by Lyra D. Monteiro
This post is excerpted from Race-Conscious Casting and the Erasure of the Black Past in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, found in the UC Press journal The Public Historian, Vol. 38 No. 1. Read more and subscribe to The Public Historian here.
The American public has long been enthralled with the mythology of the founding fathers. Though a recent (and recurring) trend within popular history writing, ‘‘founders chic’’ can also be experienced on historic house tours at places such as Mount Vernon, Monticello, and Hamilton Grange that focus on lauding while also humanizing the founders. Overall, the impression these sites give of the Revolutionary era echoes the majority of American history textbooks: the only people who lived during this period—or the only ones who mattered—were wealthy (often slaveowning) white men. There are exceptions to this pattern, such as the African American programming at Colonial Williamsburg, the interpretation of the mills at Lowell, Massachusetts, and the Smithsonian’s recent exhibition about the enslaved families at Monticello. Such challenges to the ‘‘exclusive past’’ are absolutely necessary for our present, as we strive to live up to an ideal of all people being equal and create a world in which women’s voices are no longer silenced and Black Lives Matter.
Currently on Broadway, MacArthur fellow Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hip-hop musical Hamilton brings to life the founding era of the United States in an engaging show that draws heavily on Ron Chernow’s 2004 biography, Alexander Hamilton. With a cast dominated by actors of color, the play is nonetheless yet another rendition of the ‘‘exclusive past,’’ with its focus on the deeds of ‘‘great white men’’ and its silencing of the presence and contributions of people of color in the Revolutionary era.
Race is, in some ways, front and center in this play, as the founding fathers are without exception played by black and Latino men. These choices, which creators and critics have dubbed ‘‘color-blind casting,’’ are in fact far from color blind. The racialized musical forms that each of the characters sings makes this particularly clear.
While most critics love the casting—calling it imaginative, accessible, and thought provoking, others take issue with the premise of casting black actors as the founding fathers. When asked directly in a Wall Street Journal interview about how it feels to portray a white slaveowner, Daveed Diggs, who plays Jefferson, avoided the question altogether. By contrast, theater critic Hilton Als perceives ‘‘something new and unrecognizable . . . on the stage—a dramatic successor to Derek Walcott’s and Jamaica Kincaid’s literary explorations of the surreality of colonialism.’’
This realization brings attention to a truly damning omission in the show: despite the proliferation of black and brown bodies onstage, not a single enslaved or free person of color exists as a character in this play. For the space of only a couple of bars, a chorus member assumes the role of Sally Hemings, but is recognizable as such only by those who catch Jefferson’s reference to the enslaved woman with whom he had an ongoing sexual relationship. Unless one listens carefully to the lyrics—which do mention slavery a handful of times—one could easily assume that slavery did not exist in this world, and certainly that it was not an important part of the lives and livelihoods of the men who created the nation.
The play can thus be seen as insidiously invested in trumpeting the deeds of wealthy white men, at the expense of everyone else, despite its multiracial casting. It is unambiguously celebratory of Hamilton and Washington, and though it makes fun of Jefferson, he is nonetheless a pivotal figure. Sadly, that is where this revolutionary musical fails to push any envelopes: the history it tells is essentially the same whitewashed version of the founding era that has lost favor among many academic and public historians. Here there is only space for white heroes.
The musical undoubtedly does have a special impact on this audience. Seth Andrew, the founder of Democracy Prep Public Schools took 120 students to see the show and reported, ‘‘It was unquestionably the most profound impact I’ve ever seen on a student body.’’ And Miranda has noted that young people ‘‘come alive in their heads’’ when they’re watching the show.If the goal is to make them excited about theater, music, and live performance, great. But reviews of the show regularly imply that what is powerful about the show is how it brings history to life. So I ask again: 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?
Lyra D. Monteiro is an assistant professor of history and teaches in the Graduate Program in American Studies at Rutgers University—Newark. She has published on issues in cultural heritage and archaeological ethics and is the co-director of the public humanities organization The Museum On Site.