sundry supplies—and makes a quick return.

Further, despite the prohibitive cost and availability of tickets, Hamilton is hosting New York City Public School classes, which are using Hamilton as an educational tool. The New York City Public Schools are 39.6% Hispanic, 31.6% black, and 14% Asian*. According to the New York Immigration Coalition, nearly half of all New York City Public School students speak a language other than English at home; while this figure does not necessarily imply that nearly half of all NYCPS students are immigrants, it does imply that they come from families which arrived in the United States within the last one or two generations.

Hamilton openly and passionately addresses xenophobia, and the positive impact of immigrants on the United States (“Immigrants, we get the job done”)—indeed, one of Hamilton’s defining traits in the eyes of his supporters and adversaries is his status as an immigrant—and features non-white actors in every role (except for that of King George III). Thus, Hamilton allows students to see themselves as the protagonists of a story they are typically tacked to the margins of, if included at all. Seeing themselves and reflected in this foundational story allows these students to become much more engaged in learning about this vital period of American History.

And indeed, the show’s stars have discussed the importance of this representation.

Daveed Diggs (Marquis de Lafayette/Thomas Jefferson) said to New Yorker reporter Rebecca Mead that “It feels important, because it allows us to see ourselves as part of history that we always thought we were excluded from…Rap is the voice of the people of our generation, and of people of color, and just the fact that it exists in this piece, and is not commented upon, gives us a sense of ownership.”

Christopher Jackson (George Washington), said in the same piece that “The Broadway audience doesn’t like to be preached to. By having a multicultural cast, it gives us, as actors of color, the chance to provide an additional context just by our presence onstage.”

Phillipa Soo (Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton) said to Playbill writer Olivia Clement that “the best I’ve heard [at the stage door] is a lot of young Asian-American women coming up to me and saying thank you for representing Asian-American women.”

However, even as Hamilton reflects contemporary historiographic trends, illuminates female commemorative labor, and re-centers those typically left out of the narrative, it ironically excludes the groups Americans work the hardest to forget: enslaved men and women.

Now, Hamilton doesn’t ignore the issue; it arises in multiple songs, and many characters speak of their desire to abolish slavery—especially John Laurens and Eliza in her finale solo. But there are two central persons whose lives and experiences are largely erased within Miranda’s narrative: Sally Hemings, Thomas Jefferson’s slave; and Cato, Hercules Mulligan’s slave.

In the Act 2 opener “What’d I Miss,” Thomas Jefferson has Sally Hemmings open a letter from George Washington (whose own status as a slave owner is barely alluded to), and sings “Sally dear be a lamb and open this.” Sally then performs a cheerfully choreographed spin and opens it.

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Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, as portrayed in Hamilton. Gif courtesy of http://wholivesdiestellsyourstory.tumblr.com,

There is no mention—despite the fact that Hamilton calls Jefferson out on his status as slave-owner in “Cabinet Battle #1″—of the fact she is his slave, and no mention of that fact that Jefferson, as we can now understand in our present historical context, was her rapist.

Meanwhile, the spy work Hercules Mulligan so epically raps about (beginning at 1:49 below) in “Yorktown” (”A tailor spyin on the British government/I take their measurements, information then I smuggle it/To my brothers’ revolutionary covenant/I’m runnin with the Sons of Liberty and I am lovin it”) could not have been accomplished without the unpaid, dangerous labor performed by his slave, known to us only as Cato.

Cato acted as a courier for Mulligan’s spy work, smuggling intelligence through British territory. When the British took New York City in 1778, British Provost Marshal William Cunningham suspected Mulligan of spy activities. He arrested and interrogated Cato, who refused to divulge any information. In 1779, Cato delivered intelligence to Alexander Hamilton, alerting him of the British plan to kidnap or kill George Washington. And that is really all we know about Cato**.

Also excluded from the narrative are the wives of some of the central characters, with the exception, of course, of Eliza. John Laurens, Hercules Mulligan, and Lafayette were all married when the action begins in 1776, yet their wives are never even alluded to.

John Laurens married Martha Manning in 1776. Hercules Mulligan married Elizabeth Sanders, the niece of a Royal Navy Admiral, in 1773. This union allowed him access to British officers, from whom he gathered valuable intelligence. The Marquis de Lafayette married Marie Adrienne Francois in 1774.

