“What’d I Miss?”
Vice Presidents and White Privilege
Vice president-elect Mike Pence was booed at Hamilton, which was a big story. The even bigger story is that the cast of Hamilton directly addressed Pence after the Friday night performance. “We, sir,” began Brandon Victor Dixon, who plays Aaron Burr, “We are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us, our planet, our children, our parents, or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights.”
The optimist in me hopes this infusion of arts and humanity changes Pence’s way of thinking. The realist in me, however, knows nothing will change. There’s no magical Grinch moment where the heart of Trump’s America grows three sizes larger. And, it’s Hamilton itself that shows us why.
Aaron Burr and Mike Pence are the two vice presidents everyone’s talking about in connection with Hamilton. But don’t forget there’s another vice president in Hamilton. It’s Alexander Hamilton’s primary antagonist, the one who doesn’t kill him. Thomas Jefferson. Watch or listen to the musical, or read its source material, and you’ll find the biggest revelation has nothing to do with Hamilton, the “ten-dollar Founding Father without a father.” Instead, it’s a revelation about Thomas Jefferson.
Let’s start with Thomas Jefferson’s grand entrance in Hamilton. It’s the song “What’d I Miss?” — a swinging number that opens Act II. The narrative function of the song is to explain that Jefferson has been in France during the American Revolution and early months of the new U.S. Constitution. He “basic’lly missed the late eighties.” But the symbolic function of the song is to show the hypocrisy of the author of the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson enters, as Lin-Manuel Miranda’s footnote points out in the gorgeous Hamilton: The Revolution, “descending a staircase, with our ensemble scrubbing the floors and getting his bags. It’s the paradox of Jefferson made flesh: The writer who articulated liberty so clearly was an active participant in the brutal system of slavery.”
Another Miranda footnote highlights a Sally Hemings shout-out in the song (“Sally be a lamb, darlin’”). Hemings, of course, was Jefferson’s slave and mistress. She was also likely Jefferson’s late wife’s half-sister. But no worries! Jefferson was a widower, so it’s not like he was cheating on his wife. Oh, and Hemings was 14 when she arrived in Paris in 1787.
The Sally Hemings line flies by, and her last name isn’t even used. You have to know who Sally Hemings is — and most of the audience does — in order to catch the reference. The line is just one of the thousands of ways Miranda and his characters punctuate Hamilton with a kind of interventionist racial knowledge.
Seen through the lens of racial knowledge, the entire song of “What’d I Miss?” becomes an allegory for white privilege, embodied in a single individual, Vice President Thomas Jefferson.
What makes Jefferson such a powerful metaphor for white privilege in Hamilton? White privilege isn’t just about exercising privilege in subtle and blatant ways, it’s also — and perhaps most crucially — about ignoring what makes that privilege possible in the first place. White privilege is the luxury of ignoring the pain and brutality and inequality in the world around you, even as you benefit from that inequality. The song “What’d I Miss?” is not about Jefferson missing the Constitutional Convention and the early days of the new government while he’s “kickin’ ass as the ambassador to France.” It’s about all the other things Jefferson doesn’t see in the new republic. Starting with his own slaves polishing the floor. “What’d I Miss?” is refrain for wide-eyed, aw-shucks, I-don’t-see-it white people who are happy to miss anything that threatens their racial comfort.
In “Cabinet Battle #1” Jefferson names a few other things he “misses” — as in things he just doesn’t see, or more likely, willfully ignores. “We got it made in the shade” in the South he raps. The “We” being of course aristocratic white farmers. A funny we, this. Jefferson somehow collapses this “we” onto the “we” who “plant seeds in the ground.” Jefferson doesn’t see the inconsistency of his own words. That’s something else he misses. Leave it to Hamilton to clarify: “You don’t pay for labor…We know who’s really doing the planting.”
Because Hamilton does such a good job portraying TJ as an epic dick it’s easy to overlook — especially for white audiences — that he’s also a metaphor for white privilege. I’m guessing Mike Pence missed the metaphor, and that’s probably due to white fragility. White fragility is Robin DiAngelo’s term for “a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves.” We don’t know yet how vice president-elect Mike Pence will respond to a black actor playing a vice president in a musical with yet another vice president. But president-elect Donald Trump’s white fragility is already out there for the world to see:
Let’s hope angry tweets full of the same ideological inconsistencies that marked Thomas Jefferson’s life are the worst of Trump’s defensive moves. Writing about white defensiveness in terms Trump might understand, DiAngelo calls white fragility a “lack of racial stamina.” Trump is proud of his stamina. But does he have racial stamina? Does he have the psychosocial wherewithal to recognize his own privilege? Can he and Pence and their white supremacist administration engage in a sustained and thoughtful way with challenges to their self-perceived moral, financial, ethnic, and racial superiority? Are they ready for, as the cast of Hamilton put it last night, a “diverse America…of different colors, creeds and orientations?” Or will that diverse America put them on edge, triggering who knows what reactionary response?
History has its eyes on them.