[Editor’s Note: First published in April of 2016, Gregory Hood’s insightful look at the play Hamilton is worth revisiting in light of recent events.]
The nation is the people. This is so obvious it seems absurd even to say it. Yet this is the core truth our entire political and cultural system denies. And we see the most perfect expression of this denial in the most unlikely place: a Broadway musical.
Hamilton is a wildly successful production put together by the Puerto Rican Lin-Manuel Miranda. It is based on Ron Chernow’s 2004 biography of the Founding Father, and tells the story of Alexander Hamilton’s life in musical form. This is an unlikely subject to be celebrated by pop culture, but Hamilton has a gimmick: The entire cast is non-white, the soundtrack is influenced by hip-hop and R&B, and the performance style is . . . black. We see the Founding Fathers recast as braggadocious rappers beefing with each other rather than as the soldier-statesmen familiar to previous generations. Not surprisingly, Michelle Obama called it “the best piece of art in any form that I have ever seen in my life.” Given her intellect, she is probably telling the truth.
There is of course, one white character: the bad guy, King George III. But from George Washington to (surprisingly) Aaron Burr, all of the American Revolutionaries are non-white. Thus, “whiteness” is associated with a backward past of unearned privilege and power, while “blackness” is a revolutionary force that overturns an unjust society. The racial makeup of the cast is an act of subversion, a mocking insult to the European-Americans who actually built the country.
In this retelling, Hamilton is a Big Man in Charge ready to flaunt his power and wealth. The creator of the American financial system, opponent of mass democracy, and champion of centralized power is transformed from a Federalist elitist into an honorary black man with the swagger and ego of a Chicago pimp. Just as the lowest street hustler dreams he can be Jay Z, Hamilton has been repackaged as a model for multicultural America. This is what the critics mean when they talk about making the Founding Fathers “relevant” to young people; Hamilton will be shown in schools just as 1776 was.
Of course, Hamilton devoted his remarkable talents to building what he saw as the correct social structure. He was often accused of favoring monarchy, and spoke warmly of the British political system the Americans had just overthrown. And it was Hamilton who spoke suspiciously of immigrants, arguing that “an influx of foreigners” would “change and corrupt the national spirit.”
But the play’s portrayal of Hamilton isn’t entirely wrong. He really did come from nothing. He was born in the West Indies–not in the 13 colonies–and was an immigrant rather than established American gentry like Washington or Jefferson. Though the High Federalists whom he led were obsessed with social decorum and standing, John Adams mocked Hamilton as “the bastard brat of a Scotch peddler.”
Not surprisingly, Hamilton has a following among conservatives. It appeals to their central conceit: We can replace the population, but the national character and form of government will remain essentially unchanged. It also lets conservatives fall into their familiar pattern of celebrating the symbolic dispossession of whites as some kind of ideological triumph for American principles.
Thus, Kevin Gutzman (who is ambiguous about Hamilton as a historical figure) concludes that hip-hop history “works.” Richard Brookhiser, who must be angry Mr. Chernow’s biography and not his was chosen as the basis for the musical, writes approvingly:
Hamilton shows brave, brilliant, quarrelsome Americans trying to do [self-government]. One hopes it will inspire at least some in its audiences to do likewise after the last curtain call.
Commentary’s Tara Helfman hails the musical as a way to transcend identity politics and counter the campus totalitarians who are constantly trying to purge hated dead white males from history. She wants to believe that simply by changing the style of history and giving it a hip-hop beat, we can convince blacks and Hispanics that Hamilton and Washington are their Founding Fathers too.
But amidst the accolades, there have been utterly predictable criticisms.
First, though the cast is non-white, black slavery is pushed into the background. Second, Hamilton is portrayed as someone who worked his way up from nothing. This is an implied insult to blacks, who have to confront structural racism, white privilege, and all the other invented causes that explain their collective failure over the past few thousand years. And third, the Founding Fathers are presented as cool and personable rather than as vicious slaveholders, except for Jefferson, whose star is in decline, thanks to allegations about Sally Hemmings.
Anything positive about the Founders is, shall we say, problematic for minority activists whose livelihood depends on perpetuating the idea that “black bodies” are permanently exploited by the system. Non-whites who make a living peddling grievance don’t want blacks to see the Founding Fathers as anything other than slavers and racial enemies. Any perceived attempt to incorporate African-Americans into some larger vision of American identity–even an ironic one–is therefore interpreted as further aggression. As supposed historian Lyra Monteiro says in Slate, “It’s still white history. And no amount of casting people of color disguises the fact that they’re erasing people of color from the actual narrative.”
She’s half right. It is white history. But so is the history of the country. There are no people of color to “erase.” None of the Founding Fathers was black, nor did any of them consider America a multiracial experiment. That minority of Continental Army soldiers who were black didn’t have any real impact on the war, and many blacks actually helped the British because they were promised freedom. There’s no way to make a play about “people of color” in the Revolution without it either being painfully condescending about “black Founding Fathers” (like Glenn Beck’s fantasies) or dishonest. It’s akin to Black Lives Matter protesters who say African slaves “built” the country. If they did, so did oxen and horses.
And the mostly liberal, wealthy whites who are paying at least $500 to attend this Broadway show know this. Everyone knows Alexander Hamilton was white, as was everyone else who mattered in the American Revolution. Hamilton is yet another example of that strange inverted white supremacism of wealthy, urban white liberals. They are helping to subvert the “racist” history of the United States by ethnically cleansing European-Americans from a depiction of the lives of white people.
On the other hand, as Ryan Landry at “Weimerica” accurately notes, Hamilton is a “minstrel show.” An overwhelmingly white audience gets to watch an entire cast of non-whites act stereotypically black for their amusement. Racial consciousness is a constant of human nature. If denied or suppressed, it expresses itself in perverted ways.
There is doublethink everywhere. White conservatives pretend Hamilton is actually a patriotic tribute rather than a subversive jab at the Founders. White liberals ignore the implicit supremacism of watching “those people” soft shoeing and talking jive for the amusement of SWPLs. Non-whites try to ignore the truth that the United States is entirely a European-American creation, by retroactively inserting themselves into revolutionary history. While they may find it amusing at first, non-white scholars are right to be angry when their people serve as mascots to tell someone else’s story.
Multiculturalism and multiracialism cause low social trust, increased crime, more poverty, rising inequality, and the collapse of public institutions such as education or infrastructure. But all of this comes from one root problem: Ignoring the truth about race makes it impossible to tell the truth about anything. Even when it comes to entertainment, the random collection of individuals called “Americans” have to lie to each other. Hamilton lies by creating a false version of American history, a vision of a raceless American people that appears attractive at first but ultimately feeds only more mutual contempt and distrust.
The solution is simple. Tell the truth about history. Tell the truth about race. And tell the truth that only we can be us. Even on Broadway.