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Marie Adrienne Françoise de Noailles, Marquise de La Fayette. Image courtesy of Christie’s, by an unknown artist in the French School.

She supported his quest for the spread of liberty. When France declared war on Austria in 1792, he took command of the army at Metz. He was accused of treason upon his return to Paris, and fled to the Dutch Republic. On the way, the Prussians intercepted and arrested him. Adrienne, fresh from imprisonment during the Reign of Terror, traveled to Vienna to meet with Holy Roman Emperor Francis II to obtain permission to join her husband in prison. He allowed it, and they were released in 1797.

I understand that Hamilton is a work of historical fiction and, as such, must take creative liberty with fact in order to craft a compelling narrative and compelling characters. Further, I understand that it is a problem to assume that a production which re-centers people of color within a foundational narrative shaped by white supremacy is obligated to discuss slavery. However, historical fiction is a powerful vehicle of memory construction, and if Lin-Manuel Miranda did, indeed, set out to confront that memory, then I cannot ignore the exclusions detailed above.

Historical fiction allows complex human beings to be shaped into the protagonist or antagonist of ahistorical narrative; allows creators to construct historical figures into characters with whom people are intended to sympathize or reject while ignoring, or glossing over the parts of their historical persona which do not fit into the fictional one; it puts forth versions of historical figures to people who may never have reason to read a history book about that figure or their context. And that, whether I like it or not, is worthy of concern.

And I have all of these concerns about Hamilton; specifically, about how it contributes to what I refer to as the “cult of the Founding Fathers.” Americans hold these eighteenth century men…well it’s beyond a pedestal, some politicians and legal authorities base their decisions—decisions which directly affect the lives, health, and freedom of millions of people–on what those eighteenth century guys may have thought.

Hamilton doesn’t question the mythic aura surrounding these guys. It humanizes them, sure, and it certainly does something very powerful in casting them as men of color (as discussed above), but it doesn’t question the fundamentals of the mythos surrounding them, or the impact of that mythos on contemporary American politics and political rhetoric.

In 2007, Lin-Manuel Miranda picked up a copy of Ron Chernow’s 2004 biography of Alexander Hamilton at an airport bookstore. In this book, Chernow describes how Hamilton wrote a poem about his dead-end life as an impoverished orphan in St. Croix. The poem caught the attention of some very wealthy people who helped Alexander to get ahead in life and leave for New York.

In this part of Alexander Hamilton’s life, Lin-Manuel Miranda saw the ethos of hip-hop.“To literally write verse that gets you out of your circumstances that’s about how terrible your circumstances are,” said Miranda to Rolling Stone reporter Brian Hiatt, “I mean, that’s everyone from Jay Z and Marcy to Lil Wayne writing about Hurricane Katrina. As I was reading the book, all these hip-hop analogies couldn’t help but pop up.“

In April 2009, Miranda was invited to the White House to perform in a series of live performances centered on the “American Experience.” He performed the song telling the story of a young, orphaned, illegitimate boy who built himself up from nothing through sheer intelligence, writing skill, and determination.

That song is now the opening number of Hamilton.

The “American Experience” Miranda saw in the story of Alexander Hamilton was that of the American Dream. The American Dream is an idea, and like any idea, it has a history behind it. That idea is built on the legacy of ethnic cleansing, and functions as an unquestioned ideology used to silence and shame those who cannot—for any number of reasons I can’t tackle within the confines of this post—access the middle class lifestyle promised by that fantasy of meritocracy.

It is powerful that Miranda expressed the American Dream through a musical genre which is frequently marginalized, appropriated, and held to a content-driven double standard via actors who are part of the populations historically excluded from accessing that dream. However, Hamilton uncritically elevates the myth of the American Dream just as it does that of the Founding Fathers; it doesn’t challenge the narrative of the dream, it just skews the audience’s perception of who embodies that dream

Hamilton presents a vision of America which has no interest in overhauling the narrative, but is instead concerned with creating a space within that narrative where everyone, not just those who look like King George III, can succeed. It’s only a shame that Miranda couldn’t open that narrative up just a tiny bit further.

