White Alexander Hamilton and Whitewashed Hamilton: The Problematics of Post-Raciality In Hamilton, An American Musical
*Disclaimer: I actually really like Hamilton as a piece of art. This critique is meant to complicate the discourse around the show.
Just over three years ago, Hamilton, An American Musical premiered in The Public Theater in New York City. In that time, the show has gained national acclaim as not just a high quality musical, earning its writer Lin-Manuel Miranda a Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2016, but also a major step in racial inclusion, praised for its diverse cast and use of hip-hop in a Broadway setting and slated as revolutionarily progressive: “Miranda wants his audience… to connect with the story of America’s creation, so he gives them hip-hop instead of harpsichords and diversity instead of literal representation” (Horsey). To be sure, there is a lot to be praised, but many have been quick to go as far as to shield Hamilton from critique, deeming naysayers “identity-focused academics… to smoke out a sociopolitical faux pas…” (McWhorter). Immense popularity does not grant Hamilton a free pass from being questioned, though. Notedly, its positioning in Broadway has in itself contributed to shielding the show from critique, inaccessible to large swaths of the American public who are not afforded the economic privilege of several-hundred-dollar tickets to the most popular musical of the past few years. Despite its intent as a racially progressive work, Hamilton plays into problematic racial ideologies through its method of telling American history and positing of the immigrant story. This essay is split into three sections, each analyzing a specific portion of this problematic. The first outlines the way that Hamilton whitewashes the history it claims to diversify. The second analyzes the way that using rap to depict the American Revolution connects to the fetishization of hip-hop in the American public. The third discusses the issues with the language of a universal immigrant narrative in the birth of the United States.
White History and Whitewashing History
Returning to the question of the inaccessibility of Broadway, the experience of watching Hamilton live as a person of color (an experience that I myself have not been afforded) immediately calls to attention the issue of the audience in relation to the racially progressive intent of the show. Though there are no published statistics on the demographics of the Hamilton audience each night, The Broadway League, a trade association for the Broadway theater industry, has researched the general racial makeup of the Broadway Audience, in the 2016–2017 season having only 23 percent non-Caucasian viewers (Broadway League). Understandably, the likely racial demographic of the Hamilton audience begs the question “why this ostensibly uber-POC-friendly phenomenon isn’t consistently pulling a notably black and brown audience” (Demby) and what this “white gaze [on Hamilton]” (Hathcock) means for interpreting the show’s progressive message.
With the largely white audience in mind, we can begin to analyze the implications of Hamilton’s method for telling American history. While Miranda and other producers of the show clearly intended for the casting of non-white actors as white historical figures to be a way to make the history lesson of Hamilton more palatable to diverse audiences (Miranda states that he wants to make the cast “look like America today” (Nichols citing Lin-Manuel Miranda)), the message displayed to the majority-white audience is hauntingly similar to claims of post-raciality that are used to eschew concerns of racism. Like the unfortunately common mantra “I have black friends, so I can’t be racist,” casting black actors in white roles allows both the white audience and more importantly the white historical figures to assuage their guilt: “The most obvious historical aberration is the portrayal of Washington and Jefferson as black men… Changing the races allows these men to appear far more sympathetic than they would otherwise be” (Nichols). In the wake of expanding discourse on the racist history of the “birth of the nation” (pun intended), Hamilton has reversed course and made the American public ever so slightly more adoring of two of our more questionable Founding Fathers — “the actual Jefferson raped slaves” (Nichols) — engaging in the all-too-common “Founders Chic… represent[ing] the founders as relatable, cool guys” (Onion, interview with Lyra Monteiro). By essentially writing non-white people into the show, Hamilton has performed an act of “‘blackwashing,’ making something that was heinous seem somehow palatable by retroactively injecting diversity into it” (Nichols). The injection of non-white characters into the show becomes even more problematic when considering that there were many non-white people from the time whose stories and identities have been unearthed by historians already, including black slaves in the Schuyler family home, a notably absent group of characters in the show.
