American Grit

Now, just about every self-respecting Southerner enjoys grits. Yankees are a bit confused at first as to what grits are, and we just know that we like them and find it difficult to define them. Grits is a food made from corn that is ground into a coarse meal and then boiled. It is a delicious dish that can be used for breakfast or any meal in the day, though typically prepared differently for dinner or supper.

A friend of mine used to work as a server at a small diner and had a customer come in from the North. The patron looked at the menu and asked my friend, “What are grits?” My friend replied that they were delicious, but when asked for the definition, he could not find the words but insisted that the customer would enjoy them for his breakfast. The man asked if he could just have one grit to try and see if he liked it. So, since the customer is always right, my friend went to the kitchen and came back with a plate of one singular grit for the man to taste. The customer did not think it funny, though my friend and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Amusing anecdotes and culinary conversation aside, grit is much more important than food. Grit is defined by Webster as “firmness of mind or spirit; unyielding courage in the face of hardship or danger.” This is also known as perseverance, resolution, or tenacity. It is the quality that a person has that does not allow him or her to give up before reaching a goal.

Yesterday was the birthday of a great American who was not born in America. Alexander Hamilton, the creator of the national bank among other things, is most known as “the guy on the ten dollar bill.” His life has had the spotlight shone on it in recent years due to a Broadway musical which was written by Lin-Manuel Miranda and achieved international fame and popularity.

I confess that, though I am a lover and student of American history, I knew very little of Hamilton besides what was listed above until I saw the show, Hamilton. I have since begun reading his biography, on which the play was based, and have learned that the immigrant from the tiny Caribbean island of Nevis is an excellent example of grit.

To summarize, Alexander Hamilton was born out of the official bonds of marriage to poor parents. At the age of ten, his father abandoned Alex, his brother, and their mother. At the age of 12, Mrs. Hamilton died, leaving Alex and his brother orphans. They moved in with their cousin, who committed suicide after caring for them for a short time, leaving the boys alone again. The court split the brothers up, sending Alexander to work as an apprentice for a shipping and trading company. Within a few years, both of the owners of the company left the island, making teenage Alexander the boss. This largely self-educated young man had experienced more hardships than most of us can imagine and was now being forced into a man’s responsibility; whereas many would have given up, Hamilton thrived. He was determined to rise above his station and make something of himself.

At the age of 17, a hurricane destroyed his town on the island of St. Croix, where he and his family had been living. Alexander had always been something of a writer, so after this latest tragedy, he picked up a pen and wrote a sorrowful, poetic letter describing the destructive force of the storm and the effect it had both physically and spiritually on the people. His words were so stirring that the citizens of the town were moved to raise money to send Alex to America for education.

He arrived in New York City in 1776 just in time to join the American Revolution. He wanted to fight in the war to make a name for himself, seeing a battlefield as the only way someone in his position could rise up. He used his skill with the pen to write letters and keep a journal for General George Washington but constantly begged for a chance to lead men and fight. When he finally gets the chance, Hamilton leads a battalion under cover of darkness to help ensure victory at the battle of Yorktown.

Washington becomes the president and asks Hamilton to become Secretary of the Treasury. This nobody, this upstart now has to fight, not against the British, but against well-known and well-respected men like James Madison and Thomas Jefferson to give this country the financial system that helped America survive the years immediately following being cut off from British aid. Throughout this time, Hamilton had been speaking, writing, and debating to end slavery, though to no avail. Growing up in the Caribbean in the 1700’s and working for a trading charter put Hamilton in close proximity to the ugliness of the African slave trade. From childhood, he was appalled by the barbarism and fought to abolish it.

Day in and day out, Alex spoke his mind about his beliefs in order to make changes in society. Day in and day out, men of higher social status belittled him and sought to ruin him. But day in and day out, Alexander awoke only with the thought of achieving his goals no matter how difficult it became or how long it took. Nothing could extinguish the flame he had inside of him. He got to see few of his goals realized and his enemies succeeded in consigning him to the oblivion of being largely unknown to history, but his grit is what screams from beyond the grave. One of the repeated lines in the Broadway show was “I am not throwing away my shot.” This expresses the determination and tenacity that, though he could have taken a safer, easier route in life, hamilton employed as he refused to ever give up on his dreams.

This grit is what each of us needs in our lives. Hamilton, in his short 49 years wrote over 26 volumes worth of letters, papers, and essays. That was with quill and ink. We have laptops and keyboards and digital documents that have no physical limits, yet we do not write like this. We have the same number of hours in the day as Hamilton, yet we seldom use as many as we need to achieve our goals. Grit is formed by and composed of courage, intentionality, endurance, resilience, and the pursuit of excellence, not of perfection.

When the going gets tough, what do you do? The tough and gritty buckle up and do what needs to be done. So, do you have grit? If not, make the daily choices to be gritty and persevere. Remember that no matter who you are, “History has its eyes on you.”

Peace. Love. Roll Tide.

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One thought on “American Grit

  1. David says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading this. I knew nothing of Hamilton, but now I see why all the interest in the play.

    Until I moved to Tennessee, I had little appreciation for the culinary delight we know as grits. I love grits!

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