*These figures courtesy of the Hunter College School of Education.
**In 1785, Mulligan became one of the founding members of the New York Manumission Society. Thus, we can assume that he recognized Cato’s humanity and freed him from slavery, but even that is just a guess.

Why German Jewry did not Leave in 1933 Pt. 3: Unification, Emancipation, and Assimilation

“They bind our hands and then complain that we do not make use of them.” –Moses Mendelssohn

On July 19, 1870, Prussian chancellor Otto von Bismarck embarked on a successful scheme.

After the Austro-Prussian War of 1866, Prussia annexed 22 independent states in the north of Germany to form the North German Confederation. This act destabilized the European balance of power as it had stood since 1815, drawing opposition from Napoleon III of the Second French Empire. Prussia drew further French ire after expressing its desire to incorporate the southern German states of Baden, Wurttemberg, Bavaria, and Hess-Darmstadt into a unified, Prussian-dominated Germany.

French opposition demonstrated to Bismarck and other Prussian officials that a war with France was both inevitable in the quest for German unification, and necessary to the arousal of enough nationalist sentiment in the southern states to make them amenable to unification. Bismarck later stated that he “did not doubt that a Franco-German war must take place before the construction of a United Germany could be realized.” When war with France was declared, the southern states sided with Prussia.

The Franco-Prussian War (July 1870-May 1871) was a remarkably quick one. After a series of swift German victories, Prussian forces marched on Paris, capturing Napoleon III and an entire French army along the way. On January 19, 1871, German princes and senior military commanders gathered in Versailles to proclaim Prussian King Wilhelm I of the House of Hohenzollern the German Emperor.

With the unification of Germany, German Jews finally won what so many of them fought for in Revolutions of 1848: legal emancipation. Unfortunately, with German unification came a level of anti-Semitism not seen since the immediate post-Napoleonic years. It was in this wave of anti-Semitism that the concept of the Jews as an inherent, racial category began to gain currency.

In 1873, a global financial crisis hit Europe and North America. In Germany, the crisis was a result of post-war inflation, speculative investments, the end of French reparation payments, and rampant industrial speculation. Though the German economy recovered quickly in comparison to other parts of the world, German investors and members of the general public blamed German Jewry for their economic losses, claiming that Jewish speculators were prominent amongst those who benefited from the boom, and among those who contributed to the economic crash. In fact, Jewish industrialists had participated in the industrial speculation which led to the crash, but to take that and use it to blame the Jews for the entire financial crisis is akin to using the actions of Bernie Madoff to blame the Jews for the entire 2008 Recession (which some people did).

A boycott of Jewish businesses followed the crash, as did a revitalized hatred of the assimilated Jewish middle class. The intensity of this wave of anti-Semitism remained high through the 1870s (indeed, it was in 1879 that Wilhelm Marr coined the term “anti-Semitism” to refer to inherent racial characteristics which separated the Jewish nation from the German nation) until it gradually subsided over the course of the 1880s.

When I speak of anti-Semitism subsiding, what I refer to is loud, violent, overt hatred. The quieter, institutional anti-Semitism wasn’t gone; it was never gone. It existed in the most important institutions of the German Empire—in the military, the universities, the civil service, the imperial court, and high society—keeping German Jews from being able to break out of the roles assigned to them by non-Jewish society. For example, institutional anti-Semitism restricted Jews to primarily business-related occupations. In 1895, 56% of German Jews worked in commerce. In 1907 that number was only one percentage point lower.

Jewish concentration in business-oriented occupations allowed non-Jewish Germans to continue to cast Jews as money-grubbers unwilling to partake in “productive” (meaning physical) labor, even as social anti-Semitism barred Jewish occupational mobility. Ultimately, social anti-Semitism affected Jewish lives more immediately and intimately than any political party.

The anti-Semitic bubble burst with the economic recovery. By 1912 anti-Semitic political parties were as good as dead, and the concept of using racial politics as political stance had fallen out of vogue. Institutional and social anti-Semitism remained, but Jewish assimilation continued on. By the final decades of the nineteenth century, even the most observant of rural German Jews had relaxed some of their practices, such as ritual purity. By 1900, only about 15% of all German Jews could be considered Orthodox.

What held true after the Revolution of 1848 remained true after German unification: legal emancipation for the Jews of Germany was only half the battle.