The figure Alexander Hamilton himself, the namesake of the musical, gets misrepresented throughout the show in ways that whitewash his political sentiments and conscience. While the show posits Hamilton as a common man, a man of the people to be embraced by the public, he notedly was a large supporter of big banks and “at one point called for a monarchal presidency and a Senate that served for life” (Schuessler). Though the storyline of the musical plays up the fact that Hamilton was a Caribbean immigrant and orphan from a poor background, it fails to account for the way that his politics would influence poverty and democracy in America: “…Hamilton ‘was more a man for the 1 percent than the 99 percent’” (Schuessler, citing Sean Wilentz). In addition, the show posits Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson in opposition on the question of slavery, but, “while Hamilton publicly criticized Jefferson’s views on the biological inferiority of blacks, his record from the 1790s until his death in 1804 includes little to no action against slavery” (Schuessler, citing Annette Gordon-Reed). By telling a curated version of events, Hamilton acts as an ad for racial diversity in history and on Broadway while masking the more violent aspects of the past, a dangerous message for a largely white audience, already used to hearing white narratives.
Rapping the Revolution
Aside from the problems within the historical content of Hamilton, the medium of Broadway infused with rap holds its own set of issues. Before we can understand the problems within the show, we must first look more broadly at the context of rap in the United States. Despite persistent accounts of racial profiling, de facto segregation, and general discrimination, rap and its association with black culture has become a fetishized phenomenon among white America; it has “become so cool for white middle and even upper-class youths to spit rap lyrics, wear sagging jeans, call each other variations of the N-word or for white celebrities to wear their hair to mimic a style typically associated with African American tradition…” (Gutierrez). Over-policing, mass incarceration, racialized criminalization, and concentrated poverty in black neighborhoods, hardships that are reality for a large proportion of black Americans, act as temporary fantasies for privileged white Americans, allowing songs like “Kendrick Lamar’s ‘Alright’, the rallying cry for the Black Lives Matter movement, [to be] a party jam” (Whittaker). Indulging in rap music that tells the story of struggle becomes a way for white Americans to dip their toes into the life of those far less privileged, a stylish aesthetic that can be put on and taken off at the convenience of the appropriator, allowing them to feel that they too suffer and have been slighted.
Hamilton adopts this racialized narrative through its use of rap to tell the story of the American Revolution. The producers of the show may have only meant for the use of rap to be a stylish new take on the traditional Broadway style, but they inadvertently played into the use of rap by privileged Americans to feel like they are the suffering — poor Americans in the colonies hurt at the hands of a tyrannical Britain and the orphan Hamilton who rose to fame from nothingness: “I am not throwing away my shot/ Hey yo, I’m just like my country/ I’m young, scrappy and hungry” (Miranda as Alexander Hamilton in “My Shot”). Not only does the narrative of suffering whitewash the racism and colonialism in the American Revolution, as discussed in the previous section, it also provides fuel for the white audience to further embrace their momentary engagement with a historically black style of music as an expression of their suffering. Hamilton effectively sanitizes an instance of appropriating rap, “an art form of liberation and a culture of black self-love” (Whittaker), to allow white Americans to claim pain in their past, aching from taxation that does not help their communities and an un-representative democracy under Britain (yes, the phrasing was indeed supposed to sound scarily akin to modern day urban poverty and racialized disenfranchisement). In following with the way the Patriots in the American Revolution are viewed as people suffering and fighting for their right to live as they choose, Hamilton has them rap their woes. While Lin-Manuel Miranda may be a non-white writer and performer, his creation has the unintended effect of providing fodder for white Americans to further appropriate rap as a method to express their suffering.
