Hamilton: The Musical: Blacks and the founding fathers
06 April 2016 – Annette Gordon-Reed
This past August, I went with a group of historians to see the much acclaimed, and now Grammy-winning, musical, Hamilton. Our timing was just right. The ticket prices were reasonable (for the Great White Way), costing nowhere near the astronomical sums people pay now. We were not disappointed. Everything that has been said about the ingenuity of the play is correct. The lyrics, the music, the energy and talent of the cast, in the words of one of the play’s songs, “blew us all away.” It was a special thrill to see people about whom I write singing songs with lyrics that included letters that I have read, analyzed, and cited. I bought the cast album as soon as it came out, and I listen to some part of it every day. Not in a million years would I have thought that I would be walking down the street singing along with a song about “The Reynolds Pamphlet.” There is little doubt that Lin-Manuel Miranda is a musical genius and that his creation is a tour de force.
And yet, there are things about Hamilton that give me pause. That is why I am happy to be able to engage with Lyra Monteiro’s bracing analysis of the play in her recent review, “Race-Conscious Casting and the Erasure of the Black Past.”
One of the most interesting things about the Hamilton phenomenon is just how little serious criticism the play has received. Indeed, it has played to near universal acclaim from points all along the political spectrum. How could this be? How could a work that so unabashedly celebrates the founding fathers, and has no storyline for black characters, not take some hits from academic historians who have spent the past several decades arguing against unrealistically heroic portrayals of the founders and arguing for including people of color in the story of America’s creation? What, in this age of concerns about inequality and big banks, are we doing going gaga over a play about a man who promoted both?
In different ways, Monteiro and Ishmael Reed, with his hilariously entitled piece “’Hamilton: The Musical’: Black Actors Dress Up Like Slave Traders . . . and It’s Not Halloween,” zero in on the role that race has played in Hamilton’s reception, specifically its use of black actors to play the founding fathers. This casting is one of the things that has garnered the most praise. But Reed is adamant: having black actors portray the founding fathers makes a mockery of the suffering of the blacks whom they enslaved.
But it’s complicated. One could argue that audiences should be allowed to suspend disbelief and let, say, Daveed Diggs (Thomas Jefferson and Lafayette) do what all actors do: step out of their actual identities and pretend to be other people. The difficulty is that this suspension cannot be total. We must notice that the actors are black, or the play’s central conceit does not work. We are asked to be open to their blackness so that the play’s touted message—that the founding era also “belongs” to black people—gets through. At the same time, we are presumably not to be so open to the actors’ blackness that we feel discomfited seeing them dancing around during the sublime “The Schuyler Sisters” proclaiming how “lucky” they were “to be alive” during a time of African chattel slavery.
There is no question that having a black cast insulates the play from criticisms that might otherwise appear. The genius of black music and black performance styles is used to sell a picture of the founding era that has been largely rejected in history books. Viewers (both white and black) can celebrate without discomfort because black people are playing the men who have been, of late, subjected to much criticism. Imagine Hamilton with white actors—there are white rappers, and not all of the songs are rap. Would the rosy view of the founding era grate? Would we notice the failure to portray any black characters, save for a brief reference to Sally Hemings?
This last point takes us to Monteiro’s critique of the casting, which is more detailed and far stronger than Reed’s. I don’t read her as saying that having a black cast is presumptively wrong. The problem is that the use of black actors excuses the failure to portray black historical figures. Viewers don’t notice that there are no “black” characters because the stage is full of black people. She is also right in saying that selling the cast as depicting “Obama’s America” or “America now” does, unwittingly I think, suggest that the revolutionary period was “white.”
Monteiro’s view that the play does not, as some have said, employ color-blind casting is fascinating. Race is not just about skin color. As she correctly observes, the actors sing in particular “racialized musical forms,” with some who “read as white” singing the “‘white’ music of traditional Broadway” and others, who “read” black, singing black musical forms.
Conforming to American gender and racial rules, the “black” Angelica Schuyler is dynamic, aggressive—“fierce” as the young people used to say–while her “white” sister Elizabeth is demure, ladylike, and, evidently, marriage material. Despite being in love with Angelica, Hamilton marries Elizabeth. Now, Miranda had to change some details to get us to the excellent tune “Satisfied.” The real Angelica Schuyler was married by the time Eliza married Alexander. And despite the play’s breaking of casting barriers, the Hamilton family—including wife and son—read as “white,” in the midst of other “black” characters.
Finally, even if there is only one black character in Hamilton, slavery and race do appear, but primarily to establish Hamilton’s “goodness” for modern audiences. He is depicted as an ardent abolitionist, which he was not. The Manumission Society, of which he was a president, was extremely moderate and not at all an abolitionist outfit. He is said to have owned two enslaved people and bought and sold them for others. He was much better than other founders on the question, but almost certainly did not believe that the colonists would “never be free” until people in bondage had the same rights as everyone. The John Laurens character sings those words, but the Hamilton character verbally agrees to them. The audience is able to feel better about the era because there was some antislavery sentiment, and they can supposedly draw a direct line from that to where we are now.
Despite all of this, I love the musical. It is brilliant, and were it not, I confess, I’d probably be less forgiving. It is Miranda’s task to create great art, and he has done that. He is also free, and we want people to be free, to write the play he wanted to write. However, when artists attempt to use art to present history to the public, I think it our duty to use what we know of history and culture to comment on the attempt. Monteiro has done very well on that score, and has given us much food for thought.
~ Annette Gordon-Reed is a professor at Harvard University and co-author with Peter S. Onuf of “Most Blessed of the Patriarchs”: Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of the Imagination, forthcoming in April 2016.
Editor’s note: In “Race-Conscious Casting and the Erasure of the Black Past in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton,” published in The Public Historian (38.1), Lyra Monteiro asks, “Is this the history that we most want black and brown youth to connect with–one in which black lives so clearly do not matter?” This is the last of four posts published by The Public Historian responding to Monteiro’s review. Monteiro will respond in our next post.