Why German Jewry did not Leave in 1933 Pt. 1: The Enlightenment and Napoleon

“They bind our hands and then complain that we do not make use of them.” –Moses Mendelssohn

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, anti-Semitic violence in the German-speaking lands (there were over 300 at the time) was the exception, not the rule. However, when popular violence did erupt, it stemmed from long-held superstitions (such as blood libel), occupational immobility (money-lending was one of the few occupational niches Jews were allowed to inhabit as the Church forbade Christians from money-lending, leading non-Jewish society to cast Jews as greedy money-grubbers), and foundational Christian myths (“the Jews killed Jesus,” basically). It was not until much later that biological constructions of “Jewishness” as an inherent, racial state would come into play.

In this period, German Jewry existed in self-sustained communities. The German governments did not deal with individual Jews, but with the leaders of the Jewish community: rabbis, rabbinic judges, cantors, and teachers. These communal authorities were responsible for governing the individuals, which included levying taxes, maintaining social order, imposing legal recourse on offenders, and handling all litigation between Jews in accordance with Talmudic law. German Jews did not live in total isolation from Christian populations, often living among and coming into frequent contact with them through business dealings. However, the separation was enough that, when combined with the myths and stereotypes described above, it enabled non-Jewish German society to form deep-seated understandings of the Jew as the mysterious and predatory Other.

By 1780, the Jewish community structure began to lose ground to the allure of the Enlightenment. A series of Jewish reformers, the most prominent of whom was Moses Mendelssohn, began to argue that Judaism must adapt to and become part of German civil society as envisioned by Enlightenment thinkers. At the same time, liberal non-Jewish German thinkers began to argue for the emancipation of (the extension of equal rights to) German Jewry, hoping that it would lead to the dissolution of the Jewish communities, and eventual mass conversions to Christianity.

The first step to the achievement of these goals, on the part of both the Jewish and the non-Jewish thinkers, was to abolish the power of the Jewish communities. And this abolition came in the form of Napoleon Bonaparte.

The Napoleonic Wars swept through Europe between 1803 and 1815. In July, 1806, Napoleon began to bring portions of the Rhineland and West Germany under French control. On October 1, 1806, King Friedrich Wilhelm III of Prussia, angered by French interference in the Prussian sphere of influence, declared war on Napoleon. In less than two weeks, Napoleon emerged victorious.

During the years of Napoleonic rule in the German states, he and his subsidiary governments abolished the rabbinic courts, revoked the authority of the Jewish community, and emancipated the Jews of the German states, granting them the full rights extended to all inhabitants of French vassal states. He remained in control of the German states until the disastrous 1812 Russia campaign. In 1813, Prussia joined with Austria, Russia, the United Kingdom, Portugal, Sweden, Spain, and a number of other German states (the “Sixth Coalition”) to fight against Napoleon and French continental hegemony. In the War of the Sixth Coalition (1812-1814), the Coalition defeated France, and Napoleon went into exile.

Prussia regained most of its pre-1806 territory, and the other German states regained their independence after some reorganization. One of the first steps the German states took after winning independence was the repeal of some of the changes made under Napoleonic rule. German Jewish emancipation suffered severe setbacks, with several states annulling their Edicts of Emancipation and expelling their Jewish populations.

With the new spirit of German nationalism which took hold in the immediate post-Napoleonic years came a new type of anti-Jewish hatred, one which seamlessly blended religious hatred with anti-modern, anti-French, and anti-capitalist sentiments. For example, in August, 1819, widespread unrest resulting from unemployment and food shortages came together with the post-Napoleonic breed of anti-Semitism in a swell of violent anti-Jewish riots.

These riots, known as the “Hep! Hep! Riots,” broke out on the Bavarian city of Wurzburg. What began as a university riot quickly spread throughout the city. Mobs ran through the streets looting and demolishing Jewish homes and businesses while shouting “Hep! Hep! Jude verreck,” which translates to “Death to all Jews.” While the origins of “Hep! Hep!” are obscure, historians theorize that it was an acronym of the Crusader chant “Hierosolyma est perdita,” Latin for “Jerusalem is lost.” The riots swept through Bavarian towns and villages to central and southwest Germany.