Notedly, analyzing the privilege of using rap in Hamilton becomes even more germane when considering that Miranda won a Pulitzer Prize in Drama for it, one of many accolades the show received, including the Tony Award for Best Musical. In using hip-hop in a privileged space, Hamilton was able to curry favor among privileged reviewers, a feat that most rap songs are unable to achieve due to them being perceived as low class music (granted, specifically the Pulitzer Prize took a large step towards inclusion this past year when Kendrick Lamar’s rap album DAMN won the Prize in Music). Though it brought rap to a demographic of people who are unlikely to have encountered hip-hop in any form nearly as much otherwise, the award-winning show paradoxically claimed for itself success that is inaccessible to most black artists producing music, let alone hip-hop. No matter the benevolence of the intent, Hamilton maintains an enormous amount of privilege that favors best among its white audience.
We’re All Immigrants
The rhetoric used within the musical also carries its own weight worth analyzing. In particular, Hamilton employs the language of a universal immigration story, most notably in the song “Yorktown (The World Turned Upside Down),” in which Miranda raps, “Immigrants: We get the job done” (Miranda as Alexander Hamilton in “Yorktown”) in reference to himself, French soldier Marquis de Lafayette, and other immigrants to the colonies who fought in the Revolutionary War’s Battle of Yorktown. Throughout the rest of the show, the actors subtly reference the colonists as people seeking better lives for themselves in the Americas and fighting for the right to live independently, without fear of monarchic overrule by Britain. The parallel to modern day immigration narratives is purposeful and clear. Today, people immigrate to the United States to escape violence, to find work, to seek asylum, all hoping for a better life free from the hardship of the past. However, the rhetoric of a universal immigration story is not unique to Hamilton. Commentators from all parts of the political spectrum employ this language to bolster their arguments for and against immigration reform. Regardless of political orientation, though, the universal immigration story is highly problematic. By calling forth the idea of everyone in the United States being an immigrant of some sort to advocate for more inclusive immigration laws, those on the social left inadvertently equate the immigration stories of white Americans with those of non-white immigrants seeking refuge in the United States, from Syrian refugees to Mexicans escaping poverty and cartel violence. This act simultaneously drains the uniqueness of the socio-political condition of immigrants facing hardships both in their countries of origin and in the tough-on-immigration United States and allows white Americans to equate their hardships to non-white immigrants through the narrative of a common immigration story. Additionally, the logic behind “we’re all immigrants” leaves out two very important groups of people “who did not immigrate here: African-Americans descending from slavery and Native Americans” (Adams). By using the idea of everyone being an immigrant of some sort in the United States as a way to unify the general public, the universal immigration story perpetuated in Hamilton creates a sense of unity that excludes African-American descendants of slaves and native folks.
With all that said, Hamilton has also been able to use its immigrant narrative for good in the wake of the Trump-era attack on immigration. Lin-Manuel Miranda released a video in 2017 for “Immigrants (We Get the Job Done),” a song that samples “Yorktown” and is taken from The Hamilton Mixtape, “a compilation of songs pulled from [Hamilton]… and recorded by various artists” (Flanagan). This video was “launched to help promote fundraising for the Immigrant: We Get The Job Done Coalition, a group of immigrant-rights non-profits based throughout the US” (Flanagan). Despite the problematic implications of the universal immigration story, the narrative has clearly been used to empower immigrant populations as well. However, it is still important to question the implications of the rhetoric used to discuss immigration in Hamilton and in politics.
Though Hamilton’s rhetoric, style, and content leaves much to be critiqued, the musical has also been a progressive step is diversifying Broadway. In the 2015–2016 Broadway season during which Hamilton premiered, the show was one of several that featured casts made up of predominantly people of color, marking a fiscal year end of Broadway hiring 43 percent minority actors overall (McPhee). Hamilton was also one of a handful of shows leading the charge in non-traditional casting, in its case choosing not to restrict white historical figures to being played by white actors. While these casting choices, among other issues in the show, are worthy of a healthy amount of skepticism, Hamilton undoubtedly took strides in bringing greater diversity to musical theater and helped bring hip-hop to Broadway audiences and Broadway to the general public.
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