The Atlantic, Smithsonian Magazine and the New Yorker all call Lin-Manuel Miranda’s famous 2016 musical Hamilton a “historical re-imagining” of the foundation of the United States. The musical came to Disney+ amid a massive uproar to revisit and re-examine the cultural sensitivity of every American industry after the insidiousness of America’s cultural racism was exposed by the recent police murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, amongst countless others. American entertainment has been dealing with a diversity problem.
#OscarsSoWhite made a statement the year before Hamilton hit the stage and police brutality conversations were nowhere near slowing down. While Miranda’s intentions, to give people of color the spotlight they deserve in his musical, were valid, choosing the founding fathers as the characters is counterproductive. It’s sad, yet unsurprising, to see that we are still dealing with the same issues 4 years later.
It’s clear that Miranda gave little thought to the sociopolitical implications of making each of the founding fathers Black and Latino, so that the “cast looks like America looks now, and that’s certainly intentional.” He naively stated that “telling the story of old, dead white men” with actors of color “makes the story more immediate and…accessible to a contemporary audience.” It’s even been argued that the whiteness of the real Founding Fathers is made irrelevant by the “revolutionary” casting.
In the beginning of Hamilton’s lifespan, when concentration on police brutality brought questions surrounding race, the function of the police, and larger frameworks of white supremacy in the country to the mainstream; it’s hard to see the logic in writing a musical where the slave owning, white supremacist, misogynist, capitalist, cisgender men who framed the nation-state are played by the people who in reality are colonized and still struggling for liberation today.
At best, the musical’s casting and music genre is a surface-level liberal bandage over genocide, rape, displacement, slavery, internment and colonization. While it is accurate that race mixing amongst white and people of color created some privileged light-skinned people like Hamilton, that mixing was all caused by white supremacist processes. The crimes against humanity that occurred because of the colonial project are already ignored in America’s narrative surrounding the white Founding Fathers – so a retelling in which all of them were people of color only further veils the eyes of the colonized masses.
Smithsonian Magazine discusses the reputation of the musical for its non-white cast, stating that it allows contemporary Americans to feel ownership of and a sense of belonging to the American nation-state and its history.
Historian Renee Romano of Oberlin College muses, “what does it mean to be raising a generation of kids from rural Ohio to think that George Washington could have been black?”
Romano’s question is one that many history teachers across the country are asking, as they’ve been “inspired” by the musical. Sadly, this means that everyday Americans still have little grasp over the very real consequences of this nation-state’s founding and the context in which it happened.
George Washington could never have been Black. The “New World” was believed to be put on Earth by a white Christian God specifically for white English men to manipulate and exploit for their own pleasure. These men viewed their own wives and children as their property. The Christianity these colonists followed was inherently imperial; it was believed to be “God’s will” that his Word be spread to every human on the Earth. Coupled with capitalism’s inherently exhaustive nature, searching for new natural resources to exploit sealed the deal for the trip across the Atlantic. The United States was made for, and only for, White Christian cishet men.
This nation-state as it stands was founded on the concept of exclusionary rights so that its citizens could accrue as much property or capital as possible. Today, America’s liberal mainstream believes the nation-state is upheld by its diversity and applauds Hamilton simply for its surface-level adaptation of accurate historical recollection. The Founders viewed those who stand on stage in the musical as property, as objects, as savages. They separated themselves from the people of color portraying them on the stage pseudo-scientifically and ideologically.
It is complete propaganda to believe the Founding Fathers were champions of diversity, equality and liberty and Hamilton is the media through which this propaganda has touched the hearts of the American liberal mainstream. Though Hamilton himself was of mixed heritage, he played up the fact that he was of white origin, like many others like him in the past did, to boost himself and his intellect above those Negroes who were enslaved.
Now that that’s out of the way, let’s talk about the fan reception.
In 2016, the musical was a magnet to bullied teens on Tumblr that learned about what the word pansexual meant, dyed their hair forty different colors and only had Harry Potter as a personality trait. These groups of children proliferated many a slavery fanfiction. Reprisal from Black fans, including minors, caused an onslaught of harassment from white adult fans.
Fans also defended Miranda, a non-Black person, for saying “nigga” and fetishized cast members for their race. Daveed Diggs, who plays Marquis de Lafayette in the musical, even said in an interview that audiences “still fall in love with” his character though there are slaves presented on stage with him. It’s clear that audiences do not think twice about the historical violence of racial capitalism that created the country; and that the writing and direction do not make a clear enough critique of these slave-owning colonist men.
In summation – Hamilton should be viewed as nonsensical and even humorous. The story of the Founding Fathers is so tied to their whiteness, their cisgender maleness, their Christianity, and their capitalism, that the story of Hamilton falls into pieces when the characters are all portrayed as colonized people. It would be better suited to be a satire, critiquing the oppressive regime of the United States as a capitalist, white supremacist, settler-colonial nation-state. And yet it doesn’t.
But let’s be real: this is America and no one will think too long about anything as long as black people are singing and dancing on a stage for their entertainment.
Colonized people are not barred from enjoying Hamilton’s musical content, the personal narrative style, or the talents of the actors; but they should consume the musical it responsibly, keeping in mind that it is entirely a work of fiction. As Harvard history professor Annette Gordon-Reed said, “a Broadway show is not a documentary.”