However, the riots died down as quickly as they began, and relations between Jews and non-Jews calmed. Indeed, Jewish memoirists born in the 1820s compared the more tolerant and accepting atmosphere of their youths to the anti-Semitic atmosphere of the later decades of the nineteenth century.

Noor Inayat Khan: Sufi Princess and SOE Agent

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Noor Inayat Khan in her SOE uniform. Image courtesy of the Imperial War Museum.

Perhaps it was the color of her skin, her past work as a children’s book writer, or her calm, gentle demeanor nature which inclined Special Operations Executive (SOE) personnel to doubt Noor Inayat Khan’s (1914-1944) potential as an SOE agent. However, the resistance networks she single-handedly maintained and the German agents charged with her arrest would beg to differ.

The SOE was formed by British Minister of Economic Warfare, Hugh Dalton, on July 22, 1940. Its purpose was to conduct espionage and sabotage in Occupied Europe, and to provide aid to local resistance movements in occupied countries. SOE agents—coming from all walks of life, and having gone through a rigorous training process which included instruction on how to kill with your bare hands, how to derail trains, how to escape from handcuffs, and how to parachute—took Churchill’s order to “set Europe ablaze” to heart. They quickly set about destroying bridges needed for German supply lines, bombing the water plant needed to support the German atomic bomb program, and sending supply trains in the wrong direction.

Noor Inayat Khan’s path to the SOE began in Moscow. There, she was born on the first day of 1914 to Hazrat Inayat Khan and Ameena Begum. Her father, Hazrat Khan, was a musician, a teacher of Sufi Islam, founder of the Sufi Order of the West (now the Sufi Order International), and a descendant of Tipu Sultan, the last ruler of the Kingdom of Mysore in Southern India. Her mother, Ameena Begum (born Ora Baker), was an American woman who met Hazrat during his travels in the US. The family settled outside of Paris in 1920, where her father taught classes, held a summer school, and gave lectures. Hazrat Khan died in 1927, when Noor was thirteen years old.

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Khan posing with her mother. Image courtesy of the Noor Inayat Khan Memorial Trust.

As a young adult, Khan studied child psychology at the Sorbonne, and music at the Paris Conservatory. After completing her studies she wrote poetry, children’s stories, and became a regular contributor to children’s magazines and French radio. In 1939 she published a children’s book called Twenty Jataka Tales.

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Khan in her family’s home in France with her sitar. Image courtesy of the Noor Inayat Khan Memorial Trust.

Khan was deeply influenced by the Sufi teachings of her father, which centered on three tenets: that there is truth in every religion, that humanity is one and must rise above the distinctions created to divide it, and that the East and the West must be united for humanity to become one. These teachings of tolerance and understanding very much informed the course of her life after the outbreak of the Second World War.

She trained as a nurse with the French Red Cross as her children’s book was being published. However, her service with this organization was short lived as she fled to England with her family just before the French surrender to Germany in November, 1940. They settled in London. Shortly after their arrival, Khan, eager to do her part to bring an end to Nazi tyranny, joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. It was around this time that she began to use the name Nora Baker.

She spent nearly three years training with the WAAF as a wireless operator. Impressed by her technical skill and her fluent French, the SOE recruited Khan into their France division—overseen by Colonel Maurice Buckmaster—in late 1942. During her three months of training, her team, obviously willfully ignorant of her background and abilities, described her as clumsy, fearful of weapons, “not over-burdened with brains,” unstable, and temperamental. However, Buckmaster regarded these comments as the nonsense that they were and allowed her to complete her training.

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Khan’s passport photo. Image courtesy of the Noor Inayat Khan Memorial Trust.

With her fluent French and her skill as an operator, Khan was perfect for a post in Occupied France. On June 17, 1943, Khan, officially the first female wireless operator to be sent into France to aid the Resistance, landed and reported to her post in Paris.

She worked with the Prosper network (technically called the Physician network, but popularly known as Prosper after the codename of its organizer, Major Francis Suttill), the largest network in Northern France. The Prosper network communicated with England to organize the placement and arrival of SOE agents, locally recruited agents, and aid to the French Resistance. The network was of such importance that Berlin regarded it as the heart of a secret army posing the utmost danger to the security of the Third Reich.

