My first Broadway show was one of the highlights of my life. My mother and I took the Greyhound bus to New York from Boston and sat in nosebleed seats for The Wiz. I was 6 years old. It was that marvelous remix of The Wizard of Oz, starring Stephanie Mills. I could barely see her, but the distance between us and the stage didn’t disappoint; it exhilarated me. Way down there, that Black girl named Dorothy (who was in fact a woman) was singing and dancing her epic story, and it had something to do with me.
Recently, I sat in third-row orchestra seats for The Lehman Trilogy. I’d seen a morning-show discussion of the dramatic rendering of the ascent and descent of Lehman Brothers, one of the nation’s largest banks and a titan of Wall Street until 2008. I was prompted to get on Amtrak and go see it because I learned that the play included an accounting of the Lehman family’s origins as owners of a dry-goods store in Montgomery, Alabama. Because I was born in Birmingham, Alabama, and most of my family lives in the state, I am always interested in its history and place in the American imagination. But more importantly, I believed the work might illustrate the point of my next book: South to America: A Journey Below the Mason-Dixon to Understand the Soul of a Nation.
The South is, I contend, the heart and soul of this nation. And although great pains are made to depict that region as backwards and often shameful, the way business is done in this nation is rooted in the prosperity of the South. The wealth produced by the transatlantic slave trade, domestic chattel slavery, and the expulsion of Indigenous people: That habit of pushing people out and grinding down the lives of others in the service of wealth is the American way, born of southern bounty. This nation has always fed on the South, from Washington to Wall Street.
The story of The Lehman Trilogy is in some ways a classic immigrant story: Jewish brothers from Bavaria, Germany, started as small merchants and became prosperous through cotton trading. They extended their wealth with coffee and sugar, as well as economic support for Alabama during the Reconstruction and Redemption periods following the Civil War. They were investment innovators who accumulated wealth as middlemen through multiple industries. One of the motifs of the play is that they came to this country with “nothing.”
I shouldn’t continue to marvel at such things, but I do. There were no Black people portrayed in The Lehman Trilogy, no laborers in cotton fields to be found anywhere. There were a few references to an overseer of unclear origin. But the unfree people, those who did not “come from nothing” but were treated as nothing, were completely invisible. The same is true of those who worked those wealth-producing coffee and sugar plantations. Nor did we see those who built the railroads that the Lehman brothers belatedly invested in. The empathy for life lost was limited to bankers and brothers.