However, only one week after her arrival, the precariousness of the life of a covert agent in Occupied France became uncomfortably clear. The local branch of the Gestapo arrested Suttill, and over the next three months hundreds of agents—including wireless operators and resistance personnel alike—supported by the Prosper network would be put under arrest.

After the initial arrests, Khan was the only wireless operator left in Paris, making her post the most dangerous one in all of Northern France. The SOE offered to repatriate her to Britain, but she refused to leave her comrades without communication channels. Over the next three months, Noor single-handedly maintained the network which supported resistance activities across Occupied France.

The Prosper network’s last remaining link to London, Khan quickly became the most wanted British agent in Paris. The Gestapo, though they had her full description, knew her only by her code name, “Madeleine.” Under constant pursuit by wireless detection vans, Khan could only transmit for twenty minutes at a time. Even so, she transmitted regularly from the first week of July through to the second week of October.

However in the beginning of that month, either an SOE double agent or a French woman betrayed her to the Nazis. On October 13, 1943, Khan was arrested, and held in the Paris headquarters of the SD. She fought so fiercely upon her arrest that the SD agents were afraid of her. She lied consistently to her interrogators while in custody, though they did uncover copies of her signals, allowing them to impersonate her in wireless communications with London. In addition to her fierce fighting and consistent lies, Khan made two escape attempts during her two month interrogation. One was successful, however, she was quickly recaptured.

After she refused to sign a declaration renouncing future escape attempts, the SD classified her as “Nacht und Nebel” (“Night and Fog”), a designation given only to those prisoners deemed as posing a threat to the security of the Third Reich. She was secretly shipped to Germany by night. Considered a particularly dangerous and uncooperative prisoner, she was kept in chains in solitary confinement during her time in Pforzheim. She continued to refuse to give away any information during this stage of her imprisonment.

On September 11, 1944 the Gestapo transferred her to Dachau. Two days later, an SS officer executed her by a shot to the head.

Her last word was “Liberté.”

Khan was posthumously awarded the George Cross—the highest gallantry award for British civilians, as well as for members of the armed forces in actions for which purely military honors would not normally be granted—in Britain, and the Croix de Guerre—a military decoration honoring those who fought with the Allies against the Axis forces during World War II—in France. On November 8, 2012, HRH Princess Anne unveiled a bronze bust of Khan located in the Gordon Square Gardens in London. In 2014, Khan was featured in Britain’s “Remarkable Lives” stamp series.

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HRH Princess Anne standing with Khan’s memorial bust. Image courtesy of the Daily Mail.

While the British and the French honor Khan’s memory and claim her as one of their own, we must remember that this was a woman who believed passionately in a doctrine stressing the unity of humanity, the need for humanity to rise above artificial divisions, and the need to unite the East with the West. It is far more likely that, rather than fighting for any nation, Khan was fighting against oppression, against disunity, against artificial boundaries, and for her love of humanity.

And let’s be real if she was a dude she’d have a blockbuster action film starring the male equivalent of Freida Pinto out by now.

Napoleon, Haiti, and the Louisiana Purchase

Between 1800 and 1801, Spain secretly returned the Louisiana Territory to French custody; Spain was ceded the Territory in the 1763 Treaty of Paris, treaty which ended the Seven Year’s War. Napoleon planned to use the Territory as his North American imperial sear.

The United States government learned of this in 1802. The knowledge caused no small amount of panic. The government which controlled the Louisiana Territory controlled the mouth of the Mississippi River in New Orleans, and whomever controlled the mouth of the Mississippi controlled the economy of the North American continent. And indeed, the Unites States’ government’s fears came true when Napoleon closed the New Orleans port.

Map of the Louisiana Purchase; courtesy of A People and a Nation: Volume I Ninth Edition by Mary Beth Norton

But something was happening in the background of all of this which would permanently destroy Napoleon’s plans, and alter the future of the United States.

The slave revolt of St. Domingue began in 1791. It came to a close in 1804, with the complete overthrow of French colonial rule. Today, this is known today as the Haitian Revolution.

Napoleon planned to use St. Domingue as his Caribbean base from which to launch his new empire, with its enslaved labor force and the revenue he gained its work as the backbone of the infrastructure of this new empire.

Having lost that holding, that labor force, and all the money that came with it, Napoleon had to scarp his imperial plans. The Louisiana Territory no longer financially tenable for France, Napoleon sold it to the United States in 1803; Thomas Jefferson purchased it for $15 million, $233 million in today’s money. This was the Louisiana Purchase.

And just an interesting note about the Haitian Revolution: the use of the same philosophies which inspired the American Revolution by a black, enslaved population terrified people like Thomas Jefferson so much that they could barely speak of it; they had no idea how to make sense of it within their precisely constructed idea of race. So they just kind of ignored it and began and enacted a policy of brutal expansion throughout the Louisiana Purchase.

Fun With Historical Linguistics!

I’m sure all native speakers of English who have learned/attempted to learn a second language in the classroom (this excludes you lucky people who are native speakers of more than one language) have at some point thought to themselves “What is up with these gendered nouns? And why doesn’t English have them?” Now, in my fourth attempt to learn a new language (French kind of stuck, Spanish and Hebrew not so much), I finally decided to look it up.

Old English, a Germanic language, had a gendered grammatical structure. The transition from a gendered to a neutral grammatical structure began in the north of England as a result of repeated Danish, Norse, and Saxon invasions of/migration to that region. With speakers of multiple languages living in close proximity to each other, the dominant tongue of Old English and the new languages of the invaders/migrants began to evolve into a language accessible to speakers in all of the language groups. In these situations, the more complex elements of spoken language fall to the wayside, and, in this case, it was the gendered grammatical structure of Old English which gradually fell into disuse. By the eleventh century, spoke Old English was approaching a gender neutral noun structure.

But then this little thing called the Norman Invasion happened.

Any speaker of modern English who has encountered the French language can surely see the impact of Norman French (specifically Old Norman) on the language. In fact, if you look at English words, you will find many sets of synonyms in which one term is derived from French and the other from German. (And as a side note, because the Normans were the ruling class, even today the words in the set which are derived from French have more prestige than those derived from German. For example: mansion v. house.)

Norman French was spoken by the ruling classes and eventually developed into an English-influenced language called Anglo-Norman. However, this language never eclipsed English. While the ruling classes held cultural capital, they were a minority in the British mainland and were often separated from each other by hundreds of miles. This distance gave them no choice but to learn the spoken language of the people. Thus, while Norman French certainly had a gendered grammatical structure, the status of its speakers as a ruling minority negated the impact that grammatical structure had on the English language.

This move to the neutral gender truly took hold in the thirteenth century as speakers of Middle English, while still technically retaining grammatical gender, began to use the neutral “the” or “thee” as a pronoun.

By the fourteenth century, London English had shifted almost entirely to the neutral gender. Because this grammatical alteration began in the North, linguistically conservative areas, such as Kent and the Midlands, retained gender until as late as the 1340’s. However, by the 1400’s, English was a mostly gender neutral language.

The Rosetta Stone: Contested Key to Hieroglyphic Translation

The Rosetta Stone

The Rosetta Stone is an Ptolemaic-era Egyptian artifact which provided the key to a modern understanding of Egyptian hieroglyphs. It is inscribed with a decree issued by King Ptolemy V in 196 BCE, with the decree is inscribed in three Hieroglyphs, Demotic script (a post-Late Egyptian, pre-Greek language spoken in Egypt beginning in 650 BCE), and Ancient Greek. The same text is presented in all three languages, thus scholars were able to decipher the Hieroglyph text through their knowledge of Ancient Greek.

close-up of panels inscribed in each of the three languages

As time went on, the stele, which was probably a fairly ordinary one at the time of its issue, eventually ended up in use as a building material in the construction of Fort Julien on the Nile River Delta. A French soldier found the stele in 1799, and recognized its value to Western scholarship. As it was not being used in any academic or official propensity, he took it.

Word spread quite rapidly of this find, and lithographic copies and plaster casts of the stele began to circulate around the European scholarly community.

However, as this was taking place to the backdrop of the Napoleonic wars, in 1801, British troops attacked and defeated the French troops stationed in Egypt. The British took the Rosetta Stone from the French in a move sanctioned by the Treaty of Alexandria, and its subsequent removal from Egyptian soil was approved by the Ottoman government. It has been on display at the British Museum since 1802.

In July of 2003, Egypt made its first request for the repatriation of the Rosetta Stone.